When you were younger, I believe you toyed with other career options?
Absolutely right. I wanted to experience life and there was a time I worked three shifts a day, almost 18 hours a day, no weekly offs or holidays. There are times, I have done 12 movies a year. I would wake up, take a shower and rush to a shoot. I would put the make-up on and shoot the whole day. At the end of the day, I would take off the make-up and go to sleep. I reached a point when I was fed up with it and started questioning myself: ‘Is this all to life?’ Then, I grew detached from my work and bored of acting.
How do you sustain your drive and passion for acting?
I love being an actor, though at present I’m anxious about the release of Dear Maya on June 2. Now that I’m back to acting, I have understood one thing; if I get into a routine of shooting every day, I will get bored. For me, it is very important to take a break, recharge myself and then do a good job. If I love my work and wish to excel in it, I have to take time off.
You always prefer to travel solo to distant lands. Do you still do that?
Not so often anymore. Now, every year I travel to different places — to the hills or the jungles. For the last three years, I have been going to the Oneness University in Andhra Pradesh. There, I wake up, meditate and connect with different kinds of people. The space there is completely different from the glamour world.
Are you happy with the kind of roles you are getting now?
I would definitely not be happy if I did the same things that I did 20 years ago. That was fun and great back then. Now, I would want to take up roles more suited to my age and contemporary cinematic sensibilities. As an actor, I need to see myself grow. When I read the script of Dear Maya, I wanted to get the character right. I was nervous and I asked writer-director Sunaina Bhatnagar to do as many readings of it as possible.
Apart from playing the role of Nargis Dutt in the Rajkumar Hirani-directed Dutt, I am in Dibakar Banerjee’s segment of Bombay Talkies 2. I love Dibakar’s storytelling. I need to be inspired by a project. Otherwise, I am happy to be a couch potato and spend time with my family or visit Nepal. When I work with these directors, I learn so much. I’m very happy, and in a good space. My health is in control too.
Early on, you worked with a number of big directors. Is there any commonality between the filmmakers you started with and contemporary stalwarts?
What’s common among them are their passion and intelligence. Some people I was associated with in the past worked very hard. Sanjay Leela Bhansali, for example, is so passionate and he lives for cinema. The same can be said for Mani Ratnam, who couldn’t look beyond the movie he was working on. Once the movie was over, he was a normal person. I found Dibakar to be exactly the same.
Do you think it was Mani Ratnam’s Bombay (1995) that made people see you as a ‘serious’ actor?
Every director I have worked with, from Subhash Ghai in Saudagar (1991), has helped me understand acting. While shooting my third film, Dushmani (1995), I remember director Shekhar Kapur asking me to ‘flirt with the camera’. I was just out of school and I kept wondering what does he mean by that? With Vidhu Vinod Chopra in 1994, when I gave the screen test for 1942: A Love Story, he told me: ‘You are a shit actress’. I was so ashamed that I asked him to give me one more chance. I had the scene with me and all night long, I kept rehearsing like a madwoman. My mother, who was initially keen that I do Vinod’s film, got worried and tried to dissuade me. After seeing my second screen test, Vinod said there was a world of difference and that’s how I’d have to act throughout the movie. He taught me to work hard. And then, of course, there was Mani Sir.
You once said you didn’t consider yourself to be beautiful.
Till very late in my life, I never considered myself pretty. I thought I wore make-up, put on wigs and the cameramen were excellent — that made me look beautiful. There are zillions of pretty girls. But I have learnt to take compliments well.
You are someone who manages to bounce back after every rough patch.
I believe all of us can do that, provided we are willing to work extra hard. It was not easy for me, in my 40s, to bounce back, especially after cancer. To get my health back took a lot of effort. Chemo spoils your internal health. Once I returned to Mumbai after my treatment, my whole focus was on regaining my health. Even during this period, I realised my life feels a little empty without acting. So, reading about how to maintain my health became my passion. Now, I give talks on it.
How difficult has it been to return to the sets?
Some people were sceptical if I was healthy enough to do long shifts. Their fear was genuine. If I put that kind of money in a project, I too would have such hesitations. In today’s scenario, I have to work extra hard, especially when I can’t be what I was 20 years ago. My routine these days has been to go to bed by 10 pm and wake up by 6 am. But when Dibakar’s film came, I had to make a choice. The entire film was shot during the night and required long hours. Then I thought, when would I get another movie by Dibakar? So, I decided to let my schedule take a backseat for a while. I am so glad I did it because I experience a new life and energy when I work with a good director. Once this movie releases, I will take a long break and get my routine back.
You have called yourself ‘a born rebel’ a number of times…
With age and maturity, I have relaxed a lot. When you are young, you rebel because you don’t wish to follow the trend. I believe being a rebel gives you a sense of freedom. I don’t want to lose that ever or let go of the sense of free spirit. Yet, I don’t want to waste my time just rebelling.
Did you think that some of your movies in the ’90s would go on to be landmarks of the cinema of the time?
I was not that intelligent or calculating. I was more impulsive and instinctive. The right things happened to me and I was surrounded by some good people. In Bombay, I played mother to a 10-year-old. I was hesitant to take it up as I was in my early 20s and feared I would be typecast. Cinematographer Ashok Mehta fired me: ‘Pagal ho gayi ho (Have you lost it)? Do you know whom you are refusing?’. So, I had people guiding me throughout.
Do you still regret refusing the role in Dil Toh Pagal Hai which Karisma Kapoor played?
It does not bother me now. However, I always wanted to work with Yash Chopra after watching Silsila, Chandni and Lamhe. He portrayed his actresses so beautifully in amazing love stories that had great music. I will always have that regret.
You never seemed comfortable with comedies though.
That’s right. I was never comfortable with comedy. When I went on the Kapil Sharma Show recently, I was not quite at ease. What suits me is philosophical and political conversations. I did comedy movies because I wanted to venture out and try something different.
You have done a course in filmmaking from New York. Do you wish to direct or write?
Someday, I will direct. I have always had a very vivid imagination but I am not great at penning my thoughts. I can narrate stories, but I am only good at writing in my diary.
You have become a lot more positive about life after your illness.
It’s a realisation that I should not take life for granted anymore. As much as I can, I wish to give my 100 per cent. I want to be like a horse with blinkers on.
You have talked about wanting to adopt a girl child.
I do want to adopt. By the end of this year, it will be five years since I became cancer-free. That would relax me a little. However, they say, in my type of cancer, it takes, at least, six-seven years for someone to be out of the woods. It is already late, I don’t want to wait longer.