Last I sat Rani Mukerji down for a long interview was at her Yari Road home in July 2005, in the company of her Labrador Tin Tin and Spitz Simba. The relaxed interaction was for a story on the then reigning queen of Bollywood. Among other things, we spoke about being single and good men being thin on the ground. Almost 13 years later, snatching some minutes off her busy schedule in a nondescript meeting room at Yashraj Studios, I am all ears as she speaks about how “amazing and wonderful” a journey it has been with her husband of four years, Aditya Chopra — director-producer-distributor and chairman of Yash Raj Films — and their two-year-old daughter Adira.
Happy domesticity taking over from carefree singledom. Lot else has changed in the interim. I have gained girth and grey hair. However Mukerji, in black jeans, boots and a dark grey T-shirt, doesn’t seem to have been touched by time. The 5’2” frame is just as slender, face lit with minimal makeup, the girl next door persona acquiring just a hint of imperiousness and self-awareness. She had told me back then: “I am like the ordinary girl in the house who is capable of showing a different side of her in the bedroom. My sexuality is not in-your-face.” That organic sensuality, warm smile and throaty voice are intact, but the actress hasn’t been wooing the box office with them as ardently as she once had.
For the last many years, Mukerji has been choosy, doing one film in a year or two. The forthcoming Hichki , directed by Siddharth P Malhotra, comes four years after Mardaani . The interim has been about marriage and motherhood. How has it affected her approach to work? Life is all about time management and work-home balance now, she tells me. “I don’t have a single second to spare. I tell my directors to be organised, get everything ready [on the sets], and I just come and shoot. I don’t even want to waste time eating [there]. I want to do my work and go back to my child,” she says. Yet she is incapable of giving a ho-hum shots. “I have to give my best,” she says. So Hichki has been all about getting even more focussed about work. As if in tandem, I also keep our conversation to the point. No small talk, just straightforward questions, one after the other.
Films and flexibility
According to Mukerji, it was her husband who pushed her back in front of the camera for Hichki . Much like how it was Chopra who had insisted she do Saathiya in early 2000, when she had almost nixed the Shaad Ali remake of Mani Ratnam’s Alaipayuthey . That film had proved to be the game changer for her. After the initial success of Ghulam and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai , her career had got badly stuck with one flop following another, till Saathiya pulled her back into the reckoning.
Chopra pushed her this time because he saw her getting consumed by domesticity. “He saw I was getting obsessed with my daughter,” she says. He told her she can’t change who she is — an actor — and that her fans were waiting for her. “He respects me as an individual, as a professional, and I think that helps me understand my goals as well,” she says. Earlier it was her mother who would goad her into discipline. “Now it’s my husband who has taken over the role,” she laughs.
There is a pattern to her recent films — they have mostly been start-to-finish projects, with Mukerji at the centre and no cast of big stars to support her. To pick up one film and complete it before starting another has always been her priority; now more so with her daughter around. No wonder she has been working with YRF, where she gets great flexibility. “If I get the same amount of freedom in another production house, I’d love to do it,” she says. YRF is also home-ground, I tell her. Doesn’t she feel an ownership now, after marriage? She pulls a face. “I have been a very individualistic person. My achievements are my own and my husband’s, his own. I think he has single-handedly done what he has done. I have been part of his movies, I have contributed to his productions, but the company is his father’s, and it is his,” she is categorical.
Mukerji started very early in films, at the age of 16, dropping out of her 12th standard at Maneckji Cooper school. It was a means to support the family when financial crisis and her father’s ill health made things difficult in the mid ’90s. “There’s no harm in carving a niche at a younger age. We have heard of child prodigies and geniuses. Age should never be a factor to define who you should be in life. You can work even when you are 80,” she says.
She hopes she and Chopra will be as liberal as parents, so Adira will find her own space. “She will not be pressurised or bogged down by any responsibility other than her own. She will grow and blossom in a field she wants to,” says the hands-on mum. She clarifies, however, that “as an intelligent working mother I do take help. It is important for a child to have its own time, with other children”.
But being in the limelight can be problematic, too. How do they deal with it? By trying to give Adira as normal an upbringing as they can, she says. The media, too, has respected her wishes, not taking her daughter’s photos when asked not to “I feel what Adi and I have achieved is what we have worked hard for. Let her have the limelight when she deserves it,” she adds.
Making a point
Being a parent has also made her more sensitive to problems like Tourette Syndrome, which Hichki deals with. Perhaps it wouldn’t have impacted her as much in her single, carefree days. The film is an adaptation of Hollywood film, Front of the Class (2008), which itself was based on Brad Cohen’s book, Front of the Class: How Tourette Syndrome Made Me the Teacher I Never Had .
For someone whose intelligence is more instinctive than cultivated, Mukerji took a lot of help from Cohen, on whom her character, Naina, is based. “I used to Skype with him, to understand his mindset when he was a child and while growing up. Also, the discrimination he faced when he wanted to become a teacher,” she says. “He was rejected several times, but is now the principal of a school. How did he fight that? How did he achieve his goals?”
Of course, naturalness, spontaneity and fluidity continue to be the mainstay of acting for her. So she sought to make Brad’s life and his problems her own. “I had to do something that came from within me. I couldn’t copy a tick. It had to come from within, only then would it look natural,” she says. But there’s a larger awareness when it comes to the condition that she wants parents and teachers to know about — that it’s an involuntary disorder that you cannot cure, but can deal with. “Many a time, when a child or parent is in denial it can be very detrimental. But it is not the end of the road. There are special schools that offer you the right atmosphere,” she says, hoping her film will help people come out and talk about the syndrome. “There are so many kinds of discrimination that we have addressed in Hichki . It’s a very important film in that sense,” she says.
Mukerji has seen it all, from big blockbusters to fat pay cheques. Thirteen years ago she told me that she will hold on to her number 1 slot till she got married. Now there seems to be an easygoing attitude to success. “I am the number 1 in my own game,” she says. “I should continue to believe in that, because if I don’t then I am going to get stagnant in my career.” The desire now is to keep competing with herself, to keep learning and finding new ways of innovating. “The day innovation goes away from my life, I will lose the audience,” she says, adding that the end for an actor comes when s/he thinks she has achieved it all.
But what after acting, marriage and motherhood? Direction? She folds her hand, moves her head furiously in denial: “Acting kar ke ghar chali jaaoon, wahi bahut hai baba (it’s enough to act and go back home after work).”