Rani: An edge above others
Rani Mukherji came of age as a performer with Shaad Ali's Saathiya (December 2002) but she has cemented her effort with Aziz Mirza's Chalte Chalte (June 2003), which is currently playing to full houses in the Indian metros. Though the film is nothing to write home about (Mirza sticks to his Nukkad nostalgia and clichéd themes of things-that-can-wrong-in-a-marriage) Mukherji stands out with a mature performance of a woman in love but traumatized in marriage.
She plays Priya (to Shahrukh's Raj) a budding fashion designer who has a mind of her own right from the start. Instances abound in the film when Priya continues to say no, to an adoring Raj who futilely tries to convince her that he's the man for her, knowing full well that she will be getting engaged to another very soon. Priya returns to get married to Raj only 'after' she's figured out that she can't manage without him, not because he has been pestering her. And after she has made an honest attempt to remain true to the promise that she has made to her father about getting engaged.
But when things start going wrong in Raj and Priya's marriage, it is she who is the one to take a call on separation, despite his pleas and apologies. Mukherji's performance is nothing short of spontaneous and commendable - both in Saathiya and Chalte Chalte - and though the films may be similar in tone, the treatment vastly differs.
Mukherji maintains her girl-like charm in Saathiya while in Chalte Chalte she moves a step beyond to a woman who understands her responsibilities as a wife, and the compulsions involved therein. Certainly, it is a step beyond the run-of-the-mill stuff that a Hindi film heroine is usually subjected to. Neither of her roles demands that she run around the trees and mope, when the hero goes home after romancing her.
Mukherji in her brief career of about 6-7 years (beginning with the eminently forgettable Raja Ki Aayegi Baraat with Shadab Khan) has steadily moved up the ladder of success. Her second release was Ghulam where she played the spunky Khandala girl with the inimitable Aamir Khan. She subsequently essayed the second lead in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (co-starring Shahrukh Khan and cousin Kajol) as a sensitive, caring girl-woman.
Though not yet in Kajol's league as an actress (and few can match up to that feat), Mukherji holds her own in both comic and serious roles - including opposite the change-a-minute-expression Govinda in Hadh Kar Di Aapne. No doubt Mukherji took time to settle into her role as a serious contender for the top slot in the Mumbai film industry (including making bad choices like Mehndi), but having done that she isn't making mistakes anymore.
Unlike other established actresses, she has little qualms about essaying cameo performances (like she did in Karan Johar's Kabhi Kushi Kabhi Gham) where she did get virtually lost in a huge star cast that included Amitabh Bachchan, Jaya Bachchan, Kajol, Shahrukh Khan and Hrithik Roshan.
Mukherji is one of the few actresses in the Mumbai film world whose transition from mainstream directors to the more unconventional filmmakers has been a natural progression to the extent that its gone virtually unnoticed. People have made much about Raveena Tandons and Sonali Bendres crossing the fine line between mainstream and parallel cinema but none seems to have noticed that Mukherji too made her debut as a mainstream actress.
She has since essayed roles in Sudhir Mishra's Calcutta Mail (one of her upcoming releases opposite Anil Kapoor) and Aziz Mirza's Chalte Chalte - both considered makers of issue-based cinema. And her focus has been to deliver a great performance without worrying about the bracketing or competition.
An actress whose best performance is yet to come but one that can be looked forward to.