Rani Mukerji turned a proud 40 this March. In a befitting celebration of sorts, Hichki, featuring her as Naina Mathur, a teacher afflicted by Tourette Syndrome, released the same month and went on to hit the right notes in terms of box-office profitability and audience reaction.
Significantly, during the course of our conversation about all things under the sun, Mukerji announced her milestone birthday that was coming up, surely a first of sorts as far as female actors are concerned. On being asked if women put themselves under great pressure to look young, she says,
“For me, age is beautiful. When you are aging, you are growing up with so many experiences, so many memories. You can’t get the wisdom if you are young and what is the fun trying to look young in a non-organic way when you have already seen your youth? That’s the natural youth that you have passed and you have enjoyed that phase. You have to enjoy each age in your life. I have become who I am today because I have come to this age. There’s a lot of beauty in aging gracefully. I don’t think your aim has to be to look younger. As an actor I do believe that if I were to play a role—I can be challenged to play a 60-year-old, I can also be challenged to play a 20-year-old.”
And right now, Mukerji is displaying all the surefooted confidence that comes with experience. Back from her hiatus after a short maternity break and with the success of Hichki, her most recent film based on a true-life story, the actor is evidently back to delight us with her varied choice of films.
Speaking of her role of Naina Mathur a teacher who suffers from Tourette Syndrome in the film, she says, “Somewhere I kind of connect with the specially abled. I don’t know if it’s a past birth experience or what? Somewhere I believe I have a connection and that’s why these roles come to me. Strangely, in my destiny these roles come to me and I accept it and do them. What I love about the especially abled is that they are very spirited and confident, unlike what people perceive them to be. And for me, that is the core that I like to touch emotionally with the characters. Even if you see Michelle McNelly (in Black), she is very spirited and Naina Mathur is no different.”
Rani Mukerji, a spirited one herself, has been juggling her on-screen challenging roles along with the new one off screen—that of a doting mother to her little moppet Adira, with aplomb.
“My journey into motherhood and coming back to work was amazing because as a professional you don’t realize how much you miss your work till you take a break and come back to it,” she recaps, flashing her characteristic, high wattage smile. Motherhood, she agrees has been an amazing experience something she looked forward to.
The experience of becoming a mother for the first time and spending time with her firstborn, the actor admits was plain beautiful. And then of course came the anxiety and fear.
On the first day of the film’s shoot, she remembers howling in the car and wondering whatever happened to the strong girl she thought herself to be. Once on the set though, it was a different story. Almost as though she had never left. About making her filming experience seamless, she gives a lot of credit to Hichki director Siddharth Malhotra and the crew.
“They really wanted me for the part so they kind of bent backward and achieved things that given a chance they would have not done. They were exceptional. We were shooting at Xavier’s college in town, which was about an hour and a half drive. I used to be there by 6 in the morning and they would wrap up by 12.30 so I was back with my baby by lunchtime. That really worked for me. In every profession, if people can be a little more accommodating for working mothers, more and more women can pursue their careers and have a family life.”
I am tempted to ask the actor about the situation of women, gender parity and her definition of feminism and she has a quick comeback. “For me, feminism is being able to live with a man with your own individual identity. That for me is a very powerful sentiment. If you have a husband who respects the woman you are, the individual you are. A lot of times we might talk about feminism and certain things like equality but what is really happening in your day-to-day life is (what is) really important. Changing the world is the next step. Are you feeling the respect every day in your life? If you are able to achieve that, I think it’s great,” she avers. It’s a code that she is following in her own life. The cycle of singlehood, married life and now motherhood has not interfered with her acting career. With her repeated film outings, Mukerji has put to rest all speculations on the possibility of hanging up her boots.
An interesting fact–it was her husband, the renowned producer-director Aditya Chopra who insisted that she now step back in the spotlight and Mukerji, though worried about how the little one would manage without her, took the plunge. She now feels happier for it.
“My husband was after my life from the time that my baby was three months old. He was like ‘you are just getting so consumed. You have got to get back. Go back to your fans. You’ve got to do what you know best, be the professional that you are. Yes, you’ve become a mother but Adira is going to be with us forever so you don’t have to alter your life. Let it be a part of your life, not all your life.’ I think that encouragement helped me because if he had not nudged and pushed me, probably I would still be sitting with Adira and watching some other female actor do this interview,” quips the actor.
Aditya Chopra’s advice has always held her in good stead. For instance, Rani Mukerji still holds on to the sage counsel that he gave her during Mujhse Dosti Karoge, her first film with him. “He made me realize that as an actor one has to respect oneself and never underestimate one’s talent. That’s very important at a stage when you are still discovering yourself as an actor and a star. These words are very valuable because there are a lot of people who can devalue you. You should never sell yourself cheap. Sometimes we do certain things that we don’t morally believe—we do it because we are actors and we are getting paid (for the job). So it’s very important that we give respect to who we are as artistes.”
Unfortunately, she says that chances of him directing her in a film are rather slim. “We have talked about it but have come to the conclusion that the film will never get made. When it comes to a director-actor equation, it’s very different. I think he will start laughing if I perform in front of him or vice-versa.”
Of course, a large part of the credit for her successful stint as an actor rests with her parents, her mother Krishna Mukerji in particular. It was her mother’s desire that Rani should be an actor and she followed the advice of her parents unquestioningly. “My mother wanted me to be an actor so I became one and then I started enjoying it. Today I actually thank her because I don’t see myself as anything other than being an actor. I feel like I was born to be an actor.”
Mukerji’s early career was guided by her parents especially her mother Krishna and the actor is vocal in her disagreement about the mockery made of the omnipresent mothers of heroines often referred to as ‘Mummyjis’. She opines that instead of being ridiculed, their efforts should be acknowledged.
“All the female actors need to thank their mothers for being able to spend their time with their daughters and forget about their (own) lives in those years. Nobody really talks about the fact that they stayed away from their husbands for so long and dedicated time to their daughters. It’s about time that people saw that angle as well rather than just say, ‘Oh mothers accompanied their daughters’. That’s a silly thing to say because it is always seen as a ridicule. I think it is important to understand (that) you needed an elder to accompany you, say on an outdoor or film set as you could fall sick. Now things have changed a great deal. You will never see a mother being on the set with daughter. Now you have a manager, a PR person, a security, trainers, stylists, hair & make-up so. You are actually roaming with 10 people. Earlier we didn’t have an entourage like that. So, the mothers were guarding the actors.”
Obeying her parents evidently bode well for Rani Mukerji. The success that she saw was unprecedented. At the very outset of her career, Mukerji landed Ghulam opposite Aamir Khan and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai opposite Shah Rukh Khan in quick succession. The exposure to two of India’s biggest stars, besides bolstering her commercial worth, turned out to be a crash course in life skills which kept her ahead of the pack.
“When I observed Aamir and Shah Rukh, I thought they are such big stars so why were they working so much? They can just rest because the whole world loves them so, why are they working so hard. And then you realized, ok, even if you were a big and successful star like Shah Rukh Khan, you had to work hard, be sincere and always give your best. And that somehow molded me, the way I pursued my career. I kind of realized that there is no shortcut to stardom. You have to work hard, you have to give it your best.”