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"I want to break stereotypes with my roles"

There’s no stopping the diva even after all these years. Ahead of the release of Kalank, Madhuri Dixit-Nene talks to Titas Chowdhury about playing the complex Bahaar Begum, reuniting with Saroj Khan for a grand kathak number and much more

From the trailer of Kalank, we see that Bahaar Begum is very beautiful, she is a dancer, and she is caught in the middle of love and destruction. Tell us more about the world in which she reigns.

Bahaar Begum’s world is very complicated. She has been stumped by life. She holds her cards very close to her chest. Sometimes, you make decisions without realising that they might affect you and the people around you. At some point, you begin to regret it. She has a lot of regrets in life. She has a lot of angst in her life and she lives with it every day. I would not call her unhappy, but yes, she has become a very closed person. That is her life and that is what my character is like in the movie.

Kalank is a story of love, loss, longing and turmoil. How did you resonate with these complex emotions and slip under the skin of your character?

Well, it is easy because you draw a lot of strength from people around you and the people you have heard about. You may also draw strength from your director in terms of how he sees your character and how he sees you playing it. You may also draw a lot of strength from your creativity and how you look at your character in a film. I tried to understand how Bahaar Begum would behave and what she would do under certain circumstances. All these things come together to resonate with your part. You can create a character through your own comprehension and then work around it.

You had said that it was quite challenging to play this character.

It was challenging because she is someone who has faced it all, whether love, longing or loss. She faces these emotions every day of her life and yet she has to keep her dignity and grace intact.

There is a lot of restraint in her.

Yes! To exercise that restraint and still convey so many emotions was something that made this role challenging.

Abhishek Varman has directed you in this film. According to you, what do young and relatively new directors like him bring to the table?

It is different because he looks at you differently. He does not have any preconceived ideas about you. He is not enamoured by how Madhuri Dixit looks on-screen. It was all about how my character was going to be. It was wonderful working with Abhishek Varman because he knew how to extract those performances from us. He was very particular about what he wanted. When a director knows what he wants, it is great. He lets you think differently and listens to you. It is always team work. It is always about give and take, about the exchange of ideas, talking about the characters and the manner in which you portray them. It was amazing to work with him.

Tell us about sharing screen space with young actors in this film.

I have worked with Alia (Bhatt), Varun (Dhawan), Sonakshi (Sinha) and Aditya (Roy Kapur) in this film. They are all these big bundles of energy. There is so much that I absorbed from them. I enjoyed working with Alia in all our scenes. She is such a good actress. I have seen her performances. After a while, it was as if we were talking; I forgot that we were acting. And what can I say about Varun?! (Laughs) He cannot sit in one place for even one second. It was wonderful doing scenes with him because he was so involved in what he was doing. He always wants to give of his best. All of them have that drive to do their best. When I watch Alia, I see that she has no baggage even on the set. She is very professional, she is always on time and she just wants to do a good job.

Does she remind you of yourself?

Yes, that is the way I was! I think she is so much like me. I used to come on the sets on time and I knew my lines before I arrived. I used to do a lot of rehearsals.

You worked with Saroj Khan after a long time. She has choreographed the song Tabaah ho gaye. Was the shoot like a nostalgia trip for you?

Whenever I work with her, it is never nostalgic; we are always in the moment and we have a lot of fun. We had a lot of fun shooting for this song too even though it is a sad song. It comes at a point in the movie where everything is coming to a head for Bahaar Begum. We had to keep that in mind. We knew that since we had done so many songs together, Tabaah ho gaye should look different. We tried to do that and give it a little twist here and there. There is a pirouette in the end which has around 82 beats. It is a build-up that goes on and on. That has a staccato kind of impact.

We thought, ‘What should we do here?’ Then we thought of doing different kinds of pirouettes which we have in kathak, such as the half-turns and the full turns in one shot. So we did that. I am spinning towards the end of the song. I don’t know how many times (Laughs)! We did the whole thing in one shot. We both always innovate and try to do something different that people can take back.

Does the fact that you know each other so well help you in your collaborations?

She knows me and she has confidence in my abilities. She always says to me, ‘I know that if I give you the steps, no matter how difficult they are, you will do it.’ Then I struggle and work on it but I do it. (Laughs) She likes that about me. I like the fact that she innovates every time. When we are working on something new, we sit down and decide to start on a new slate and try to do something new.

You continue to reign even though it has been so many years. Two months ago, you gave us a massive hit with Total Dhamaal. How do you look back at the legacy you have created?

(Smiles). I always try to do something different every time. I don’t want to do something that is expected of me. I don’t want to play the same roles of a mother of two kids or a wife. I want to do something that breaks the stereotypes and something that others can follow. That is why, when I came back to India, I did Dedh Ishqiya and Gulaab Gang. These are very different kinds of films for me to do.

Gulaab Gang was a full-on action film. Dedh Ishqiya had tongue-in-cheek kind of humour. Bucket List too was very different. Total Dhamaal was an out-and-out, over-the-top, absurd comedy. It had me getting out of cars and dancing, something that people did not expect to see. It was great coming back together with Anilji (Kapoor) and Indraji (Kumar). And now there is Kalank. You might have seen me in this kind of genre before. But, again, it is very different in terms of how I played my character.

You recently turned producer with 15 August, a Netflix Original film. Could you shed some light on this?

I was well aware of the process of filmmaking. Hence I don’t look at films any differently after becoming a producer. Now I know what it takes to be a producer. I experienced it for the first time very recently. I had to be behind the scenes. My husband (Dr Sriram Nene) and I are part of R&M Moving Pictures and we have our roles divided there. I look at the creative side of it, while he looks after the finance and the business. He is the CEO but he is also very creative.

Our first production was 15 August. I decided to produce it because I felt that the story was very relatable and the characters were real. We are trying to say something very beautiful through the film. It talks about Independence and what freedom means. Freedom is a very subjective concept. For an old lady who has cataract, freedom would mean the ability to see. For a man suffering on his deathbed, freedom would mean death. For a love story like Kalank, where everybody is caught in a complex situation where they are in love but cannot choose a person, it is all about the freedom to choose whom you want to love. For some people, it is the freedom to choose a profession. Then there are kids who want to be free from pressures relating to schools, studies and good marks. So freedom means different things to different people. We found that very interesting.

Since we are talking about 15 August, how do you look at the digital space as a platform for content creation and consumption?

I think it is a great space. We started our journey in the digital medium with Dance With Madhuri when I came back from the US. It is an e-learning platform. It is available on four different DTH platforms – Videocon, Tata Sky, d2h and Airtel. We also have a website and an application where we teach dance in a different way. We teach it online. So we are very familiar with the digital scene.

When we made 15 August, there was one of only two ways we could go. One was digital and the other was traditional theatre. But Marathi films get barely 400 screens. If there are two-three Marathi films releasing on the same day, you get even fewer screens for your film. So we thought that with Netflix, we would be able to reach 190 countries, which means 139 million families. Imagine how many people you can reach out to!

The film is subtitled in different languages. So our reach is much more than it would have been if the film had a theatrical release. Netflix saw it and loved it, so we thought that we would release it on Netflix.

So are you open to acting in web series?

Yeah, absolutely! If something excites me, I would not care about the medium. I believe all these platforms will eventually merge into one entity. So it will be up to the viewer if he wants to go to the theatre and watch something on the 70-mm screen, or on TV, or on his phone or tablet. It is basically the viewer’s choice. It does not matter where you put up the content.

After Kalank, what is next for you?

I am looking forward to the release of Kalank on April 17. After that, I am going to give a little time to my music album. I have already recorded it, but I am yet to shoot for it. I will be working on that. There are a few scripts that I am toying with. So let’s see! (Smiles).

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