MADHURI Dixit was waiting for me in Suite 502 of the Novotel in Mumbai. Elegantly seated on a sofa. Facing the windows and staring at the sea. Looking hauntingly beautiful. Friends with an unkind bent of mind had warned me that my heart would go ‘Dhak-Dhak’ when I met her. But that didn’t happen. She struck the professional note right away. Spotting my videographer, Madhuri said, “I think I should change my seat. I’m sitting against the light.” After shifting, she got him to run a test. For audio and video. Happy with the results, she turned to me with a dazzling smile, the kind that made her the heartthrob of Hindi film audiences worldwide. She had been doing interviews at the Novotel for the past couple of days to promote her first Marathi film Bucket List. Print, TV and digital. In a large banquet room. I was lucky to be interviewing her in the suite. I had met Madhuri only once before. Way back in 1988, when she was celebrating Tezaab, her first Bollywood success. It was amazing, she looked not a day older than when I first met her 30 years ago. Excerpts from the interview:

Have you seen The Bucket List made by Hollywood?

I saw it a long time (2007) back. But that’s a different kind of film. It’s about two old men (Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman) and under what circumstances they meet and how they help each other to complete their respective bucket lists. I liked it. It was a beautiful film.

In your years in the US, what did you miss most from back home?

I don’t know. I was so busy with my own life. I got married and shifted to Florida. My husband (Dr. Shriram Nene) did his residency in cardio thoracic surgery there. I used to get bored in the house. Residency work is very strenuous. He used to be in the hospital for three-four days at a stretch. And I didn’t get to see him much. I was all alone. So he said, “You know what, if you want to work, you can go back, you can do something for yourself.” So I said, okay. I came back and did Devdaas (2002) at that time. After Devdaas, I had my children. And I got busy with that. So I never really got the opportunity to miss anything. For me, Florida was sasural and Mumbai was maika. I used to travel a lot. And I shot a lot. I did Jhalak Dikhla Jaa, I did three films after that, Aaja Nachle, Dedh Ishqiya and Gulaab Gang. So it was a busy time.

But films didn’t really happen for you again here till Bucket List. Now you are also doing Total Dhamaal and Kalank

Making a Marathi film was on my bucket list. This had a nice script and the character was relatable. If  you want to connect with the Marathi audience, then there has to be a connectivity. I thought this role, of a Maharashtrian housewife trapped in the confines of her own choices and her journey to self discovery, had that. So I took it up. That’s one thing off my bucket list! I also wanted to produce a film at some point. I was introduced as an actor to Hindi films first. Bollywood approached me. But I thought, as a producer, I should start with Marathi films. And I am doing that with 15th August, the first film from my production house RnM Moving Pictures Pvt. Ltd.

Your character in Bucket List, Madhura Sane, is a typical Maharashtrian housewife who you say you relate to. But you are hardly typical. When did you last attend, say, a Haldi Kumkum ceremony? Or Vat Purnima?

I am not a housewife because I am a professional. But I am also a typical Maharashtrian because that’s how I’ve been brought up. My Mom and Dad are Maharashtrians and I was brought up in a Maharashtrian atmosphere at home but lived in a cosmopolitan society. My roots are still Maharashtrian. If you ask any modern Maharashtrian when last they attended a Haldi Kumkum they won’t remember. Just because you do these ceremonies does not mean you’re a Maharashtrian. What makes you Maharashtrian is the cultural impact. The values that you have. The values that your Mom and Dad gave you. Mine are very, very Maharashtrian. We are down to earth, simple people, you know. I’m not bothered about owning something that’s expensive or anything of that sort. I just want my family to be happy and to be able to spend time with my kids and give them the values I got from my parents. So in that thinking, I’m very Maharashtrian.

Was it just the script and character of Bucket List that made you do your first Marathi film or also this resurgence of Marathi cinema with big Bollywood actors and filmmakers now wanting to produce Marathi films?

That and the kind of subjects they are bringing up. If you see Marathi films like Katyar Kaljat, Natsamrat, Fandry, SairatSairat was the exception to the rule, it was an exceptionally and phenomenally big film… what I’m saying is that today Marathi films are not watched just by Maharashtrians. They are watched by other people as well because they have subtitles. The audience of Marathi cinema has increased. Plus the kind of subjects they are dealing with, their filmmaking techniques, it’s all very elegant. They are true to their subjects. And content is king for Marathi films. All of these things led me to say yes. I thought, if I want to work in Marathi films then I want them to be relatable because Maharashtrians are going to see me and relate to me. That was there in the script of Bucket List. I am also happy that big Bollywood actors and producers are making Marathi films. The reach of Marathi cinema will increase with these people coming on board. They make Hindi films and cater to Hindi audiences and now they will take Marathi films to places – like abroad!

Our so-called women-centric films always had the lead actress as an avenger or victim crying for justice. Now they are acting in what are called slice of life films.

Yes, I am happy there are no stereotypes anymore. Women are women. From different facets of life. And life is different for each one. Take Vidya Balan in Tumhari Sulu. She’s just a housewife who becomes an RJ and finds success that changes her life. It’s these small, small things with everyday women that are being shown in films now. Women-oriented films are not just about revenge and victims. Now women are characters. They are shown as different personalities. As you see women in society, that’s how they are being portrayed in films.

You have said that women tend to lose something of themselves after marriage… what did you lose?

I lost nothing. But I gained a lot. I was a professional who became a housewife for a while and learned a lot of things in the process. For instance, I learned how to cook for the first time! Earlier my life was from one studio to another. I did three shifts. Worked everyday. Took no off on Sundays. Now, for the first time, I was living my life and enjoying every minute of it.

Madhuri Dixit Nene with husband Sriram Madhav Nene
Madhuri Dixit with her sons Raayan and Arin

Like your character in Bucket List, what did you discover of yourself?

Madhura Sane’s journey in Bucket List is very interesting. Without hurting anyone, she voices a strong opinion at the end. I can’t tell you the dialogue, but basically she says, I’m standing my ground, and I will do what I want to do. When you see the film you will understand. There is this powerful dialogue between wife and husband in the film. You learn a lot from that.

A still of Madhuri Dixit from Bucket List
You worked with a talented Marathi cast and crew on this film. How different are they from the professionals you have worked with in Bollywood?

Not very different. Actors are actors everywhere. Only the language was different. All the actors in Bucket List, they have been working for years. Shubha Khote has been an actress for 62 years. Vandana Gupte has been on stage and in films for 42 years. It was lot of fun working with them. They are so quick. We did so much of improvisation on the sets.

The A-list actors of Bollywood are all 50-plus. Do you think actresses will have the same kind of power once they are over 50. You are 51 yourself…

I would love to see actresses having the same kind of power as these actors do. I have always believed that age is just a number. If you make good films, people’s attitude will change slowly because everybody is doing everything and I wish it would always be this way. There is such a great change in the industry. There is so much discipline. Everything is ready before the shoot. Including the length of the schedule. Maximum, they overshoot by five days. In my time there were no vanity vans also for actors to retire to and rest, for the makeup, change of costume. We had to sit under an umbrella in the sun. Then too people would comment, “She is so fussy, she is using an umbrella!” There were some times when the dialogue writers would be sitting on the sets and writing the dialogues for us. But still, we made good films.

Your song Dil Toh Pagal Hai is being used to create awareness for mental health and disability. Had you heard of depression in your time?

I had heard about it. Depression meant a person was sad for no reason. But it was  not widely discussed. Today, you have counselors who you can talk to for any problem. That was taboo earlier. So I’m glad that there is this stress on mental health. As society grows, stress increases. It takes one-and-half hour for the smallest journey these days in crowded trains and buses. Life has become a struggle. If you don’t address mental health, you are not doing justice to the people. I am glad people are talking about it openly and there’s no taboo attached. Mental health is treatable and should be treated. I am also happy that a big actress like Deepika Padukone talked about her depression. Deepika’s message reaches all. That if she experienced it, sought help, got treated, then so can we. If you have depression – go get help. It’s wrong to live with it.

What’s your definition of a bucket list?

It’s a list of all the dreams, desires, ambitions, hopes, wants and wishes I must complete in this lifetime…

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