Some Bollywood actresses don’t like playing maternal figures. Kajol doesn’t count herself among them. In one of her biggest hits, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998), the character she plays becomes the foster mother to the daughter of the love of her life. Throughout the late 1990s and 2000s, as Kajol balanced her acting career with her marriage in 1999 to actor Ajay Devgn, she played a young mother in such films as Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001), Fanaa (2000), My Name is Khan (2010) and We Are Family (2010).
“What is the big deal about playing a 13-year-old’s mother,” Kajol asked rhetorically during a recent interview. “I am more worried about my scenes. I should be able to convince you of my character at any age.”
In Kajol’s next movie, motherhood is amped up several notches. Helicopter Eela, Pradeep Sarkar’s first release in four years, continues the director’s interest in rolling out dramas with strong female leads. Kajol plays the single mother of teenager Vivan (Riddhi Sen), who chafes at her possessiveness after she enrolls in the same college as him. Pushed aside by her beloved child, Eela sets out on the path to self-discovery, attempting, among other things, to resume an aborted singing career.
“Eela is every Indian mother you have met or heard of, but she is also a little more than that,” the 44-year-old actress said, her brown eyes seemingly even more translucent than in the movies. “The good thing is whatever Eela does, whether it is OTT or OCD, is because she has unconditional, blinkered love for her son. Everything stems from that relationship with her son – the comedy, who she is and what she wants to be.”
The September 7 release is based on Anand Gandhi’s Gujarati play Beta Kaagdo, and has been co-written by Gandhi and Mitesh Shah. Kajol hasn’t seen the play, but she leaped at the chance to feature in a film that, going by the trailer, appears to be equal parts comedy and drama.
“What I liked about the script was that it was about a woman, it had laughter and understanding, and a message that was said in such a nice way that you could not fight it,” Kajol said. “I loved Eela’s character, her colourfulness and her relationship with her son. Hopefully, we have done a fabulous job shooting the scenes as well.”
It took two years for the movie, which has been co-produced by Ajay Devgn’s banner, to fall into place. “There is a father in the movie, but this is Eela’s story,” Kajol added. “Whenever there is a single parent and a child, it’s always twice as heavy. The single parent becomes both the mother and the father, and the world is not kind.”
Strangely, Kajol has been paired with her equally famous real-life mother, Tanuja, only once in a movie. Kajol made her debut at the age of 18 in Rahul Rawail’s Bekhudi. She was paired with Kamal Sadanah, and Tanuja played her mother in the drama about young lovers being separated by their families.
Tanuja has played the matriarch in several films, and as recently as June, she portrayed a grandmother in the Bengali production Sonar Pahar. Yet, nobody has cast the reportedly temperamental mother-daughter pair together since Bekhudi.
“We never got anything like that afterwards – it was either her role or my role, but it was never for the both of us,” Kajol said. It isn’t too late.
Kajol is a third-generation actress on her mother’s side and part of the Samarth-Mukherjee clan, whose family tree includes Kishore Kumar’s Ganguly family as one of the branches. Kajol’s grandmother was 1940s movie star Shobhna Samarth. Samarth’s daughters included the screen idols Nutan and Tanuja. Kajol’s father, filmmaker Shomu Mukherjee, was one of the sons of the legendary producer Sasadhar Mukherjee.
An acting career seemed destined, especially in an industry that cherishes legacy, but Kajol said she has witnessed the other side of a culture that has also been criticised for its nepotistic tendencies.
“You see the other side of the world, the side that isn’t glamourised,” Kajol said. “You wake up at six in the morning and come back at 11 at night. You work in ridiculous conditions – in the old days, we didn’t have the luxuries there are today. I would not meet my mother for 20-30 days on end. I saw the struggle my father went through when he was shooting and releasing his films. Then there was the social pressure of being Tanuja’s daughter and Nutan’s niece. People looked at you with preconceived notions. You either behaved well or you didn’t behave at all – I become one of those rebels who took it to another level.”
All young Kajol wanted in the pre-Bekhudi days was to never work as hard as her mother, and to hold down a job with regular hours and an assured pay cheque. “Cut to 16 years old!” (Kajol had turned 18 by the time Bekhudi was released.)
Although Kajol slowed down after she married Ajay Devgn in 1991, she has continued to turn up with more frequency than some of her peers. This year, she voiced the character Elastigirl in the Hindi dubbed version of Incredibles 2.
Helicopter Eela, then, can hardly be described as a comeback. “I have had 27 comebacks – every time I do a film, it’s my comeback, but where did I ever go?” Kajol joked. “First, I was described as being picky and choosy, then extremely selective, then eccentric.”
She now has the luxury of choice that wasn’t there previously, and picks projects that appeal both to her gut and her brain. “What works for me is the script – I like tight scripts,” Kajol said. “I like characters I haven’t done before, I haven’t seen before, in whom I believe and can build upon. I also want to work with people I like. I have to able to communicate with people on basic lines of civility, otherwise it doesn’t work for me. Fortunately for me, I have the wherewithal to choose.”
Even diehard Kajol fans would have been hard-pressed to bat for Rohit Shetty’s Dilwale (2015), in which she plays a gangster. Kajol was paired with her long-time collaborator Shah Rukh Khan. Meanwhile, the movie that celebrates their most famous screen coupling, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995), is still running in a theatre in Mumbai.
“I liked the character in Dilwale, and I feel I did something different,” Kajol said. “I will not defend the film because it’s the director’s prerogative, but I loved myself in the film.”
Among Kajol’s more unusual choices was Tamil filmmaker Rajiv Menon’s Minsara Kanavu (1997). Kajol plays Priya, who has to choose between two suitors and becoming a nun. Kajol returned to Tamil cinema 20 years later with Velaiilla Pattadhari 2, in which she plays a hardnosed industrialist who battles Dhanush’s idealistic engineer.
“I had worked with Rajiv Menon in a few commercials, I really got along with him, and I loved the concept of a convent-bred girl,” Kajol said about her casting in Minsaru Kanavu, which was dubbed in Hindi as Sapnay. “But it was too much work. I didn’t understand the language at all, and sitting down with the script every evening was like taking my final exams. It never got easier. Rajiv thought I should dub for the film, but I refused since shooting it was bad enough.’
She accepted VIP 2 after being persuaded by the movie’s director, Soundarya Rajinikanth, and her brother-in-law, Dhanush. “When I signed VIP 2, the first thing I wanted to know was, how many dialogues do I have in the film?” Kajol recalled. “Dhanush and Soundarya told me that 90% of the dialogue was in English and that would manage the rest. Of course, they had lied to me.”
She liked her character, but concedes that acting in a language that is not one’s own isn’t always worth the effort. “If I don’t understand what I am saying, my face also freezes,” she said. “I concentrate more on what I saying rather than how I saying it.”
By contrast, Helicopter Eela was a breeze, helped along by her rapport with Pradeep Sarkar, who has previously directed Kajol in television commercials. Sarkar’s strength is that he “works on everybody and each and every detail in a film”, Kajol observed. “Riddhi Sen is also a superb actor, a very well brought-up boy, and a pleasure to work with.”
Like Eela, Kajol too has a few unfulfilled desires. “I would love to write a film, and I probably will at some point in my life,” she said. “The thing is, in order to write, you require large chunks of solitude.”
There’s something else: “I wish I would sing, but that ain’t happening.” Not yet, but the night is young and Kajol isn’t exactly finished yet.