“Acting is a tough job!”
Mixed reactions of friends, colleagues and the box office to the racing melodrama on the silver screen did not succeed in keeping me away from an afternoon screening of Ta Ra Rum Pum a few weeks ago. As I walk out of a Mumbai multiplex after viewing the speed-filled family drama, I realise that I have enjoyed the experience – with its fair share of emotions and a suspension of disbelief – largely due to the performances of its main leads, Saif Ali Khan and Rani Mukerji. And scheduled as I am to meet the petite actress, I have watched the flick with a greater degree of interest. As I step into the sunlight from the darkened theatre, two adjectives come immediately to mind vis-à-vis ‘The Queen’: sure and steady.
Mukerji is enjoying rare days of relaxation…prior to beginning shooting again for Pradeep Sarkar’s Laaga Chunari Mein Daag. It is precious time spent with family, looking after her house and playing with her little niece who has just celebrated a birthday. They are days she enjoys spending at home, lazing around, getting up on her own time with no tight schedules. I think back to the years she has spent in the industry – a decade where every year has been marked by a Rani Mukerji film at the box office. Interestingly, though a few of her movies may have been duds at the marquee, her performances – and their sincerity – have always been singled out for attention.
The star arrives and steps out of her vehicle – oozing star quality from every pore – into the shade of a huge umbrella held aloft by her flunky. Clad in a casual T-shirt and jeans, she disappears into the make-up van to prepare for our shoot and we settle down for our confabulation. Our conversation kick-starts with the year that has just gone by. She has made news once more not just at the all-important marquee but in media reports about her impending marriage and speculation about slights as well. But whether it is imagined hurts or spiralling rumours, the 29-year-old actress prefers to stay out of the media glare, for anything but her work. “Even if there has been a misunderstanding or a story about me, I really do not get the time to sort it out. I am lazy by nature. You are trying to clarify what is in someone’s imagination and I do not like to explain myself to anyone,” she states.
Work wise, she is on a roll and although she often jokes, “I am Rani but I have no throne,” the actress is undoubtedly the ruling talent on the silver screen firmament. The next few months will witness the release of two more Mukerji films (Laaga Chunari Mein Daag and Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Saawariya) in which the actress gives her interpretation of a sex worker/courtesan. And the last 12-months plus have seen three big releases (Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna, Baabul and Ta Ra Rum Pum) with her name in the credits. I first spotlight KANK, Karan Johar’s brave look at marital discord. As Maya Talwar trapped in a passionless marriage – albeit to the hot Rishi Talwar (Abhishek Bachchan) – who is drawn to a professional failure Dev Saran (Shah Rukh Khan), both she and her screen alter ego had drawn comment. “I know,” she admits. “Karan even went on talk shows to explain his point of view; he had only told a truthful story about two couples. Personally I may not have been all that comfortable playing the role but its significance made sense to me. I had always looked at marriage through rose-tinted spectacles. But you have to marry for the right reason. As an unmarried girl, KANK made me realise many things. Why must a wife be happy just because her husband is seemingly perfect and happy with her? What if the woman falls in love after finding this supposedly perfect husband? A man can find passion outside marriage no matter how attentive his wife is. But a woman doing the same is absolutely unacceptable. Your biggest and best friend can become a big enemy if you are sharing the space of a bed and are not compatible in every possible way.”
Playing a mom in Ta Ra Rum Pum seemed to come naturally to her though she had never essayed a mother’s role till now, discounting her ‘Tina’ in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. Naturally, I wonder why she gave the thumbs down to Mira Nair’s The Namesake – a movie and role that got its cast and crew global acclaim. “I regret not working with Mira Nair,” states Rani. “She is a great person and we have interacted before and after The Namesake. In fact, during KANK, we were shooting just below her house.
I believe that Tabu did suit the role better because of the age bracket of the character. It was a wonderful role to play and it was great to see how the couple loved each other. ”
During her stay in Bollywood, she has preferred to steer clear of controversies, though criticism, she says, she can take in her stride. “In the industry we are all quite grown up,” states the actress. “I can take constructive criticism very well. I am not blind. I watch my work and am my worst critic.” Some of her earlier films had turned out duds and she had drawn flak for her presence in them. “True,” she admits. “I did not realise the importance of a good script and a good role. If I could accommodate a film in my dates, I would do it. At one point, I was working 32 hours in a day, doing three shifts. I was not doing well – there was a time when I sat at home for months with no work. It was encouraging to receive feedback from my fans.”
Today, Mukerji, though from a film family, has made it on her own terms. She is the epitome of the contemporary woman who can call the shots and is financially secure enough to do so. She attributes it all to ‘family support and hard work’. “I have worked for my success. Every day is hard work. You have your good days and bad days but no matter what your mood is, you have to give it your best shot. It is a tough job. That is why I do not like to work in an atmosphere where I am not comfortable.”
Friendships in the industry? “I have friends who I confide in. Through the years I have built up a relationship with many people. But when I am not doing films, I am not visible at all. I like to be in my own room, watch movies or go out with a friend. The best thing that I would like to do is nothing,” the actress states. I feel Mukerji has side-stepped my question when she adds, “People perceive actors as insecure people, all part of Monster Incorporated. We are always being mean to each other. But that is not the case. I respect all my colleagues, especially the girls, because we leave our families and go out into what is basically a man’s world. You have to maintain your dignity at all costs.”
Ask her about her intimate kissing scenes on screen, and she is quick to begin listing the ones she has been a part of. “Black, Yuva…” she starts counting on her manicured fingertips. After a pause, she smiles and says, “It’s just terrible, very uncomfortable and mechanical. You have to get the angles correct. It’s a physical touch that is done before so many people and it has yet to come across as very intimate for the screen. It is something you do and want to forget about.”
She has achieved a certain standing in the industry, a reputation that means her fans have a certain expectation from her movies. One of the highest paid actresses in contemporary times (her price had reportedly touched a cool crore in the recent past) she is the embodiment of the modern, independent woman who has made it on her own steam and on her own terms. Normally, actors turn to offbeat movies to extend their repertoire once they have earned their share of fame and moolah. Mukerji states that at the moment she is contemplating no such move. “Except for joining films, I have always been sure about what I want,” says the swiftly maturing actress. “Right now it is too early for me to move into what is called offbeat cinema. If I decide to do a crossover film, it will depend on a lot of things. I do not want to do a film only to prove a point.”
As our chat winds to a close and we are about to step out of the studio, I ask her the inevitable question – is marriage on the anvil? Mukerji’s reply is quick: “I know when girls are of a particular age, people keep asking, ‘When are you going to get married?’ But I need someone who respects me, my job, my family and my individuality. He has to understand who I am. He must understand my love for my job. I have always had a very strong family background and enjoyed the support. My mother had always supported my dad. If she had not been there, things would have been different. I am not sure how much I will be able to work if I have a husband and children. Only time will tell. As an unmarried girl, with no strings attached, I can give my full attention to my work.”
The ‘Queen’ picks the movies that made a difference….
Raja Ki Aayegi Baraat: It was my stepping stone in the industry; without it nothing would have happened. This movie helped me understand the medium and groomed me into what I am now.
Ghulam: It was my first big commercial solo hit. The song, Aati kya Khandala had become very popular.
Kuch Kuch Hota Hai: It was my first film with Shah Rukh Khan. People still remember my glamorous avatar in the movie…my entry in my first scene and the song sequence in the inter-collegiate competition. I also played mum (though briefly) in KKHH.
Hey Ram: It gave me the opportunity of working with Kamal Haasan. I understood another form of filmmaking. I donned the natural look, without make-up. Film-makers sat up and took notice.
Saathiya: It was another turning point in my career. I was doing another ‘real’ film, with the minimalist look.
Bunty Aur Babli: The movie became the darling of the masses. I used to completely crack up on the sets.
Yuva: It was an absolutely hard-hitting film. The language, the experience was entirely new to me.
Hum Tum: It took the eternal battle of the sexes to a different level in a humorous vein. Working with Saif (we have also done Ta Ra Rum Pum) together later) was fun.
Black: I learnt sign language for the film. It was a magical process…something that just happened. It changed my perception about many things in life. I will never forget this one.
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