At the moment, she’s on a holiday, taking a break from all that shosha. She can afford to. Her awesome performances in Gautam Ghosh’s film Abar Aranye and Vishal Bharadwaj’s Mian Maqbool received standing ovations at the Venice and Toronto film festivals respectively. Congratulate her and she offers her signature laugh, one that expresses both delight and embarrassment. The clear eyes fill up with the evening light and beam like twin golden lamps.
Here’s a woman whose genetic blessings are as manifest as her lack of affectation. Also manifest is that quiet candor and that unshakeable faith in her abilities that never fails to impress.
What was the experience like at the Venice film festival?
Great! To know that you were sharing the same platform as Nicholas Cage, George Clooney, and Ridley Scott was a thrilling experience. Cinema and movies just oozed out of every pore there. For me it was an educative experience to meet so many people, see so many films. I was like Alice in Wonderland—I met all these personalities you only read about in magazines and watch in the movies.
There was a lot of interest in our movie and it was quite appreciated. Really, I felt so lucky to be an actress.
How well has Abar Aranye done in Bengal?
Quite well. Which is really great. A hit always boosts one’s confidence. Personally, it was a milestone for me. Because it’s the first time that I dubbed in another language. When I agreed to do the movie, my only condition to Gautamda was that I’d do my own dubbing. I knew I could manage; Bengali is not as tough as Tamil and Malayalam. We shot in the heart of the jungle and shooting this film was the best experience of my life. When I did Malayalam movies, I discovered Kerala, with Tamil movies it was Tamil Nadu. And now it’s Bengal that I’ve discovered. Acting is a unique way of getting to know your country and foreign lands.
Now the question everyone wants to ask—what was an actress like you doing in Jaal—The Trap and Hawa?
Jaal took five years to make. Obviously, the continuity jerks were going to show on the screen. One person can’t be responsible for keeping up the enthusiasm throughout the making of the film. So I’m not going to take it upon myself to feel responsible for the film. If I wasn’t interested, I wasn’t. It’s no big deal. I’ve stopped taking the burden of people placing their destinies on my shoulders. I’m only interested in doing what I’m being paid for. I guess if those movies had done well, no one would have asked me such questions.
But people find it shocking when you do such movies, because everyone associates you with quality.
Why? I’ve done my share of masala movies. I’ve done movies like Tu Chor Main Sipahi and Aamdani Atthanni Kharcha Rupaiya. You know, when people get used to seeing you in good films, they start taking you for granted. I wanted to break those expectations of me. I want to do what I want to do. I don’t always want to do what people want to see me do. Because those kind of movies don’t come to me every day. Just because people want to see me in Chandni Bar and Astitva, I can’t start refusing other films.
Honestly, you can’t say you weren’t disappointed with Hawa!
(shrugs) I prefer to look at the positive side of everything. The best thing about Hawa was that I’ve realized the kind of impact my movies have on people. And how important I’m to them. I never knew that. It makes me feel important that people are really concerned and bothered about me doing good work. Of course, I don’t regret doing anything. You can’t change the past. Besides, you aren’t supposed to take these things seriously. Nobody is going to hang me just because I didn’t do what they want me to do.
Is it true that you got paid a paltry amount for Hawa?
I don’t like to talk about money matters in print.
As far as acting is concerned, you’ve become a reference point for most actresses today. Does that flatter you?
I like to feel good about it and I think I deserve it. And it feels even better to know that something I never planned to achieve has come about. It did take me some time to get comfortable with the idea, though. Earlier when I was told that I’ve become something of an icon for actresses, I’d feel embarrassed. But I must say that every actress has been kind and magnanimous enough to say she would want to be like me. Though we are probably of the same age, Aishwarya Rai refers to me as Akka (elder sister). She says it’s out of respect for me.
I never set out to be an icon. But when I think about it objectively and think of all that I’ve probably inspired in the girls, I feel touched. Now I’m comfortable with the mantle.
And how does it feel when Shah Rukh Khan says in a Filmfare interview that he’d like to cry like you?
(laughs) I also want to be like him. Courageous, confident, and so aware of what’s happening around me. What can I say? I thought only the girls wanted to be like me. Even I haven’t observed my performance as minutely as he seems to have. He showed me the way I cry on screen and it was so funny. I didn’t know he observed my performance so closely. I’m really flattered. Because I wouldn’t know how a particular actor cries or laughs.
Apparently Mani Ratnam can’t get over your performance in Mian Maqbool.
There are very few people whose opinion really matters to me. Of course, every compliment is treasured. But there are only a few people whose opinions of my career make a difference. When a Mani Ratnam appreciates me, I feel reassured to a great extent. Because somewhere his understanding of my work is very close to my own understanding.
We hear Mian Maqbool received a standing ovation at the Toronto film festival.
Yeah, I heard that. Really, it feels great. It’s one of my most important films. I feel proud because I was the first to sign the film even before the producer and the hero was finalized. There were many changes in the cast but I was the only constant factor in the film throughout. And I feel proud that I was a part of the team that made it possible.
You know, the renowned critic of Venice, Enrico Ghezzi, sent me a huge bouquet after seeing the film. He cycled miles to get me a box of licorice with the brand name Tabu. That made my day.
All those at home who’ve seen Mian Maqbool feel this is your best performance to date.
I can never single out any one performance of mine as my best. Because my best keeps changing all the time. When Maachhis came, it was termed my best performance. Then it was Astitva, then Chandni Bar. Now Mian Maqbool is being touted as my best. It just shows that I’m growing with each performance. Actually, everything is relative to the characters I’m portraying at that time. How true was it given these circumstances is what makes my performances best, worst, or mediocre. My best is yet to come. And it will always remain that way. Yes, Mia Maqbool is one of my better performances. Because I portray a different kind of a mindset.
I was working with actors like Naseeruddin Shah, Omji (Puri), Pankaj Kapoor, and Irfan Khan. Like Chandni Bar and Virasat, it was a character I couldn’t identify with at one level.
You’re playing Lady Macbeth, right?
I don’t like to refer to the role as that of Lady Macbeth. Because I didn’t see it like that in my mind. I haven’t read Macbeth. So there’s no point in just using the name to refer to it. All I know is that it’s so different from what I’ve dealt with in terms of playing a strong woman. She’s very difficult to understand on the one hand and yet so easy to know. She is a bundle of contradictions. And I found that very interesting to portray. All of us have dark shades, demons within us, which we don’t often confront. When you see the character you will wonder, “Hey, this could be me.” So in that sense it was quite an adventurous mindset for me to explore.
What is your reference point when you explore such adventurous mindsets?
There’s no reference point. I just use my imagination. Interestingly, none of the characters that have brought me acclaim have been morally upright. In Maachis and Hu Tu Tu, I was a terrorist. In Astitva, I have an extra marital relationship. In Chandni Bar, I’m a bar girl. Even in Mian Maqbool, my role is non-conformist. But you know, the code of morality is ever changing with time. What was wrong 50 years back is no longer looked down upon. Like extra marital affairs are a part of life today. Anyway, sex has never been a moral issue with me.
Then what is?
After 15 years in the business, what does acting mean to you?
Acting started as something external. Being this character, playing this role, wearing this costume. Then of course as I grew, it changed to mean something more. The past few months, I have been trying to find what acting means to me. So I stopped taking on work. I took a short break. I wanted to step out of acting completely and then see what it’s all about. Is it just a career? What does it satisfy within me? Is it just a physical thing that started 15 years back?
Frankly, I don’t know what life is without acting. I joined the industry soon after college and there was no time in between to know myself. Initially, acting was incidental, and then it became a way of life. Of course, looking back, I know acting is my way of expression. I realize that I am actually expressing my lines, my life, and myself through my characters. I haven’t found a better way of expressing myself than by acting. I know I won’t die without acting, but a greater creative force will have to come into my life to distract me from acting.
Do you ever worry about “What Next”?
This is one question that has been hounding me for the past five or six years. I guess this is the most predictable question put to every achiever. I don’t know what will come my way.
Right now, I’m in the process of coming into my own. I’m becoming clearer about what I want from my career. I don’t want to lead it the way I’ve done in the past 15 years. Without any agendas. Of course, your agendas become clearer with age—you settle down with a few things you want and a few things you don’t want. I’m in the process of understanding myself. There are so many things I don’t like to do. I don’t want to work with certain kind of people. After 15 years in the business you begin to understand your rhythm. Now I just want to do things that make me happy. I’m in a position to work on my own terms. I’ve worked out my insecurities.
And what else have you worked out?
I realize that there’s no point in doing things out of fear, or compromise, or bending backwards to accommodate anyone. Because I realize that people who want me will take me anyway. I want to work from a point of freedom.
Filmmakers will extract what they want from you. They will not give you a holiday. You have to take it. I started saying no to work last year so that I could take a month off this year. If I’d told them I can’t give you dates this month, they wouldn’t have agreed. We actors get caught in the trap of being responsible for the unit, the director, the producer, etc. I want to come out of this trap and do what I want to do. It’s high time.
Most of your acclaimed movies haven’t had a conventional hero. Have the risks you’ve taken ever worried you?
No. That’s because I have faith in my films and myself. To start with, I have a vision of how it’s going to turn out. As for risks, the greater they are, the better the profits. It’s worked for me so far so I don’t know why I should make a change.
See, I’m Tabu because of the different stuff I have done. The risks keep me going. I find it boring and uninspiring to work otherwise. What’s the fun of doing what everyone is doing? Heroes haven’t been the criterion for doing a movie. I haven’t joined the industry to work with XYZ. I’m here to act.
Honestly, haven’t you ever dreamt of becoming as successful as, say, Sridevi or Madhuri Dixit?
I never thought I’d come this far, forget becoming Sridevi or Madhuri Dixit. From wanting to graduate, marry at 18, and settle down, I have grown into a national figure, an internationally known actress. I’ve been able to buy myself a house in a plush society in Mumbai, have cars and travel anywhere in the world. For me that’s enough. Besides, I don’t want to limit my abilities by wanting to become someone else; I could become greater than them.
You’ve often been accused of being temperamental and hotheaded—is that a fair accusation?
I know I have a reputation for being eccentric and erratic but I really don’t know where that comes from. Anyway, it makes me feel special. In fact, my mentor Boney Kapoor is the one who’s always joking about my being erratic and eccentric. But he can hardly level charges against me considering the way I was eased out of his latest movie, No Entry. Let me make it clear that I didn’t walk out of his film and I certainly wasn’t the confused one. But next time Boney Kapoor offers me a film, I’ll start doing a cartwheel out of confusion.
Does it hurt when people misunderstand you?
Frankly, it doesn’t make a difference. People are just voicing an opinion. There are people whom I find to be complete assholes. The only difference is that I don’t talk about them. People will always have an opinion about you that is convenient for them. If it suits them to say you are so adjusting, they will say so. If they want you to do them a favor, they will sing your praises. But if they don’t have any work with you, after you’ve completed their movie and dubbing and they don’t want to pay you, they will spread stories about you. Now I know exactly who means what. So it doesn’t make a difference.
I know I’ve bent backwards to accommodate producers, done films without getting paid, been dropped from movies without being told. And still I get called temperamental. All because I’ve kept my mouth shut. So those who speak, their version becomes the truth. People will always have an opinion. I can’t stop living my life because of that.
Who are these people anyway? Are they feeding me? Why should I heed what they say?
We are in a profession where we are either deified or crucified. I’ll go mad if I start getting carried away by either. You know it’s so easy to see the external picture and pass judgment. Oh, she’s eccentric, she’s mad, she’s a nymphomaniac, she’s an alcoholic, she’s temperamental, she’s a bitch, she’s arrogant. These are just words. Do you know what the other person is going through for you to make those remarks? Chalo, I’m happy I’m entertaining people. If it makes them happy they can call me anything. Who cares?
Last question, how does it feel to be called an intelligent man’s sex symbol?
(laughs) Strange. Frankly, I still haven’t figured out what it means.