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The Reluctant Diva
Photographs by Israr Qureshi; Make-up and hair by Bharat and Dorris Godambe; Text by Shraddha Jahagirdar-Saxena; Location courtesy: J W Marriott, Juhu, Mumbai
PUBLISHED: Volume 12, Issue 1, First Quarter 2004
I have never thought of myself as a diva. A diva, to me, is someone who is very talented…and also very temperamental – a person who has power and does not hesitate to use it. Come on, I am nothing like that. I am a very simple person
She may not have been raised as a star but star she is. The last female superstar whose name even inspired a movie title. Exulting in the mellowness of motherhood, US-based Madhuri Dixit, presently bonding with family members and scrutinising scripts worth coming home for, trips down memory lane with Shraddha Jahagirdar-Saxena, and insists that all those years of Bollywood adulation just couldn’t go to her head!

Her return to native soil hits the front page in leading dailies. The last acknowledged female superstar of Bollywood, the woman with the smile that flashed from countless snapshots and umpteen flicks, makes heads turn, even as she steps out of an international flight in the wee hours of a Mumbai morning. The actress-diva, who inspired a movie about a naive, small-town girl who wants to be just like her – Main Madhuri Dixit Banna Chahti Hoon – is the original, blue-blooded stuff that legends are made of.

I am in her suburban flat, soaking in the serenity and simplicity of her unstarry home front. A few M.F. Husains unobtrusively dot the walls…books line a corner of the hall, while toys are scattered in another nook. A half-empty baby’s bottle stands on a glass-topped table. The house is quiet, except for the jingling ghungroos on her feet, and I watch her as she twirls and turns gracefully, deferring to the instructions of her guru, seated in front of her on a mattress. The final pranam signals the end of her riyaaz.

Her figure is naturally fuller; her face, a trifle rounder perhaps, is glowing…and her smile flashes forth again, as there is a small, but significant, addition to our gathering. Dixit’s son has just woken from his mid-morning nap and the servant brings him out to ‘mama’. He snuggles up to her, stealing shy glances at me. A few reassuring words from Dixit and he starts smiling, obviously having inherited his momma’s temperament.

Like all mothers, she notices the smallest scratch on his neck, resulting from a mosquito bite on his tender skin. It is time for baby talk as she explains, "Arin has two meanings: Sudarshan Chakra, and someone who has no enemies." It was a name she and hubby, Dr Shriram Nene, had decided on as "it is short, easy to pronounce and similar to the American Aaron."

When Arin was born, she had even counted his fingers and toes. From midnight feeds, to diaper changes and nappy washes, she’s been a hands-on mother…and loved every single second of it. "It’s a humbling, and yet elevating, experience," she says, "to hold your baby for the first time. Nothing, not even superstardom, can match the joy of seeing this extension of yourself."

At the shoot, a few days later, she confidently strides down the corridor, alone and unattended, bag slung casually over one shoulder. "Shall we start," she asks politely. Offering valuable inputs and showing no signs of wanting to rush back, despite being unable to call home on her cell, the superstar is cooperation and professionalism personified.

My conversation with her resumes, once again at her residence, in the early hours of the evening. "I don’t know why everyone is saying that I have returned to films," she retorts to my question about a comeback. "True, this is my first visit to Mumbai after I had Arin. I couldn’t come earlier because he was too small. Tell me," she continues, "how can you call it a comeback when I have never said that I was quitting acting? If you remember, Meenaji, Madhubalaji, Nargisji and even Nutanji all worked after they’d got married. Then there was a time when heroines began to give up acting and ‘settle into life’ either due to choice or because everyone was doing it at the time. Times have fortunately changed. Acting is in my bones…I will continue to do one or two films a year to keep myself happy."

Dixit had slowly changed gears a few years ago to a more laid-back lifestyle after her marriage to NRI cardio-thoracic surgeon, Dr Shriram Nene. She laughs once more: "There are two identities dormant in me. Professionally, I am known as Madhuri Dixit. Socially, Ram’s friends and colleagues know me as Madhuri Nene." How did his friends and colleagues react to the presence of a superstar in their neighbourhood? "Some of his friends knew who I was," she remembers. "They were a bit apprehensive initially about meeting a star. But, once they discovered that I am a normal human being, we got along fine. Everyone is pleasantly surprised to learn that I do not carry any starry baggage with me. I never have."

Life in Denver is a far cry from the morning to evening shooting schedules that filled her diary in her superstar days. "I love the free time I get," she grins. "Though I do wake up early – Ram sets his alarm at five a.m. – I go back to sleep after he leaves for work. Sleep was a luxury that I didn’t get too much of when I was working…"

It is a different world that the dancing diva inhabits now. "I have carried my dance cassettes with me for practice, but otherwise, my day is filled with looking after the house, taking care of Arin and waiting for Ram to get back…just as they show in the movies! I do all my house work. There isn’t too much dust, so you don’t have to mop or swab every day. I manage fine with a household help who comes in once or twice a week. I do all the cooking, we don’t go out all the time. My dosas turn out real perfect and I make them from scratch."

She’s enjoying her recently acquired domestication, even though she does miss her work. Mundane chores don’t throw her out of gear, not even after Nene jr arrived to occupy most of her time. "I was never the type to go into a tizzy about anything even when I was shooting around the clock…. I am not living life in the fast lane any more, thank God," says the actress. "Your whole focus alters after motherhood. Earlier it was all about what ‘I want’; now it is what ‘Arin wants’, ‘How he is feeling…’"

And, as a housewife and mother abroad, she is left largely alone. "I quite like the newfound anonymity," she confesses. "I am no longer a goldfish in a bowl. I can do what I want, go to a mall, shop or picnic outdoors. I don’t regret the absence of attention, as I am basically a shy, private person. Even earlier, I used to be most relaxed when I was in front of the camera. Off the sets and, literally, in the public eye, never," she continues. "It is funny though. When I am working here, I get worried if I am not recognised. I would wonder if my popularity was slipping. It is a Catch 22 situation."

She often gets VIP treatment on phoren shores as well. "If something new comes into the market, especially in Indian stores, the owner calls me up right away." But, by and large, she is just another face in the motley crowd at a mall, a gas station, or a barbecue. "I gave my driving test in Florida and got my licence, just like everyone else. I fill up my own gas at the petrol pumps. When I am shopping, sometimes Indians do approach me and ask, ‘Are you Madhuri Dixit?’ It takes me a second to react…but the people are always nice. They say ‘hello’ and walk away. No one hounds or stalks you there."

That is completely natural for the actress who’s had a down-to-earth life, even after stardom. "I have never been brought up like a star," Dixit continues. "My mom screams at me if my room is untidy. I have never thought of myself as a diva. A diva, to me, is someone who is very talented…and also very temperamental – a person who has power and does not hesitate to use it. Come on, I am nothing like that. I am a very simple person."

Life continues on an even keel, throwing up many memories – even in the routineness of it all – for her to cherish. Her better half is a sports enthusiast and, on one of their first dates, he took her mountain biking. "It was so tiring, I almost broke into a cold sweat looking back at the trails we had ridden on." Dixit smiles at the memory. "We were in the middle of nowhere and I stopped…. Leaning on my bike, at the side of the road, I wondered why I was doing all this. Suddenly, I felt a trickle down my neck. Ram was pouring water on my helmet to cool me down. We both burst out laughing."

The initial meeting between ‘Dr and Mrs Nene’ had been arranged by her brother, Ajit. "I met him at a party but then we took off," she reminisces with a smile. "It was just like in Dil To Pagal Hai. It is true…you instinctively know that this is the man you want to spend the rest of your life with. So what if he loves bungee jumping and I am too scared to try it?"

She reveals that gut feeling has played an important part in her life. "I have always worked that way. I’ve signed my films instinctively. Everyone was shocked when I did Saajan. Sanjay (Dutt) was going against his successful image, the script was by a rank newcomer, Reema Rakeshnath, but I followed my intuition and signed on. It went on to be a great success. In real life, you never know what is going to happen – you just have to make your choices. But that does not mean that I do not plan at all. When I felt like doing an offbeat film, I did Mrityudand."

Post Devdas and the feature in Time magazine, more and more people, especially in Denver, are aware that the Madhuri Dixit lives in their midst. But since laypersons don’t know her exact address, she can enjoy her continuing peace and quiet, disturbed only by Arin’s cries and chortles.

Whether in India or abroad, La Dixit has become an icon, a role model for countless girls to emulate. "Icon? Me kaun? Who kaun?" she jokes. That is modesty, Dixit-style. For there is no denying her enduring appeal, her reel and real life attractiveness. She turns serious to reiterate: "It makes me feel extremely proud… It is a terrific compliment. But it is also a responsibility. You are placed on a pedestal and I am scared of heights!"

The accidental actress (she had never harboured undying dreams of becoming an actress from her childhood, and had even toyed with the idea of a career in microbiology) has inspired a cosmetic line. And yet, years ago, she was advised by industry pundits to cosmetically correct her nose and teeth. "Thank God," she shudders, "I did not do anything of that sort. I asked my parents what to do as I did not want to be known as the actress with the big teeth and ugly nose. Luckily, they vetoed the suggestion…"

Dixit’s untampered-with-smile spelled success. The Barjatya bonanza, Hum Aapke Hain Kaun! broke box-office records at the time, her growing levels of performance sparking off a sure-fire rise to the top. "I think I have done rather well, haven’t I? All the time, I worked with passion, with sincerity and never lost interest even if things were not working out. I got better with every film I did. I climbed up the ladder one rung at a time."

Eschewing moves that would prove detrimental to her image, Dixit checkmated critics with ease. When her numbers, Choli ke peechhe (Khalnayak) and Dhak dhak (Beta) made news for their ‘boldness’, the star remained serene. Even today, she insists, "Dhak dhak was sensual, not vulgar. There was a lot of innocence in it, even though it was a seductive number. And in spite of Choli ke peechhe being talked about I wasn’t called, ‘vulgar’. It is terrible what they are showing on television these days. I have been approached many times for item numbers. But I was always clear that I only wanted to act."

In between meeting friends and family members in Mumbai, she has been scrutinising scripts. "Nothing is final yet," says Dixit. "I have zeroed in on a few projects of filmmakers like Rituparno Ghosh…and, no, I have not seen Chokher Bali. Zoya Akhtar has also approached me, she is a spunky girl."

The number of scripts she has sifted through, with big names knocking at her door, are signs of the actress still being in demand. As director, Prakash Jha, puts it, "She is not enigmatic and her popularity may have slipped a little today. But she still has the capacity to do a variety of roles. Audience perceptions are changing. She can play a detective, a journalist….any strong character that will suit her."

Right now, she is eagerly awaiting Dr Nene’s arrival in Mumbai. He’s flying down to be with her at New Year. What next? Hollywood? "Perhaps later, not now," she reveals. "I have my hands full with my son…and the new Hindi films I will sign, probably before I leave in January. Hollywood is a different ball game altogether. You need an agent and have to do things their way." But, as she crooned in Pukar, Que sera sera…. Whatever will be, will be.

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