Text by Ranjabati Das
I walk into the banquet hall of a suburban hotel where I am scheduled to meet the actor and cleanly miss her. It wouldn’t be unusual to find her nose-deep in a book. But today she’s sitting by herself and, like most of us, seems happy to be quietly tinkering with her smartphone to keep herself occupied. There is no entourage or the need to be the cynosure of all eyes, an anomaly in Tinseltown, where both are as common as the common cold.
Kajol has acted in less than 40 films in her 26-year-long career. And she took her first sabbatical post Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001), less than a decade into her career, never returning to full-timing since. But even though attention spans have only gotten shorter over this time — it’s down to eight seconds, according to current stats — Kajol is still in demand, going by her various brand endorsements and magazine covers. And looking at her track record, she will remain relevant irrespective of how her film fares and despite the sabbatical that is probably headed our way once she winds up the promotional activities for her latest, Helicopter Eela, her eighth serious venture in the last 17 years —11 of which have seen her resolutely missing in action.
What keeps you relevant today, I ask her. “I think it’s because I haven’t done that many films honestly. It’s the scarcity more than anything else,” she says lightly with that infectious laugh, throwing me off with her modesty towards her life’s work. Helmed by Pradeep Sarkar, Helicopter Eela is centred around a mother-son relationship, with Kajol playing Eela, the eponymous single mother to 20-year-old National Award winning actor Riddhi Sen, who will make his Bollywood debut with this film. The story follows Eela, a helicopter mom in every aspect, as she sets out on a journey of self-discovery after being urged by her son Vivan (Sen) to come up with a plan for herself, a plan B so to speak and preferably one which doesn’t involve him. “It’s a single-parent setup, so both the parent and the child know that there’s nobody else to turn to in any given situation; even for the smallest of things, like if a bulb has to be changed at 3 in the morning. There is no third person here, just this team of two. So, the bond is really tight, and they are almost like friends. The child also grows up a little faster,” Kajol says, decoding the Eela-Vivan dynamic.
Was she, like most teenagers, rebellious as an adolescent, I ask her. “When I was 12, my mom told me that she was going to believe that she brought me up well and have faith in her upbringing, and although I may have rebelled against everyone around me, I never rebelled against my mom.” Just as on screen, her eyes do a lot of the talking. She strikes me as someone who doesn’t take herself or her celebrity too seriously. It’s the first time in a while that she is doing a strong female-led film, with a co-star but sans hero, practically carrying the film on her shoulders. She disagrees with a disarming frankness. “Honestly, it’s never about one character. That would be a monologue, not a film.” What she believes in, she will give her all to and strive to excel in, whether it’s a film role or her real-life roles. So it makes perfect sense when she later tells me that she hasn’t done any regional cinema yet because she believed she would have a language issue, a factor that would prevent her from giving her best to a film. “VIP (2016’s Velaiilla Pattadhari 2) really broke that myth in my head and now I’m open to doing films in other languages.”
We’ve had films grappling with identity, mostly post breakups — Queen (2014), Dear Zindagi (2015) — but are scripts revolving around older women, say, a mother of a teenager, the new trend in Bollywood? “Actually it’s not a new topic, it is just told differently. It is narrated with a lot of humour, in a normal casual way and somewhere down the line you realise, ‘Shit, I agree with this.’ Something rings true and I hope when you come out of the hall, maybe you will like your parents a little more and maybe they will like you a little more. Parents may not necessarily always like their child’s behaviour and vice versa. Our tolerance levels are low today and not just with people we are related to. I hope this film will get us to look at those we are living with and even those around us with a bit of kindness.”
The conversation naturally leads to social media and selfies, filters, the narcissism it breeds and the unrealistic standards we set for ourselves that almost set us up for disappointment. “There is so much pressure today…” I start. “…to be perfect,” she finishes. Then: “You know I like my privacy and it was actually my daughter who said I must join social media. She gave me a 15-minute crash course on brand building and all of that. She was 13 at that point! ‘Look at Beyoncé’s social media!’ she would say. And I would be like, ‘So, that’s not going to happen in this lifetime, babe!’” It strikes me that Kajol has always been #NoFilter personified, ages before it became a thing on Instagram as a way to combat social media anxiety, a certified disorder that has exerted its vice-like grip over many. She’s the one star who never cared about diplomacy or doing what the script demanded of the heroine if it didn’t make sense to her. “I think it takes up too much effort to filter my thoughts and I don’t see the need for it. I’m too lazy to fake it,” she cracks up.
‘Intimidating’ and ‘blunt’ are words that have been used liberally to describe her; yet I’m unable to locate that person. I find her professional — she’s punctual, actually arriving before the scheduled time — and authentic. It’s a funny thing, authenticity, I think as I look into those eyes capable of magic. Nonconforming by nature, it can be a double-edged sword, especially when it belongs to a woman in a man’s world. “I don’t think anybody wishes me harm. Yes, there are some who are going to have an opinion regardless of what you do. So I figured I just need to be as true and connected to myself as I can be. If you’re honest to the person in front of you, that person will also give you honesty back. I think it’s just easier that way.”
And it’s with this clarity that Kajol operates in her various spheres, whether it is at work where she has consistently broken moulds or her private life for which she practically walked away from a glittering career without a moment’s hesitation. “I’ve pretty much done whatever I’ve felt like doing and I’ve done it when I’ve felt it to be the right time to do it. When I felt like I should get married, I did. When I felt it was the right time to have kids — not because of how old I was but because I felt ready — I did. I think as long as you’re not hurting anybody you need to stand up and take the call you need to take despite the fact that everyone has an opinion about how you’re doing it and whether you’re doing it right, especially people who love you (laughs). They may be difficult calls and not necessary popular ones but you have to stick to your guns and work through it. If you’ve made a mistake, you’ve made a mistake. Face that.” Simple but sound logic. I wonder if the character she essays, Eela, is also rooted and resilient like her. “Partly, in the way she blindly loves her son. I’m totally mad about my children. I do keep track of my kids and I do keep an eye on them but when you watch the film you will realise that Eela is just a little bit over the top — she is OCD, overanxious, over hyper. The title comes from the social media hashtag #HelicopterMom. That’s who she is, but somehow you forgive her for spying on Vivan, for checking his phone and generally making a nuisance of herself, because everything she does stems from love.” So has she ever checked her kids’ phones, I ask. “I’ve thought about it!” she jokes. “I’ve actually planned it out but haven’t carried through with it…yet! My daughter would just blast off like a rocket or something if I did that. But I’ve taught my kids well and if they make mistakes, that’s okay, I am here to guide them and hold their hand along the way. But children do need to stumble and fall and learn, and I’ll give them that opportunity as well.”
Being a parent sounds like the most formidable job, which makes me wonder whether everyone is cut out for it. Are there any prerequisites or traits that serve one well? “Even I had this question about how to be the perfect mom, but to all kids their parents are perfect no matter what they are like and they would never trade their parents for others, even if they can’t, for example, cook. Parenthood is an on-the-job process and I don’t think anybody is ever ready. It’s just something that’s thrust on you. There is no manual for it and nobody is going to tell you what to do. You get the shittiest, weirdest advice when you become a parent. And it’s tough being a parent – I wouldn’t want to say that this is applicable to mothers only — especially when you have to do something that is not comfortable for you but is in your child’s best interest. Or when you have to correct them and play bad cop — but you have to take responsibility and do it. Being an adult in the relationship all the time is really difficult. Love your child and do what is best for him or her and you can never go wrong.” And then she corrects herself, “Not ‘never’, but you won’t be wrong most of the time”.
Later I see her preparing for a TV interview; her hair and make-up artists are fussing around her and I catch her rolling her eyes in a good-natured way. So are you going on a break again, I had probed before parting ways although I already knew the answer. “I feel like I’ve been on a mental treadmill since January 1st [when she started working on the film] and have had no time at all,” she had replied. “I don’t think I’ll see anybody or do anything at all for a while and I can’t wait!”