Sunday Herald: 22 years & counting

It’s been a full 22 years since her commercially lowbrow but histrionically dazzling debut in Raja Ki Aayegi Baraat, in which she teaches a lesson to her dowry-crazy in-laws and husband. However, Rani Mukerji, like everyone else, needed a hit to her name and so arrived as a top star only after Vikram Bhatt’s Ghulam and Karan Johar’s Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, in 1998. Hits and powerful performances and a great variety followed, with special triumphs in Har Dil Jo Pyaar Karega..., Chori Chori Chupke Chupke, Saathiya, Chalte Chalte, Yuva, Hum Tum, Veer-Zaara, Black, Paheli, No One Killed Jessica and Mardaani.

Since her marriage to film-maker Aditya Chopra, Rani Mukerji has been taking her career in a less frenetic way than when she acted in around 40 films in a decade or so. In 2014, just after her marriage, she acted in Mardaani. In 2018, she has acted in Hichki. And while the former was a success, the latter has been commercially and critically appreciated, with Rani getting unending encomiums from all quarters.

Believably good

And that is what is specifically gratifying and humbling for Rani. “All of us — actors, writers, film-makers — set out to make a movie whose story we love and think everyone will do so too. But every Friday is not a good Friday — the film may not be liked, or the message we intend to give may not get across. But now, both things have happened. Many films become hits, but every movie is not loved across ages. This time, people have related with one or more characters, or some emotions have stirred them, or hit them hard.”

Rani explains, “Films like Black and this one go beyond entertainment, with something you can take home. They are not dominated by their success. Like Black, Hichki will be remembered years later.”

What stands out in her performance is the fluid way she enacts Naina, along with the involuntary tics (spasms) that come, as her character suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome. How did she manage that extraordinary feat of blending both tics and a bright essay, so that they did not look forced or fake? “Put simply, it is my job as an actor!” she replies. “If I cannot make every character look believable, relatable and organic, there is a problem. I work for my audience, and work hard. After that, a thumbs-up from them and others is like a welcome pat on the back.”

She, however, reveals that in the script, she was told at which exact points she had to do the sounds of the tics and the gestures, but instead preferred to understand the graph of her character and let the tics come as and when she felt from within. “People suffering from Tourette’s Syndrome get more spasms when they are highly strung, angry, excited, very happy, disturbed and so on, and less when they are relaxed or confident. So, I just allowed the tics to come as per my moods and situations in the film,” she explains.

Of special advantage were her extensive conversations on Skype with Brad Cohen from UK, a teacher suffering from the ailment, as the film was based on his autobiographical book, Front of the Class: How Tourette Syndrome Made Me the Teacher I Never Had. “I knew that I had to live up to what he was. He explained everything to me in detail,” says Rani.

“The script had come to Yash Raj Films with a hero, but Maneesh Sharma, our producer, wanted to make it with a heroine instead,” she goes on. “Maneesh and my director Siddharth (P Malhotra) had approached a female actor, who wanted time to decide. I was pregnant then.” But things fell into place a year later. “By the time she finally refused the film, my daughter Adira was two months old, so they approached this in-house girl, who they thought was the best anyway!” quips Rani.

Rani says that she always chooses her roles if she can react emotionally to the character. “If it can impact my life, teach and inspire me, then logically, it should do the same to the audience. I know this can go wrong sometimes, but what attracted me also was that this film and Naina were something new, with no reference to the context in Indian cinema. People needed to know what Tourette’s is, and we would be informing them!”

Additional points in favour were how the film touched on so many issues — the underprivileged children’s right to education, of how we can turn weaknesses into strengths, of how equal opportunities are important and so on. The story was yet not preachy, but breezy, and entertaining, notes the actor.

Among the unending compliments, including from Tourette’s Syndrome-afflicted people, Rani treasures the accolades she has got from so many teachers. “My film is a tribute to the teaching community, and the way they have reacted is so touching!” she declares. “They have vowed to change their methods, and what better than the fact that they have taken the message so positively because they are the future builders of society.”

A job well done

The actor has been so busy even after the film’s release on March 23 that she has had no time to connect with Brad. “This weekend, I plan to chat with him. I enjoy interacting with him. He is so positive and spunky that it took a special effort on my part to make sure I live up to his credo. And that is what I have taken back from Naina — that no matter what the odds, she never allows herself to be down.”

This is also what she would like to be as a mother, says Rani, when asked if she would show Adira the film. “She has already watched it!” she reveals with a smile. “I took her to the YRF preview theatre, made sure it was not dark and kept the sound soft. Adira sat on my lap, alternating between looking at me and the screen and saying, “Yeh to mera momma hai!” After 10 minutes, she got down and went around the theatre, stopping to dance and sing when the songs began. I took her home in the second-half because I also cry in the film and did not want to disturb her.”

Bristling when asked how she feels getting hits at this age, she says in mock-anger: “What do you mean? I am very young! Age should be relevant only if you are playing a much older or younger character and come across as fake! If I play a 60-year-old or a 30-year-old, I should look the part. Otherwise, age is irrelevant.”

Yes, ma’am. We will remember this lesson.

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