Sit with Hitlist - Kajol: I am not doing movies anymore which require me to cry
26 years in films, Bollywood's fourth-generation actor, Kajol walks down the memory lane with mid-day's Sit with Hitlist
We watch her every couple of years or so on screen (her next film, Pradeep Sarkar's Helicopter Eela is round the corner). Over a career spanning 26 years, she's done 38 movies, a rather restricted filmography - if you compare, say, to young Taapsee Pannu, 29, who already has 37 credits on her IMDb profile.
Full-time mom, wife - that films come naturally to her is a given. She is the fourth generation female actor in her family (from mother Tanuja's side). We'd traced her fascinatingly inter-generational paternal roots in Bollywood, on Sit with Hitlist, with actor Rani Mukerji. But Mukerji is her second-cousin. We start this interview therefore with:
Who is Mayuri?
She is my mama's [Jaideep Samarth's] daughter. We lived with my mama and mami for a long time. So I've grown up with Mayuri, and her sister Madhura. They are Townies [from South Mumbai]. You might just know them. So be careful with what you say.
Kajol gets chatty at the latest edition of Sit with Hitlist
We spoke to your first director Rahul Rawail (Bekhudi, 1992) earlier, to trace your journey into films. He told us he first saw you at Gautam Rajadhyaksha's photo studio. Rajadhyaksha had written the script for Bekhudi. They were looking to cast the female lead. Mayuri was therefore at the studio for a photo session. You were accompanying her. But Rawail looked, and decided to cast you instead!
Yes, pretty much, that's how I joined films. It was just a question of right place, right time, and right people. Mayuri was supposed to get her pictures clicked. I went over to hold her hand. She wanted to get into films. I'd seen my mom, and how hard she worked. I didn't want to work that hard.
So we were sitting around, talking. Gautam was like, "Why don't you get your pictures clicked as well? Mickey (Contractor) is there to do your makeup." Mickey and I got along the minute we met. He, like Gautam, adopted me. And Rahul uncle saw the photographs, and offered me a film.
I'd like to add that Mayuri went on to do an ad. And she didn't like it at all. She came back from the shoot and said, "I'm so not getting into this." On the other hand, I shot for the film, and had a great time.
When offered the role, you apparently said, "Hey, I don't mind"?
Well, I had two months' summer vacation in college. I was told we would shoot in Canada, and a little bit in Bombay, as per my college schedule. I said, "Cool, I don't mind!"
"I don't mind" is a pretty easy way to get into any profession, no?
Yes, but I didn't think of it as a decision. It was just a try - a sample sachet, almost, that you get at a shop. I remember my dad saying, "Ek bar chuna lag gaya toh lag gaya. Nikalne wala nahin hai. Toh soch lo. (Once you wear the paint, it never goes off)." I said, "What nonsense. What difference does it make if I do a film, or not." But, I loved/enjoyed my film. And the next one came along, and then I questioned whether college was worth it - might as well go along with this; that's exactly what I did.
The other thing Rawail told us is how you fell off the first floor during your shoot, and became (temporarily) blind!
Yes, we - Rinku, the first AD, who's Rahul uncle's niece - literally tumbled down the slippery stairs from the mess-hall after dinner. We were doing something like 18 hours (shift) a day; obviously not in the best frame of mind. Fortunately, I fell on top of Rinku. She really got hurt.
What he said was that she actually fell on you. You went in the emergency room, came out half hour later, perfectly fine, while Rinku was being wheeled out!
Yes, she did come out in a wheelchair. I couldn't see a thing. Everything was just white. I probably had a concussion. So here we were in a foreign country, with these two young girls in emergency room. Rahul uncle must have thrown a sh** fit, wondering what's going to happen to his film.
And to you?
No, he must have thought about his film first, for sure.
During Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (KKHH), you similarly fell off a cycle, and (temporarily) lost your memory?
I've got a hard head; what to do? It keeps hitting, and nothing happens permanently. I think my morbid sense of humour comes from that! My mom tells me about how, as a kid, I would keep falling, and that it didn't matter. I'm sturdy that way.
Getting back to the accidental beginnings of your career; and a whole bunch of movies thereafter. You talk about being your harshest critic. We all have an opinion on what your best films have been. Is there any performance that you remember to be your worst?
I don't know if I've had a 'worst performance', touchwood. I've been pretty honest to my work throughout, whether I've believed in them, or not. There's always been a standard.
The actor gifts a goodie bag to her fan and mid-day reader
A basic minimum, you mean? How about your under-rated best then?
I've had a basic standard, yes. And it goes far above sometimes, and remains at that level most of the time. I think one of my best performances was in a film called Udhaar Ki Zindagi (1994), which I loved. But it didn't do very well at the box-office.
It took so much out of me that I actually reached a crisis point, and told my mom, "I'm not doing movies anymore, which require me to cry, or do anything very heavy. I want to play an ornament, have three scenes, four songs. That's it. I'm just drained." After that, I signed on Hulchul, Gunda Raj, even Karan Arjun, for that matter.
While shooting with Shah Rukh for Baazigar, I remember him telling me: "You know, babe, you've got to learn how to act. This honesty won't take you very far. You've got to learn the technique of acting as well."
You mean an element of detachment?
No, just technique - to not put 100 per cent of yourself into every shot. You have to learn how to pull back, and use your technique instead. That's what's going to help me in the long run. And I was like, "I'm doing alright so far, no? Why do you want to unnecessarily jinx it? Shoot is going well. Stop getting so detailed about it!"
But when Udhaar Ki Zindagi actually happened, I remember going back to what he had said, and thinking, "Sh**, he was right." That's when my process of learning started - on how to do things in a not-so-instinctive manner, but in a predictable, and thought-out manner instead.
Surprising that you had to learn this by yourself (or from Shah Rukh). Your mum had been an actor for years. As had your aunt, Nutan, for that matter.
But I wasn't one to go on sets. Also my mum, especially, kept work out of the house. At home, more than work, we'd discuss people. She'd talk about Raj Kapoor, and the people she had worked, or was working with - never the actual work itself. That's also something Ajay (Devgn) and I follow at home. Work is just something we do; we don't sit and analyse it.
Glad you mentioned Raj Kapoor. For, your family (from mother's side) is the female equivalent to Kapoor clan. Your great-grandmother, grandmother, mother, and now you, all have been actors. Can you take us through that (piece of history), starting with Rattan Bai, your great-grandmother, who became an actor at 40, only two years before your grandmother?
Honestly, I won't be able to take you through that, because I knew them as just my great-grandmother, grandmother, and mother. And they were amazing women. I didn't pay as much attention to what they did on screen, as what they did off it.
My mumma, as I would call my great-grandmother, was this awesome, strong, lucid, intelligent woman, even at the age of 80. She was 86, when she died. I was 11 or 12 then. I was closest to her. She barely ever left the house, but always knew what was happening in the kitchen, and in everybody's lives.
Then there was my grandmother (Shobhana Samarth) - again a very driven, practical, and strong personality. She was all about what works, and what doesn't. And I had my mother (Tanuja), who I really respect for the way she's handled her life, and the strength she exudes to stand up and say, "So far, no further." As for what she wants to do, she's ready to stand up and say, "Okay, I'm ready to face the consequences, and make my own path."
Watch the video of the interview on www.mid-day.com
Give us an example?
It's a silly example, but so typically her. I saw her picture once and said, "Mom, you wore a lungi to a party?" She was like, "So cool it was. I had them stitched myself. They were stylish, super-comfortable, the slits were…." And I couldn't get over the fact that she wore a lungi to a party!
She did things her way. Automatically, when you see that, there's a much stronger learning experience than her telling me so. My mom, for instance, had a bad habit of abusing. She had the best gaalis ever, and she was known for them. On set, people would actually poke her till she turned around and delivered her famous gaalis. And then they'd be like, 'Haan, ab din achcha chalega!"
One day, she told us, 'You can't say sh**." I went, "But you abuse all the time." She was like, "Okay, I won't do it from now." And she gave it up. She put a swear-jar at home, put money every time she abused by mistake. That was another fabulous learning experience. She could have easily said, "Listen to me, because I tell you so," which are the most famous mother-words ever.
Every time I had a question as a child, she either had an answer for it, or went outside and found one that was acceptable to me. Even the fact of her marriage with my father - I remember asking, "Why can't you and dad be together?" She said, "As adults, we're better people, when we're not with each other!" And I said, "Okay, that makes sense." So she had an answer for every question, about the meaning of life, or death, when my relatives were passing away.
What did she tell you about death?
To never be scared. That the body gets old, but soul is eternal. Of course, one has to trade up for a better packaging, a newer version.
You also had an extremely strong grandmother. She in fact directed your mother's first film, Hamari Beti.
I remember her as a firebrand. She was 65 and would drive up to my boarding school in Panchgani once a month, in her battered Ambassador car, Friday evenings, and take me for my dental check-up to Pune, drop me off to school on Sunday, and drive back to Bombay the same day. My mother was busy working. She took care of me in every way she could.
She was driving till she was 85, in this bright blue Maruti 800 in Lonavla. She had six dogs, big house, and lived all by herself. She would drive to the market, get groceries. She was known as the Queen of Lonavla. These are the independent women I have seen all my life. And they never spoke about women's empowerment.
So that's about the Samarth-Mukerji family. By the way, is there a reason why you don't keep a surname?
I was too confused about whether it should be Mukerji (from father's side), or Samarth-Mukerji. I told dad, let's not keep a surname. Just Kajol is good, because I didn't want anyone to associate anything with me. I knew there would be huge expectations: Tanuja's daughter, Shobhana Samarth's granddaughter. My father's side has an entirely separate lineage. Everyone in film industry either knew me, or were related to me!
So what's your name on the passport?
Kajol Devgn, after marriage; before that, it was Kajol Mukerji.
Stepping back to your career, you've had definitive milestones. The most recent one, last year, was when you did your second Tamil film (VIP 2) since Minsara Kanavu (Sapnay, 1997). Is it true that Hindi film actors down South rattle one, two, three, four, instead of actual dialogue; and get away with it?
You can, probably. But I didn't want to, even when I did Sapnay. An actor always takes pride in their performance. You have to live up to that standard. Dhanush and Soundarya (in VIP 2) helped me manage my lines, and rehearse well. First three days were tough. He (Dhanush) was prompting from one end, and I was saying lines at the other, whilst trying to keep the look right.
Soon, I got into a rhythm. There was a pattern, and I was beginning to understand a bit of what I was saying. My pronunciation was pretty good too. I am good with reproducing sounds. Okay, that sounds really wrong! It just got easier with time.
What are the languages you know? Which one do you think in?
I think in English. I speak English, Hindi, Marathi, and can understand Bengali.
A reason I bring up your South film is because few weeks ago marked 20 years of Mani Ratnam's Dil Se. And you had turned down that film. Why?
Because the dates were not working out. I did (want to work with Mani Ratnam), and God willing, will. We are both active in movies. I had signed on KKHH. Karan had SRK's dates, and he would have had to cancel the schedule, because he had bulk-dates from everyone. Karan was very generous to suggest, "Go! You are getting a chance to work with Mani Ratnam. Who am I??" I didn't feel it was the right thing to do.
So the story goes that Mani Ratnam called you up, and you thought it was a crank call?
I put up a retro-picture on my Instagram (recently), sitting on a car bonnet, which is when Mani Ratnam called, and I thought Shah Rukh was pulling a fast one. I laughed and put the phone down. Then Shah Rukh called to say, "Baby, it's really him. He's trying to call you!" I was like, "Oh damn!" It was a rocky start!
That's 1998. You do KKHH. In 1999, you get married. By 2001, it's clear you won't have as many releases in a year?
I took that call in 1999 itself. People said I was at the peak of my career. But I have never understood what peak is. I was just exhausted by the pace of doing four films a year - running from Hyderabad, Bombay, Panchgani, to Switzerland, London. That's not life. It's 'gadha-mazdoori' (donkey-work). I wanted to get married. It was the right age. I had been working for 10 years. It was the right thing to do.
You decided to become seriously choosy?
I was picky, always. And then came a time when I didn't want to do more than one, max two, films in a year. I wanted to take it easy, chill, take a six-month break. It gave me perspective and thus earned me more appreciation.
You had a five-year break after Toonpur Ka Superhero (2010). What made you pick Dilwale (2015), of all films, to return with?
I loved my character in the film: her graph, and how she was portrayed. There was an unexpected twist in the plot. It was a full-blown love story, but I was sold on that scene where she tries to kill him (love-interest). I also did the film, because of the way it was going to be put together.
Do you remember films you've said no to, and not because of dates?
Lots! For me, it has not always been about the script so much. There are other factors too, besides script: good director, producer; in that order. I have to like people I work with, to be in a place where I say, this is not working, let's redo it. A good film is not possible if there is no communication between departments. To have the freedom to talk [to colleagues] necessarily enhances work.
Speaking of people, there's Karan Johar you've evidently loved working with. Why did you say no to Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna [KANK]?
He wanted to shoot KANK in New York for 90 days. I said I can't. My husband would leave me, if I decided to go off for three months, leaving my little daughter alone. Karan sweetly let me pass, and made the film he wanted to.
Also, it doesn't matter how many films you do in a year. In Mumbai, at least, there's always one running at a theatre: Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (DDLJ), no? Have you thought about why it still strikes a chord across generations?
It is now like a family heirloom. People pass it on (over generations). I meet people who watched it, when they got married. It was also the first film they showed their kids. Good films are timeless. They are about what they make you feel. DDLJ still makes you cry; and will continue to work.
Did any of you predict/know about its likely impact?
Not even Adi [director Aditya Chopra]. We didn't even know if it would do well. All Adi kept saying was, "Mujhe hit picture banani hai." It was his takia-kalam (standard refrain). He thought, with DDLJ, he was making a cool version of a 'tapori' film, shot in tabelas and mountain tops with chiffon sarees, in snow-banks.
There's also the trivia about Adi Chopra originally looking to cast Tom Cruise in DDLJ!
He did want that. That's a wish list. Every director has onet. After that we come back to earth. We are like, "Apne desh ke hero ko lete hain! (Let's take a local hero)." In his head, he probably had Tom Cruise, with Meg Ryan (starring) opposite. I doubt Meg would have a 'Bauji' in her life (laughs).
In many ways, the film also spoke about how you can turn around people's thoughts, and judgments.
I like the fact that it was not about rebelling, which is synonymous with youth. It talked about respecting a parent's love. Raj has this scene where he clearly says it's unfair to take away one's daughter in such a manner. It went against what the youth was saying then. Which was the twist in that tale.
There is also that larger romantic film idea of soul-mate. It's worked over generations. You've been married for 19 years; do you believe in the idea?
I was lucky to have found someone I love. And I do believe in soul-mates, who you may not always instantly recognise. They are found over time. It starts with a connection. One day, you turn around, and the veil comes off. You realise he was the one all along. Sometimes it may take a month to realise this, sometimes 40 years!
How long did it take you?
Three hours! We were shooting (the film Hulchul) in an ugly garage. He was sitting on an ugly chair, far away, smoking. I was bitching about him not being friendly at all. We started shooting. I had to slap him. He had to dramatically hold my hand. I knew there was something.
To trace your real-life romance, we basically have to watch (Anees Bazmee's) Hulchul (1995) and find the moment where Ajay Devgn stops you from slapping!
And at that moment, there was a voice in my head saying that this person is going to be really important [in my life]. It was an instinct. I was already going around with someone else. So was he. We were just acquaintances sitting on the chair beside each other, working on the same film.
Of course we finished the film, and signed up another one, three months later. That was the phase where I didn't want to do anything in a film. So I did Gunda Raj (1995) with him. Towards the end of that shoot, our relationship began.
That's for personal life. Speaking of profession, how did you and (your top on-screen partner) Shah Rukh Khan meet; did you have a hunch you were going to become the 'it' couple?
We met on the sets of Baazigar (1993). Like the rest of the unit, he was so hung-over. It was January 1.
Why would you work on January 1?
Because Shah Rukh had this stupid belief that if he works on the year's first day, he would (get to) work throughout the year! So we land up on the sets. [Directors] Abbas bhai, Mustan bhai, and I are the only people sober, and happy to work. Everybody else is like, "Let's just do easy shots, with minimum dialogue. Don't drag chairs loudly, or push the table hard!" That was the vibe on the set.
I was completely oblivious to the fact that it's January 1. For me, it was just another day. And as you must have noticed, I do not speak at a regular tone. If I have to make my point, the volume gets louder. So I was howling, shouting in Marathi, which was an alien language to him [Shah Rukh]. His make-up man was Maharashtrian. I was bitching to him about what kind of a boss he had -sitting in a corner, head down, completely morose.
Shah Rukh was giving me stares that clearly meant, "Somebody shut her up!" I was putting him through maximum torture. Later we sat down, and I was like, "Hi, how are you?" He told me, "Don't you ever stop talking?" And I was like, "Why should I stop talking? I have to speak the lines - check this long [piece of] paper. Let's start rehearsing." Then, of course, he started talking as well. And once Shah Rukh starts, it is difficult to wind him [down]!
If he wasn't an actor, Shah Rukh could have easily been a spiritual guru, with all the gyaan on life!
Love guru (laughs).
From what I hear, if one met you in the '90s, they'd be scared to even interview you, if you agreed to be interviewed at all!
You should be scared today as well. I am much older (laughs).
As public figures, do you sense that contrast between you and SRK?
Yes, I do. But it didn't make much of a difference. There's a strange bonding-experience you have when you are working with a person for
Of course I was [aloof], and I am [like that] even today - very guarded about my privacy. I am not social. I don't attend parties. I don't drink, and so I find it difficult to go to the bar, and ask for coffee. But over time, we [Shah Rukh and I] became friends. And we've known each other for really long, which counts for itself.
Have you ever been able to decode the on-screen chemistry?
I've never tried. I don't know what works. I feel it has a lot to do with our on-screen history - the fact that we both chose some good films together, and few of them happened to be love stories. When you see love stories succeed, [as an audience] you tend to believe that when the couple comes back [on screen], they will fall in love again. We have put that myth into everybody's heads! Honestly, I would like to believe that we are good actors (laughs)!
How important is it for you to like your co-star?
It's important, but not necessary. I think a good actor can fake it, and a lot of the time, does. I also think that when there is somebody that you like in front of you, it's much easier [to fake it].
For instance, in Helicopter Eela, Riddhi [Sen; my co-star] is a well brought-up boy, and he plays my son. So there is [already] a lot of body-language between us that would have been missing, if he had been an obnoxious kid.
There are YouTube jokes on your uni-brow. Can you laugh at yourself, and enjoy such things? [Audience]
I don't know the joke, but if there are, then kudos. Honestly, I don't think it's worth the trouble [going through them]. I am glad that it [uni-brow] has become a statement, and that I don't have to go through the hassle of getting rid of it. I'm okay with it.
But that's what a whole lot of people back then and even now think of you - someone who doesn't give a damn. And that is cool, by definition. But few years back, one noticed, you began caring about how you dress up, for instance. Was that a conscious call?
Yes, it was; and that was only for one reason. My daughter was born. I wasn't working. I was just thinking once about whether I like black, or white, or red. I didn't have an opinion on the subject, despite being one of the most opinionated people around. I didn't know whether I wanted to wear a jeans, or skirt.
If I thought about these things, there would just be a big blur. So I set about finding what my opinion was. And, yes, there was a lot of trial and error. I guess a lot of people go through this during their teens. I never did, as I always had someone standing with a hanger, telling me what to wear. I wasn't given a choice, and even if I had been, I wouldn't know how to express it. So I sat down, and realised that it isn't rocket-science. People far dumber than me have been successful [at it].
Your husband mentioned on Sit With Hitlist that he didn't really have an acting process. He comes on set, say his line, and it's done. What about you? [Audience]
No, I don't do any great preparation. So far I haven't had any role out of my [comfort] zone. In my head, I have a graph that I want the character to follow, and I keep building on it. With scenes, I keep an eye on where it falls on the film's timeline.
Did Dushman  take a mental toll on you? [Audience]
It was a tough film. I had initially refused it, when Pooja [Bhatt] and Tanuja [Chandra] came to me. I wasn't comfortable shooting a rape scene. I thought it would take a toll on me, physically. Both of them sat me down, said that being women, they would shoot it aesthetically. That it wouldn't look gory. They promised to shoot with a body-double, which they did; interspersed with one close-up of mine.
Would that be a rare dark film of yours?
Yes. I haven't done too many. Rather, I haven't gone to the dark side yet (laughs). Trust me, it is more difficult to make people laugh than cry. Every actor will tell you that. Also, I don't agree with films that have no hope in the end, and everybody dies. That's not who I am, and it's not the message I want to send across.
As actors, I believe we have a superpower to make people feel, and I don't want people to feel that. I'd love to do action, or thriller, but there should be a happy ending, like Mills and Boon!
Which of your characters have you been closest to: Simran [DDLJ] or Anjali [KKHH]? [Audience]
I don't identify with Simran, probably because I didn't have her kind of parents. I can't relate to giving up everything just for a principle. Yes, I did a very good job with the character, but I think I'm more like Anjali, or [Sanjana] in Pyar Toh Hona Hi Tha (1998).
[Final question] Why is your Twitter handle kajol@UN?
Originally the Twitter handle was made for when I was going to speak at the United Nations [on child welfare]. Then it got just too famous to bring it back to Kajol!
(Transcribed by Mohar Basu, Sonil Dedhia and Sonia Lulla)
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