From Padmaavat’s Mehrunisa to the tragic Anarakali of Taj: Divided by Blood, the actor is combining her acting chops with her timeless beauty to a stunning effect. With two more period pieces coming up this year, we decode her regal charm on screen and off it
One of the most poignant-yet-poetic scenes of ZEE5’s magnum opus, Taj: Divided by Blood comes in the penultimate episode: A caged Anarkali is dancing under the frail beam of light coming from the sole window of her gloomy prison. She knows that her end is near, but it is her dance of freedom — freedom from her pain and years of suffering; that of her soul leaving its walled existence of her mortal body. Aditi Rao Hydari as Anarkali is a vision of beauty and elegance as she creates magic with her lithe moves. Her Anarkali, unlike the one made iconic by Madhubala in the 1960 classic Mughal-E-Azam, isn’t the glamorous and smiling courtesan, but a woman held captive since her early teens to be physically abused by a man — double her age — at his whim. She is a teenage mother, whose child has been taken away from her, just as her own childhood. She is stoic, defiant, vulnerable, broken, and scared. And Hydari fits the part to the T. Instead of Madhubala, the actor with her glassy, melancholia-laden eyes and fragile beauty, reminds one of another screen icon: the inimitable Meena Kumari, also known as the tragedy queen. In fact, Hydari’s filmography might make her a worthy candidate for the moniker, some of her best moments on screen are as a broken woman holding on to the last remnants of resilience. But their lives could not have been more different.
Aditi started her career as a Bharatanatyam dancer as part of Leela Samson’s dance group Spanda. Soon, she entered the world of movies with her first outing as a danseuse in the Tamil language film, Sringaram. Her theatrical debut, however, was in 2006 with the Malayalam film, Prajapathi, starring Mammootty. She grabbed the attention of the national audience with her unconventional Bollywood debut as the timid Rama bua in Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Delhi-6 (2009) — it was not an extended role and she was dressed in demure pastel sarees and wore a no-makeup look. But she captured hearts with her simplicity, grace, and genial smile. Next came Sudhir Mishra’s Yeh Saali Zindagi, which saw the actress play the feisty Shanti and take home the Screen Award for best supporting actress.
She was later seen in substantial roles in movies such as Wazir, Fitoor, The Girl On The Train, Ajeeb Dastaans, and of course, Padmaavat — the movie where Hydari played Mehr-un-Nissa, the beloved wife of Jahangir (the same guy Anarkali was in love with and gave her life for). Interestingly, before her, it was Bina Rai who had played two separate Mughal women in movies, one being Anarkali (the other was Mumtaz Mahal in Taj Mahal).
But Hydari is legit royalty even off-screen. Her maternal grandfather Raja J Rameshwar Rao was the erstwhile Raja of Wanaparthy and she is the great-granddaughter of Akbar Hydari and the grandniece of former Governor of Assam, Muhammad Saleh Akbar Hydari. And she carries with her an old-world charm and elegance alongside the persona of a modern independent woman — a rare and heady mix. Excerpts:
How do you place a character like Anarkali in her time and the contemporary socio-political situation?
When the makers were talking Anarkali, it was always this mythical and ethereal creature; a quintessential tragic heroine. But as I kept reading the material, I came to the realization that in the times she lived, she would not have considered herself any of what we think of her as today. She was not this iconic, larger-than-life, tragic heroine, but just a girl grappling with the situations she was finding herself in. I think she was a courageous and gutsy girl, who chose to stand by her love; she had agency. She decided to take the punishment. I found that agency very fearless.
Also, she is not a pristine perfect woman. My Anarkali has sunburnt cheeks, and dry lips, there is dust and grim, she has messy hair, and she is not aware of her own beauty. She is a woman held captive and not some diva. She doesn’t care about her looks, all she wants is to be free to love and live.
The part that I worked really hard on while prepping for this role was the dialogues. I thought there needed to be a lot of clarity in the statements she makes in order to establish who she is. There has to be a kind of fearless directness with a layer of poetry and vulnerability. I thought it was crucial that every word she utters reflects that.
A woman becoming collateral damage amid an ego between two men or a beautiful love story with a tragic end, or something else…how do you view the Salim-Anarkali saga? Do you think patriarchy often creates a soft glow of romance around the story of a woman wronged?
I have been lucky that the directors I have worked with have ensured that it is not a patriarchal telling of a tale — be it Sufiyum Sujatayum, Sammohanam or Kaatru Veliyidai or Jubilee — the women have agency. In Taj, when I wanted to add that layer of fearlessness to someone who has been usually perceived as this ethereal and tragic woman, the makers embraced the idea. Even in a patriarchal construct, a woman can have agency. Even in the 16th century, Anarkali chose to take the punishment and stand up for her love. That’s her exercising her agency. She was empowered in a way even though she had absolutely nothing going for her. I think that was rather cool.
All three of your web shows, Taj, Heeramandi, and Jubilee are period drama. Is it just a coincidence or do you have a special affinity for the days of yore?
Yes, I love time travel. Every period piece is unique; each era brings its own charm. Anything that has something unknown, a bit of history, and a lot of imagination, always excites me. And it is very thrilling and challenging to inhabit those worlds. But more than that I think, it is incredible that filmmakers can envision me in these period films. I love working with directors who challenge me and nurture me as an actor; it is not so much about the genre.
Does your royal lineage have anything to do with your love for period pieces on screen, especially the ones with royal characters?
Maybe. Because I have grown up listening to a lot of stories about my family’s legacy; about things that happened many generations ago, and I have some amazing storytellers in my family. In fact, it is a dream to play Maharani Gayatri on screen. I love stories that have a tinge of history and are told in a fictional world.
Do you think there is a different sort of beauty bias in our movies, where the fair and the beautiful are always given upper-class/caste roles?
I am sure it happens. But it is not happening in my head. I am not self-conscious about how I look or am perceived by people. Casting is about how the makers are visualizing the character. Everyone has their own struggles and I think, I have managed to play a wide variety of roles. I am always up for a challenge. As actors, we are very much dependent on the directors to throw us those challenges. I am going to focus on the positives and I am grateful if people perceive me in a certain way and in certain kinds of roles.
But, when you are pointing this out, I think it is something I must become more aware of. However, I will not take it as an additional burden.
Even in Geeli Pucchi in Ajeeb Daastaans — one of the most poignant and important love stories we have seen on screen in recent times — we have a dark-skinned Konkona playing a Dalit girl, while your character comes from a privileged high caste…
You are not wrong. Even Neeraj (Ghaywan) spoke to me about this when he called me for the role. It is a subversion of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. There is a kind of casting he went for. Casting often helps people accept and relate to the characters more — whether we like it or not. Do we want to challenge it? Yes of course. But it is a process. I can’t ever hold this slightly conventional casting against Neeraj for this one, because he is such an honest filmmaker. And the intentions matter a lot, especially when you are telling such a poignant story.