Manisha Koirala, dressed in a sand coloured overcoat like it was winter, large brown shades hiding the expressive eyes that teased and flirted with Salman Khan in Khamoshi, hair tied up severely in a bun, sat waiting for me at a window table in By The Waterside. This is the all day diner at The Club. Its soft beige interiors and chocolate upholstery matched the colours she wore. Members were still attacking the lunch buffet laid out behind while an espresso coffee machine disapprovingly hissed as if to remind them it was teatime.
We had a grandstand view of the pool where women of all shapes and ages were swimming. But I had eyes for Manisha only. IMDb, the world’s internet movie database, refers to her as the most beautiful actress of her time. Like Manisha’s acting career was over! I doubt this despairing thought crossed her mind even when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer at an advanced stage in 2012 and had to withdraw from Bollywood. Her time continues, Manisha is still incredibly beautiful at 48 – ask me, and she returns to acting with one of 2018’s most anticipated films – the Sanjay Dutt biopic Sanju that releases this Friday.
It is amazing how filmmaker Raju Hirani saw in her a resemblance to the late and great Nargis Dutt and cast Manisha in Sanju as the mother of lead actor Ranbir Kapoor. Her poster for the film was released in the first week of June to an impressive reaction. People are still whispering on social media about the uncanny likeness Manisha has with Nargis. Now at By The Waterside she ordered a cup of tea for me, waited for it to come, then nibbled at the biscotti that came for me and looked around contentedly. I could tell she was happy to be there. Grateful to be back in Bollywood. Excited to be giving interviews again. Blessed to be alive after her struggle with cancer.
Everybody says you look like Nargis Dutt in Sanju. You think so?
Honestly – without makeup, no! She was so pretty. But with makeup, I’ve tried to look like her. I am told the likeness is remarkable. Well, I tried to do my best. As much as it was physically possible. I really tried. I just hope my effort is okay because everybody else in Sanju is topnotch in their work and I had to match up to the performances. I am really hoping and praying people like what I did as much as they appreciate my look in the film.
How much of Manisha do we see in Nargis? Did you see any of her black and white films from the 1950s and 60s with Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar to prep for your role in Sanju?
The lesser you see of me in my role as Nargis the better. I did not see any of her films. The thing is I am not playing Nargis the actress, but Nargis the mother. And it made more sense for me to see documentaries on Nargis to catch her real life expressions than those she emoted on screen for films. As an actress, I know the difference. I know how I am in personal life and what I am on screen. And if any actress were to one day portray me, I’d rather she do my personal life. So how did I prep for my role as Nargis Dutt? Raju showed me a Films Division documentary on her, I forget the name, and Priya Dutt gave me the book Mr. and Mrs. Dutt: Memories of Our Parents that she and her sister Namrata had written. Using all this material, I tried to see Nargis as a person and parent rather than an actress. I did not want to see her in a film because there, as an actress, she would have a lot of shaan and ada. And in Sanju, the focus is on her affection for her son and the situation they were gripped by.
Did you talk to Sanjay Dutt about this role? Ask him for help. He and you go back. You did a lot of films together. And now you are playing his mother...
I did not really talk to him about Sanju because my role was already well defined in the script and I knew what was expected of me. I did not have to call him to get an understanding of the mother-son relationship. But I spoke to Priya Dutt and she invited me to see what work the Nargis Dutt Foundation was doing and gave me some idea about her mother. But honestly, the whole groundwork was done for me by Raju and his team. I did not have to go searching for anything. It was all there. But maybe if I was doing a biopic on Nargis Dutt and I was playing her as an actress, then I would go around. As the mother of the protagonist, mine is a special role in the film, and not much groundwork was required.
But Sanjay Dutt and you are working together (after Mehbooba in 2008) in his production Prasthaanam, you play husband and wife, and you are already shooting in Lucknow. Surely you discussed Sanju with him? What was his reaction to the poster everybody is raving about?
He said, “What a resemblance to my mother you have!” That’s all. And I was, like, “Wow! Thank you!” Coming from him, it meant I had succeeded. But he and I never discussed Sanju. That’s because by the time we began Prasthaanam, my work on Sanju was over.
What ages of Nargis Dutt do you play?
Her last years... the end of her life. When she lived through a lot of pain because of the cancer. People ask me, “You too suffered from cancer, how did you manage to do those scenes, were you playing them from memory?” The truth is, it is still traumatic for me to relive those moments. That was the reason why I was reluctant to take up this role. Then I thought I would take a chance and do the film. But I am glad my role does not revolve too much around that phase. Sanju is more focused on Nargis’s affection for Sanjay. Luckily the scenes I have performed are with that perspective and not on her trauma due to cancer. So I did not have to relive too much of my own experience. There is a bit, of course – because Nargis died of cancer, but not too much.
How many scenes do you have with Paresh Rawal who plays Sunil Dutt in Sanju – your screen husband and the father of Ranbir Kapoor?
Not too many. Like I said, mine is a special appearance, and I have as many scenes with Paresh as I have with Ranbir.
Sunil Dutt, after seeing Bombay in 1995, is believed to have said that you remind him of Nargis. Is that true? Did you ever meet him?
Sunil Dutt ji held a preview of Bombay in his production house Ajanta Arts and later called to tell me I reminded him so much of Nargis. That was huge for me. Look how destiny has me playing her 23 years later. He also complimented me on my work in Bombay. And I was thrilled because I am actress who never has an idea about how well I have done till people tell me. When people started calling after Bombay, I thought – okay, I have done a good job!
How was it working with Ranbir Kapoor? Did you know him from before?
I did not know him well. I did a lot of prep for my role in Sanju. For the look, the makeup, hairdo, photo-shoot, I watched the documentary and read the book, there were so many discussions with Raju and his team. But nothing with Ranbir. He was already in his zone. When I saw the first clip of the film, I was so hugely impressed, because I could not differentiate between Sanjay Dutt and Ranbir Kapoor! He is brilliant, brilliant, brilliant as an actor! Very good. And absolutely the best choice to play the role. There are no two ways about that!
Why do you think Raju Hirani chose you?
I don’t know! I did think it was maybe because Nargis and I had the same medical history of cancer, and I was shrinking inside. I was hoping the film did not focus too much on that aspect because I did not know if I had it in me to relive those moments. I still don’t know why Raju chose me. You’ll have to ask him. But he was convinced that I just had to be Nargis Dutt in Sanju.
You are suddenly back, with Sanju, you did Lust Stories for Netflix, and are now working on Prasthaanam. Sanjay Dutt’s mother in one film and wife in another. How does this feel?
You mean, is it weird for me to be his mother in Sanju and wife in Prasthaanam? There is no link between the roles. For an actress, both films are just work. But, yes, it’s great to be back. I love this feeling. I am a cinema lover. Bollywood is where my career began. I spent my best years here. And I always want to be a part of the film industry. I feel blessed. Producers are offering me roles at this age!