Kajol: Back again


Kajol: Back again

The happy stay at home mom prepares for her latest star spangled comeback

By Mamta Mody  August 1st, 2015

Riddle: How many comebacks does it take to unhinge a star career? In Kajol’s case, there seems to be no upper limit. Bollywood’s sweetheart of the high-pitched histrionics (“Rahul is a cheedurr!”) and equally grave, composed feels is back, after a hiatus of four years this time — and no less popular for it. Early behind-the-scenes photos from the sets of her comeback film Dilwale (shrewdly titled for the purpose of nostalgia), in which she stars alongside Shah Rukh Khan, have already sent social media berserk. Directed by bigger-is-better Rohit Shetty and with an extended star cast comprising Varun Dhawan and Kriti Sanon, the film has all the makings of the kind of schmaltzy blockbuster that has become Kajol’s calling card.

When I meet her at her home, there is no sign of the Bollywood heavyweight, only a busy mum trying to spare some time for her freelance stardom. Mention a comeback and you get an unequivocal eye-roll, “My third comeback, yes.” It’s the last thing on her mind. “I want to do a film as a treat, a holiday, and I have to believe in it to validate the time I spend away from my kids,” she says. She is leaving for Bulgaria for the film’s second shoot schedule in a few days and this time she’ll be taking along four-year-old Yug and Nysa, 12. When Yug calls to her from a room down the hall, she coaxes him to join us in the living room, but he won’t relent; Nysa sits across us, tapping intently at a laptop under Kajol’s watchful eye. In between, her mother [veteran actor Tanuja] calls to discuss her new health reports. Kajol is attentive, engaged, decisive, gentle. When she sits back down, she continues, “The truth is, I’m very happy not being in the spotlight, I don’t want to go back there either. I am a complete bitch in that state.” I can believe that, actually; Kajol is dangerously matter-of-fact almost to the point of frostiness.

So I’m wondering why she’s coming back at all. She doesn’t appear to need or even like the glare of flashbulbs. Are movies simply a hobby for the actor who only ever ambles back into the spotlight for star-stuffed box-office breakers  — usually at the behest of good friends like Shah Rukh and Karan Johar? Kajol famously rejected a Mani Ratnam film for the career-defining role in Johar’s directorial debut Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998). “I prefer working with people I am comfortable with. Comfort is of paramount importance to me, especially now, and that’s making me a little more picky about my work.” Pop dramas, where all the knots tie up and emo-meters are always cranked up to high, have been the actor’s mainstay since she began her career at 16 — and Dilwale sits neatly in her comfort zone. “When Shah Rukh called me about the film I decided to look at the script. I liked it, I liked my character — there was nothing unusual happening around her,” she says.

And yet somehow, Kajol has always held the distinction of being viewed as an actor first and a star later, unlike others from the same school of cinema she endorses. Perhaps it’s the gravitas she brings to the fluff-fests, and the believability to the hyperboles. Like the time she played the villain in the quite cheesy Gupt (1997); she lent the film a menace that anchored the silliness. In her first, titular comeback, Fanaa (2006), the actress lived up to colossal expectations and even managed to effectively overshadow ‘the star’, Aamir Khan. 

One would imagine she’d assimilate easily into Bollywood’s current wave of actor-first stars, eager to excel at their craft to stay in the good graces of increasingly sharp and decreasingly forgiving audiences. Nope, she doesn’t really care. She’ll only ever come out of homemaking hibernation for her friends and her husband’s  film banner, Ajay Devgn Films. Besides she is a sworn populist; she likes her films like she likes her books. “The story has to keep you hooked till four in the morning. I like potboilers that entertain, not educate,” she says. Amish Tripathi’s Scion Of Ikshvaku beats Neil Gaiman (“The Sandman gave me nightmares”), for instance. “I know I’m not making the most of this new space,” she says after some thought. “I wish I had the ability to push it, but I’m just lazy. Or maybe I just don’t care enough.” 

Not caring about what anyone thinks has always been a trademark of hers — remember back when all of us wondered why she wouldn’t just bring up the rear with her fashion choices to bolster all that talent? It didn’t matter to her then. “When I was acting I was always told what to wear, only later I realised it was because I never really had an opinion on what I should be wearing,” she says. That has clearly changed. Today’s Kajol is spiffy, always perfectly coiffed, wearing the whimsical-yet-womanly silhouettes of younger designers, and she’s also in the best physical shape of her life. “Having an opinion on fashion isn’t really rocket science,” she says with a characteristic snigger, “It was just a matter of really looking into it and figuring out what I liked.” I did think she’d be loath to acknowledge that the physical transformation had an impact on the way she sees herself, but, nice surprise, she’s matter-of-fact about that too. “I knew I was attractive, and that my personality overtook my looks,” she says, “But I now feel pretty and confident too — maybe that’s the difference.”

 

What she does continue to not care about right now is how you feel about her lack of professional ambition. She edged away from the spotlight at 28, at the very top of her game,  while she was still filling box office coffers with films like Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001). The race to the top has just never held a fascination for her. “I never felt the need to be somewhere. Actually, I was the most ambitionless person,” she says, when I ask her about where she’d place herself on the Bollywood map right now. But surely she must feel some pangs for leaving behind a creative, lucrative space in which she appeared to thrive almost without any effort? “I kind of felt that way when my son was born,” she’ll admit. “But I was too preoccupied to give it much thought, and now it doesn’t matter.” 

Now her days are filled with organising her kids’ lives; there are play dates to be scheduled, school events to be coordinated and family holidays to be planned. The causes she supports too, take on the concerns of motherhood. The actor is the Indian ambassador for Lifebuoy’s global campaign (‘Help A Child Reach 5’) that promotes hygiene through regular hand-washing. Last year, she represented India for the second time at the United Nations General Assembly to promote the movement and start a conversation on the issues surrounding maternal and newborn health. (Promoting the cause was the only way she could be convinced to drag herself to Twitter and Instagram — “Otherwise, it’s so useless tweeting about my every move. I don’t have an opinion on everything from the weather to Modi, and who would want to know about that from me anyway?”). She likes to leave the business of movies and long shooting schedules away from home, to her husband. Even when it comes to personal entertainment, Kajol says she’d rather watch TV shows like NCIS and Sherlock than a movie. “I have always had a life that was beyond my work,” she says. “Thank god I can still put work at a lower priority than the rest of my life.”

It doesn’t bear asking Kajol what if the opportunities don’t come flooding after the next time she decides to stay away, because the answer is clear. This is a decisively satisfied life, calibrated carefully to bring maximum joy and meaning — and boy, does slow, mindful living look good on her. Ironically, it’s probably why she’ll never be out of a job, too; she’s much too self-assured to ever seem out of her depth once she decides to do something. “Everyone tells me I have a very boring life, but I have made my life exactly how I want it, and worked very hard to keep it that way.”  

Photographs: Tarun Vishwa; Styling: Nidhi Jacob; Creative Director: Prashish More; Make-up and Hair: Namrata Soni; Production: Parul Menezes; Assisted by: Neha Salvi & Veronna Parikh (styling)

Featured in ELLE India's August 2015 issue. On stands now. Click here to subscribe to the digital version

Riddle: How many comebacks does it take to unhinge a star career? In Kajol’s case, there seems to be no upper limit. Bollywood’s sweetheart of the high-pitched histrionics (“Rahul is a cheedurr!”) and equally grave, composed feels is back, after a hiatus of four years this time — and no less popular for it. Early behind-the-scenes photos from the sets of her comeback film Dilwale (shrewdly titled for the purpose of nostalgia), in which she stars alongside Shah Rukh Khan, have already sent social media berserk. Directed by bigger-is-better Rohit Shetty and with an extended star cast comprising Varun Dhawan and Kriti Sanon, the film has all the makings of the kind of schmaltzy blockbuster that has become Kajol’s calling card.

When I meet her at her home, there is no sign of the Bollywood heavyweight, only a busy mum trying to spare some time for her freelance stardom. Mention a comeback and you get an unequivocal eye-roll, “My third comeback, yes.” It’s the last thing on her mind. “I want to do a film as a treat, a holiday, and I have to believe in it to validate the time I spend away from my kids,” she says. She is leaving for Bulgaria for the film’s second shoot schedule in a few days and this time she’ll be taking along four-year-old Yug and Nysa, 12. When Yug calls to her from a room down the hall, she coaxes him to join us in the living room, but he won’t relent; Nysa sits across us, tapping intently at a laptop under Kajol’s watchful eye. In between, her mother [veteran actor Tanuja] calls to discuss her new health reports. Kajol is attentive, engaged, decisive, gentle. When she sits back down, she continues, “The truth is, I’m very happy not being in the spotlight, I don’t want to go back there either. I am a complete bitch in that state.” I can believe that, actually; Kajol is dangerously matter-of-fact almost to the point of frostiness.

So I’m wondering why she’s coming back at all. She doesn’t appear to need or even like the glare of flashbulbs. Are movies simply a hobby for the actor who only ever ambles back into the spotlight for star-stuffed box-office breakers  — usually at the behest of good friends like Shah Rukh and Karan Johar? Kajol famously rejected a Mani Ratnam film for the career-defining role in Johar’s directorial debut Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998). “I prefer working with people I am comfortable with. Comfort is of paramount importance to me, especially now, and that’s making me a little more picky about my work.” Pop dramas, where all the knots tie up and emo-meters are always cranked up to high, have been the actor’s mainstay since she began her career at 16 — and Dilwale sits neatly in her comfort zone. “When Shah Rukh called me about the film I decided to look at the script. I liked it, I liked my character — there was nothing unusual happening around her,” she says.

And yet somehow, Kajol has always held the distinction of being viewed as an actor first and a star later, unlike others from the same school of cinema she endorses. Perhaps it’s the gravitas she brings to the fluff-fests, and the believability to the hyperboles. Like the time she played the villain in the quite cheesy Gupt (1997); she lent the film a menace that anchored the silliness. In her first, titular comeback, Fanaa (2006), the actress lived up to colossal expectations and even managed to effectively overshadow ‘the star’, Aamir Khan. 

One would imagine she’d assimilate easily into Bollywood’s current wave of actor-first stars, eager to excel at their craft to stay in the good graces of increasingly sharp and decreasingly forgiving audiences. Nope, she doesn’t really care. She’ll only ever come out of homemaking hibernation for her friends and her husband’s  film banner, Ajay Devgn Films. Besides she is a sworn populist; she likes her films like she likes her books. “The story has to keep you hooked till four in the morning. I like potboilers that entertain, not educate,” she says. Amish Tripathi’s Scion Of Ikshvaku beats Neil Gaiman (“The Sandman gave me nightmares”), for instance. “I know I’m not making the most of this new space,” she says after some thought. “I wish I had the ability to push it, but I’m just lazy. Or maybe I just don’t care enough.” 

Not caring about what anyone thinks has always been a trademark of hers — remember back when all of us wondered why she wouldn’t just bring up the rear with her fashion choices to bolster all that talent? It didn’t matter to her then. “When I was acting I was always told what to wear, only later I realised it was because I never really had an opinion on what I should be wearing,” she says. That has clearly changed. Today’s Kajol is spiffy, always perfectly coiffed, wearing the whimsical-yet-womanly silhouettes of younger designers, and she’s also in the best physical shape of her life. “Having an opinion on fashion isn’t really rocket science,” she says with a characteristic snigger, “It was just a matter of really looking into it and figuring out what I liked.” I did think she’d be loath to acknowledge that the physical transformation had an impact on the way she sees herself, but, nice surprise, she’s matter-of-fact about that too. “I knew I was attractive, and that my personality overtook my looks,” she says, “But I now feel pretty and confident too — maybe that’s the difference.”

 

What she does continue to not care about right now is how you feel about her lack of professional ambition. She edged away from the spotlight at 28, at the very top of her game,  while she was still filling box office coffers with films like Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001). The race to the top has just never held a fascination for her. “I never felt the need to be somewhere. Actually, I was the most ambitionless person,” she says, when I ask her about where she’d place herself on the Bollywood map right now. But surely she must feel some pangs for leaving behind a creative, lucrative space in which she appeared to thrive almost without any effort? “I kind of felt that way when my son was born,” she’ll admit. “But I was too preoccupied to give it much thought, and now it doesn’t matter.” 

Now her days are filled with organising her kids’ lives; there are play dates to be scheduled, school events to be coordinated and family holidays to be planned. The causes she supports too, take on the concerns of motherhood. The actor is the Indian ambassador for Lifebuoy’s global campaign (‘Help A Child Reach 5’) that promotes hygiene through regular hand-washing. Last year, she represented India for the second time at the United Nations General Assembly to promote the movement and start a conversation on the issues surrounding maternal and newborn health. (Promoting the cause was the only way she could be convinced to drag herself to Twitter and Instagram — “Otherwise, it’s so useless tweeting about my every move. I don’t have an opinion on everything from the weather to Modi, and who would want to know about that from me anyway?”). She likes to leave the business of movies and long shooting schedules away from home, to her husband. Even when it comes to personal entertainment, Kajol says she’d rather watch TV shows like NCIS and Sherlock than a movie. “I have always had a life that was beyond my work,” she says. “Thank god I can still put work at a lower priority than the rest of my life.”

It doesn’t bear asking Kajol what if the opportunities don’t come flooding after the next time she decides to stay away, because the answer is clear. This is a decisively satisfied life, calibrated carefully to bring maximum joy and meaning — and boy, does slow, mindful living look good on her. Ironically, it’s probably why she’ll never be out of a job, too; she’s much too self-assured to ever seem out of her depth once she decides to do something. “Everyone tells me I have a very boring life, but I have made my life exactly how I want it, and worked very hard to keep it that way.”  

Photographs: Tarun Vishwa; Styling: Nidhi Jacob; Creative Director: Prashish More; Make-up and Hair: Namrata Soni; Production: Parul Menezes; Assisted by: Neha Salvi & Veronna Parikh (styling)

Featured in ELLE India's August 2015 issue. On stands now. Click here to subscribe to the digital version