Rani Mukerji is feeling expansive. In her low, gravelly voice, she is expounding on everything from Walt Disney to the World Wars, and her penchant for online reading. That distinctive Mukerji sound — once described unkindly as an unpolished dubbing track — has since October caught the ears of thousands of Chinese viewers who have watched the Mukerji-starrer Hichki — titled ‘Teacher with Hiccup’ in a local subtitled version.
The actress was in China during the film’s release, promoting it in Beijing, Guangzhou and Shanghai, and watched Chinese audiences as they watched her. “They were clapping, they were crying, they were doing exactly what audiences in India were doing,” she says, during a chat at her mother’s home in Juhu. “...[A film] talking about the evils of the education system, I think that kind of resonated with Chinese audiences and they reacted how an Indian would. That was surreal and unique for me.”
Of the film’s ₹230 crore earnings, ₹150 crore came from China, a region where Hindi films such as Aamir Khan’s Dangal (2016) and Secret Superstar (2017), and Salman Khan’s Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015) have done well recently. Hichki , a smaller budget film with a female lead, surprised everyone, including its makers, when it clocked ₹100 crore in its first fortnight. “Nothing was expected,” says Siddharth P Malhotra, the director. “We just wanted to make a good and honest film that, we hoped, people could connect with.”
Mukerji plays Naina Mathur, a schoolteacher in an elite institution who has Tourette’s Syndrome, a neurodevelopmental disorder characterised by uncontrollable and abrupt bodily movements and sounds. Her class of rich kids is peppered with a handful of children from poorer backgrounds, who have entered this exclusive private school on the strength of the Right To Education Act. The film is earnest in tone, seeking to impart feel-good lessons on inclusion and diversity.
As a new parent, Mukerji was drawn to the film’s focus on schooling; as an actor the role was substantial. “I wanted to be part of a film that makes a difference, something that’s not run-of-the-mill,” she says.
So much so that Hichki — her first release in four years — saw her return to the sets barely three months after giving birth to her daughter Adira. “If I have to leave my child and go and work, it has to be special,” she says.
In a performance that at first feels forced, before easing into a more natural register, Mukerji’s character has a laundry list of odds stacked against her — a disgruntled father, unruly students, sceptical colleagues. We know these recalcitrants will achieve absolution even as the film unpacks the education system and all its ills. But from the kernels of the obvious, Mukerji wrings something watchable, hefting the film through to its feel-good conclusion.
“She would always ask the right questions, which would give us pause to find the right answers,” says Malhotra of his lead actor. “When she came on board, the character didn’t change, what changed was the warmth and sensibility and logic she brought to it.”
It is this warmth and breezy charm that have been animating Mukerji’s films for the past 22 years. She debuted with Raja Ki AayegiBaraat (1997), prompted by her mother, Krishna, who suggested she give it a shot (Mukerji’s father was a filmmaker). Her appetite whetted, she soon did another film and then another, her passion for acting building with each new outing.
Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Ghulam (released in 1998) catapulted her to the rarefied strata of A-listers. Rumoured at one time to be the highest-paid actress of her generation, Mukerji’s strength has been her easy likeability.
“It’s always good to be the girl-next-door,” says Mukerji, seated with her legs folded on the couch. With her large spectacles, white t-shirt and baggy track pants, she looks the very antithesis of the primped and manicured movie star. “It’s good to be approachable and have that believability that audiences have with me. The feedback I get is they feel I am one of them, they can be friends with me, they can marry me, they can take me home to their parents. They don’t feel I am unattainable.”
Films like Saathiya (2002), Yuva (2004) and Veer-Zaara (2004) established her range, and in Black (2005), where she played a deaf-blind character, she unlocked a new gear. “I think it was more instinctive,” she says of her choices, “I have done a mixture of all kinds.”
As she looks back with gratitude, she wouldn’t want to change much in her career graph. “My journey has been a wonderful mix of ups and downs,” she says. “I have learnt a lot from everyone concerned… It’s been quite a great growing-up for me. I started at 17 and I’m 40 today.”
As she turned 40 in March, just before Hichki released, Mukerji posted a note online that touched on being a woman in a film industry where stereotypes and discriminatory standards persist. “Our challenge is we have to raise our children, look after our homes, also look good, and act well,” she says. “Of course male actors also have to work hard but they are never judged for their personal life. We are time and again judged for our personal life and time and again judged for our weight gain and weight loss.”
Over the years, she has faced her share of uncharitable comments on her fluctuating weight and her fashion sense.
“Between my films how I look is not anyone’s business... it’s not my work to look good when walking into the airport,” she says, with her characteristic nonchalance. “My job is to do well in my film, I have to portray the character to the best of my ability.”
As actresses age, facing dwindling prospects in an industry that has typically been unkind to older women, Mukerji has adapted. In this more recent phase of her career, a handful of films such as No One Killed Jessica (2011), Talaash (2012) and Mardaani (2014) have allowed her to flex her acting muscle in atypical ways.
“As studios redefine their properties and audiences announce their interests in varied genres, Mukerji is using the moment to forge a new path for her career, in the process creating an alternative roadmap for actresses as they age out of the range of roles available to them in a historically youth-obsessed industry,” says Kartik Nair, a professor of film studies at Temple University in Philadelphia.
Besides Hichki , other women-led films such as Veere Di Wedding (₹138 crore-plus) and Raazi (₹200 crore-plus) were also hits in 2018. Contending that any well-made film and/or content-driven film will always do well, Mukerji says the success of women-led films hinges on casting the right actor for the part.
Mukerji isn’t the only working mother of her generation — Kareena Kapoor returned with Veere Di Wedding and Kajol returned with Fanaa — and she believes this is a function of audience evolution.
“Today when Hichki releases or Veere releases, I don’t think people are watching me and Kareena and going ‘oh she is Adira’s mum or oh she is Taimur’s mum’. When you come into the theatre with the lights off and the film begins, you are watching Naina Mathur, not Rani Mukerji who is married to Aditya Chopra, who has a daughter called Adira. Those things shouldn’t flash in front of your eyes. You have to be convinced — is she convincing enough as the character she is portraying?”
This interview was conducted before Mukerji was widely panned for her comments on #MeToo on a television show. But next she reprises her role as a police officer in Mardaani 2 . Though she has fewer releases, and doesn’t make appearances in the media as frequently, it’s all part of a plan: Of not having one.
“I’m not looking for producers to line up outside my house with offers, I’m not looking at signing 100 ad films, I’m not here to do 20 magazine covers... For me, it is as it comes,” she says.
Bhavya Dore is a Mumbai-based journalist