MUMBAI— She is the first ‘foreign’ actress to make India her home in decades. And then become a top star. A royal from Nepal, Manisha Koirala started out with Subhash Ghai 27 years ago in “Saudagar” and followed it up with films like “1942: A Love Story,” “Bombay,” “Khamoshi: The Musical,” “Agnisakshi” and “Gupt” among others. Her major health crisis made her go off films for a long while, but she fought back like a royal tigress and returned to the movies with “Bhoot Returns,” “Dear Maya” and now, her most prestigious film in eons, “Sanju.”
At Mumbai’s The Club, the beautiful Koirala proves that she is as grounded as she was way back in the mid-‘90s when India-West had met her. A whimsical manager had led me on a dance for a month when we wanted her interview, and since there were no mobile phones then, I had found out her landline number and called one morning, and happily, she had herself picked up the phone. Listening patiently to what had happened. She called me the SAME afternoon to her shooting venue and spent over 45 minutes in a lovely conversation.
This time, obviously, time is at a premium as media has burgeoned, so we have a relaxed yet deadline-oriented chat of 25 minutes.
Excerpts from an interview:
Q: Nargis-ji passed away 10 years before you entered the industry. So what was your prep like here for her role in “Sanju?” Are you familiar with her work?
A: It’s strange, but after doing “Bombay” (1995), I had suddenly got a call from Mr. Sunil Dutt, who said that while I had done brilliant work in the film, he had called up specially to tell me that I had reminded him of his wife! It felt so, so good to get that feedback about a legend. And look at the huge coincidence: I am now playing her role!
Yes, of course, I am familiar with her work as an actress. But this movie is more about her personal life, specifically her attachment with her son. She is seen more as a mother. So for that, I watched documentaries and had discussions with Raju (director Rajkumar Hirani)-sir. By chance, I did an event with Priya Dutt, who gave me a copy of the book “Mr. & Mrs. Dutt.” This book helped me get little glimpses of the personal space I needed to know. I came to know what she was as a person in spirit and soul, and the kind of inner world I was navigating.
Since the film is on Sanjay Dutt, the time span does not include a lot of mother’s time. And the timeframe Raju-sir has chosen is right after her diagnosis of cancer.
So it became necessary for me to see the director’s perspective.
Q: Did you discuss her with Sanjay Dutt when you worked with him in a few films in the past?
A: Actually, I did not, but now that I am working with him in his production “Prasthaanam,” he made it a point to appreciate that the resemblance was a lot, and that was like a huge pat on my back.
Q: You had a great career in the first phase. How different are things now?
A: Yeah, I feel really blessed that I had a great career in my twenties. And I feel even more so that people have accepted me back when I am in my forties. It feels great and wonderful to be loved.
But yes, there are really a lot of differences. I think that director to director, their styles are diverse, but now the era is totally different. The new generation is exploring different kinds of cinema and narratives. Back then, there was a far smaller framework, and we were working in confines. But now we even have web series, much more television and a fantastic exposure to world cinema. Therefore the standards of performances have grown high. When I see today’s generation of actors, I am amazed at their focus. Hats off to their professionalism, I say! It is a great time for Indian cinema.
Q: Did you accept the role immediately?
A: Actually, I did not. I felt hesitant and very nervous because both Nargis-ji and I have had a health history. So I was not sure if I had enough guts to revive that memory and live that now. I did share this with Raju-sir. He assured me that the film does not revolve around her illness and that I should read the script first before deciding. I realized that was true, so I took it on, and now I am glad I did it.
Q: What about being typecast as a mother?
A: I was nervous about that too, though work should always be according to age. The pressure to look young and beautiful is too much over here, and if you succumb to that you will never realize when you cross the boundary, and it becomes unhealthy! I do not really understand these beliefs when it is so natural to age, it happens to everybody, so we must graceful about it! I will now do roles to match my age, not what I did in the 1990s. But if it is a typical mother’s role, I will not work. Life does not end when you are 25 or 30. Why can’t we have stories about older people? Somehow, this whole mindset of not accepting a natural process is faulty.
(Laughs) Anti-aging – what is THAT? To accept life with grace has more beauty and charm. Yes, you have to be fit and healthy. Your internal health should shine through you.
Q: Do you remember how you first met Sanjay Dutt?
A: I was Baba (Sanjay)’s fan when growing up, and would hide a picture of Tina Munim, his girlfriend at the time, and him behind the door of my cupboard as film stars’ pictures or magazines were not allowed in my home. I told him about that when we first met on the sets of “Yalgaar,” and we had a good laugh. As a co-star, he is all heart and full of pranks, though he never played any on me!
Q: How would you compare Rishi Kapoor, your hero in “Kanyadaan” and “Anmol,” and Ranbir Kapoor?
A: Rishi Kapoor is a very good actor, he has his style, his talent at dance, his timing. But I must be honest and say that Ranbir is hands down a superior actor!
Q: Have you watched Rishi Kapoor’s films in the last 5 or 6 years?
A: I have not, actually. I want to watch his film with Amit-ji (Amitabh Bachchan).
Q: Though you were never neck-deep in work, you worked with some of the best directors in the business after Subhash Ghai launched you. Please tell us how they all helped you.
A: When you work with good directors, you get a chance to peep into their souls, to go where their minds are. Some are poetic, so the film is like poetry, like Mani Rathnam, Mansoor Khan or Sanjay Leela Bhansali, whose first film was with me. Vinod Chopra was full of romance, and I can say that I really learned acting from him. He was a strict and harsh taskmaster, and after my screen test, he said, “Manisha, you are a s**t actress!”
It was only my third of fourth film, and I thought that this is my profession and I must excel in it. That night, I kept on and on reading that scene, extracting the last juice from it! The next day, he said, “You were zero yesterday, you scored hundred percent today. If you work like this one every scene, then I will sign you!”
Mani Ratnam’s films are dark, but he finds beauty in that space. Raju-sir’s films teach you so much about the beautiful things in life and beautiful situations. There is no lecturing, and they are entertaining throughout. That is why today I will accept a film only with a good director because he is the most important.
Q: Would you be willing for a biopic on your life? I say this in the sense of candidly opening up to a filmmaker.
A: Baba is a bold and honest man, which is one of the most endearing qualities about him. I don’t know what I would do. But I am writing my own book, and a part of it is about my life.
Q: How do you look at life today?
A: In my life, I have got another chance. I am healthy and doing something I love. We should be all grateful and focused. I don’t want to lecture, but we tend to overlook the good and focus somehow on the negative. We should just see the good aspects and be appreciative. It’s each to their own, but I feel you must choose a profession you love spending time on. I am happy and grateful. I enjoy life to the fullest, and when I am not working, I spend time with my family, write my book, or take off to Rishikesh, Badrinath, or to the jungles and mountains. I take life with full open arms, and ups and downs will always be there. I know the value of life.
Q: Are you in touch with Irrfan Khan?
A: When I read his candid views in the newspaper, I was touched. I texted his wife, to find out if he is faring well, and whether they all are fine. Thankfully, they are all doing well. In these cases, the family goes through hell. Life is so unpredictable. We must live fully for this moment.