It was in the early 2000s, when she was shooting for Kunal Kohli’s Mujhse Dosti Karoge that Rani Mukherjee was given, for the first time in her career, a bound script to read. The scruffy young man who gave it to her was an old friend, who had directed a music video and assisted a few filmmakers she knew. That was Mukherjee’s fifth year in the industry and she was just reeling from three consecutive flops, hoping against odds that her newfound collaboration with the biggest studio in Bollywood, Yash Raj Films, would finally work in her favour. She read the script and was “at first very confused”. It was for the first time that she was being offered a full-length character in a film around whom the story revolved. After the debacle that was her debut film Raja Ki Aayegi Baarat, all she had done in the films that followed was wear some makeup, look pretty and play arm candy to the omnipotent hero. Even in films like Ghulam, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Hey Ram, which were the only ones that stood out in her filmography at that point, the space Mukherjee got on screen and the depth her characters got in the script were hugely limited. She made up her mind to say yes to the film that then debutant director Shaad Ali brought to her, and Mukherjee, who was “coaxed into the acting profession by her mother” finally found her calling.
Till the moment she accepted Saathiya, Mukherjee says she was like a machine. “It was like I went to work and came back,” she says. “I knew nothing about what was being offered to me. My mother listened to the scripts and decided if I should do the films or not and if I have done any good work in that period, it was not by design but just by pure chance.” Playing Suhaani, the doctor from a middle-class family who marries for love against her parents’ wishes, changed her. “Only then did I realise that there was a lot more that I could do as a part of a film,” she says. “You can be part of an entire story.” And, she decided to change her modus operandi. She started asking for scripts, reading them, understanding the core of the story and gauging her character’s impact on the story.
As we speak to her, Mukherjee, 36, who recently got married to Yash Raj Studios honcho Aditya Chopra (who has also directed the Bollywood cult film Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge), is at her hospitable best treating us to snacks and coffee. The reason could be the venue of our chat, which was the coffee shop at the Yash Raj Studios basement, where the actor is happily cozing on one of the beautiful mosaic art-embellished couches. The actor, who is promoting her latest film, Mardaani, breaks into a blush and chuckles at the mention of her husband’s name looking every bit the new bride, however, sans the ‘sindoor and chuda’ routine which she ditched after her first few outings post marriage. Among splits of giggles, Mukherjee claims that the wedding, which was a private affair in the quaint little town of Cortona in the Italian countryside, hasn’t changed her life much. “The only big change in my life is that I am now running a house,” says the actor.”What bewilders me is the time I spend everyday just on choosing what vegetables to ask my cook to prepare that day. It is crazy.”
Despite Mukherjee herself underplaying her husband’s role in her career, it is now widely known that he was instrumental in making Karan Johar cast her in his debut film, Kuch Kuch Hota, her first hit. When Mukherjee’s career hit the next rough patch, it was again Chopra who came to her rescue by making a two-film deal with her in 2002. But with the success of Saathiya, which was followed by that of her next alongside Shahrukh Khan Chalte Chalte, it was as if Mukherjee came into her own.
She was not the quintessential Bollywood belle. Yes, she did have the light eyes, but she was dusky, short, to some extent chubby and had a voice which was then considered unconventional. But Mukherjee quickly rose to stardom and got rid of the tag of being a ‘Govinda heroine’ with her performances in films like Mani Ratnam’s Yuva, Kunal Kohli’s Hum Tum and Yash Chopra’s Veer Zaara. She had a knack to play the woman with substance–be it Shashi, the frustrated wife of a gangster, in Yuva; or Rhea, the ambitious designer in the Bollywood rehash of When Harry Met Sally, in Hum Tum; or the fiesty Pakistani lawyer Saamiya in Veer Zaara. She also maintained good relationships with the fraternity, being the darling of the big production houses and was careful enough to avoid any friction of sorts with the Khan trinity.
And, then Black happened. Her portrayal of the deaf and mute Michelle left even Mukherjee herself surprised. “The moment I saw the rushes of Black, I had realised what had happened,” she says. “Till now I wonder how I gave such a performance in that film and I know that I am not capable of repeating it ever again.” Critics applauded when Mukherjee’s Michelle stumbled on to the screen with her unsure and awkward gait. The film brought back the actor in her, claims Mukherjee, and the research and preparation that went into the role is what still keeps her going.
This is one aspect of Mukherjee, the actor, that filmmakers have come to appreciate now. Reema Kagti, who directed her in Talaash, says that Mukherjee does her own homework and comes extremely prepared to the sets. “She does her own bit of research for her character right down to the look of the character,” says Kagti. “The fact that she is down to earth adds to the ease in working with her. An actor who is thorough with her part and easy to work with, Rani is like a dream package.”
There have also been instances that filmmakers have got swayed by the real person that she is and rewritten characters to fit her persona, a rare thing when it comes to female actors of Bollywood. It was after another string of failures (Laaga Chunari Mein Daag, Tara Rum Pum, Thoda Pyaar Thoda Magic and finally Dil Bole Hadippa!), when Mukherjee decided to only comeback with a good enough film, that Rajkumar Gupta approached her with No One Killed Jessica, a film inspired by the murder of Jessica Lal. By then, there were many young actors who had made their name in the industry. But it was only Vidya Balan, whom Mukherjee shared screen space with in the film, who threatened to take her place as the queen bee.
In the film, Mukherjee was to portray a gritty journalist, and with the full knowledge of her waning career, she wanted to get it right at any cost. After several meetings with writer-director Rajkumar Gupta, the team figured that the character lacked the “spunk” that Gupta says he spotted in Mukherji. “Rani has a certain energy that she brings to the table and that was exactly what was missing in the character I had written,” he says. The film finally saw an expletive-spewing, cigarette-smoking and feiry Meera, which Gupta credits to “Rani’s dedication and immense talent”.
In her latest film Mardaani, she plays crime branch officer Shivani Shivaji Roy, who is out to nab a child sex trafficking racket. “This is one of the characters that is very close to Rani as a person in spirit,” said director Pradeep Sarkar, who has previously worked with her in Laaga Chunari Mein Daag. “She was the first and only choice for this film, because she is the only one whom I think can pull off such a responsibilty.” For this film, too, Mukherjee resorted to her usual process of getting the look and feel of the character right. “I spend time with a lot of women cops and talked to them about tiny details like what they wore at home at night,” says Mukherjee. “Such details are very important to make the character look real. Most of the cops told me that their wardrobe was governed largely by their job. Be it at home or otherwise, they had to be dressed in a way in which they could be on the go always.” To make her stunts look believable, Mukherjee also trained in Krav Maga, the Israeli martial art.
One thing that Mukherjee has been advocating strongly during the promotion rounds for the film, is the inclusion of martial arts in school curriculums. “Every woman feels anger, frustration and angst when they hear of violence committed against women,” she says. “It is high time we train girls to stand up and fight for themselves in times like this. Imagine a country where every girl is equipped with some sort of martial art or self-defence technique, do you think any man will have the courage to raise even a finger against them?” Somewhere along her pre-production prep, Mukherjee says that she realised the amount of effort the police force puts in to “keep us safe in our own little cocoons”. “These officers put their personal lives aside, only for our sake and we hardly acknowledge them,” she says. “This film is my attempt to spread this message and to inspire every woman to bring out her brave and courageous self.”
It is unfair to call this her comeback film, says Mukherjee. “When male actors do just one film in two years, they get applauded for their dedication,” she says. “If women take so much time, they are either finished, jobless, thinking of settling down, or worse, pregnant.” However, she is not one to take what is written about her too seriously. She is no longer in any of the rat races, she says. Her body of work has made her outgrow all of that. What she is in now set on doing is to work harder and hone her craft. “Like any other person, failure does crush me,” she says. “I also feel really bad when my films dont do well despite working hard for them.” The biggest learning she has got from every film she has worked on is to love what you do, says Mukherjee. “Every film is a journey; you meet new people and learn new things,” she says. “The only thing that can sustain you in an industry as fickle as this is the love for your craft, which is what I think has kept me sailing all this while.”