Rajeev Masand meets Madhuri Dixit in her Mumbai home and explores the dichotomy of her life.

In a simple white salwaar-kurta, her hair still wet from a shower, Madhuri Dixit sinks into a sofa at her parents’ home in the north Mumbai suburb of Juhu, and punches the keys on the TV remote control until she settles on a music channel. As if on cue, the dance number on this nostalgia show is one of her own old hits. Even as the actress on stage shakes her hips to the beat and gracefully pirouettes with her co-star, the real Dixit stares at the screen, devoid of any emotion, providing no indication to the fact that this was she a decade ago—at the peak of her reign as Bollywood’s numero uno leading lady. It was indeed long ago.

 

“I have worked very hard, so I’m enjoying this stage of semi-relaxation that I’ve allowed myself,” she says, insisting that she no longer craves that adrenaline rush.  “My priorities have changed,” she explains, running a towel through her hair, “it suits me perfectly to be spending some months of the year working in India, while the rest are spent at home with my husband in America.” Bollywood gossip has it that her jet-hopping arrangement with her Los Angeles-based surgeon husband Dr Sriram Nene isn’t working. But Dixit says she could not have been happier, leading a “blissful” married life. “I don’t think I could have given up either part of my life for the other,” she insists, adding that she’s gotten perfectly accustomed to be leading a double life since she got married in 1999. “Even my husband encourages me to go out and continue with my career till as long as I want to,” she adds, squelching stories about how Dr Nene has forbidden her from signing on any new films.

 

Madhuri hasn’t committed to any new film in recent months. In fact she turned down an offer to do the lead role in Mahesh Manjrekar’s English remake of Astitva, “I haven’t come across a script recently that would make me pull myself out of bed in the morning,” she says. Of course, scripts are also hard to come by these days. In the rigid formula of Hindi films, a Sanjay Dutt or Anil Kapoor in their 40s are still safe bets as leading men, while their contemporaries like  Madhuri have very little to choose from. There are no roles written for a woman in her mid to late 30s, in fact females of this age group are virtually non-existent in Bollywood films. Though ten years from now Madhuri will have plenty of roles coming her way—as a mother to the leading men.

I haven’t come across a script recently that would make me pull myself out of bed in the morning

So there is indeed some irony in the fact that Dixit’s career-defining role should arrive at this stage in her life—as Chandramukhi, the courtesan with a big heart in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas. Having turned down Bhansali some years ago when he came to her with an author-backed role in his directorial debut, Khamoshi, Dixit was smart not to pass up his second invitation. “It’s an important piece of literature,” she says of Sarat Chandra Chatterjee’s novel on which Bhansali’s film is based.

Image Courtesy Jayesh Sheth

 

Old timers would definitely be tempted to compare Dixit’s Chandramukhi to that of Vyjantimala’s from Bimal Roy’s 1955 classic. Dixit says she has interpreted the role in her own way. Approached initially with the choice to pick any of the two central female parts, she says she was attracted to Chandramukhi over Paro “because she’s a totally selfless person who practises a very idealistic kind of love, a quality which I’m not sure anyone in this day and age can claim to possess.”

 

Bhansali, an ardent admirer of Dixit’s talent, reveals that despite her outright refusal to work with him when he’d approached her for Khamoshi, he couldn’t see any other actress playing this character. “It had to be her. I’d have been heart-broken if she’d said she wanted to play Paro. And had she refused to do the film altogether, I might not have made the film at all,” he declares.

 

The film is slated for release this month, and Madhuri is looking forward to the public reception. Though its performance at the box-office might not make or break her career, the film’s success or failure would definitely have a bearing on where she goes from here. It is a film, she says, that means much more to her than many that she has done over the years. “I cringe when I see some of my earlier work on cable or on satellite television,” Dixit says laughing her famous laugh.”I remember reading an interview of Oprah Winfrey where she said she avoided watching reruns of her older shows because she was embarrassed of all the funny hairstyles she’s ever had. In the same way, I go red in the face, when I see some of the clothes I’ve worn and some of the colours I’ve used in the past.”

 

Never a trendsetter in the costume department the way such younger actresses as Karisma Kapoor or Urmila Matondkar have been, Dixit’s strength has always been her disarming smile and her warm demeanour. “I’m really a one-to-one sort of person. I can easily strike up a rapport with someone I’ve just met, but put me into a roomful of people and I’m not sure I can be of much help,” she says. Author-columnist Shobha De had once rightfully remarked that Dixit’s success and popularity with the masses lies in the fact that “she’s your typical Maharashtrian neighbour who you can open up to with your most private secrets.”

 

Perhaps it’s this very quality of hers—the ability to reach out, and have people open up to her—that convinced Sony Entertainment Television to choose her to anchor a marriage-based reality television show. Though the show has been dogged by numerous controversies Madhuri says she has enjoyed  every minute on the sets of Shubh Vivaah, which is expected to go on air shortly. “It’s such fun talking with young girls and boys, and listening to their idea of their perfect soulmates, and then trying to introduce them to suitable partners,” she says excitedly, adding that “it feels nice to be a catalyst in a relationship-building exercise.”

 

Her own romantic relationship, she jokes, is not without its quirks. Although her husband is now accustomed to all the stares and the whispers she generates when they’re shopping in a mall, she says it wasn’t easy on him in the early days of their marriage. “I remember thinking of our lives as a scene straight out of Notting Hill,” she says, a trifle embarrassed at having made the comparison. “But it’s true,” she adds quickly, explaining that “he used to find it very strange seeing people relate to me as an actress, and I think it took him a lot of time getting used to it.”

Dixit says she can’t ever see herself cutting off her ties permanently with Bollywood. “I’ll act till as long as I enjoy it, and even when I’m done with that, I’ll find some way to stay attached to the place,” she insists, unsure whether she might want to turn director or producer someday. Among the projects she is involved with now include lending her voice to a devotional album for Rajshri Music. “Oh no, I don’t think I can ever compete with Lataji or Ashaji,” she hastily clarifies, then explains that the project isn’t too demanding, and one she thinks she can comfortably pull off.

I go red in the face, when I see some of the clothes I’ve worn and some of the colours I’ve used in the past

For the last ten minutes, though, she has been trying unsuccessfully to get through to her husband from her home phone. When, on what seems like the fiftieth try, she finally hears his answering machine take the call, she hangs up disappointedly and decides she’ll send him an email instead. Then, her expression changing almost immediately, she flashes that million-dollar smile and rises to go use the computer in her father’s bedroom. “You see, I could never give up one life for another,” she says as she vanishes behind the curtains.

This article was first featured in the July 2002 issue