LUNCH time at Yash Raj Films Studios in Andheri West. I am waiting for Rani Mukerji. She pours out like a bubbly champagne from an elevator on the first floor of the Video Wing. Sparkling in a lemon palazzo suit and floral dupatta. Vivacious and enthusiastic. And begins prattling away in Bengali with a small group of young journalists waiting eagerly for her. The media is full of Bengalis. I don’t understand the language. But it is easy to tell they are excitedly giving Rani their feedback about her film Hichki that just released. Delighted with this firsthand review, she gives her husky, deep-throated laugh. I missed the press show. So I hang back guiltily. Suddenly she spots me. And reaches out like an old friend. Behind is a retinue of makeup man, hairstylist and PR person. No security guards. Rani is at home in YRF Studios. But then she is home. Her producer, director and distributor husband Aditya Chopra is boss man of this, India’s largest multi-national film, media and entertainment conglomerate.
Hichki is his film co-produced by Maneesh Sharma. Directed by Siddharth Malhotra. Inspired by the 2008 Hollywood TV film Front of the Class that was based on American motivational speaker and teacher Brad Cohen’s book by the same name which tells his story of growing up with severe Tourette Syndrome – a neuropsychiatric disorder characterised by facial and vocal tics. Here, we call them hichki. Like a hiccup. My friend Bharathi Pradhan, the veteran Bollywood writer and editor, has given Hichki a thumbs up and said it is sensitive cinema and simple storytelling, an upbeat and feel-good film, and Rani is queen of the show. Meanwhile, bringing up the rear in the elevator is a man bearing a basket and plates of food. I am hopeful of a bite. We walk down to a lounge. Past closed doors with nameplates up in lights. Shah Rukh Khan and Katrina Kaif. They last worked together for YRF in 2012. The film was Jab Tak Hain Jaan. But the lights are still on. Like SRK and Kat haven’t left the building. Rani settles down on a sofa. She’s sipping water out of a red stainless steel bottle that says (hichki). A quick peep into the makeup man’s mirror, a tug at her hair, and she says, “Let’s start.”
Excerpts from the interview:
You like playing characters organically. Feeling them. Not preparing for them. How did you manage that trick for your Naina Mathur role in Hichki who has TS?
I felt the character. It was important for me to connect with Brad Cohen on whose life story my character is based. I wanted to kind of understand what he went through – from childhood. I didn’t meet him. Spoke to him on Skype. He’s in the US. We chatted a lot. And I observed his tics. I asked him how is it to be a person with TS – what does he feel, what were his emotions like from kid to adult, what were his fears, did his friends make fun of him, was his mother a huge support system? Grown up, Brad wanted to become a teacher. What were the trials and tribulations he faced when he got rejections? And how was life when he actually became a teacher? I went into everything. The whole graph of his life story. I had to be that person, become that person, and it was very important for me to emotionally get a hang of the character. The tics were just a physical part of him. If I had not felt them, I would not be able to play him.
You chatted a lot. But never met. Why?
He’s not able to travel. Even during the promos, we tried to bring him down, but because of the TS his doctors advised him against traveling so far.
But this is a major film. Your husband Adi is the producer. Surely you could have flown down to the US to meet Brad Cohen.
Thanks to technology, I got to meet him through Skype. Whatever I would have met him and done, I did on Skype. We spent a lot of time interacting on Skype. And, you forget, I’ve become a mother. There’s no way I would travel to the US when my daughter is so young!
You were reportedly nervous on the first day of shooting. Was this because you last faced the camera for Mardaani in 2014? Or because you were jittery about leaving your daughter Adira at home for the first time?
Both these things. When I had Adira, I realised that it was not possible for me to love anything more than just being with her. But the fact was that I was going back to the thing I love doing most. Which is acting. And somewhere I believed I was playing a difficult character, a challenging role, and I wanted to do justice to it. But wondered if I would be able to pull it off. Or make a laughing stock of myself on the first day of shooting. There were so many thoughts. And then I came on the set and I felt – oh shit, I belong here, and it all came back naturally to me. Just like once a swimmer, always a swimmer – once an actor, always an actor. So even if you go through gaps, you still come back with a new kind of approach.
Surely you were away for long periods of time making Hichki. How did you explain your absence to your daughter then?
We completed Hichki in 38 days. Adira was 14 months when I did the film. And she wasn’t really talking. I didn’t once bring her on the sets. I don’t want to expose her to a shooting atmosphere. Better to give her the environment she is comfortable with. I wanted to finish shooting and go back home to her which our team kind of made sure they did. Every day we started work at 7 am and they would leave me by 12.30. So all the work that people do in a 9 to 6 shift, which at the end of the day is four or five hours of constructive work, we did in one go. They would leave me and then break for lunch. So I didn’t feel I was missing my daughter. She was also too young at that time and didn’t understand my absence. But now Adira is two. She is very sharp. And she understands! I am out promoting the film and doing interviews and when I come home she says, “Mama, makeup uttaro! Meeting pe gaye the? Shooting pe gaye the?” I don’t know if she understands the concept of what shooting and acting and makeup is. But she doesn’t like the external paint on my face. The makeup. She recognises that. That’s because she has seen me more organic and natural all the time. So even when I put on lipstick, she’s like, yeh kyu hai? She likes her mother au naturel. Like her father. Adi says the same thing, “Remove your makeup and come!”
Did you see the film Front of the Class?
I didn’t see it because it was close to what I was doing and I didn’t want to get influenced. I wanted to meet Brad Cohen straightaway. Because the person playing him in the film (the actor Jimmy Wolk) was also an impersonation of Brad. And I was, like, I rather speak to Brad directly than see another impersonation of him. So that’s why I refrained from seeing Front of the Class based on his book on life with TS and how he became the teacher he wanted. Siddharth assured me that it was just Brad’s character that is similar in Hichki otherwise the two films are not the same. So there’s no point watching it, he said. I thought that made sense. But, I might see it now.
Brad was expecting an actor to play him in Hichki. Not an actress. But he saw the trailer and said he had been living with the tics for 40 years whereas you got it better than him in just under one year!
Oh, he’s just being nice to me. I am so looking forward to him seeing the film. I want to know what he thinks.
You believe you have a connect with differently abled people…
Yes, I find them very spirited, very positive and very fearless. And that connects me to them. When I play them in films, I want to show the world what they really are. Who they really are. They are people who don’t want pity and sympathy. They want to be treated like everybody else. Just because we think they have a weakness it doesn’t mean they have a weakness. There’s something else in them that’s probably stronger than what we have. So it’s important to look at them and interact with them as normal people. And that is something they really like.
Your 2005 film Black was a humbling experience…
I think humility comes after you meet people who suddenly make you thank God for a lot of things in your life. Human beings by nature are very ungrateful. It’s always, yeh mil gaya – ab woh chahiye! Maruti car aa gaya – toh Maruti car kya hai? Abhi mere ko Honda chahiye. Honda mil gaya – toh Merc chahiye. Merc aa gaya, toh Rolls Royce chahiye. Phir Bugati. Logon ki wants badti rahi hai. Abhi mere paas 2BHK flat hai lekin mere ko mahal chahiye. When you do a film like Black, you see all the beauty of life. What we think is Nature. Just the fact that we can see the world is a gift. Hear sounds, the chirping of birds, the crash of the waves, is also a gift. And that we can express ourselves through our vocal chords is also a gift. Everything in life is a blessing. And that is what I realised when I made Black and which made me more humble in life.
You got that feeling also while making Hichki? Do you take home this feeling, the angst of your character, the emotions he or she goes through?
No. Not at all. I am a switch off-switch on actor absolutely. For me it is very important to be all there when the camera is rolling. Then I’m my own person. As it is there are so many emotions in my life that I’m going through. I can’t take on the extra baggage of the character’s emotions too. I can’t deal with that. I’m definitely not a method actor from any angle. I’m very spontaneous.
Did you do a lot of reading on Tourette Syndrome?
No. I wanted to get all the information from Brad because I’m playing a person who actually has TS. When you read medical language and the definition of TS, you understand what’s happening, what are vocal tics and facial tics, but till you don’t see or talk to a person with the syndrome, you don’t get the full knowledge of it. So for me it was very important to spend time with Brad and know him completely. He was a real-life example in front of me and what could be better than that?
Saw any Hollywood films on the differently abled? Like Music Within? Emmanuel’s Gift? The Cake Eater? Or even Margarita With a Straw?
Yes, I saw My Left Foot… Daniel Day-Lewis with cerebral palsy, what a fabulous film, I saw it even before I did Black. I thought it was brilliantly performed.
You had no apprehensions in accepting this role?
Not at all. I was just reacting to a character. I already had a backing in the fact that the producers wanted to make a project like this. When they come to an actor, the initial process is already done, that yes – they want to make the film, they are going ahead, and they have come to an actor to see if he or she wants to be a part of that film. In may case, this was not my film at the onset. Some other actor was to play my role. Then it came it to me. So it’s not as if I weren’t to play the character in the film, then Hichki would not be made. Somebody else would have played the role. Destiny says, role-role pe likha hai actor ka naam. It was in my destiny to make Hichki.
You once stammered. And thought your voice and height were drawbacks…
I conquered my stammering. God knows how. I worked on it. But I didn’t feel they were drawbacks. All hichkis in society come because people are used to seeing something in a particular way. So these were not my fears. They were hichkis of society. For example, there’s this aurat ko mard se kum samaj ne ki hichki. It’s not what an aurat feels. It’s people in society that have that hichki in their minds. So my dusky complexion, my hoarse voice, my height… this is me. I can’t stretch myself out and become tall. Or become fairer. And change my voice. This is who I am. Accept me or reject me. In my case, society broke its own shackles of hichkis and accepted me. When an audience accepts you – then who cares? Janata janardan is important. Jab unho ne tick mark kar diya, 100 mein se 100 diya, toh koi kya bol sakta hai!
Do you think Indian audiences are ready for films like Hichki?
Let’s see. We’ll know the truth by Monday. Doodh ka doodh, paani ka paani ho jayeja. Monday pe sab patta chal jayega.
Watch the PeepingMoon film review of Hichki right here