Today’s young actresses are already well-groomed by the time they join the film industry and are eager to take the plunge into realistic cinema at the very outset of their career. Look at the career graph of Alia Bhatt, for example. How she has evolved through her films, right from her debut-making Student of the Year (2012) to Highway (2014) to Raazi (2018). Her rise has been wonderful and fantastic. Taapsee Pannu, who has also done several meaningful movies lately, is not your conventional ultra-glam heroine. But she was fantastic in Judwaa 2 and she also dances so well. It is heartening to see actresses like them choose their scripts meticulously these days. You cannot count the recent failure of Thugs of Hindostan (2018), but Aamir Khan is our Tom Hanks. When he chooses a film, you know it is going to be different. The new crop of actresses has also become mature enough to choose the right scripts. They strictly go by the merit of each one without bothering whether it is going to a blockbuster.
For me, as an actress, such an evolution came after doing so many movies. When I signed my first film, Patthar Ke Phool (1991), I was barely 16-and-a-half-years-old. I did not have any formal training in acting or dance. I had all my training in front of the camera. It was only after doing 20-odd movies that I started thinking that I was capable of trying out something serious, something new. I had until then played the spoilt rich girl in film after film. Only my costumes changed. But I was bored and looking forward to doing something that would challenge and stimulate me. I guess, somewhere along the line we all start evolving as artistes.
Therefore, when the right opportunities came my way, I grabbed them. I paid heed to the advice of great actors such as Naseeruddin Shah, Kamalahaasan or Nana Patekar and learned comic timing from Govinda and Kamalahaasan. That was my training ground. Still, it was difficult for me because of the image of a glamorous diva. It was tough convincing Ram Gopal Varma to sign me for a deglamorised role in Shool (1999). “Raveena Tandon” reminded him of the Mast mast or Ankhiyon se goli maare girl. He was not keen on signing me but his director E. Nivas was convinced that I would pull off the character. There is actually a funny incident about it. One day, during a promotional photo shoot for Shool at photographer Rakesh Shrestha’s studio, I came out of my make-up room and saw Ramu. I wished him but he gave me a blank look, nodded indifferently and walked past me. I thought he was still unhappy with the fact that a glamorous actress was doing that role. It was only after he saw the results that he realised he had failed to recognise me in that get-up. I enjoyed every bit of Shool, shooting for it at Champaran in Bihar. After that, there was no looking back and I went on to win the national award for Daman (2001). I also did Ghulam-e-Mustafa (1997) with Nana Patekar.
Over time, I struck a balance between realistic and commercial cinema, doing both Daman and Dulhe Raja (1998). I did a serious but ultra glamorous role in Aks (2001), but also played a different character in Satta (2003). So the going was good for me. Earlier, there was a big divide between the art and commercial but the lines between have blurred now.
As of now, actresses of even my generation are getting powerful roles. True, there has been no dearth of offers for superficial roles, but a film like Matr (2017) also comes our way. It was not as if I was planning a comeback or had anything to prove with a new film but I accepted Matr because it was a hard-hitting movie conveying a beautiful message.
Today, the star system appears to be fading and content has indeed become the king...rather, queen! If it were not so, Thugs of Hindostan would have been a blockbuster. And Baahubali, a Telugu movie dubbed in Hindi, would not have become the Sholay of our times. How many in the north knew its hero Prabhas before its release?
I think the time for good cinema has come and the audiences need to be applauded for that. Today, there is an intelligent and mature audience for realistic cinema. Had they not patronised good cinema, how far would today’s actresses have gone? The ultimate credit, therefore, goes to the audiences. It is because of them that content is and will remain king and queen in the future.
—As told to Giridhar Jha