Acting ke peeche kya hai?by Khalid Mohamed January 28 2022, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 17 mins, 15 secs
The ever-charismatic Madhuri Dixit, in a flashback conversation with Khalid Mohamed on how she perfected the art of acting by trial and error.
Today, on Instagram she has over 29.3 million followers. Post her marriage to Dr Shriram Nene, she had settled in Colorado for close to a decade. They are parents to sons Arin and Ryan. On returning to Mumbai, she resumed her acting career and now shows up on the widescreen and TV reality shows fairly regularly.
One little-known fact about her is that she was scheduled to debut in a Doordarshan serial titled, Bombay Meri Jaan, co-starring Benjamin Gilani. The pilot was made by the Film and TV Institute, Pune graduate, the late Anil Tejani and his colleagues. Curiously, it was rejected by the Doordarshan honchos. Or else hers could have been a different story altogether. Followed a lead role in Rajshri Pictures Abodh (1984) and even inconsequential ones in Awara Baap (1985), Swati (1985). Relaunched by Subhash Ghai with Uttar Dakshin, the tables finally turned and the rest is stardom history.
Today, Madhuri Dixit, at age 54, is no quitter. In fact, her personally - shot videos - dancing, kidding around, attending showbiz ‘dos’ are pretty frequent online. Her early struggle and ascent to the No.1 position among the female actors, at a point when Sridevi was boss, are familiar to any Bollywood tracker.
My agenda, at this point, is to zoom back in time, when I had quizzed her in some detail on the subject of Purely Acting - or what makes her relate to the demanding world of show business. Here’s a harkback then to a q and a which I have treasured:
What is the first visual memory you have of yourself?
Let me think. Okay, it’s a memory of two-and-a-half-year-old me sleeping and waking up to find that there’s no one around. I started crying, “Mamma, mamma”, I felt so lost in my house, I’m still quite lost actually.
Even though I’ve been in the profession for years, I feel like a child wondering, “Huh, what’s happening?” I still search for the right words when I talk, the right expressions when I act. I was an evening child, born at an unusual pre-night hour at the Dr Vaze hospital. I weighed seven-and-a-three-quarters pounds.
I believe the doctor said complimentary things about me, that I would be the best in anything I did. But you know what? I was an unplanned child, an accident. It happened just the way things do in the movies, without much logic and reason.
How much of your childhood has shaped you as an adult?
I’ve been taught to be an achiever, I guess I always look before leaping. I’m not overawed by show business. I’ve been brought up to be disciplined. If I’m late for a shoot, I feel guilty as hell. Even if I’m solving a silly crossword, I’ve to finish it to the end. At times I do cheat by referring to the dictionary simply because I can’t leave anything incomplete.
Mum was strict, dad wasn’t. Once I saw him smoking a cigarette late at night while he was working on a project, he was into manufacturing electrical and gas appliances, he was one of the first to design a hot plate. I was fascinated by the visual of dad puffing out smoke. I kept staring till he noticed and asked, “Do you want a puff?” I was so scared that I ran away immediately.
My family has been my Acting Institute, helping me to mature while I was in my adolescence. There were no secrets between me and my sister Bharati, who’s ten years older. We were brought up in a broad-minded atmosphere. Nothing artificial was imposed on us.
Natural? Don’t you have to flutter your eyelashes in the movies?
(Laughs) Every heroine has to flutter her eyelashes. Yet the aim always is to make the character believable. For instance, the girl I was playing in Raja was so far-out. Yet I had to get into her skin and convince the audience that such a girl can exist.
Which are the first films which left a deep impression on you?
The first one I can think of is Shyam Benegal’s Ankur. Shabana Azmi is being beaten black and blue, I can’t forget the way she screamed and cried. I was in school then, and that scene made me feel all choked up.
Then I remember Annie in which a sweet little girl with curly hair was so cute. I also remember the films of Laurel and Hardy and Charlie Chaplin, which my cousin would take me to see at morning shows at a theater in Dombivli. I’d stare round-eyed at the wonderful comedy but wonder how they didn’t get injured while tumbling and falling. Did they have to be rushed to hospital?
As a school student, I’d spend half my time away from class, learning Kathak. But I never dreamt of dancing on the screen some day. Though Sangam theatre was close to our house, I never imagined my face on the movie posters.
Did you develop a crush on any actor?
Oooh, that’s asking. The answer is no, not really. I used to like Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday. I was mad about his personality. In any case, I wasn’t seeing films majorly. Unlike my friend, Purnima, who’d see films again and again and narrate their stories to me, to the extent of acting out how the hero bashed up the baddies. Amitabh Bachchan was her favorite.
Were you influenced at all by the Marathi theater movement?
I wasn’t exposed to Marathi plays perhaps because we lived in a cosmopolitan area with neighbors from the north. Mum would take me to classical vocal recitals but I was so small that I’d fall asleep in her lap.
You were studying microbiology in college but quit midway. Isn’t a formal education necessary?
It’s very important for every artist, it guides you towards a methodical way of thinking. I don’t know if education helps an artist to emote, but it does help you make sense out of nonsense.
How did you make sense of that weird dance number Batata Wada in Hifazat?
By reminding myself that in the previous scene I was shown to have had bhang. Since I was high, it was okay to have hallucinatory visions. If you have a rational base, you can do the irrational.
The legendary Madhubala. Nargis and Meena Kumari weren’t educated. Yet that wasn’t a handicap for them. Right?
Right. But they worked with directors like K.Asif, Mehboob Khan and Guru Dutt. They were perhaps like schoolmasters who familiarized their artists with acting vocabulary. All I’m saying is that education serves in making an artist professional, it imparts a knowledge of how to view reality as well as fantasy in the right perspective. I often wish I’d completed my education.
Would you agree that your earlier lot of performances were uncertain… as if you were groping in the dark?
Yes, absolutely. I wasn’t trained at all, I learnt acting by trial and error or practical experience. Since I was inhibited initially, there was a lot of holding back. I wasn’t scared, but yes I was shy. It was while doing Ram Lakhan, Tezaab and Dil that I opened up. Mercifully, my directors were extremely patient, none of them hollered at me. Or else I would have cried my heart out.
For a scene in Tezaab, I had to go really berserk. I couldn’t because I’m not a hysterical sort of person. I felt I’d end up looking like a clown. N.Chandra then had the camera and lights switched off. He enacted the scene for me and said it would look fabulous. I said, “Okay, I’ll do it.” And I did.
How did you hone up on the ABC of techniques required of an actor?
I didn’t have any problems with hand movements and posture. I stood, talked and walked the way I do in real life. But I did find it difficult to enter into and exit from a frame, which can look very sloppy especially during the song-and-dance sequences. It was from Subhash Ghai and Saroj Khan in Uttar Dakshin that I learnt how to glide into and out of a frame. There has to be an element of grace, a certain smoothness when you enter or leave a shot.
Did you work on voice modulation?
Thankfully, my diction is clear. Pronunciation is crucial too, you have to get each word right without any hint of an accent. Each word in Hindi, like all other languages, has its own weight and cadence. I haven’t gotten into exercises for voice modulation. I’ve just picked up how to pitch a line of dialogue according to the demands of a scene. While dubbing, I go a bit softer since the mike can make your voice a little exaggerated.
With Dolby and digital sound it became easier though. Yet even the best dubbing cannot enhance the expression or emotion of the dialogue. You have to get it right while performing before the camera, which is why I often ask for one more take. At the dubbing, you can only rectify your pronunciation.
How do you use your eyes to elevate a performance?
Eyes can speak volumes, conveying feelings more eloquently than words. At times, the eyes don’t have to be seen at all, like when I’m supposed to look unhappy. I look downwards as if I can bear to see what’s happening.
Usually, when you’re supposed to look angry, the eyes dilate, as if they’re about to pop out of the sockets. Fortunately, my eyes tend to narrow and become piercing instead. Like the time, I was in a rage in Anjaam with Tinnu Anand. Eyes cannot be used deliberately. They have to be used as naturally as breathing.
How much importance do you give to rehearsals?
It’s important to get used to your lines of dialogue. Otherwise, there’s a bit of awkwardness. I grasp the mechanics of the shot and go in for the take so I can be fresh and spontaneous. Or else a touch of wearniness or staleness can creep in.
When you were relaunched by Subhash Ghai, did you feel it’s now or never?
I had to prove to myself that I have what it takes more than others. I had given up my studies, I was a stranger in show business. I also had to deal with such taboos as good girls don’t join show business. I didn’t want anyone to point an accusing finger at my parents and say, “Look, what they have done to their daughter’s life.”
Initially, during those Hifazat days, there was plenty of negative feedback. Behind my back it was said I wasn’t heroine material, that I was too thin and ordinary. I would be told to drink gallons of tonics and pop vitamin pills. There was also a suggestion that I should get my teeth done and my nose fixed. I had to be tough to ignore such unsolicited advice. My mum consoled me, and said, “If you are to make it, you will with the nose and teeth you were born with.”
And Anil Kapoor was extremely supportive. He wouldn’t lose his cool when I would have to give many takes for difficult scenes in Tezaab. There have been many instances, when my co-artistes have taught me the elementary rules. Like Sharmila Tagore had pointed out that my nail-polish was chipped and looked shabby when we were doing Swati. She cared to tell me how to groom myself by paying attention to little details.
Has any co-star been a royal pain?
There have been minor irritants, of course. It wouldn’t be polite to mention names. (Smiles) I’ve been brought up to be respectful.
Do you remember that storm-and-thunder kissing scene of Dayavan?
Sure, I do. Perhaps I shouldn’t have done that kissing scene. But I did what the director (Feroz Khan) told me to. I couldn’t even think of throwing a tantrum. I wanted the moment to end as soon as possible but it seemed to take ages. I was clueless about the way the film industry functions, it has its own rules and regulations.. but I know it inside out today. Now, I have learnt to say, “No!”
Success, I guess, brings confidence. Tezaab was my acid test. When it clicked, I told myself, “Hey, I’m not so bad! There is something about me that the audience has liked!” After Tezaab, I could ask questions and be heard.
Weren’t you far too decoratively used in Tridev?
Frankly, yes. I was a prop, and that too not an attractive one. I wanted to work with the top filmmakers and find my niche. Tridev was produced by Gulshan Raiji and directed by Rajiv Rai. And the film was a huge hit. And at the end of the day, that matters.
How do you prepare for a role?
Once I get the script, like I did for Hum Aapke Hain..Koun! and Pukaar, I would make mental notes about the various scenes. I would discuss my characterisation and its graph with the director beforehand.
If I had to do an emotional scene, that didn’t mean I should sulk in a corner on the sets though. I don’t mug up my lines, I read my dialogue three or four times the night before the shoot, store up my feelings because they must well out before the camera and nowhere else. I deliver my lines just the way I’d do in real life.
How do you tackle crying scenes?
(Laughs) Oh, there are as many ways of crying as there are of laughing. You can be uncontrollable or you can just weep quietly. But most directors want you to make a big tamasha about crying. I think tears were well-used in Hum Aapke Hain..Koun! After the climax, my brother-in-law asks me, “But why didn’t you tell me before?” My tears, at that point, were more felt than heard.
Aren’t reaction shots awkward?
They are very different in India than they are in the west. Our style is basically derived from navtanki and folk theatre. We have to be loud and underline every shot to make an impact. If you just listen to what your co-actor is saying, it’s thought you’re lifeless, expressionless. So a via media between overdoing and underdoing has to be struck, which is easier said than done.
Take the example of the attempted rape scene in Dil. Director Indra Kumar has a flair for melodrama, Indian style. Yet, at times he can surprise you with a degree of subtlety. Like the scene in Raja where I fly into a rage with a sickle in hand. The scene started off loudly and then moved into a temple where I asked Anil Kapoor very tenderly, “Will you marry me?” Indu often does that, starting on a high pitch and then turning soft, especially in the comedy scenes.
In his Dil, Beta and Raja I portrayed a girl with a mind of her own, (laughs) never mind if she’s a little maddish. She came off young, alive, kicking and wonderfully kiddish.
Often your dances have become the high points of your films, scoring over the performance?
I don’t buy that opinion at all. Even today, we remember the yesteryear greats Madhubala, Nargis and Shammi Kapoor, as much for their songs as their acting performances. Like when you think of Nargis, you recall her singing in the rain with Raj Kapoor, under an umbrella in Shri 420.
In any case, if I dance well, then I dance well. Period. I can’t be expected to dance clumsily. At the same time, I try to give my best to the rest of the performance.
Would Raja have clicked without Ankhiyan Milaoon?
You never know, it could have. Remove that song from the film, re-release it and find out for yourself.
Okay, tell me while acting have you discovered unknown facets of yourself?
I have but almost always in films which didn’t click. I was discovering new things about myself while acting in Prem Pratiggya, Sangeet, Khel, Anjaam and Prem Granth.
Which of your characters have you felt closest to?
With Nisha of Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! She could think for herself and she could be larkish, freaking out on ice-cream, chocolates and lemonades. She could be serious and mischievous alternately. She could be cocky but she was a nice person. Hey, you’re making me pay compliments to myself!
Like Nisha, I’ve made prank phone calls to my friends or scared them with a rubber snake.
How important are good looks?
If an actress is good-looking, she grabs the audience’s attention right away. But a lot more is required to keep the audience interested in your film after film. You can’t just be a pretty face.
How would you rate yourself in the looks and intelligence departments?
(Shyly) Well, I’m pretty. As for intelligence, that’s for you to tell me. I can’t blow my own trumpet. Let’s say, maybe I’m a bit intelligent. I’ve always been aware of the world around me. I read the newspapers. I’ve never cloistered myself from reality. The day an actress becomes self-obsessed, she’s finished. Adulation is a double-edged sword really. You have to know fame is not permanent, it could evaporate one fine morning. If some of your films don’t do well, it’s a part of the game. You can’t be at the peak forever.
How often do you let out your pent-up feelings while acting?
At times, when I wake up feeling irritated, and then go right into an anger-spewing scene, that’s when I’m raring to go. Grrrr. However, when I’m feeling low and sad and have to go straight into a comedy, that can be taxing. So, I take a deep breath, erase my mood and presto, I slide into a funny mode.
Do you pay sufficient attention to your costumes?
Ha! I know what you’re getting at. When it’s necessary I do. In the past, I’d just wear what I was given. Then I became more careful. In some scenes, your outfit doesn’t matter, your acting does. When you’re crying, your accessories don’t have to be in place. Even plain cotton saris can make a statement.
How much priority have you given to glamor?
I was born in commercial cinema, so I have adopted all its priorities. Yes, most often it’s a must to be glamorous. However, when it’s not necessary, you can’t force glitz into a role. In both Sangeet and Anjaam, I was quite unglamorous.
Is there anything that you mind doing?
I mind falling at the hero’s feet and whimpering, “Haai ji, aap mujhe chhod ke naa jaao.” And then there was one scene, which involved the killing of a little bird by a swarm of crows, which I refused to do.
Finally, do you have a definition for acting?
Hmm, let me try. Acting is something you do and make it look as if you didn’t. Acting has to be something of the moment, as if it just happened. Like the fact that I was born, even though I wasn’t planned at all.