Juhi Chawla Birthday Special: The actor looks back at a life well lived

Juhi Chawla turns 53 today. The Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak actor, who made her debut in 1986, two years after winning the coveted Miss India pageant, and went on to become one of the top stars of the 90s, still remains a study in humility. “I never thought I would still be relevant for an interview at 53!” the actor says when we call her for a quick tête-à-tête.

The actor, who was scheduled to start shooting for a web series in June but got postponed due to the pandemic, is very active on social media advocating environmental causes. “The one change in me that has happened over the years is that earlier my entire world revolved around me and my work. When you are under the spotlight the world outside can often become a blur. But, today, I am acutely aware of the environment. More than myself, my world now revolves around my people around my family and near and dear ones,” the mother-of-two admits that the focus started shifting once she got married and had kids.

Talking about Arjun (17) and Jahnavi (19), she admits that although she would love her children to follow in her footsteps, she has no concrete idea what profession they would want to take up yet. “My daughter is an avid reader and more into writing, even if she gets into the film industry, I doubt it would be as an actor. However, she is doing a course in cinema at her college, and the other day she sent me a screenshot of a class lecture, which showed a picture of me and Madhoo, who happens to be my sister-in-law. They were discussing Roja and QSQT as part of a session on ‘Bollywood’! My children have not really grown up watching my films, and now they are getting introduced to ‘Juhi Chawla’ as a foreign university as part of their academic course! We had a hearty laugh, but it was a surreal feeling,” says the resplendent actor. Both her children with her husband, Industrialist and owner of Mehta Group, Jay Mehta, are pursuing higher studies abroad.

Unlike other star kids although both the children have always shied away from the limelight, Jahnavi, however, has already started grabbing headlines of her own. The class topper became the youngest person to be part of an IPL auction table in 2018 when she represented the Kolkata Knight Riders, a company co-owned by her parents along with Shah Rukh Khan, and wowed all with her sassy bidding. There was also a buzz that the 19-year-old my even take charge of the team along with the already existing co-owner Jay Mehta.

But it is Juhi’s son who might take after her. “Arjun loves to act and mimic and he is very good at those, but I doubt he has any acting aspirations. Whenever I ask him if I can shoot a short clip of these impromptu sessions, he flatly refuses. He is yet to warm up to even my phone camera,” laughs the actor. Although she doesn’t seem to be much worried about the social media trolling and the nepotism debate as yet, she admits that she might not be ok if her children take up acting gigs that are against their personal value system and principles. “You can say I am old-school, but I still don’t take up projects that require me to mouth cuss words or are against my principles. When I started off, it was a more innocent world. I don’t agree with a lot of things happening in the name of cinema and OTT content these days. I don’t think I would be okay seeing my daughter, although I don’t think she would ever get into acting, do the kinds of roles the younger lot of girls are doing today.”

But, as for her, once an actor, always an actor and Juhi has currently got two projects lined up. “I can’t let go of acting. But I have grown as an actor and as a person, and I want to do roles with some depth and of certain sensibilities. I have to live up to what you know me for. I don’t want to be seen anywhere and everywhere doing just about anything,” says the actor who is being extremely cautious about the projects she picks and insists that it is not the screen time, but the quality of the role that is now the deciding factor.

Apart from her more commercial outings, the actor had also wowed the audience with her acting chops in content-driven indie movies like Jhankaar Beats (2003), 3 Deewarein (2003), My Brother Nikhil (2005), I Am (2011) and Gulaab Gang (2014), much before indies became the new mainstream.

Talking about the charm of ’90s Bollywood she says, “I think the ’90s movies are still a part of the conversation because they had a certain innocent charm and a dreamlike quality. It was where fiction seamlessly merged with facts; reality came with the relief of a dream sequence.”

The actor says she misses the big Indian family in the movies these days. “There was romance, comedy, fun, more importantly, family played a big role in the movies back then. Maybe kids these days are so empowered anyway that the importance of families has diminished. Instead of people it is the gadgets that crowd your lives. Also, I miss the general Indianness in our movies. We are becoming so influenced by pop culture that everything is becoming international, but also homogeneous. The uniqueness of our stories is getting diluted in this mad rush to become global. Sometimes I find this hip and cool thing rather funny. The other day I was watching a movie where the progressive couple are in a live-in relationship and the film advocates the same, but by the end of the movie, you find the couple looking forward to getting married and the last scene is a wedding sequence. So, what did you even accomplish?

What I find interesting is that the movies that are increasingly coming up and doing rather well at the box office also, are the ones telling stories of the smaller towns and tier-2 cities, and these have their heart at the right place and talk about the little struggles of the common man. These movies are reclaiming the innocence of life and romance; it is in these movies that you are again finding those lovable family units and glimpses of the real India.”

But the thing she misses the most about the ’90s Bollywood, apart from the fun, spontaneity, the personal bonding and the last-minute arrival of scripts, is that “we were Hindi film industry and not ‘Bollywood’ back then! Bollywood sounds like a cheap derivative of Hollywood!”

One third of the holy trinity of the 90’s Hindi movies, that also included Madhuri Dixit and Sridevi, Juhi misses the star culture, although she is thankful that the OTTs has brought in a welcome change where actors her age are again getting interesting roles to pick from.

“Earlier stars were someone you looked up to and emulated. That little distance created a sense of awe and respect. But then, even before social media became a thing, those same stars started selling you soaps and detergents and even toilet cleaners. The awe got flushed out a bit right there! And today, of course, with social media, you have almost a minute-by-minute update of the celebrities. There is no magic or that aura of a star left. I am very fortunate to have seen the transition, from the star-studded cinema of the ’90s to the point where we are today. I feel bad thinking that the kids these days would never be able to experience the world we did, sometimes I wonder if there would ever be stars like a Rajesh Khanna could be or an Amitabh Bachchan was and a Shah Rukh Khan became, if the new generation of actors, who are all so fantastic and accomplished in every way, will ever know that feeling! After Deepika and Priyanka, I don’t think you have that. The OTT productions are well acted and well mounted, but you would not watch it because it has a certain actor. You might, but the actors are not really the crowd-pullers these days.”

But more than the stars of the movies and the content, the actor is worried about the future of the movies itself. “With the pandemic I don’t know when can we again go back to the movie theatres and enjoy a film with our friends and family like we used to without being saddled with the social distancing norms. Whether you watch a film or not, the numbers will be huge because now with OTT, the reach has become huge, you are catering to a world audience now. But that collective viewing, the madness of going for a movie, looking at your favourite stars on the 70-mm screen, the spectacle and the hugeness of the entire experience is gone. That whole Friday excitement, “Arre woh movie dekhi?” is gone, abhi dekhi, nahi dekhi, it is all in your mobile and you can watch it any time. The euphoria, the larger-than-life experience, the charm of cinema is somewhere getting lost, or maybe they are already things of the past living only in our nostalgia.”

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