Manisha Koirala has been striking a balance between commercial films (Saudagar, Gupt, Mann) and more offbeat fare (Khamoshi: The Musical, Dil Se) throughout her career. The pattern is set to continue, but with one crucial difference, the actress said during an interview in Mumbai on Tuesday. Koirala starred in Dibakar Banerjee’s segment in the Netflix film Lust Stories and plays Nargis in Rajkumar Hirani’s Sanjay Dutt biopic Sanju.
“In a way I am doing similar stuff – if I am doing Lust Stories, which is experimental, I am also doing mainstream films like Sanju, but I am just 200 percent more focused than ever about whatever I choose to do,” Koirala said.
Sanju, starring Ranbir Kapoor as Sanjay Dutt and Paresh Rawal as Sunil Dutt, will be released on June 29.
“I am constantly looking to work with a good director,” Koirala said. “Earlier, I did some movies where I was the central character, but the directors were not so good. I will never do that today. That has changed for me, and I have realised the value of a good director.”
Koirala was initially hesitant about playing Nargis, the screen icon and Sanjay Dutt’s mother. “I wasn’t sure I could do it,” Koirala said. “Her memory is intact in people’s minds and I was not confident. But when Raju started talking and describing her, I understood that the scenes that I had were mainly about the affection for her family and her son, and they are beautifully written.”
Among the themes explored in Sanju is Dutt’s emotional upheaval after Nargis’s death. The actress succumbed to cancer in 1981, just days before her son’s big screen debut Rocky. Koirala’s preparation for the part included studying Nargis’s personality through documentaries and books. “I kept trying to see where I could catch her spirit,” Koirala said. “We had constant conversations.”
Koirala made her debut in 1992 with Subhash Ghai’s Saudagar, in which she was paired with Vivek Mushran. Among her noteworthy films in the 1990s are 1942: A Love Story (1994), Bombay (1995), Akele Hum Akele Tum (1995), Khamoshi: The Musical (1996), Gupt (1997) and Dil Se (1998). Mani Ratnam’s Bombay (1995) introduced Koirala to Tamil audiences, and she appeared in a few more films in Tamil, including Ratnam’s Dil Se, which was dubbed in Tamil as Uyire, and Shankar’s Indian (1996), which was dubbed in Hindi as Hindustani, and Mudhalvan (1999).
Koirala rates her character Meghna in Dil Se as one of her favourites. Meghna is a terrorist belonging to an Assamese sleeper cell who falls in love with radio journalist Amarkant (Shah Rukh Khan), and Koirala’s performance is among the best in her career. “I loved Bombay, but as an actor it was Dil Se’s character that stayed with me,” she said. “She is conflicted. She is a terrorist and she falls in love. Later. she starts questioning herself as to whether killing innocent people was right. It is interesting to play such a character. Mani Ratnam made us work very hard. I was absolutely lucky to be working with some of the really great filmmakers and actors from South India.”
Following a few box office duds in the 2000s, Koirala took a six-year break from acting. In 2012, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, from which she recovered with a brand new perspective on life, which she says has also seeped onto the screen.
“Words will not be enough to express what I have gone through or what anybody who goes through cancer,” Koirala said. “I was reading Irrfan’s tweet today about his interview about battling cancer. I knew exactly what he would be feeling right now. I texted his wife at once, hoping that they are coping well.”
Khan was diagnosed in March with a neuroendocrine tumour, and is undergoing treatment in London.
Mirroring her rousing 2017 TEDx Talk, Koirala added that she was blessed by her second chance at life. “When you are in a death situation and have returned to life, everything around you has changed and there is a shift in you,” she observed. “I started appreciating everything that life gave me much more than I did before. I was complacent before and used to take things for granted. Sometimes, I tend to go down the same route, but I am suddenly reminded of what I have been through. It is only when you are losing it all do you realise the value of it.”
Sunaina Bhatnagar’s Dear Maya (2017) marked a comeback of sorts for Koirala. She plays a reclusive middle-aged woman who becomes the victim of a schoolgirl prank. The actress argued that her best work was yet to come. “Being an artist you are always hungry to get more and more,” Koirala said. “Whatever I did, I did in my twenties. But in my forties, whatever I do, I want it to be excellent.”
Among her upcoming films are AR Rahman’s production 99 Songs and Prasthanam, alongside Sanjay Dutt. The film will mark her seventh collaboration with Dutt. The duo first shared screen space in Feroz Khan’s Yalgaar (1992), and their titles together include Kartoos (1999) and Khauff (2000).
Koirala tagged Dutt’s tumultuous journey to be one full of heart: “He goes all out and he has people all around him. Like everybody else, I have also seen the problems he has gone through. To see him coming out of that and be back to where he belongs is wonderful. His spirit has not been broken down.”