Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Bollywood For Beginners Post #32

For previous installments, please visit the index.

That's right, baby! It's back! And continuing with the 2000s theme, I've got three heroines whose brightest days were in the 2000s. This doesn't mean I think they are washed up or that we won't ever see them again but just that they will probably always be tied to that glorious decade known as the 2000s.

Now, in honor of Rani's birthday, I've decided to post her piece first. HAPPY 34th BIRTHDAY RANI, DEAR!


Although she is about the same age as top heroine Kareena Kapoor, Rani Mukherjee is, in many ways, a star of the old era. Rani has no public relations team, no presence on Twitter or Facebook, and keeps her private life intensely private. Rani’s 15-year career has seen its share of highs and lows but since she hit her peak in the mid-2000s with a series of critical and commercial successes, Rani’s star power has been in serious decline. Always a bit of a dark horse in an industry full of glamour dolls, Rani has had to constantly struggle to find a niche in an industry changes its taste in heroines faster than a item girl changes outfits. Rani has fought against those who called her too plump, too dark, and her voice too husky. She picks deliberately offbeat roles and is barely able to cover her disdain for media even when she does have a new release out. Whether it’s despite or because of her contrary streak, the fact remains that even though Rani Mukherjee is down to one release a year, she is still very much a household name.

Like many of the top stars today, Rani Mukherjee got her entry into Bollywood through family connections. Rani’s father Ram Mukherjee was a small time producer from a well-connected filmi family (1) but by the mid-1990s Ram had split with the rest of the clan and her family was going through some tough times. It was at this point that Ram’s good friend, producer Salim Akhtar (Baazi, Doodh Ka Karz), stepped in to offer the young Rani a starring role in his next film, Raja Ki Aayegi Baraat. It was 1996 and Rani was only 18 years old but as soon as she set foot in front of the camera, she knew she was born to be an actress.

Raja Ki Aayegi Baraat, a soapy potboiler about a young schoolteacher who falls in love with her rapist, flopped at the box office (2) but Rani’s emotive performance (along with her big, expressive eyes and bright smile) was good enough to garner notice from director Vikram Bhatt, who was looking for a pretty face to fill a small role opposite Aamir Khan in boxing film Ghulam. Happy just to be working, Rani was not too proud to take a role considered too small by the established heroines. It would be her first lucky break.

Actually, it wasn’t Ghulam as much as a certain song from Ghulam that would help raise Rani’s star – “Aati Kya Khandala.” Sung by Aamir Khan himself, the song, in which a boy is asking his girl to come to Khandala with him, became a sensation. Rani became known as the “Khandala Girl” but the “Khandala Girl” knew that her fate was far from sealed (3) and she eagerly snapped up a supporting role in small college-set film from a first time director, a role that had been turned down by every big name actress in town. The director was Karan Johar and the film was Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, which would become both a superhit and a cultural touchstone.

Rani’s glamorous yet approachable Pooja, the Veronica to co-star Kajol’s tomboyish Betty, led to a slew of starring roles in films opposite top name heroes like Salman Khan, Govinda, Anil Kapoor, and Kamal Hasaan. Over the next few years she would see both commercial and critical success – her understated performance as a normal housewife in Hey Ram, India’s official entry to the Oscars in 2000, was particularly appreciated – but nothing to really make her stand out from the pack of top heroines. It wasn’t until 2002 that Rani’s star really began to shine bright enough to dim the competition. She kicked off a four year reign of the film industry with a film called Saathiya.

Much like all of Rani’s successes, Saathiya, the sensitive portrait of a marriage falling apart, was a big gamble. Not only was her co-star Vivek Oberoi only two films old and still unestablished in the industry but Saathiya was director Shaad Ali’s debut film. It had a grown-up script which contained none of the booty shaking or violence or saccharine romance that were considered necessities to pull in audiences and, on top of all that, Saathiya was releasing the same day as Sanjay Gupta’s Kaante - a film that ended up being the number three biggest grossing film of the year. If Rani had played it safe, she wouldn’t have taken the role. On paper there seemed to be no way this film would last the weekend, even if it did gather critical success.

But Rani’s gamble paid off and Saathiya not only managed to hold its own opposite the juggernaut of Kaante but it ended up being one of the highest grossing films of the year. And Rani’s nuanced performance as the medical student just trying to navigate life and marriage was much appreciated. And from this point on, Rani moved from strength to strength with a series of commercial and critical success. After solidifying her top heroine status opposite Shahrukh Khan in box office smash Chalte Chalte, Rani tried her luck on a series of offbeat films, some of them worked and some of them didn’t, some of the roles were big and some were small, but they all had one thing in common – Rani Mukherjee’s ability to emote.

Bollywood was (and is) still a very hero-dominated industry and heroines generally fight for films opposite the top heroes of the day, which in those days were (and are) the Three Khans. Heroes might choose to work with lesser heroines but top heroines rarely work with bottom tier heroes but perhaps Rani’s success with the decidedly bottom-tier Vivek Oberoi in Saathiya gave her confidence to say yes to films with Saif Ali Khan (Hum Tum) and Abhishek Bachchan (Yuva, then Bunty aur Babli), two heroes each fighting a long series of flops and who were (and remain) far from a sure thing at the box office.

Hum Tum (2004) was a superhit and a game changer for Saif Ali Khan (4); Yuva (2005) was a critical hit and a game changer for Abhishek Bachchan (5).

Also in 2005, and well before the current era that celebrates heroine-dominated films, Rani earned filmi immortality with a very unusual starring role in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Black, that of a blind and deaf woman. Her performance was so magnetic that Rani – and the film – dominated the awards season that year. Rani continued her critical successes into 2006 with Paheli (Rani’s second film to be sent to the Oscars), Mangel Pandey, and Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna.

Let’s pause for a moment at the peak of Rani’s successes to understand a few of the plot threads that would lead to the biggest downturn in her career to date. First of all, as discussed in the entry on the 2000s, beauty standards had hardened considerably since Rani’s debut and the industry was increasingly dominated by tall, slim, gym-toned, fair-skinned, girlish, and very leggy actresses. Rani, who is none of those things, found that roles opposite the big name heroes were increasingly going to actresses who were.

Secondly, as discussed in the entry on heroines, there is a glass ceiling for actresses as far as their age in concerned. While audiences happily turn out to watch aging heroes star in films for twenty years or more, audiences do not want to see aging heroines. Rani was lucky enough to have started her career in her teens but by the time she reached her late 20s, audiences, critics, and (most importantly) industrywallahs were already starting to see her as over the hill and were turning their eyes to the next young things.

A third thread is the role of Yash Raj Films and the head of Yash Raj Films, Aditya Chopra, in Rani’s career. Rani has always kept her love life completely separate from her professional life(6) but beginning in 2007, the formerly risk-taking Rani seems to have more or less handed her career completely over to her rumored (and very married boyfriend) Aditya Chopra, who proceeded to drag it into the toilet. There were the box office bombs that Rani did as a favor to Aditya’s friends (the dire Ta Ra Rum Pum and Thoda Pyaar Thoda Magic) and the heroine-centered box office bombs that had potential but were completely mismanaged (the slightly less-dire Dil Bole Hadippa! and Laaga Chunari Mein Daag). And aside from a brief interlude with her old friend Sanjay Leela Bhansali with his box office bomb Saawariya,(7) those Yash Raj Films bombs were all we saw of the once powerful Rani Mukherjee from 2007 to 2010.

But, thankfully, that is not the end of Rani’s story. Bollywood trends are ever-changing and in 2009 and 2010, a strange new trend began to emerge – the moderately budgeted, story-driven film. And these films didn’t have roles for bikini babes and buffed up heroes, they needed quality actors, actors who were willing to take a risk, actors like Rani Mukherjee. The time couldn’t have been more right for Rani to make her comeback and Rani, very much to her credit, flicked her middle finger at her detractors and jumped back into the game with a very gutsy gamble, indeed – a small film from a small-time director starring no hero, co-starring an actress no expected much of, and which took on Rani’s least favorite topic of all time, the press. That film was No One Killed Jessica and not only was it a hit but it also earned Rani her first Filmfare Award since Black.

Following the success of No One Killed Jessica, Rani has signed on to two more films that are currently in production. Talaash, which co-stars current box office queen Kareena Kapoor as well as Aamir Khan, and Aiyaa, which is being produced by current Bollywood It-Boy Anurag Kashyap. We’ll just have to wait and see whether this new wave of story driven, heroine-centered films will carry Rani along to new heights or sink her career completely. Though nothing is guaranteed in life, if I had to bet on an actress successfully resurrecting a career from the ashes, I would place my money on Rani Mukherjee.

Rani’s filmography spans quite a few styles and she has some bit roles in some excellent films but I’ll try to limit this to the big stuff.

Saathiya (2002)

Rani puts in a lovely performance in this engaging melodrama about what happens after marriage. And, as a bonus, the music is really gorgeous.

Bunty aur Babli (2005)

If you want to see why an entire country fell in love with Rani, look no further than her spirited performance as the beauty pageant contestant turned con artist in this film!

Black (2005)

This film will not be to everybody’s taste but as Rani’s top ranked performance I felt obligated to include it. Directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, the film is very stagy and almost operatic in tone. If you do not enjoy that kind of over-the-top production, it might be better to skip this one.

And a bonus pick!

No One Killed Jessica (2011)

Rani’s big comeback has her playing the secondary lead to the current top actress Vidya Balan but Rani holds her own just fine as the hard boiled journalist Meera Gaity.

1. Rani’s grandfather’s brother Sashadhar Mukherjee was a top producer in his day and is credited with bringing his brother-in-law, Ashok Kumar, into films. Sashadhar’s sons Joy and Deb were also well-known actors and another son, Shomu, married actress Tanuja, whose daughter Kajol is a very well-known actress. Deb’s son Ayan Mukherjee (Wake Up Sid) is now a director.

2. And Rani’s co-star, Shadaab Khan, son of Amjad Khan, flopped nearly as hard.

3. These “girls” come and go. For every “Dhak Dhak Girl” that has made a career there is a “Harleen” who fades away as soon as the film is out of theaters.

4. Read more about this in the post on Saif Ali Khan.

5. Read more about this in the post on Abhishek Bachchan.

6. The one rumor circulating about Rani in her early career was that she was involved in a lengthy affair with the married actor Govinda.

7. A film in which Rani Mukherjee is the only saving grace.


Melanie said...

I think Rani is like Vidya, not the typic glamourous heroine of Bollywood but a great actress. I feel they'll follow the same strategy, smaller films but woman centric ones. Hopefully she'll come back and raise the bar among the current crop of actresses...

Melanie said...

And by the way, wonderful piece from you!! Even more detailed than the ones on the current Queens of BW!!

jhakanaka420 said...

Wow!!! I was disappointed when you didn't do this earlier..After all this time I enter your blog and I'm pleasantly surprised!!

I think Rani is one of the best talents Bollywood has ever produced.And I think she'll do good if she manages to ride on the tides and do more small,story driven films..Because yes,Rani has received the best results when she has taken risks :)

Thanks for this piece :)

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I love Bollywood - and all the ridiculous things that happen in Bollywood - but it doesn't mean that I can't occasionally make fun of various celebrities and films.

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