"With Rani around, you can never realise how big a star she is," concurs Jaideep Sahni, who scripted her most recent hit, Bunty Aur Babli. How big? She has been part of some of the blockbusters of the last two years which have raked in about Rs 160 crore for the industry. At number 10, she is the only woman to figure in Filmfare's Bollywood power list. At a rumoured Rs 2-2.5 crore, she's among the highest-paid actresses. "Our industry might still be hero-dominated but she has the best track record among heroines," says distributor Sanjay Mehta. "She is a great performer, has bagged the most sought after productions and has all the big banners and heroes in her kitty," says Komal Nahata, editor, Film Information.
Priyanka Gandhi is a fan, so seems Manmohan Singh. She is a star presence at all the state dinners, be it in honour of General Pervez Musharraf or the Singapore PM. For an industry that has been desperately searching for Heroine No. 1 ever since Madhuri Dixit and Kajol quit, Rani is Queen of Hearts, finally. "The media has always been asking me, why not you (as No. 1). Now they are telling me, yes it's you. I feel happy to make my family, my parents feel proud," she says.
Everyone is talking about her. Like Aamir Khan, with whom she started on her road to success with Aati Kya Khandala in Ghulam and with whom she appears again in the forthcoming historical Mangal Pandey. He can't get over how the jawans in Kargil kept asking him about her when he went there for a TV shoot. "If a star comes closest to holding the kind of sway that Madhuri or Kajol did, it's Rani," he says. So, even though Mangal Pandey might be his show, the whispers are as strong about Rani who plays Heera, a courtesan in a brothel frequented by the soldiers of the East India Company. "She has the ability to stand out even in the biggest of star casts," says Vinod Mirani, editor, Box Office.
In Mangal Pandey, the quintessential good girl has gone bad. "I am seductive, uninhibited," she says. And also very busty, we're told. Don't believe us, then check her out in the mujra number currently on air. She had the option to play the other role—of a young, innocent widow who falls in love with a British officer—but decided to be more adventurous. Grapevine has it that it's her Heera who is Aamir's favourite character in the film. Rani has now begun shooting for Ravi Chopra's Babul where she plays what she didn't in Mangal Pandey: a young widow. Said to be an expansion of the Jaya Bachchan-Sanjeev Kumar relationship in Sholay, it has Amitabh Bachchan playing her father-in-law. In September, she gets busy with Karan Johar's Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna. Another film with Aamir, Vishal Bharadwaj's Mr Singh and Mrs Mehta, "an emotional romance spanning 25 years", is also in the pipeline.
Ask her to look back and she tells you that acting was never on top of her mind despite coming from a filmi family. Ok, Kajol is the famous cousin. But her aunt Debashree Roy is one of the biggest stars in Bengali films.Her dad Ram Mukherji made some very popular films like Dilip Kumar's Leader and was the founder-director of Filmalaya Studios. Rani's mother, Krishna, an excellent singer, sang with Mohammad Rafi. But despite such a genealogy, acting happened by chance. It also became a means to support the family when financial crisis, her father's ill health and emotional upheavals made things difficult in the mid-'90s. The family had to move out of their spacious house in Juhu's Janki Kutir to the suburban flat. "That's when I decided to work. Now, I think I haven't been cut out for anything other than acting," she says. Producer Salim offered her a role, so she dropped out of her 12th standard in Maneckji Cooper and got into films at the age of 16. "It was my grandmother's wish come true. She wanted my mother to act in films, but mom preferred to get married and so it fell on me to fulfil her dreams."
She started quietly. The forgettable Raja Ki Aayegi Baraat was an average earner. But Ghulam and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai literally shattered the turnstiles. "I felt that I had arrived with my second hit. After that it's been a journey through ups and downs." Actually what followed was a long stretch of lows. Till Saathiya and Chalte Chalte came along, Rani delivered a string of flops and got classified as a "Govinda" heroine. "I was too young and not deciding on my films. I realised I was not enjoying the roles. I couldn't connect with the films. After Mujhse Dosti Karoge, I stopped, made my parents take a backseat and started deciding on my own."
She considers Saathiya the turning point in her career. It was a film which Aditya Chopra forced on her. "I thought there was nothing in it for the heroine. But it gave me a headstart. Suddenly attitudes changed. I started getting meaningful roles. I could choose." The last two years have seen her come into her own as a performer. She is on a roll again.
Much of it may have had to do with luck (after all Aishwarya would have starred in Chalte Chalte had her infamous scrap with Salman not forced her out of the SRK production) as well as the commitment with which Rani has handled her career. "She pays a lot of attention to her work, has matured and become experienced with time," says Aamir.
Everyone acknowledges her talent. Shahrukh called her the "hero" of Paheli and himself the supporting actor. "The ease with which she emotes is amazing. Her understanding of the character and its execution is the key. With time, the precision in her performances has increased," says Yash Chopra. "She has very expressive eyes through which she conveys a lot. She has a great understanding of the scene, is able to catch the right key," says Aamir. Writer-director Kunal Kohli who directed her in the hit Hum Tum agrees. He feels she can pull out the best in a scene: "You don't realise the power in the scene you have written till you see her perform it on the screen."
Her intelligence is more instinctive than cultivated. She has read about Kancha and Gappu, the Bunty-Babli-like team of con artists recently nabbed by the UP police. She is aware of her huge popularity among Pakistanis but doesn't know what's a CBM (confidence building measure) and why they are calling her one. And she certainly isn't aware that they are jokingly also calling her a "cross-border missile" of the peaceful kind.
It's this naturalness, spontaneity and lightness that reflects in her performances. "She is confident but unselfconscious as a performer. She is fluid, malleable, fits into anything," says media commentator Ranjini Majumdar. If there is any ambition and aggression, it doesn't show, other than on the sets where she is known not to mince words if things don't go right.
Despite the easy-going attitude, the self-awareness is intact.She knows what attracts men to her. "I am like the ordinary girl in the house who is capable of showing a different side of her in the bedroom.My sexuality is not in-your-face," she says. She is neither the perfect plastic doll nor a mass-produced sexy diva, but a believable, real woman who believes in being herself. Her sensuality is organic, not put-on. According to Sahni, when Rani does a passionate scene, you feel it, you don't just ogle or gawk: "She gets under your skin before you know it. She's like the girl next door who you have the hots for." "There's a warmth to her personality which draws people to her. The charm comes through with her big smile," says Majumdar. In a nutshell, she is a dream woman who is accessible.
Despite a traditional Indian face, her look can be very versatile. From the bohemian chic, halter tops, asymmetrical skirts and boots of Chalte Chalte, to the Pakistani salwars and heavy kajal of Veer-Zaara, to the garish kitsch, the multi-coloured kurtis of Bunty Aur Babli, she carries it all off with ease and turns it into a fashion trend: "I see myself as the character. I do what a character demands. Only if I transform will the character work."
For Baradwaj Rangan, film critic of New Sunday Express, Rani is unique because of her throaty voice, something a lot of us love to hate. "That sandpaper-scratchy, I'm-recovering-from-a-bad-cold dialogue delivery, that's her own. It's like no one else's, and it's fantastic to hear a heroine who sounds, for lack of a better word, real. Hers isn't the kind of voice that automatically segues into Lata and Asha for the songs, like that of most of our heroines," he says.
Like Madhuri, she has the "it" factor; like Kajol she is "bindaas", and unlike her two predecessors, she has managed to give her career more edge and substance. Madhuri looked beautiful, acted well but couldn't go far from the dhak dhak dancing image. She may have been a far bigger rage in her time than Rani is today but has few memorable roles on her CV. However, Rani has combined her popular appeal with an uncanny ability to take risks. Her role of Tina in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai was refused by many as another supporting role. She took it and stood her own against the seasoned Kajol. As Sadia Siddiqui in Veer Zaara, she walked away with all the credit from right under Preity's nose. None of her contemporaries have been able to do as diverse a number of roles as she has, be it a battered but angry and dignified wife in Yuva or a woman in love with a ghost in Paheli. "If you don't do different roles, what's the point in being an actor? It's a great pleasure to discover what all you can do," she says. "She can fit as easily into the outsized theatricality of a Bhansali as into the traditionally melodramatic Yash Chopra mould," says Rangan. However, she is still not comfortable with comedy. "She seems a lot more inhibited, is not as absurdly madcap as Sridevi or Juhi Chawla could be. The scene in Bunty Aur Babli where she wails for her mother made me feel embarrassed," says Rangan.
Rani is one of the actresses who has worked with all generations of actors: Salman-Aamir-SRK and also Hrithik, Abhishek and Vivek, not to forget the grand old man, Amitabh Bachchan. "She complements each one of them beautifully," says Kohli. She has managed to remain in the good books of everyone, save perhaps an Aishwarya, Preity Zinta and a Vivek Oberoi. She is a "sweetie", the Miss Congeniality of Bollywood. Although there are rumours of her being calculating in the guise of friendliness, most would defend her. "I enjoy working with her. She is a fun person. We share a great vibe, she's is comfortable to work with," says Aamir. Others vouch that she is willing to do anything for a friend, is said to be totally loyal without looking out for returns.She did walk-in roles in K3G and K2H2 just for the sake of her friendship with Karan. Again for his Kabhi Alvida... she nixed a big project like Mira Nair's The Namesake. The feeling is mutual. Says Karan Johar: "When I saw Black I felt humbled. She is an amazing talent who has matured to become one of our finest actresses and I feel proud to have been a part of the process. She is the most affable, amiable, warmest person in the industry. She is respectful to seniors, maintains a healthy distance from her competitors. She conducts herself beautifully at all times."
And so we return to where we started: that Rani is not your usual star, she wears her success lightly. "She is not confused but satisfied with her success, which makes her an exceptionally cool person to hang out with," says Sahni. "She has a comfortable relationship with her own self which is very unusual in a narcissistic industry. There are no chips on her shoulder," says Majumdar.
But there is competition knocking at her door. Priyanka Chopra is coming up as the next big thing with Farhan Akhtar's Don and Rakesh Roshan's Kriish and Kajol is making a comeback with Kunal Kohli's next film. Rani is unperturbed. "I don't take success seriously. It's a temporary phase. Tomorrow, if I am not No. 1, it would be ok. It's a commercial yardstick, not for your entire body of work. But I will try and hold on to it till I get married," she says. Life is coming back full circle for her in other ways. She has bought a sea-facing plot in Juhu to build a dream home. She is looking forward to going back to the neighbourhood she grew up in. It's unstated but palpable: returning to Juhu is like returning to the roots. Something much bigger than being just a No. 1.