She was India’s first supermodel, sashaying down runways with Naomi Campbell. He was a film producer and buddy of Guy Ritchie. They met on a blind date in Paris.
But what began nine years ago as a “mad affair” has descended into a vicious fight through India’s labyrinthine legal system over property and a child — filling the Delhi papers with a tale about the fickleness of family, fame and fortune.
It was not meant to be like this. Catwalk queen Ujjwala Raut, 31, and her British businessman husband, Maxwell Sterry, 47, were once the toast of New York’s fashion scene — they married in David Bowie’s Manhattan apartment with the pop star’s model wife Iman overseeing the nuptials five years ago.
However, up until recently, the couple parried accusations of violence, kidnapping and of even using political influence to bend the rules. Until late last night it appeared Ujjwala had all but triumphed.
Maxwell had been “asked to leave” India within 72 hours after immigration officers issued a deportation notice based on his wife’s allegations — which he denies — that he had threatened to hurt her and their three-year-old daughter. It is understood he met with home ministry officials to seek assurances he could stay to dismiss the divorce and get access to his child.
Maxwell, who is a director of a mining company in India, earlier said he understood and respected India’s “due process.”
“My wife tried to have me harassed out of the country by using her influence in Delhi to have my visa revoked with false claims ... I have never been abusive or hit or threatened my wife or my daughter,” he said.
Maxwell says he has not seen his daughter, Ksha, since March this year, saying the child was taken by her mother, who has subsequently barred him from having any contact with the girl.
In the divorce petition filed by Ujjwala, the model says her husband had been living off her “hard-earned money” and she could no longer stay with him because of “cruelty and emotional suffering.” The model said she lived “in the flickering hope that her husband would realize his behavior has caused her pain and agony.”
Maxwell has counter-sued, arguing that as their marriage was registered in New York and Ksha is a US citizen, the divorce cannot be settled in India.
Ujjwala grew up in Mumbai, India’s glamor capital. As one of the five daughters of a senior policeman she led a comfortable if sheltered life — until she decamped to Paris in 2000 after conquering the small Indian fashion world in her teens.
It was there she met Maxwell, who had been a model, and they soon moved to New York, where Ujjwala’s reed-like frame and her walnut-tinted skin were in vogue. She became the first Indian to appear as the face of Yves Saint Laurent and could command US$15,000 a day for shoots.
The pair married in 2004, each taking the surname Raut-Sterry. Their daughter was born 18 months later and the couple bought a run-down villa in northern Goa in 2006. Maxwell stayed with Ksha to build a family home in India while Ujjwala moved back to New York for work. The couple would jet between the palm-fringed beaches of southern India and New York’s avenues every three months.
Maxwell says the marriage floundered last year with Ujjwala bringing home expensive gifts from suitors. The tension burst open in a confrontation in December last year — in which Maxwell and Ujjwala each accuse the other of an unprovoked attack. A few days after the alleged incident in Goa they each dropped their complaint.
Ujjwala then filed for divorce in Mumbai in January this year, saying she was terrified for her and her daughter’s life. Despite this, says Maxwell, Ksha was left in his care while Ujjwala jetted off to Milan for a month in February.
Upon her return in March she allegedly closed down all Maxwell’s bank accounts and took Ksha back to Mumbai. Since then Maxwell says he has been barred from seeing his daughter and found himself locked out of the villa he built in Goa.
“I find myself without my daughter, my home and my money. My life is in India and I want to stay so this divorce can be settled fairly,” he said.
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