People | Juhi’s Journey

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Juhi’s Journey
Text by Shraddha Jahagirdar-Saxena
Published: Volume 22, Issue 3, March, 2014

Her bubbly and vivacious nature still lights up the room and laughter continues to colour her voice…but over the years she has matured with grace and panache. On the eve of her first negative appearance on screen in Gulaab Gang, Juhi Chawla interacts with Shraddha Jahagirdar-Saxena about the choices she’s made and the roads she’s travelled so far

It is almost as if I have stepped into a whirligig that has swirled me back in time, when I watch Juhi Chawla walk into the lobby of a suburban hotel a few days before the release of her much-talked-about venture, Gulaab Gang. In this flick by debutant director Soumik Sen, Chawla – moving out of her comfort zone – is assaying the role of a politician, Sumitra Devi, whose character resonates with negative overtones. In conversation mode, I urge her to take a metaphorical walk down ‘Juhi’s Journey’ – and our chat kick-starts with what is her flavour of the moment.

The vivacious actor admits that her decision to play the villain in Gulaab Gang has raised many an eyebrow in and beyond Tinseltown. “When Soumik read the script to me, I found it interesting, but I wondered why he had approached me for this particular role. It was so not me! I thought that people would start laughing if they saw me playing such a character. I sent him off, requesting a rewrite, keeping me in mind. So, he reworked some scenes, justifying a few of her deeds – showing that she is basically a nice person but circumstances have made her that way. But this version took away from the zing of the entire thing. And I realised that if I did the film, I had to do it the way it was originally. I took my time but I decided that having done the sweetie roles, it would be an interesting twist for me.”

As we speak on, her laughter still punctuates her sentences. I ask her if she has always been bubbling with good cheer or whether it was a cultivated persona that got fuelled by her reel alter egos. She emphasises, “I always try to look at the brighter side of things – I try to find the silver lining in the clouds. I train myself to think positive. True, I am quieter than I was – I used to be bubble-headed. But I find myself liking it this way. I now take time to not only think, but just be quiet in myself. And I am able to see things more clearly.”

It’s been more than two decades since the Miss India winner plunged into films. “When I won that title I did not even know how I looked. And in college my friends exclaimed, ‘What?’ Perhaps it was one of those bright moments in your life when that little star sits on your head. I think I lucked out. Now when I look back at my career, I wonder, did it really happen? Have I actually worked that much? For even today when I go on the sets, the first two days I feel like a newcomer – trying to get into the character, not really knowing if I am doing the right thing. Then I get into it and I start swimming. Years ago, I was inexperienced. I was more vulnerable. Comparisons would be made, not just between Madhuri (Dixit) and me, but there was Karisma (Kapoor) and Manisha (Koirala) too. I was terribly insecure about Fridays when releases happened. It was wonderful while I was shooting for a film. I had a good time, laughing, crying, not getting my scenes right. I do not know what gave me the strength to carry on for so many years in the industry. Sometimes, you marvel at the human spirit. I would ride over the storms and people would accept me again. I thank God for having taken me through it all.”

The actress says that when she began her Bollywood journey, “I did not know that things would transpire this way. But I remember that when I was six, I had written in my book: ‘I want to be happy, healthy, rich and famous’. I have always been that little shy, homely person who wanted to be out there, who wanted to be glamorous. I did not know it would be in the movies, but I found a way to be what I wanted. I sometimes wonder if you can create your own destiny. In fact, my guru has taught me that this does happen. Your thoughts become your words, your words become your actions, your actions become your character and your character becomes your destiny.”

Chawla donned a new role when she got married to industrialist, Jai Mehta. And, she redefined her professional arena, moving perhaps initially by fate and then by choice into films that explored several social issues. She states, “My wedding was a bit of a quiet affair and then I did fewer films. There were newer heroines who began taking over and the roles that came to me were lesser in number. Interestingly, many were for small-budget films like My Brother Nikhil, I Am and 3 Deewarein – but they were more real. There was not much of make-up involved and there were no 40 dancers in the background. It was a different environment and I found it very refreshing. I was suddenly being more natural. I liked the scripts and I took them on. I empathised with the characters. Before I started shooting I had a different viewpoint, but as it progressed I softened in my outlook towards them. Even Gulaab Gang has given me a new awareness of how these women who have so little themselves have the courage to stand up and fight for their rights and justice for other women.”

In her real-life avatar, Chawla has allied herself with several social issues. She took up the cause of radiation from mobile phone towers but special children are especially close to her heart. She is actively involved with AK Munshi Yojana, a foundation that works hard to help them. “When they just state that they assist these children from humble backgrounds,” she says, “counsel the parents, give them medical treatment, the magnitude of the effort does not come across. I have heard heart-rending tales – where, when families cannot cope with the kids, they have been known to lock them up. Much has been done for these children, but there is so much more to do.”

Motherhood significantly changed her mindset. Today, her kids – Jhanvi and Arjun – are older, but rewinding to the time Jhanvi was born Chawla affirms, “I had no idea what to do. I was very frightened and hugely protective of her. I don’t think I slept at all the two nights that I was in the hospital. There were mosquitoes around and I wanted to ward them off her. Today, my kids find it strange that I am a star. They have seen me in advertisements but have not watched many of my films. At home, I am just ‘Mom’.”

More responsibilities came into her life when she and her husband became part owners of the Indian Premier League cricket team, Kolkata Knight Riders. Chawla smiles, “I used to earlier watch the game with detachment. But along with the team you buy a lot of anxiety and each game becomes your personal win or loss. It feels like my children are playing. You become so emotionally involved.”

Along the years, Chawla has faced her share of tragedies, finding support from people close to her. “I have had enormous losses in my life,” she says softly. “I found it difficult to cope. But then I busied myself with my work and my family. The one person who has been there for me all along is my mother-in-law who has been a pillar of support. She is a very spiritual person and I need someone in flesh and blood telling me how to deal with situations. I have also turned to Shivanand Babaji and Jaggi Vasudev who have taught me that rather than looking at what you do not have, focus on what you already have.”

This year, she is also looking forward to Steven Spielberg’s The Hundred Foot Journey (directed by Lasse Hallströmin) in which she has a small role. She did it for its stellar cast which includes actors like Helen Mirren and Om Puri.

And, on her own life’s amazing journey so far, she points out, “I have had my ups and downs. I have cried a lot and felt insecure. But I am blessed that I have got so much fame and recognition in my little life. When I look back, I wonder how all that happened. I have had some extraordinary chances in life. Perhaps, it was just the flight of youth that made me take those chances. But I wouldn’t sum up my journey as yet!”

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