In conversation with Rani Mukerji: Treating actors like actors, and characters with sensitivity

Rani Mukerji is all set to finish the interview quickly because her daughter will be up from her nap any time soon. She is diligent and wants to be with her daughter the minute her work is over. Her upcoming film, Hichki, is right around the corner and she is beyond excited. Pratishtha Malhotra listens while Rani talks.

A teacher in Hichki, that’s a first…

I started my career at 16. I will be 40 on 21st March. It's been a journey where I have actually grown up in this film industry. It's an amazing age to step into.  When we were young, we used to feel life is over at 40. Now, life starts at 40. Especially for me, because I have just given birth to my daughter, so my life is just beginning.

My new career is beginning, so I am like a newcomer in this profession and raring to go. Whatever I have learnt, my experiences have been wonderful. Of course, there have been ups and downs, but that also teaches you a lot. My choice of films has changed with the way I have grown up.

Each phase in my life -- my teenage years or my 20s, my late 20s, my early 30s, my late 30s -- have been a part of my journey in the movie business.  Every time I have chosen a role, it has connected to me at that point in my life. Today, the point of life in which I am, Hichki has been a very special film that connected with my soul.  I would like to give this message to India, or tell the world that these are the kind of movies India is churning out. Hichki is about overcoming one's weakness and turning it into a strength.

It also talks about the education system in our country and the discrimination that people face in society when they have a weakness.  It talks about how students from different economic backgrounds are treated in school. The film has a lot of layers. You know, when I was young, I had a stammering issue. Had someone taken that as a weakness of mine, and if I had made it a strong weakness, I wouldn't have been an actor.

You spoke about battling stammering as a child, did you have any sort of epiphany while shooting for the film?

I think God tests us at different times in our lives. And we have to emerge as winners because the life God has given us is too special.

When I met dumb, deaf and blind people during my research for Black, I thanked God every day. You suddenly feel so blessed that you can see, talk and walk without anybody's help. You become more humble as a human being.  When people ask me how I have survived in the industry without being on social media, I find it funny. It's not important to my life or me. Everything boils down to this: Was Rani Mukerji good in the film or not? That is my work, my job and my profession.

I treat this interview as a meet and greet so that I get some pointers from you; I get to learn what people are thinking about.   I still consider journalists as a medium between my fans and me.


Speaking of education, do you think formal education is necessary for actors?

Formal education, if you are talking about academics, I don't see how that will help actors. But our actors do need acting classes.

Shooting with children is one of the toughest things to do. How was it?

It’s been amazing because most of them were facing the camera for the first time.  They had a lot of realistic and organic qualities in them, which was great because we wanted the classroom scenes to look real. Some of them were trained actors, one of them is from television, so they came with their own set of experiences.

What is amazing with kids is that they don't have an image or a particular way of performing. They give it their all.

Actors today are pressured to do various things for their image commitment. What is your take on the whole game today?

Firstly, I don't understand this pressure. I think actors are really spoilt and pampered today.  There are 10 people around them - the PR person, the media person, the managers, the fitness person, the security...We were never pampered.  If we said something wrong, we would get criticized. We learnt from those mistakes. Today, the PRs write the dos and don'ts.  Young actors are so pampered from the moment they step out. There's so much training, I don't think there is any pressure. They wear rented clothes for free! You get to wear beautiful clothes, there are people to get you ready, make you beautiful... where's the pressure?

Does it matter if I'm wearing jeans today? But it will matter if I do not play a role well. That is what is important. How does it matter how I looked during my pregnancy and after it? What should matter is this: Is Naina Mathur (her character in Hichki) convincing? Is she real? We are actors, not models.  We have to do justice to who we are on screen. We have to be believable.

Aamir is an institution of how an actor should be. Even Kamal Haasan. These actors have redefined their characters.

Today, because of social media, people are interested in how actors look -- how they look when they go to a gym or to the airport.  Arre, how does it matter? Kya farak padta hai bhai? (Translation: what difference does it make?).  At the end of the day, this pressure is rubbish.  I come from an era where I bought my own clothes.

I feel scared to wear rented clothes. Ki kahin khujli na ho jaye... kaun kahaan se pehenke aa raha hai, uss insaan ne nahaya nahi hai, hame kya pata (You never know if the person wearing the clothes before had a bath or not).

Today, when Sabyasachi makes an outfit for me, he makes it especially for me. That's why I wear it.

I don't ask for bhade ke kapde (rented clothes).  I wear what I can afford.  My manager tells me not to repeat my clothes.  But why? These are my clothes and sometimes, I have to repeat them.  Let the media write whatever, it is their job. Why will I change how I am for the media?  When I had become an actress, brand culture was just introduced in India. People asked me to wear brands, but I was like, why should I?  If you ask me what I am wearing today, I don't know. I have worn what I liked. I am not here to make a great statement and become some hero. That's not my agenda.  I like to do my work, and then go back to my daughter, my family. I speak what my heart says.

Today after several years of acting, what influences your choices?

Motherhood obviously does change you because there is a different kind of passion, a different kind of love that you feel after you become a mother and you can translate that into your work.  When my father passed away, I truly understood what sadness was. What missing somebody was... there's a vacuum when one of your parents is not there.

When I performed those scenes in my films, it was just an aspect of my performance. I would think hypothetically, what it must be like to miss a parent.  But when it actually happens to you, that sadness, you can really feel it.

I have been pregnant and had babies in so many films, but I can never begin to explain how different it is when you actually go through the process.

Speaking of Hichki, what kind of hurdles did you face when you started your career at 16?

Obviously, my height, my voice... but luckily, I had Aamir opposite me!  Then when I worked with Abhishek (Bachchan), the height became an issue. But then, it was nice that I was short because we were compared to his parents! So it kind of worked.  If I had come in an era only where there were only tall heroes, it would have been a problem. But then, we had Salman, Shah Rukh and Aamir and I looked pretty good with them.

My voice was a huge issue.  During Ghulam, Aamir, Mukeshji (Bhatt, producer) and Vikram Bhatt (director) felt my voice was not as thin as the heroines of that time. Heroines had shrill voices then.

So they dubbed my voice.  Then when Kuch Kuch Hota Hai happened, I remember Karan (Johar) asking me, 'Why was your voice dubbed in Ghulam?'  I said maybe they didn't think my voice was right for the film or the character. So he asked me if I had dubbed for my first film, Raja Ki Aayegi Baraat.  I said yes.  So he said, 'You will dub in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai.'  I said okay.

Aamir called me after seeing Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and said, 'Babes, I made a mistake. Your voice is really good. You should have dubbed it in Ghulam.'  So in life, these things happen. But if you believe in yourself, other people will have belief.  Today, my voice has become my identity.

You played a physically challenged character in Black and now, you play one in Hichki. Which role was more challenging?

Both were challenging. When you play such sensitive characters, you have to keep in mind the sensitivity of the people who actually have that. With Hichki, I felt it could become comical. A lot of people with Tourette's Syndrome... people laugh at them.

In the U.S., a lot of people suffering from this have become stand-up comedians. They don't mind people laughing at them, but pay for it! They have made a career out of it.

I can't do that in films. I can't make Naina Mathur a stand-up comedian.  So it has to be done in a sensitive way. Even if they begin with laughs, they should change and feel empathetic towards people who have this.


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Pratishtha Malhotra

Bollywood Film-Fame Canada has been around for over 7 years. In its short 7 years, Bollywood Film-Fame Canada has become one of the most prominent media outlets in Toronto today.

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