“Your work isn’t over with just our conversation. You will have to think about it, put it together, write it. A lot of work goes behind the article that appears in a magazine.” With that, Rani Mukherjee turns the interview on its head. The point of that analogy being that not appearing on screen does not mean she has not been working. “I have been preparing for the upcoming roles. As an actor, one is constantly busy, even between shoots,” she says. Rani’s comparison-drawing was in response to my query on why she has made herself scarce, working only in a few films now. While the world might blame this on a lack of good roles, challenging scripts, successful films as also her preoccupation with her beau Aditya Chopra, she views it as a personal choice. “It’s the only way to work,” she says.
Until just a few years ago Rani shone, burned even, brightly at the top of the heroines’ heap and then turned rare in a quick blink as Kareena Kapoor, Katrina Kaif, Priyanka Chopra and Vidya Balan stormed the Bollywood scene. Now, along with fellow veterans Manisha Koirala in Bhoot Returns and Preity Zinta in Ishq in Paris, Rani is striking back at the silver screen—with a vengeance—in Aiyya. The biggest homecoming, however, is superstar Sridevi’s return, in English Vinglish, after a gap of 15 long years (see box). That other former number one, Madhuri Dixit, continues to dance into couch potato hearts in the fifth season of Jhalak Dikhla Jaa on Colors. And this is a resurgence not limited to just Bollywood. In Hyderabad, the gorgeous Amala Akkineni is back at the turnstiles with Life is Beautiful after staying away from the arclights for almost two decades. Bets are being taken on who will stage the next comeback. Aishwarya Rai? Perhaps.
Greenlit redux Rani Mukherjee in Aiyya
Comeback may be the unifying term, but the nuances of the individual journeys vary. Marriage and family kept Karisma Kapoor, Raveena Tandon, Sridevi, Amala, Madhuri, Manisha and Neetu Singh away, but for Preity the hiatus has also been attributed to her growing involvement with the IPL and the business of cricket. For Tabu and Rani, though, it has been about doing something substantial and not just anything. What is heartening is that while they may have been out of sight, they weren’t entirely out of mind. Ormax Media’s survey of the top 20 actresses for the month of August has turned up quite a few surprises. Four of the top 10 heroines on the list, Aishwarya, Kajol, Madhuri and Rani, are not thought as being ‘active’.
But this nostalgia tugs at the heartstrings without quite sending the cash registers ringing. Audiences may seem to prefer a Madhuri or Kajol over a Sonakshi, Anushka, Genelia or Asin, but it has not been easy for these ladies to reinvent and still remain relevant and stay in the reckoning at the box office. Attempts at a career revival have as a rule not been successful. Case in point, the gorgeous Dimple Kapadia, who left Bollywood behind at 16 after her debut in Bobby and couldn’t immediately deliver success on her comeback in Saagar. “This when she was still young. She was just in her 20s when she came back,” veteran film journalist Rauf Ahmed says. Then there have been the execrable returns: Raveena in Bbuddah... Hoga Terra Baap, Karisma’s Dangerous Ishq or doubtless Preity’s forthcoming film.
Encore! No changed surname could keep Madhuri Dixit-Nene (Jhalak Dikhla Jaa) down
But it’s not the stars who are at fault. “The story has to have appeal. You have to give a good film for viewers to enjoy,” says Gauri Shinde, who is directing Sridevi in English Vinglish. “Problems happen when you try and fit (yourself) to the demands of the mainstream cinema,” says Shailesh Kapoor, CEO, Ormax Media. While the limelight is not kind to mature actors, it is even less forgiving of its aging leading ladies. Men face the reinvention dilemma and compulsions to adapt in their early 50s—just ask Sunny Deol or Sanjay Dutt. Heck, even Amitabh. With women, though, alarm bells could ring in their early 30s. Ours is no Hollywood, where a Meryl Streep can continue to hold sway—the wrinkles and age spots intact. Roles with substance are ever harder to come by. Filmmaker Onir who helmed Juhi Chawla’s post-hiatus relaunch, I Am, suggests that there ought to be more movies with roles for veteran actresses. “There is a lot of hunger in these actresses but not many are being offered what they deserve,” he says. Juhi is the rare star who is comfortable playing her age. And that poise and dignity comes from not being trapped in that old rat race. “The pressure and insecurity isn’t there, she does what makes her happy,” says Onir. Sachin Kundalkar, who directed Aiyya, has a similar opinion of Rani. “She has seen and done everything now. There’s no sense of competition, but a lot of security,” he says.
Comeback vehicle Neetu Singh was a hop-on in Do Dooni Char
The choice between working with a new director or old, Bollywood insider or Marathi or Tamil auteur then ceases to matter. A film centred on them or one with a good script is the all. So Neetu Singh took a break from domesticity to work in Habib Faisal’s debut Do Dooni Chaar. And Sridevi returns under the helm of a Bollywood newcomer, as does Rani. “The director has to bring something different to the table for me. Sachin Kundalkar seems to have a new take on me, sees me differently,” says Rani. Her Marathi mulgi falls in love with a man (Malayalam actor Prithviraj) because he smells good. Amala is a working single mother in Life Is Beautiful, while Sridevi is a mom trying to overcome her lack of English skills. “It’s a very relateable film about our insecurities and lack of confidence. How small things can become big issues,” says Gauri.
But how does it feel to switch on after being off for a while? There have been many changes in the years Sridevi has been away, says Gauri. There are new shooting styles, sync sound, video assist among others. “But once an actor, always an actor. She is even better now,” she adds. The audiences, though, will be the judge of that. Will fans look past the sell-by date and give English Vinglish a thumbs up?
On the return of ageing heroines (The Second Showing, Sep 24), most of these comeback films are duds. It is difficult to see these films resurrecting their careers. Come back to retirement, ladies!
K. Suresh, Bangalore
One doesn’t foresee a long second innings for yesterday’s prima donnas. Given that roles for over-the-hill stars are rare, not many directors would be falling over each other to cast them in their movies.
R.V. Iyengar, Hyderabad
Amala Akkineni and gorgeous? Even she’d be surprised. She didn’t qualify for that label even in her prime.
P.V. Ramana Murthy, Hyderabad
Maybe the media is at least now satisfied that the feminists are not 'suppressed'?
Amala and gorgeous? Well, even Amala would be surprised. She did not qualify for that label even in her prime. Wish film journalism was taken seriously.
Almost all of the comeback films have been duds. It is difficult to see these films resurrecting their acting careers. It is time their family urges them - "Comeback from films"
One doesn't foresee a long second innings for these prima donnas of yesteryears. Given that author-backed roles, that too for elderly women (which these are), are rare, not many directors would be falling over each other to cast them in their movies.
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