“What did you choose? The coffee?”
There is such a thing as a very Andheri office. One building away from Mainland China, one alley away from a horrid little advertising agency I worked in for a few weeks when I first moved to Bombay, stands a functionally grey monolith. It houses, among many others, an office so utterly nondescript it could belong to anyone from a realtor to a stockist of ballpoint-pen refills. It would, however, have to be a stockist obsessed with privacy. Ringing the doorbell that sultry afternoon led to a voice through a speaker – with the firmly curt tone of automated gates in California-based TV shows – and I identified myself, promising the voice that I did indeed have an appointment “with Madam,” and waited interminably while my claim was checked and double-checked.
The reception area is tiny — barely a couple of chairs plonked across a man on a desk, surrounded by phones — and clearly not too many are allowed to come in and wait, at least at one time. “Two minutes,” said a voice too busy to sound reassuring, and I sat back amid the exaggerated normalcy. Until I looked to my left and saw – within that small, caricaturedly unspectacular bastion of the humdrum – a massive painting, vibrant and striking and carrying a stylish signature (and, indeed, a signature style) that even a philistine like I could recognise.
This is certainly a freebie, a present from the artist — the nation’s most iconic painter and the only one who is truly a household name — a man who famously watched a movie several dozen times before publicly declaring just how besotted he was with, well, “Madam”.
It was a movie, in fact, most of the nation appeared to have watched far too many times.
Video piracy in India began with Hum Aapke Hain Koun, and I was there. It was the autumn of 1994, with Delhi at its most affectionately crisp. The Sooraj Barjatya behemoth, released that August, monopolized every theatre in town. Video rental libraries were booming, with VHS cassettes regularly hitting shelves a few weeks or, at most, a couple of months after a film’s release. Despite the demand, Barjatya had stubbornly held out, leaving his film exclusively in theatres, near-bankrupting families compelled to ritually watch it. I was thirteen when a very close friend sidled up to me after class and asked if I knew anyone who might want to buy a copy, on VHS. My mother’s ecstatic yelp convinced me a goldmine was upon us, and thus – with enterprising chum producing copy after copy and me pasting magazine pictures onto cardboard boxes in an approximation of cassette covers – did we please many an auntie of our acquaintance.
It is, therefore, with more than a smidgeon of disbelieving gratitude that – two decades after squeezing that unbelievably-long movie onto VHS by cutting down the songs — I am ushered into a conference room where Madhuri Dixit walks in and wonders if my cup has coffee in it.
From scene-stealing ingénue to pinup goddess, from magnificence to misstep, Madhuri Dixit has always been worth watching. She sobbed and snickered and shimmied through movies of varying quality – taking on both clichés and surprises with equal brio – and the mesmerized masses lapped it all up. By the numbers, she’s the most successful heroine of all time, the highest paid actress and the only one to ever get paid as much as her leading men. She has bested any so-called rivals, been billed above the biggest actors, and, in an industry defined by songs, she owns the most unforgettable dances of all.
The last three decades have seen her celebrated, deified, dreamed of and craved. In 2001, Pakistan’s then President Pervez Musharraf sounded almost wistful when, at the Agra Summit, he remembered Pakistani fans at a Sharjah cricket match singing “Madhuri De Do, Kashmir Le Lo” (to the tune of “Joote De Do, Paise Le Lo.”). That was a song from the bootleg-inspiring Hum Aapke Hain Koun which, despite all the obsequious saccharine pandering so evident now, was a considerable gamble at the time: an inanely-long film with over a dozen songs and one of the first 90s hits without a villain.
For a woman topping the A-list, Madhuri has frequently taken chances — with scripts, directors, co-stars – and bucked the predictable. The gangland drama Parinda came in 1989, alongside her first blockbuster Ram Lakhan; 1991 saw her in both Lawrence D’Souza’s weepie love-triangle Saajan and Nana Patekar’s introspective Prahaar; 1992 had Dixit dhak-dhaking away in Beta, and playing a blind danseuse in the understated Sangeet. In 1997, while basking in the spotlight of Yash Chopra’s Dil Toh Pagal Hai, she gambled on Prakash Jha’s Mrityudand – a woman-oriented character drama and one of the director’s earliest films, with the (still) unknown Ayub Khan as her leading man.
Dixit’s acting chops have proven as impressive as her stellar screen-presence, the star often gleaming despite films duller than the tired old tins their reels are packed in. Even in failed films, her eyes sparkle with eagerness, and a seemingly effortless spontaneity colours her performances, infectious energy carrying her through moments of tremendous farce as well as painful melodrama. Looking back at, say, the moronic Deewana Mujhsa Nahin — where Dixit has to contend with an annoying character, the worst wardrobe imaginable, and an obsessive stalker in the form of Aamir Khan at his most cutesy — the actress still shows off innate charisma. Like with all actors the camera has a crush on, even her lowest points are worth smiling at, and often show remarkable, untapped potential.
This might not remain untapped for long. While Madhuri Dixit may seem to have proverbially done it all, she is now picking radical parts and sharp filmmakers. Our cinema, staunch in its dated ways, isn’t prepared for this refusal to go quietly into the twilight of supporting roles. She may not command the numbers she once did, she may not be the starlet setting boys afire, but she is unquestionably, defiantly — almost inexplicably — still a superstar. What she does makes a difference, and she could alter how our cinema treats heroines. The reason Dixit’s experimental films haven’t show up as vividly, in the light of her considerable filmography, is because her hits have always dwarfed them to the sidelines. But thirty years after she first showed up on screen, Madhuri Dixit appears keener than ever to shake up the status quo — if only to make room for herself, one more time.
A Madhuri Dixit movie isn’t what it used to be. In one of her two 2014 releases, she plays a parkour-ready outlaw quick with mid-air kicks; in the other, a poetry-fetishizing empress in love with her handmaiden. Both, as one can imagine, are suicidally huge risks for a megastar in an industry not used to rewarding bold choices. Playing a gay aesthete in January before playing Rajinikanth in March – there’s never been anything quite like it.
In that Andheri boardroom, Dixit, 46, sounded content about the new films. “I’m trying to think of any movie in the past,” she said of Gulaab Gang, “that, in that setting of a Bollywood potboiler, has women in the key roles. A movie with all the masala, all the dialoguebaazi, and yet with a female protagonist and antagonist.” Based (very) loosely on crusading outlaw Sampat Pal and her all-woman brigade of pink-saree clad vigilantes, Soumik Sen’s film is hardline commercial cinema, a film unsubtle enough to have starred, say, Akshay Kumar. “That a woman was playing that kind of a role was fascinating, I thought, because it changes the rules in one go. It’s like throwing down a bowling ball and watching the pins go flying.”
Gulaab Gang isn’t a great film, though there is a definite thrill in watching Dixit swagger about with exaggerated machismo, kneeing rogues in the chest. She essays her role with marked dignity, but the best part of her performance might be signing a film that unlikely: an old-school movie by a rookie director, with less of a budget than she, or that genre, is used to. The actress was attracted to it for multiple reasons. “The film also spoke about women’s rights and education, and society in general. It was a statement on what’s happening around us: laws need to be stronger; we have this whole infrastructure and yet nothing really happens. And I think, in its own way, Gulaab Gang addressed that too. There were a lot of things that made me do Gulaab Gang.” One of which, clearly, was getting trussed up in harnesses and swung around trucks to beat up goons. If only because her boys, Arin, 10, and Raayan, 8, would enjoy watching mummy wreak some havoc.
Abhishek Chaubey’s Dedh Ishqiya wreaks very different havoc, a decidedly child-unfriendly film about con-men hoodwinked by an imperious lesbian with a literary bent of mind. It is a highly nuanced film, and Dixit – playing the once-wealthy Begum who plays up to men to pay her bills – does so with delicacy and a self-aware grace that eludes any of our current heroines. “The old culture is fast fading,” she says, “the nawabiyat is crumbling to pieces. As things become more ‘new-age,’ there’s no place for characters with old-world charm, and they try desperately to fit into the new generation.”
It is also a film where our most mainstream actress plays a woman who prefers the company of women, a twist that, while subtle enough, is certainly a shocker. Dixit assures me she wasn’t worried. “I knew exactly what we were doing. And there was a lot of ambiguity to it; we were not stating anything. We left it to the viewer to interpret it themselves: it could be two women who were fed up of men in their lives and they want to be by themselves, or it could be something else you notice. And I love that little ambiguity.”
Chaubey, whose first “lesbian draft” was wickedly explicit, confessed it gave his heroine cold feet. But then he realised, while honing his script, that overt sexuality would kill the loveliness of the story’s eventual reveal, an angle pegged on Lihaaf, Ismat Chughtai’s scandalous short story from 1942. “She told me about her fears, and I addressed it: This is exactly how I’m going to treat it. If you’re observant, you’ll get it fairly easily, however, if you aren’t watching carefully, you don’t get it, and that’s it. It doesn’t harm your enjoyment of the movie,” said the director, who co-wrote the script with Vishal Bhardwaj. “And then she was fully on, you know. Unlike Huma [Qureshi, who plays the object of Madhuri’s affections in the film] who was very excited and who was constantly talking to me about it — ‘how do I touch her? how do I look at her?’ — Madhuri didn’t fuss, she didn’t discuss it too much. However, when shooting, there were absolutely no inhibitions. She was all systems go.”
It is a career that took off with an advertisement. Screen India was the most powerful industry-to-industry publication through the 70s and 80s, and their third-page advertisement was, for a considerable while, the hottest real estate in Hindi film publicity, limited largely to paid announcements for films celebrating a grand theatrical run, or first posters for films with whopping budgets. It was, therefore, rather startling to see a dramatic six-page ad ‘launching’ a heroine who wasn’t merely unknown, but unknown because her first five films had flopped.
At 17, Madhuri Dixit did a tiny film called Abodh opposite Bengali actor Tapas Pal, which sank without a trace. As did her next four films. During the shoot of Awara Baap, the second of these flops, however, she met Subhash Ghai. Ghai, a hugely successful director who was bulletproof at the box office for two decades straight — from 1980’s Karz to 1999’s Taal — glimpsed something special. “When I first met her in Kashmir,” said Ghai, who was there to scout locations for his 1986 multistarrer Karma, “she was playing some very small role as Rajesh Khanna’s daughter. A hairstylist, Khatoon, who had worked with me in Karz, came to greet me and said ‘ek chhoti ladki hai, side-role kar rahi hai’ (‘There’s this little girl, doing side-roles’) and she introduced me. Patli si ladki thi. (She was a slim sort of girl.)”
Ghai was impressed by the slim girl’s face, one he recalls as “absolutely photogenic,” and, he said, by her impressively “well-mannered, cultured and innocent” persona. “She was an unpolluted actor. I had the confidence that I could shape her into a star. So I took her on as a project.” Ghai spoke of this phase as “re-erecting” Dixit’s career because he discarded her flops outright and refused to even watch them. “I told her that ‘I am making this film called Karma, and after finishing this film, in one year, I will make a film properly to launch you.’ I wanted to sign her to a 5-year contract so I could groom her properly, and all I wanted was her loyalty.”
Ghai shot a quick Madhuri showreel, sending it to eight producers and directors. “Ramesh Sippy, Inder Kumar, Shashi Kapoor Productions… Everyone I knew well. I said to them that ‘If you think this face, this video is okay, then contact me. I am signing this girl and if you want to sign her, send me a cheque for Rs 5,000.” By the end of the week, Ghai had eight cheques, following which he took out the historically eventful advertisement.
“This girl who was a flop yesterday is blooming today and will be a superstar tomorrow,” is how Ghai summarized the 1985 ad I was unable to locate from the Screen archives. “She had become a flop heroine,” said trade analyst Amod Mehra, “but what a launch that was! Six pages continuous in Screen? When nobody had even heard of her? It made her career.” Ghai’s coup de grâce was the final page, emblazoned with the names of the eight producers who had already signed the relatively untested actress. Thus was Dixit a sensation before stepping forth as Ghai’s heroine.
Then, like a much-shaken fizzy drink finally uncorked, came the stream of hits. Dayavan, Tezaab (1988); Tridev, Parinda and Ghai’s own Ram Lakhan (1989). From this point, there was no stopping Dixit, basking in blockbuster bubbles and getting stronger with each successive triumph. The film industry reacted the only way they knew how: as a herd. Dixit had nine releases in 1989 and ten in 1990. Everyone wanted her.
“If you wanted histrionics,” said Mehra, trying to sum up what producers felt at the time, “Madhuri Dixit was your number one choice. Very quickly in the 90s everyone started comparing her with Madhubala, as a beauty who could charm anybody. But Madhuri grew as an actress besides just being a star.” Mehra dismissed any serious competition. “Sridevi was a great comic actress, but that was it. She was a very commercial heroine. For big masala-movies people wanted Sridevi, but when they had a role that needed acting, they had to have Madhuri. She had an edge; everyone felt she was the complete Indian woman.”
“Madhuri Dixit is the most solid man I’ve met in the industry,” Shah Rukh Khan told Filmfare magazine in 2006. “Yeah, you heard right. She’s truly like a man. She’s the most solid thinker, the most solid emotionally, a solid believer. And of course, her talent is unquestionable. From her I’ve learnt the most.” Evidently one of those overachievers who believe a man is the ultimate compliment, Khan spoke about how he merely follows her lead. From a famously cocky superstar who knowingly exudes the persona of a charming narcissist, his compliment was very telling: “She is the only one I feel I am not as good as.”
Dixit has always marched to the beat of a different benchmark. Her first “hit pairing”, in tabloid parlance, came with Anil Kapoor. Already a star with films like Mr India behind him, Kapoor recommended Dixit to director N Chandra, who cast Dixit in Tezaab, her breakthrough movie. The duo enjoyed colossal success and became a golden ticket for producers, the most recent of their sixteen collaborations being the 2000 release, Pukar. But all was not peaches and moustaches. One of their biggest films, Beta, in 1992, cast Kapoor unflatteringly as a bullied simpleton and Dixit as a firebrand defiantly challenging her husband’s mother. Dixit, all eyes-blazing, was the most striking thing about the film, especially while melting the screen with the ludicrously suggestive Dhak Dhak Karne Laga song. “Beta should have been called Beti, people tell me,” Dixit smiled nonchalantly at me, but according to Amod Mehra, Kapoor wasn’t enjoying the fact that Dixit was walking away with the lion’s share of the applause.
If so, he wasn’t her only leading man wary of, well, being led. “She only started Dil [in 1990] because Anil didn’t have dates at the time, and Aamir [Khan, with a string of unsuccessful films following his 1988 debut hit, Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak] was a nobody,” explained Mehra. “So another hit pair was born. But once she became a superstar, the biggest heroine… Anil pushed for actresses like Urmila [Matondkar] and Sridevi in films like [1997’s] Judaai, while Aamir was picking actresses like Manisha Koirala [in 1995’s Akele Hum Akele Tum]. Nobody wanted to take on Madhuri any more.”
Assuming these actors didn’t feel threatened by Dixit, they might have had something to say regarding the characters she played. Most were canny, independent girls, bright students or feisty professionals who suffered little foolishness, especially from leading men who (not so long ago) played their saviours. Mainstream directors like Ghai – even in the loud, testosterone-filled Khalnayak, ostensibly a Sanjay Dutt vehicle – made sure they wrote a meaty part for Madhuri.
By the mid-nineties, she was queen. She had the films, the roles, the audiences. Once it became clear to producers that her name on the marquee resulted in that all-important box office opening, she began to render her heroes redundant. In Hum Aapke Hain Koun, for example, not just does she enjoy above-the-line billing higher than hero Salman Khan, but – according to a recent article in The Indian Express – she was paid a then-astronomical Rs 2.7 crores for the film, more than almost anybody at the time. (Amitabh Bachchan, according to rumours, was paid Rs 2 crores for Khuda Gawah a year before.)
“This is what happens when the heroine becomes bigger than the hero,” Mehra said. “Stories and films have to be built around her stature. So they become heroine-oriented films — which then don’t work at the box office.” This doesn’t mean that independent, intelligent female characters weren’t accepted – on the contrary, 90s actresses like Kajol and Manisha Koirala brought much sass to their roles – but these characters belonged (according to conventional industry punditry) alongside even stronger male leads. This is an industry where sexism runs deep and male stars, to this day, cherry-pick the ladies they work with.
Getting too big to tread on her heroes’ toes would signal an imminent downfall, but Dixit avoided the precipice in defiantly heroic fashion. She roared like a cougar and began to do what only the heroes do – namely, working with young boys while taking charge of those films’ commercial reigns.
Madhuri was breaking ground, boogeying with young Akshaye Khanna in 1997’s Mohabbat, nine years after being pinned down by his father Vinod Khanna in Dayavan. Consider how notoriously unfair Hindi cinema has been to the ageing actress. Even as wrinkly heroes routinely don wigs to woo starlets a third of their age, leading ladies are put out to pasture cruelly early, age first relegating them to the dreaded sister/mother roles before forgetting them entirely. Rakhi Gulzar, for instance, played Amitabh Bachchan’s lover in Barsaat Ki Ek Raat before playing his mother in Shakti just a year later.
Yet Madhuri played by her own rules and was rewarded for it, producers caving in and forking over the astronomical fees she demanded. “I’m proud I did it because it paved the path for others to follow,” Madhuri said. “And when you do something groundbreaking, there’s always a risk. But I think I was always clear what I wanted to be, where I wanted to be, and where I wanted women in cinema to be. So that always dictated my choices, whether it was the pricing or the choice of films, I wanted it to be the best and I thought I deserved the best.”
Yet Dixit’s ceiling-shattering didn’t pave that path after all. Measure that triumph, if you will, in the context of today, where the most feted heroines –Deepika Padukone/Kareena Kapoor – get paid less than half of what even a second-rung hero – Shahid Kapoor/Imran Khan – makes per film. That Dixit managed to achieve – and, on occasion, exceed – parity in an industry so irredeemably sexist is a testament to her singular star-power.
One of the ways Dixit managed to avoid slipping from the top rungs at a time when younger actresses were pilfering the spotlight was by retreating unexpectedly into the shadows. In 1999, she found herself a soft-spoken cardiovascular surgeon living in Denver, Colorado, one who shared her Marathi Brahmin roots. Her marriage to Sriram Nene was a largely un-filmi affair, following which she didn’t immediately pull the plug on her career. A few significant films followed, including Pukar and Lajja, but after Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s massively publicised Devdas — where, for the first time since her fledgling days, she got the supporting role instead of the lead, which went to Aishwarya Rai — she decided to relocate to America.
Her “comeback,” after five years off the greasepaint, was a 2007 production called Aaja Nachle, about an NRI dancer returning to India to save a theatre in her village. Produced as it was by Yash Raj Studios, it was mounted on a scale so lavish the earnestness was buried by bling. Madhuri dismissed any question of ring-rust. “It’s like bicycling. Or swimming, for that matter. Or,” and here she paused for a hint of drama, “actually even walking. You can’t forget. Once you’re in front of the camera, it comes very naturally.” It was the concept that clearly touched a nerve. “I loved the fact that there’s this woman who leaves her country and goes somewhere else, makes a life for herself, and then finds out that whatever she was passionate about is crumbling and she has to come back, and she has to fight for that culture and…”
So Madhuri Dixit has come back to save us all? “No!” She burst out laughing, those devastating peals of laughter. “You can’t save anyone, it’s not possible! But at least you can contribute to making people aware, at least talking about it, at least educating people about what is [fading], what we’re losing. Even today, the masters who are experts in Kathak, Bharatnatyam, in classical dancing, they all say people don’t want to learn it because they all want to be dancers overnight. Which isn’t possible when you don’t know classical dancing, but once you know classical, you can master any kind of dancing in the world.”
And then, to drive her cultural metaphor home, she talks about cyborgs. Naturally.
“Do you watch Star Trek at all?” she asked, a raised eyebrow topping that smile, acutely aware her half-man half-machine metaphor may be lost on a non-Trekkie. “So cyborgs just come and assimilate people into their own culture, turn them into half-men half-robots and that’s it. So they’re one, they think as one. But if you really want to live in a world as one and yet have your identity, then your culture is something that you uphold because that will give you identity.”
Yes, that Choli-Ke-Peechhe lady digs sci-fi. (“Trek and Wars,”she insisted, even nailing a William Shatner impression.) Dixit loves the high-concept hoo-ha, and over the last decade, like any parent, has watched a whole lot of animated cinema. She raved about Pixar’s Up, lamented the lack of quality animation in India, and is fascinated by how emotive superhero movies can be, “with the dead parents and the villain going hahaha or the uncle being killed.” Would she do a superhero movie? “Oh yeah,” she purred. “Absolutely. It would be fun. It has its own fascination, from Spider-Man to Catwoman; there’s something exciting about these characters. And they’re all made from comic books. Which is just… amazing.”
Dixit is currently intrigued by the Hollywood model, getting writers and directors to develop material specifically for her, instead of merely wading through scripts thrust her way. If Dixit can facilitate the kind of movies she likes to watch, we may be in for an interesting time. But can she command a Krrish-sized budget today? And, if not, — given the fickleness of producers and distributors and the ever-changing list of eight or so actors considered “safe bets” — is the smallness of the film necessarily a bad thing?
A clue to her future may lie to her past: one of her best and most-offbeat performances.
Maqbool Fida Hussain’s Gaja Gamini is a peculiar beast. Hussain, India’s most emblematic modern artist (and a painter of movie-posters in his earliest days) watched Hum Aapke Hain Koun 67 times in theatres, got obsessed with Madhuri and made a series of paintings featuring her, a series he signed simply, and dramatically, as “Fida.” When HAHK released, he was 79, she was 26, but a friendship was struck. Six years later, Hussain directed his ode to Madhuri.
An evocative but indulgently absurd work, Gaja Gamini – which means one with the gait of an elephant — remains an unforgivably theatrical bit of navel-gazing that is, without question, stunning to look at. “There was a bound script,” she revealed. “You’d be surprised. There was a whole storyboard. But his thing was not about the dialogues, not about what we were saying to each other. He used to say he wanted to make ‘moving pictures’ where if you just snip any of the frames out from the reel, it should look like a painting. And that’s exactly what he did.”
In the film, Dixit plays three (or perhaps more) overlapping muses, the women inspiring Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Kalidasa’s Abhigyan Shakuntalam and a young photographer’s finest work. This photographer was played by her Dil Toh Pagal Hai co-star Shah Rukh, who didn’t quite understand what was going on. Dixit, on her part, couldn’t make out Yash Chopra’s trademark mumbles during the DTPH shoot – though her unintelligible mimicking is spot-on – and Shah Rukh would translate it for her. “So when we did Gaja Gamini together, I remember Hussain Ji would come and say ‘Abhi aese bolna hai, abhi aese bolna hai,’ (Now you say it like this, now like this) and Shah Rukh,” she laughed before throwing on a completely vacant voice, “was ‘What does this mean?’ And I explained that we shouldn’t ask what it means but follow what it says.” Thus did the biggest stars of their time provide subtitles of cinematic understanding, helping each other through entirely different, but equally choppy, waters.
It had to have been a daunting brief for an actress. “It was! What Hussain Ji was trying to do with the film was to say how mysterious a woman is. Poets are trying to describe her with their poetry, painters are trying to capture that magical moment, that smile or whatever, and yet she’s so mysterious that nobody can really describe or, say, define her because she just plays so many roles.”
“It was eccentric,” she agreed, smiling, “but very cutely eccentric. And it was, in a way, liberating, because I could give it my own interpretation. It wasn’t like he knew the nuances of what acting is or stuff like that, so I had a lot of freedom. And we created something that was very different. The dances, also, were very innovative.”
She spoke fondly of the “fabulous, fabulous” Hussain and his spirit, of how he’d come to visit her in Denver and frantically look around for a canvas, assuring her he was carrying his own paints. “And I said ‘why don’t you… just relax? Sit back, I’ll give you a cup of tea, put your feet up and don’t paint.’ And he says ‘you’re punishing me!’ And that was an eye-opener to me, the way nothing else mattered and he just wanted to paint, and go on painting.”
Masala movies of the 70s and 80s traditionally made a big deal of something called the hero’s “entry shot,” the first time the camera shows us the leading man, often a dramatic pan up from his boots to his face (at which point the camera, like an overconfident stand-up comic, freezes for a second, anticipating applause and whistles). Hussain, in his two-hour film, obscures Madhuri’s face for the first half-hour, showing us her dancing but covering her face with strategically raised mudras. Finally, we see her sitting by herself and are told she’s blind. Dixit smiles beatifically while men try to woo her with music, following which she breaks suddenly into a musical aalaap and, with a dramatic spurt of energy (and a change in setting) begins to dance next to gigantic musical instruments painted as white as her saree.
And it is here — as she sensually straddles a cello while a black, trademark MF Horse watches her – that Dixit scorches, unashamedly turning on the oomph around these fortunate over-sized instruments. It is a preposterous set-up but Dixit’s electric vitality makes it come alive; she gasps and thrusts and touches the instruments with a devastatingly fluid grace. A minute later, Dixit can be seen sitting and talking, softly and realistically. She’s surrounded by actors grandstanding theatrically, projecting their lines in an infuriating way, yet Dixit keeps things crisply, cleanly cinematic. There is a mastery here, an unwavering self-assurance through her every step, be it a tricky dance move or a demanding turn of phrase – perhaps because the film was tailored to fit her. It is a muddled but ambitious experiment, this film, and Dixit dazzles, turning in a unique performance, one without any cinematic reference point. The markedly abstract nature of the project aside, a reason the actress may have been so uninhibitedly luminous could be that Gaja Gamini was a pure artistic experiment, produced without making eyes at the box-office.
Which may just be her ticket right now.
Much of the go-for-broke ambition might have to do with having already exited stage-left whilst on top . Plus, she genuinely enjoyed being away. Strolling through a supermarket in Denver – “which is a very Caucasian kind of place, and the Indians there are mostly the transient kind, who come there for 3-4 years for their tech companies and move on” — occasionally spotted by an Indian or two and waving a quick hey before carrying on with her day, in gym clothes and bereft of makeup. Without minders to warn her from stepping out because crowds and the press were around. “For me having a family, a husband, a home, kids, was always a big part of my dream. Despite being so used to working, I was living the dream I’d made for myself. I was playing it to the hilt, really,” she laughed, then quickly clarified. “It wasn’t like a role, it wasn’t just play-acting. I come from a family of four kids and for me it’s very important, family is one of the important things.”
On-set stories about Dixit revolve around an extraordinary work-ethic. “We were doing one of the songs,” recalled Soumik Sen, “and at around 12pm, lunchtime, she called me into her van and the first thing she asked me was ‘Do you have this location day after?’ and I was surprised but said yes. ‘Do you have the other artists day after?’ Yes. Then she broke the news that she’d been having a migraine attack since morning, and had been dancing with that. Now she said it’s getting too much, she’s had two pills, and it’s not gotten any better. If she feels okay, she’ll resume shooting, otherwise if I could please excuse her? It’s unbelievable for someone to ask you these questions first.”
Abhishek Chaubey was as thunderstruck, on the first day of shooting for Dedh Ishqiya, when she asked him, “in a very childlike way, ‘Was I good?’ It was a very innocent and very vulnerable moment, one where she was admitting ‘I could have fucked up, did I do it badly?’ It could have been an 18-year-old actor trying out a scene for the first time; that nervousness was there.”
It’s a good sign, the appetite remaining as desperate. Or is that the only way forward? Like Amitabh Bachchan over the last decade, is she forced to embrace the outlandish, the unexpected, in order to stay relevant? Is she choosing not to do a commercial vehicle opposite Salman Khan, or will that not be offered to her at all? Or has she found enough calm in order to do what she likes? She appreciates the edgier new filmmakers, and rattles off praise for virtually every young actress, from Kangna Ranaut to Priyanka Chopra, singling out the latter as a personal favourite. But don’t expect her to play mommy to them just yet. “I don’t feel like that yet, you know? I mean,” she burst out laughing, those irresistible ding-a-ling chimes, “my kids are just 8 and 10! I mean, what the hell? Let them be 25, and then I’ll play mother.” The laughter rings out genuine, secure, unafraid.
The Bachchan analogy draws itself. The late 90s saw Amitabh age gracelessly into self-parody unfortunate films like Laal Baadshah and Sooryavansham. Then came a television gameshow. So big became the actor in the role of the Kaun Banega Crorepati anchor that he sprung back into relevance, taking on a mixed bagful of roles. While not the leading man, he built up a new niche filmmakers were forced to respond to: despite him playing the hero’s father, the role had to be a textured one. This led to other senior actors – Rishi Kapoor being a prime example – finding fresher and more challenging roles now than in their prime.
Several older actresses are doing interesting stuff. Shabana Azmi, for example, continues to shine despite her age with roles as varied as witch, don, affectionate mother and manipulative politician. But as an arthouse actress, she doesn’t have the commercial cache required to make producers and filmmakers change the way they write roles. When Madhuri Dixit does a small film, it doesn’t remain a small film.
By playing dyke and dacoit in the same breath, then, Dixit has blown the bloody doors off, in terms of perception and possibility. Thanks to her – and Sridevi, whose English Vinglish was a runaway smash – Hindi cinema is poised to create a space that didn’t really exist, at least for the commercial movie heroine. Suddenly it appears possible for actresses to stay pertinent despite conventional diktats of age or marital status or a certain kind of look. And she might not even have to dance.
During her all-conquering 90s, it was easy to draw parallels between Madhuri and Julia Roberts – an amazingly successful star with an iconic smile, and paychecks as big as the boys – but things have changed. In Dedh Ishqiya, she delivers a finely etched, wonderfully-balanced effort, a breezy but brilliant performance that shows just how far she has travelled, from heroine to actress. Somewhere in the mid-90s – between Beta and Anjaam, I’d estimate – she grew aware of the breadth of her narrative range and started steering clear of false-notes since. This clarity, of precisely how taut one’s own tightrope is, is what makes an actor find her zone and begin to excel, and Dixit seems perfectly equipped to take on genuinely mature roles. Now, with an increased willingness for bowling-ball-sized risks, there is an emerging possibility for sculpting complicated characters and mature performances. Like, say, Meryl Streep. Of all the veterans revered for their acting, she’s the only one who consistently remains a leading lady, by any measure — a red-carpet favourite, an industry icon, an influential actress, monopoliser of awards… A star. A Meryl Streep film, no matter its budget, can’t quite remain a small film.
Madhuri yelped at the mention of Streep. “That’s a big shoe to fill though! I just want to be different. I want to surprise with each film I do next.” Speaking of Hollywood influences, Streep “obviously” is the first name she took, but the choice of the second was rather tell-tale. “The new girl, Jennifer Lawrence. She just gets into whatever role she’s playing and she’s so young and it’s crazy.” She went on to mention actresses as varied as Angelina Jolie and Helen Mirren, and positively gushed over Cate Blanchett’s astonishing turn in Blue Jasmine, but the very fact that she’s citing a 23-year-old wunderkind as an influence shows how serious she is about not playing ma just yet.
She might not have to, honestly. The “heroine-oriented film” might have been box office blasphemy back in the 90s, but things are evolving. Vidya Balan was the hero in The Dirty Picture and Kahaani, as was Kangna Ranaut in Queen, and the audience showered those films with grateful applause. Dixit feels we are giving women more textured parts. “She plays a character now. It’s not just a revenge drama, and she’s not either avenger or victim, which is what heroine-oriented films used to mean.” She’s also gratified that female characters can now be unapologetic, without needing to justify whatever ambitions they might have. “Earlier you had to think that abhi aesa dikhaaenge toh audience might not like it; there’s a sick brother and uske liye kucch karna hai and that’s why she’s a cabaret dancer.”
A pivotal development in aid of extraordinary performers and performances in current cinema is the fact that hits and flops don’t matter like they used to. Not to actors, anyway. Now an actress can feature in a warmly-applauded flop and use the momentary acclaim to springboard toward her next project, ideally one with more visibility. It isn’t foolproof — and kismet can’t be cheated — but there are more chances and better odds for the talented, with even the looniest Hindi blockbusters now aiming at casting a richer ensemble. It is a highly promising time to be a strong actor, with newspapers and magazines looking beyond the usual, starry suspects to cast their applause. In Irrfan Khan, Rajkumarr Rao and Nawazuddin Siddiqui, we are beginning to see the rise of the unconventional leading man. The women aren’t far behind, and while there aren’t Streep-shaped roles quite yet, if this lady has her way, we might find the superheroine we’ve longed for.
The game is on. It’s been 26 years since Ek Do Teen, and Madhuri Dixit still counts.
An edited version of this piece appeared in Caravan Magazine, June 2014