In her just-released film, Chalk n Duster, Juhi Chawla plays a teacher who battles several demons – she’s up against the commercialisation of education, the problems today’s teachers face and the very idea of change.
Chawla knows a lot about that last bit. She’s been a wide-eyed Juliet in Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (1988), displayed both comic timing and serious acting as one of the leading ladies of the ’90s and in the decade that followed, she graduated seamlessly into the indie scene. She also co-owns one of the best-valued cricket teams in the Indian Premier League, the Kolkata Knight Riders.
It’s a long and remarkable journey for any actress. We took a quick trip back in time with her.
The Pageant World
Chawla was crowned Miss India in 1984, when she was barely 18
“Miss India was just a stroke of luck! My friends were filling up the forms and I went ahead too. I had to get it signed by my dad. He dismissed it as another silly whim, but signed it anyway. I had zero preparation – I just got a ghagra stitched from a local tailor and landed up at the venue. I don’t even remember how I managed my make-up and other things.
Winning Miss India opens up new avenues as much today as it did then. But now, with so many talent-hunt shows, the halo over the title has diminished. The contestants are over-trained and the spontaneity is gone.”
The Star Wars
Juhi Chawla was one of the top actresses between 1990 and 1999, an age that also saw the rise of Madhuri Dixit and Sridevi
“Do you really think you can be ‘friends’ with your competitors? In our time, Madhuri, Sridevi and I were all vying for the same roles and the number one spot! Moreover, none of us were ever cast together and we were hardly in the same social circle, unlike actresses these days. So, there wasn’t much scope for developing any kind of bonding. It was only while working on Gulaab Gang that I got to know Madhuri. I agreed to work with her as our roles were diametrically opposite to each other. We were not competing for the same hero or dancing together!”
The Leading Men
She has worked with both, Aamir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan
“Shah Rukh and Aamir are both very intelligent and hardworking. The difference between the two is that Shah Rukh is a multitasker and Aamir will take up one thing and get into its minute details.
Aamir was swamped with offers when he decided to break from his ‘chocolate-hero’ image and do just one or two movies a year. I thought it was a crazy move. But now I realise how intelligent he was in making that decision at that point in his career. Also, since he is an insider – his father and uncle are well-known names in the industry – he always had a better understanding of how things work here.
My first film with Shah Rukh was Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman (1992). His energy on the set was infectious and he would rehearse each scene to perfection before delivering the final shot. The way he has cultivated and preserved his ‘romantic hero’ image is a proof of his sincerity and hard work. He was always addicted to books, as was Aamir, and now I realise how much their reading habits helped shape their personalities.
However, let me tell you, both were real pranksters – Aamir, more than Shah Rukh. One of his favourite pranks was to hold up your palm on the pretext of reading your future… and spit on it!”
The Indie Circuit
Chawla has won critical acclaim for her roles in My Brother… Nikhil (2005), I Am (2010) and Gulaab Gang (2014)
“It is not that I was not offered off-beat roles before. But I was more comfortable playing the bubbly heroine. I loved to put on make-up, get my hair done and dance around trees! It was good fun. I rejected a role in Prakash Jha’s Mrityudand (1997), which later went to Madhuri and won her much critical acclaim. It was after I had my baby and returned to work that I thought of giving these small-budget but interesting films a shot, along with working on regular Bollywood projects. It was a gamble and it worked.
However, I must say, although independent, small-budget films are earning critical acclaim internationally, it is still difficult to find producers for them. Back home, their struggle continues.”
The Learning Process
She plays a teacher in Chalk n Duster
“Education, today, is considered one of the most profitable businesses. The internet has put information from across the globe at our fingertips. But we must understand that it is mere data – we still need teachers to convert it into knowledge. I grew up loving my teachers but I was also a tad scared of them. We tend to treat them so frivolously today. Once we grow up, we forget about the people who taught us our first letters, our manners, and held our little hands and showed us the way. They’re struggling to make ends meet today. Do you ever go back to them to convey your gratitude?”
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From HT Brunch, January 17, 2016
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