The return of Rani: Despite occasional releases, how the queen continues to reign
Rani Mukerji, who apparently turned 40 last month, has the energy and ebullience of a 20-year-old. Her recent outing in Hichki as an aspiring teacher struggling with Tourette syndrome is earning her rave reviews, something she must be used to by now. Whether she played the quintessential Bollywood heroine in flowy chiffon saris, or experimented with realistic portrayals of modern Indian women, she has proved her range as an actor time and again.
Her first appearance in Bollywood was as a rape survivor in Raja Ki Ayegi Baraat (1997) – a film pitched as the debut of the late Amjad Khan’s son Shadaab Khan. The movie failed and did nothing for Shadaab, but Rani was noticed. “Unlike today when debuts are cautiously planned, I was not really given options. It was sheer luck that the movie I got had a strong female character as its protagonist,” says Rani.
Rani hails from a film family. Her father, the late Ram Mukherjee, was one of the founding members of Filmalaya Studios, and her mother Krishna was a playback singer before becoming a full-time mom. Yet she insists she never had Bollywood dreams. Perhaps she became such a respected actor because of that. “The stakes were not high for me and I could take risks,” she says. “I never wondered what would happen if one of my films failed at the box office. At worst, I would have stopped getting film offers, and I was fine with that. So I took up whatever excited me.”
By the time she began to take her job seriously, she was in love with her craft. “The fame, the money, the success were just byproducts,” she explains. “If you have your eyes set on the paraphernalia, then you will always be on the edge. You will be extra cautious and choose safe roles.”
Still, she never simply took a leap of faith. She only chose roles backed by a solid script. “The script is the most important part of a movie,” she says. “A good script in the hands of a bad director can still yield something worthwhile. But even the most talented director can’t salvage a film if the script is weak.”
No risk, no game
Rani did not begin taking responsibility for her career till Saathiya in 2002. Her mother had chosen her roles before that. Once she began going through scripts, she realised several things about herself as an artist. “I became aware of the fact that I have an affinity towards characters with a strong emotional tug,” she says. “Only when I could connect with a character on an emotional level could I make it so believable on screen that the audience would also connect with it. Also, I wanted to portray the modern, contemporary Indian woman who is relatable and talks about real issues. So I started picking up those kind of roles.”
The result is seen in films like Chalte Chalte (2003), Yuva (2004), Hum Tum (2004), Veer-Zaara (2004), Bunty Aur Babli (2005), Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (2006), No One Killed Jessica (2011), Mardaani (2014), and of course, her seminal film Black (2005).
“Hichki and Black are very special to me. In both the films I play differently abled characters, something I am not,” she says. “Most of the characters I have played are different from one another and each had its own challenges. But at the end of the day, I was just playing a woman with moods and emotions I could relate to. When I play a differently abled person, I have no personal reference points. I have not lived that life or faced their problems.”
So, she focused on two things for her characters as Michelle McNally, the blind and deaf protagonist of Black, and Naina Mathur, the teacher with Tourette syndrome, in Hichki. “First, I had to make them look convincing, and second, I had to represent them in the right spirit so that when you see the character on screen and then meet people like that in real life, you don’t feel pity, but respect,” says Rani. “I wanted the audience to look up to these characters. They live life with a lot of dignity and it is attached to their well-being.”
While Rani gave her career’s best performance in Black, which went down in the history of Bollywood as one of the most powerful acts of all time, her role in Hichki was, on certain levels, more tricky. “When you have such a special character, especially one with tics, it can very easily start looking like a caricature. I was acutely aware of this when I took the role. It was very important to make her as real as possible. People shouldn’t laugh at Naina. As an artiste, these are the challenges that drive me,” she says.
Chiffon for all seasons
But for all her emphasis on realism, Rani has never traded her chiffon saris for cotton ones. “How I look on screen, how I talk should reflect the character, not me. But at the same time I like to make these characters aspirational,” she says. “Moreover, I really don’t think that a character needs to look unkempt to look realistic. Growing up, I had teachers who were really well dressed. So if Naina looks pretty in Hichki, I don’t see any clash with reality.”
She used the same argument when she played a journalist in No One Killed Jessica. The producers wanted her to wear the typical journalistic attire of kurta, jeans and jhola. “But I told them my character is a young, modern woman. Why can’t she wear a smart shirt for work, or a pair of shorts at home?” says Rani.
Hitting the misses
Thinking out of the box like this has got Rani as many misses as hits in terms of box office success, though no one has really questioned her acting chops. Critics believe that she occasionally goes overboard when it comes to experimentation, as seen in films like Thoda Pyaar Thoda Magic (2008), Dil Bole Hadippa! (2009) and Aiyyaa (2012). But Rani stands firmly by her choices.
“I grew up on movies like The Sound of Music (1965) and Mary Poppins (1964), so I could instantly connect to a film like Thoda Pyaar Thoda Magic. I was getting a chance to play an angel! So why not try?” she reminisces.She also had great fun in Dil Bole Hadippa!, in which she played a young woman so determined to become a professional cricketer that she disguised herself as a man. “I really enjoyed the role and I thought the character was really funny,” says Rani. “I always wanted to play a boy and the movie gave me that opportunity. In fact my husband feels that is my most underrated performance.”
Aiyyaa, a movie that showcased the female gaze wrapped in somewhat bizarre humour, was clearly ahead of its time. “I enjoyed doing the film and I especially loved the songs,” says Rani about the film. “So many people rave about the movie today. I just have one thing to say: Why didn’t you watch the movie in the theatre when it released!!”
Roles and role model
Mardaani, Rani’s film before Hichki, did very well. But it’s been four years between films, and now Rani is married to Aditya Chopra, one of the most influential men in the industry, and mother to a two-year-old girl, Adira. Returning to her job this time, she had the usual new mother issues. “I was worried the first time I left Adira at home,” she says. “But I know so many mothers who had to get back to work just three months after delivering a baby. I had the luxury of a 14-months-long break. I chose to wait that long because Adira was a premature baby, and I was totally immersed in looking after her. Adi realised I was getting too consumed in her, so he pushed me back to work. His constant cajoling was irritating, but if he hadn’t done it, I am not sure if I would be sitting here giving this interview today.”
Motherhood shouldn’t be an excuse to quit your career, believes Rani.
“Men will always have their professional life; the kids will eventually grow up and lead their own lives; the only one left behind then is the wife, the mother,” she says. “It is extremely important for her to have a career and use her time constructively.”
She wants Adira to grow up seeing a powerful role model in her mother: a woman who is confident and successful in her own right. “My mother was a professional singer who gave up her job to look after me when I was five-years-old,” she says. “Today I wish she hadn’t made such a huge sacrifice. Maybe she could have had a successful career in singing. My daughter will hopefully not feel the same way,” she says.
Rocking rapids with Rani
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From HT Brunch, May 6, 2018
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