As the static settles, the sprightly timbre of the voice saying, ‘Hi! How are you?’ wafts through the phone line. It’s a voice every Hindi-filmgoer, especially those who grew up in the nineties, will have lodged in the crevices of their memory – the voice of tomboy Anjali who teased Sharukh Khan mercilessly with taunts of a being ‘a cheater’ in the iconic 1998 hit Kuch Kuch Hota Hai; the voice of the bookish, demure Simran from Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995), India’s longest-running film, among many others. It’s a voice that plays across Indian households through relentless reruns of these Bollywood classics and has brought families to laughter and tears and gasps all in the span of a three-hour film.
It’s the voice of Kajol, one of Bollywood’s most beloved and adored actors. She’s one of the few Bollywood heroines whose stardom is on par with the Khans. Audiences never hesitate to flock to theatres to watch her in a film – case in point, the 2015 release Diwale, despite being panned by critics, raked in $18 million because people arrived at theatres in droves to watch Kajol return to the silver screen after a five-year hiatus.
During a short tete-a-tete with her, it’s easy to understand what makes Kajol not just a bankable actor but also an endearing figure once the grease paint comes off. She wittily skips questions about her upcoming period film Tanhaji - The Unsung Warrior, with actor husband Ajay Devgn: ‘I’m really excited about it! If I spout too much before the trailer is out, I might get whacked on the head by somebody or the other,’ she says, breaking into her signature throaty laughter. She throws you off your guard not by being aloof or curt but by being approachable.
And her secret to that, I discover mid-conversation, lies in her indifference to being on-screen.
‘A lot of people tell me they miss me being on screen,’ says the actress, who has periodically taken long sabbaticals from the arc light since 2001, at the acme of her career, to concentrate on her marriage and starting a family. ‘But I don’t miss it at all!’ she adds nonchalantly. ‘I just have a very full life – I have my family and other things that I’m doing in life and yeah, it’s fun. I’m good. I don’t feel at any point [the need to act] … and basically I’m quite lazy. I like my life the way it is, I like my cup of coffee at my table early in the morning …’
Acting excites Kajol but it doesn’t consume her life, she happily natters. A bookworm, she is said to read on set between shots, Kajol has three rooms in her house converted into libraries and is said to have agreed to marry husband Ajay on the condition that he’d build her a library to rival that of the Beast in Beauty and The Beast.
In the whirlwind of reading, raising daughter Nysa (16) and son Yug (9), engaging in philanthropic work, making public appearances and attending promotional events for brands she’s associated with, such as the leading jewellery group Joyalukkas (‘I like Joyalukkas as a brand; they speak to every strata of buyer and have different price ranges for different kinds of people’), she doesn’t forget to celebrate festivals. At the time of our conversation, she was busy prepping for a family-centric Diwali celebration.
‘We’re all running around doing this and that as well as working,’ she exclaims, referring to the fact that she’s on set shooting for Tribhanga, the Netflix film slated for a 2020 release that marks her foray into the digital space. She’s venturing into an area where nineties heroines who ruled the roost haven’t so far, making her the first amongst her equals. Then again, Kajol has always been a trendsetter and swum against the tide, from Bollywood’s conventional beauty standards by staunchly sticking to her unibrow since her debut as a 17-year-old in the 1992 film Bekhudi and nabbing successful leading-lady roles despite being shades duskier than her contemporaries, taking on a negative role of a spurned serial killer in Gupt (Indian cinema’s watershed moment where a leading lady turned villain) to her tongue-in-cheek candor and sass that earned her the title of a firebrand who shoots from the hip.
But she assures me that Tribhanga’s digital-only format or all-female cast (Tanvi Azmi and Mithila Palkar are co-stars in this multi-generational narrative) and director (actor Renuka Shahane) hardly tipped the scales in its favour. What compelled her to give the project the green light is the script: ‘honestly, [the medium] didn’t really matter. I think good content is good content and for me script is king. I found a wonderful script that I wanted to do and it just happened to be on a different medium from [traditional] cinema.
Surely the fact that Netflix originals and digital-only content tend to offer meatier and age-appropriate roles to female actors unlike Bollywood where youth is the gatekeeper to leading roles must have swayed her?
‘I just think that all these spaces right now – whether we’re speaking about digital or film – recognise actors’ [talents] and use them productively. It’s a wonderful time to be an actor right now in the business.’ Considering that her most recent celluloid outing in 2018, Helicopter Eela, was about a single mum in her 40s who aspires to be a singer, it’s fair to say that this isn’t the canny actor being politically correct, but is drawing from personal experience. Ageing out into oblivion has never been a concern for Kajol.
She goes on to add: ‘I definitely think the digital space has a lot more creativity going for it, in the sense it has less censorship so you can do a lot more in that space than you would be able to in a regular film,’ she says before pausing. The filler words that plug the ensuing silence sounds like she’s having an internal conflict before she finally clicks her tongue in resolution and says, ‘yeah, that’s basically it, you have more creative control over there.’
Before I can ask her more about Tribhanga and what sets it apart she fends me off saying she’s strictly been asked to not speak about Tribhanga.
Since she’s keeping mum on her professional projects, I take my chances and hazard questions about her life as a mum, circling back to the festive preparations that she’s juggling with professional projects. Surprisingly, the actor who is notoriously tight-lipped about her private life (as is her husband) uninhibitedly shares how compromise doesn’t factor into family time: ‘if I’m on set during one of the festivals, I try to pack up and go home as soon as possible. I do!’ she chuckles.
‘We all make that effort to be present for these important times, and we’re Indian, so we have a lot of these important days all year round that we have to be there for,’ she laughs. ‘Whether it’s Diwali, Holi, or a birthday, we’ll all sit and chill and spend time with each other in one space which while it sounds simple is not a reality considering everyone is otherwise in their own houses, living their own lives and doing their own thing. There’s not that much [opportunity] for social interaction – just have a cup of coffee and chill – with people you’re related to!’
One look at her Instagram account verifies this – it’s populated with pictures of Kajol attending Navratri festivities with her famous family members, right from her mum, veteran actress Tanuja, sister Tanisha, cousin and actress Rani Mukerji, director Ayan Mukerji who’s her cousin and director Karan Johar whom she counts as one of her best friends.
The actor animatedly describes how the previous evening, she and her family spent the festival of Karwa Chauth (a fast married Indian women observe for their husband’s well-being) moon sighting for 45-minutes ‘hoping, praying, wishing it comes out so we can end our fast!’
It’s reminiscent of the opulent, iconic karwa chauth scenes she’s acted out onscreen with Shahrukh Khan in DDLJ and 2001’s Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham – the couple’s onscreen chemistry has been the stuff of legends since they were first paired together in the 1993 thriller Baazigar.
‘I think more than any rituals, spending time together is what makes bonds and lifetime relationships,’ she says sagely.
But rituals do hold significance in her children’s life: ‘They enjoy doing the Lakshmi Pooja with us and lighting diyas and putting them out everywhere, especially since I told them the story about how Diwali [is the festival of lights] because everyone in [the kingdom of] Ayodhya lit a lamp to welcome back their king.
‘One of the best things my son said to me last year was, ‘mom, we won’t burst firecrackers anymore. We’re not helping the climate at all, we’ll light one phooljhadi (sparkler) and that’s it.’ For him, a kid, to turn around and tell me that was such a huge decision, and so we don’t do it anymore!’
Her voice crackles with awe typical of parents who realise their kids are growing up to be well-rounded, perceptive individuals. Perhaps Yug’s eco-consciousness is hereditary and learned behaviour –his aunt Tanishaa founded the NGO Stamp that promotes afforestation and mum Kajol is an ardent supporter. But Kajol, the parent, has never been one to scrutinise or overanalyse her children’s traits and behaviour – the media, to her consternation, does it enough and she doesn’t back down from calling a spade a spade. ‘Yeah, [star kids] are under too much scrutiny about how they’re supposed to be, have different, weird labels being put on them.’ She doesn’t spell it outright but she’s referring to the incident where her 16-year-old daughter Nysa was trolled online for her airport outfit earlier this year.
‘If all of this scrutiny was on a regular child, it would be considered bullying. It would!’ There’s an edge to her voice as she emphatically states, ‘we are celebrities but our children aren’t! They should be treated like normal children and given the same courtesy and space to grow, to do, to experiment and be exactly who they want to be and to try different things rather than criticizing and put a magnifying glass on everything they do.’
Having been shaped by mum and veteran actress Tanuja’s forward-thinking parenting and a childhood free from the flashes of paparazzi cameras despite hailing from a film family (her dad is filmmaker Shomu Mukherjee and maternal grandma Shobhana and aunt Nutan were both actresses) what advice does she give her kids when the find themselves under the media scanner?
‘It’s important to teach children that what matters is what they think of themselves. We [Ajay and I] reinforce their self-respect, and teach them good things about themselves. There’s nothing you can do for them apart from that.’
The star couple must have some solid parenting skills up their sleeves as daughter Nysa’s love for dressing up hasn’t been dented by unkind comments online. ‘Her favourite part of Diwali is getting dressed up,’ Kajol laughs. ‘When she was younger she used to hate it but now as a teenager she loves it. She tells me it’s because now she has better clothes to wear.’
Does her fascination with fashion take a leaf out of her mother’s soigneé appearances on the red carpet? Kajol reveals she’s partial to jewellery because of its versatility. ‘I love jewellery. It can either dress up or tone down your look and I love those sparkly, shiny things called diamonds in almost any setting, as long as they’re of a certain aesthetic. Like they say, diamonds [truly] are a woman’s best friend.’
She confirms that it explains her association with Joyalukkas: ‘Have you’ve met Mr. Joy Alukkas? He’s a wonderful, wonderful man to associate with!’ says the actress who’s famously known to only work with people she likes. ‘Oh yes, they also have some wonderful pieces in their collection and I like that as a brand ...they have different price ranges for different kinds of people. It’s meant for everybody.’
Just like Kajol and her films have been for the last 27 years.