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Main Madhuri Dixit Kyon Banna Chahti Hoon?

Far from the harrying pace of the Mumbai film industry, in Denver, Colorado, a young woman laughs. Madhuri Dixit has just been asked how it ...

September 14, 2003

Far from the harrying pace of the Mumbai film industry, in Denver, Colorado, a young woman laughs. Madhuri Dixit has just been asked how it feels to know that someone back home has made a film called Main Madhuri Dixit Banna Chahti Hoon, and she’s laughing the way people tend to when they are experiencing a pleasurable mix of embarrassment and pride. ‘‘It feels nice,’’ she says, ‘‘because you’ve worked hard all your life and this is a kind of recognition.’’

Main Madhuri, produced by Ramgopal Varma, is the story of Chutki, a village girl who hopes to become the next Madhuri Dixit. Because, if there is another term for female superstardom in the Bollywood thesaurus, that term is Madhuri Dixit. ‘‘The name stands for so much—an industry icon, superb actress, brilliant dancer and charismatic personality,’’ says the film’s debutant director Chandan Arora. ‘‘Nobody compares to Madhuri as yet.’’

“Each batch of heroines comes with different selling points. Preity and
I are young.
Give us time”

Rani Mukherjee

Arora is echoing what appears to be the collective viewpoint of his seniors. Which is that Rani Mukherjee is cute, Preity Zinta is spunky, Kareena Kapoor shows promise, and Aishwarya Rai demands the coining of a word superseding gorgeous. But, like Cinderella’s glass slipper in the fairy tale, no one has quite been able to fill Madhuri’s shoes.

‘‘Today Aishwarya is No. 1 because Madhuri is not doing films. Madhuri is by far the better actor,’’ says Devdas producer Bharat Shah, adding, ‘‘Preity and Rani are good actors, but their height is a disadvantage.’’

Rani, the toast of tinsel town following Saathiya and Chalte Chalte, protests, ‘‘Each batch of heroines comes with different selling points. Preity and I are young. Give us time.’’ But how much? Rani made her debut seven years ago. Preity’s no newcomer. Kareena is still to live up to the constant hype. And the Barbie doll-like Aishwarya, Miss World 1994, is yet to leave her showcase and graduate from beauty icon to celluloid touchstone.

At the risk of earning her fellow heroines’ ire, former Miss World Priyanka Chopra, now a hot name following the success of Andaaz this year, admits, ‘‘After Sridevi and Madhuri no heroine has been able to create that kind of chaos at theatres, or drag audiences to a film.’’

Be realistic,’’ comes this counter from Amisha Patel, still a struggler despite blockbusters Kaho Naa …Pyaar Hai and Gadar. ‘‘The hero’s name sells a film. Heroines like Nargis and Madhuri are rare. So are films like Mother India and Hum Aapke Hain Koun! (HAHK) which rode on their shoulders. Madhuri is perhaps the last real female superstar whose presence made a difference to a film’s sale price.’’

It’s true, heroine-oriented films are not common because initial box-office collections are determined by an audience consisting mostly of men; women and families tend to come to theatres in later weeks. The initial audience has traditionally favoured hero-oriented films. So conventional wisdom dictates that a woman-centered film is a risk.

But conventional wisdom has another dictum: that though male viewers determine the initial, a film is likely to become a super-duper hit when women and families start crowding cinemas. Urmila Matondkar, star of this year’s blockbuster spook flick Bhoot, slams actresses for their ‘‘not enough roles’’ lament: ‘‘That’s a complaint from women who’ve not been able to make anything of their careers,’’ she says. ‘‘There are enough strong roles, but heroines need the guts to grab them and risk them.’’

“Actor-producer Manisha Koirala’s view though finds more echoes in the industry: ‘‘It’s a question of film-makers taking that risk. Some of the industry’s biggest hits have been women-oriented films, from Mother India to Beta, Raja and HAHK.’’ Which is why, despite the obstacles, a string of female superstars have emerged down the decades from Bollywood: Nargis, Madhubala, Vyjayanthimala, Hema Malini, Sridevi, Madhuri, each following the other into the constellation.

Current Bollywood sex symbol Bipasha Basu says the comparisons are unfair, ‘‘As it is, it’s a male-dominated industry. Why are you comparing us with people like Nargis who didn’t have to contend with cable channels and numerous other forms of entertainment?’’

“But she can’t argue with hard figures. Madhuri reportedly commanded Rs 1 crore per film eight years ago, when top heroes got Rs 1.5-Rs 1.75 crore. In 2003, Aishwarya reportedly gets Rs 2 crore while Rani, Preity and Kareena are in the Rs 1.5 crore bracket. Among the men though, Shah Rukh and Aamir are believed to earn Rs 4 crore per film (Aamir reportedly pocketed about Rs 6 crore for Ketan Mehta’s 1857: The Rising), while half a dozen others make Rs 2 crore-plus.

The industry has various theories about The Missing Female No. 1. Says HAHK director Sooraj Barjatya: ‘‘So many films have flopped in these past two to three years, that distributors are scared to buy a woman-oriented film.’’ And most producers are scared to make one. It’s a vicious cycle. In the absence of strong roles, it’s difficult for any actress to compete with Madhuri’s shadow.

‘‘Another factor is the advent of the designer as king. ‘‘In the past seven to eight years, the heroines’ focus has shifted to looking good,’’ complains Ramgopal Varma. ‘‘In every scene, they change their dress and hairstyle. The audience enjoys looking at these glam products, but does not connect with them as people, unlike the heroes.’’

Madhuri agrees with Ramu. ‘‘I could have worn the worst clothes in some of my films, yet when I spoke my dialogues the audience knew it was sincere,’’ she says. ‘‘Nowadays, heroines are too well made up, too catwalked. That can actually distract from the performance.’’ In Andaaz, Priyanka and co-star Lara Dutta’s impressive histrionics were drowned in an ocean of cleavage and bare limbs. And in Dil ka Rishta, Aishwarya was so dolled up in every scene that it was hard not to wonder if she ever relaxes.

With Ash shooting in London for Gurinder Chadha’s Bride and Prejudice, her manager Hari Singh defends her, ‘‘Aishwarya dresses the way her director tells her to.’’ Adds Lara: ‘‘Andaaz’s USP was that for the first time a Miss Universe and Miss World were acting together, so audiences expected some glamour. But it was balanced out by a very of-the-soil story.’’ Kareena takes the middle path in this debate. ‘‘Exposure needs to be done with dignity,’’ she says. ‘‘I too exposed a bit in Asoka, but it was not crude. The kind of exposure that’s been going around among some heroines, that’s demeaning and distracting.’’

The past seven to eight years have also coincided with the advent of a middle-of-the-road cinema that heroines like Karisma, Tabu and Manisha have embraced. In fact, the post-Madhuri phase is littered with a number of commercial could-have-beens who chose not to be. Karisma and Manisha could have been, but as they were reaching the top, they veered away from the mainstream. And everyone agrees that Kajol almost was, but she virtually retired after marriage.

‘‘To these developments, add the changing structure of the industry. ‘‘Nowadays, films are packaged keeping the ultimate audience in mind,’’ explains Delhi-based distributor Udai Kaushish. ‘‘The tendency is to target woman-oriented films at an urban audience. For a female star to then manage a pan-Indian appeal is difficult.’’

But what does it take to have that appeal? Too much, it would seem: beauty, fair skin, big bosom, acting and dancing talent, a traditional Indian look that is not diluted by skimpywear. But remember, this so-called ‘‘completeness’’ is sought more in theory. Nargis was not a beauty. And Madhubala was not a great actress. What it boils down to ultimately is what Kaushish calls ‘‘a special chemistry that Madhubala and Madhuri possessed that transcends talent. It was as though there was no camera and they communicated directly with the audience.’’

So is there no hope in the present lot? The industry remains optimistic. Rani and Preity’s acting and pizzazz draw all-round applause. Kareena is still considered a possibility, if only she’d tone down the loudness and shake off the overly westernised image. And Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam and Devdas proved that Ash too can act, given the right director. But it’s light years away from the day when someone makes a film entitled Main Aishwarya Rai Banna Chahti Hoon.


‘‘I’m Considering Direction’’
Madhuri on marriage, maturity and motherhood. By

  • What are you doing these days?
    Chilling out and taking care of the kid (her six-month-old son Arin). But I have three or four film offers on which I have to take a decision soon.
  • What kind of films do you want to do?
    I’m keen on strong roles in fun films. The problem is that when directors make women-oriented films, most of them take up issues. Such films also are needed, but there is more to us women than issues. We’re fun, you know.
  • Why are so few roles offered to married actresses?
    Most heroines in the past got married and quit, so everyone assumes that’s what all will do. But attitudes among film-makers are changing. They can see that Juhi and I are still working. I don’t think Karan Johar gives a damn whether Kajol is married or not. So long as you deliver the goods, it’s okay.
  • Your Yeh Raaste Hai Pyaar Ke director Deepak Shivdasani said he’d given you a ‘‘mature look suitable for a married woman’’. Why don’t directors talk like that about your married male counterparts?
    There are still people with a certain mindset. You have to search for like-minded people and work with them.
  • Why on earth would anyone in India put their faith and money on an actress who is based in the US?
    Because I’ve always been a thorough professional. I’ve never let my personal life interfere with work. There are occasions when I waived my fee because the producer needed that help. I postponed announcing my marriage because I wanted to wait for the release of Boney Kapoor’s Pukar. And after the wedding, I told Sanjay Leela Bhansali that I’d totally understand if he wanted to cast someone else in Devdas. He thought about it but later came to me and said, ‘‘No one else can play Chandramukhi.’’
  • Many actresses are turning producer these days? You think that’s a way of getting around the industry’s attitude towards older or married actresses?
    That’s one way. Because when you produce a film you are in control. I’m glad for them. When I started off, I wish there had been as many channels for getting funding, then I too might have turned producer. But hey, it’s still possible since I’m very much around.
  • Are you interested in directing films?
    That’s something I’m considering, but I have no concrete plans yet.
  • Living in the US, do you miss the attention you get here in India?
    Not at all. My kid deserves all the attention now. Sometimes when I go to the mall and people come up to me and say, ‘‘We are huge fans of yours,’’ that’s enough for me.
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