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Glamorous Obsessions

Azhar's close friends reveal that they got an inkling of the marital schism when he did not reach home on New Year's Eve in 1995 even though he was in Hyderabad

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Glamorous Obsessions
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JUST after Azhar's Hero Cup triumph two years ago, a Bombay journalist buttonholed him at his Banjara Hills residence in Hyderabad for an 'offbeat' feature. Azhar poured his heart out on his very modest and orthodox upbringing. But, even as his young sons played around him, he refused to let go of the remote control, glued as he was to a sizzling Shilpa Shirodkar number playing on the television.

The scribe asked the obvious question: was he interested in moviedom? "Haan bhai," replied Azhar in his characteristic Hyderabadi twang. Then, displaying some particularly pertinent prescience,the journo queried: any favourite actresses? "Sab favourite hai mera, bhai. Sab." And one of them, it turned out, became more than his favourite.

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Few among his close friends are surprised that it had to be Sangeeta Bijlani, model turned C-grade flop actress. "Remember those Vicco Vajradanti ads from pre-satellite television days? Well, Azhar was fascinated by her since then," says a former Hyderabad Ranji colleague. But what did surprise many was the manner in which the usually circumspect family-man threw caution to the winds.

"I think the moment of reckoning came when he bashed up a photographer who shot them strolling in Bangalore last month," says former India manager P.R. Man Singh. "His parents must have been under enormous pressure from friends and relatives, and they must have confronted him with what was happening."

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Azhar's close friends reveal that they got an inkling of the marital schism when he did not reach home on New Year's Eve in 1995 even though he was in Hyderabad. Instead, he preferred the privacy of a country club run by a close friend on the outskirts of the city. Hyderabad's cricketers have closed ranks behind their city's most successful national export, but one of them says that success in the second phase of his captaincy—after the disastrous South African tour at the end of which he even contemplated quitting—went to Azhar's head. "Some people began drilling into his head that he was wasting his millions living the way he was while other successful players were living it up elsewhere," he says.

And that probably was when the Khar ki chhokri Sangeeta Bijlani came into the picture. Changing Azhar's attitude and lifestyle for good. Though he continued to be the devout Muslim who carried around a pocket compass to help him offer prayers five times a day facing Mecca, he had decided to live life onthe fast lane—recklessly.

Close friends of Sangeeta, who, like Azhar, is softspoken, say that the friendship rubbed off most on Azhar's sense of dressing. His tastes became more expensive ("most of his new shirts don't cost less than £50 each," says the business associate of a top former cricketer). There were rumours about the new house he had bought in the western Bombay suburb of Juhu, about jewels he purchased in Hong Kong and Sharjah, about cars he had bought (seven of them). But most were still unwilling to accept that Azhar would take the plunge with Sangeeta.

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TV commentator Harsha Bhogle, who wrote Azhar's biography, says he sensed no frictions in the family when he met them in mid-1993 or when he spoke to them twice later. "All this happenedafter the first edition (of the book) was out (in end-1993). To be honest, it's none of my business. He knows what he's up to."

"Why all this hullabaloo?" asks a former Test cricketer. "This is not the first time a cricketer has fallen in love with a film star." Says journalist Jyoti Venkatesh: "Cricketers are a glamour-struck lot. Doesn't take much for actresses to catch their attention." Sangeeta herself had a brief fling with Binju Ali, nephew of Mehmood, and was seriously involved with super-brat Salman Khan and was crushed when things went sour between them. They got back together for a while, but soon matters were back to square one. "Does anyone who's broken upwith a person one's known for so long talk about it?" she asked one pesky Bollywood scribe.

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Well, the high-heeled boot is now on the other foot. What Ms Bijlani would have to say on Naureen's plight is the answer all of India is waiting to hear.

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