By Arundhuti Banerjee
By the time I met Preity Zinta and Manisha Koirala, both of them transformed themselves — it would be perhaps, more apt to suggest life transformed them — into two inspiring women of Indian cinema from being mere ‘Bollywood heroines’.
I met Manisha the first time, when she came back much stronger, after a long battle of cancer. Preity is happily married now, enjoying her life as a cricket entrepreneur and trying to find her space in movies that she once left voluntarily.
As the business of cinema has changed, there is now a carefully crafted strategy to build an image of every new talent introduced to the entertainment world.
It is doubtful that today, someone would just go with the flow and become a star like Priety Zinta did in the 90s. The bubbly girl of Liril soap, who could be turned into a girl next door in Cadbury Perk to the one who asks the male protagonist with utmost wit and innocence, “Are you virgin?” in her debut film and essay an unmarried pregnant college student in Kya Kehna — has to be a special talent. The only image she established in her career as an actress was the image of a camellia.
Now, harking back to the past, you realise how influential she was as an actress. As a baby, after watching the Liril ad, I tried the soap and the slices of lemons to dance over my hands and back, exactly like it was shown on TV. I ended up ruining the soap followed by a solid scolding from my mother.
I also managed to peeve mom in another creative way after watching the Cadbury Perk ad. I would take out the chocolate bar, take a bite quite close to her ear and ask her “Are you getting that munching sound like it shows on TV?” Mom would first say ‘yes’ and because she said ‘yes’ I would keep doing it thinking I am entertaining her until she would push me aside, saying “Stop it, will you?”
Fast forward. I had to meet Priety and share all these. But by the time I did, she got married and almost left acting. I met her before the release of a ‘forgettable’ film but what was very unforgettable though is what she told me.
Her father, Durganand Zinta, was an officer in the Indian Army. He died in a car accident when she was 13; the accident also involved her mother, Nilprabha, who was severely injured and, remained bedridden for two years.
“As you know, my father was an officer in the Indian Army, he told me something I will repeat this for you as well because I am impressed by you! My father told me it does not matter if you are a boy or a girl. As long as both your hands, legs and most importantly, mind is working, you have the world to conquer. Nothing, really nothing, can stop you, if you are a dreamer with a plan,” the pretty Priety told me at the end of that conversation.
My first introduction to a Nepali was the gatekeeper of our school and his wife. They both had tiny eyes and nose. As a child, I innocently presumed that’s how they looked.
The myth was busted when I once sat down with my grandmother to watch a film called Shohorer Itikotha featuring Mala Sinha. She told me Sinha was from Nepal. When I started haranguing her on how she looked totally different, grandma interjected and countered: “You don’t look like your mother, does that make you less of her daughter?” Even though it was a little tough for me to understand back then, I have a vivid memory of that chat.
One day, I saw Manisha Koirala and tried to copy her dance by clapping and shaking my legs to the beat of O’ Yaara Dil Laga Na. By now, I wasn’t surprised to know that she was also a Nepali actress!
The first-ever Manisha film I watched on big screen was actually a Bengali film titled Khela in which she played a Bengali wife.
Dil Se was the first-ever film of Manisha that I watched with a degree of attention. Her silent acting touched me so much that with that one film, she made an admirer out of me. I would stand in front of the mirror again and try to utter those lines without even understanding the depth of it, Jo ajnaabi desh mein so gaya, uska sab kuch kho gaya… (The stranger who went to sleep in the country, he would stand to lose everything) from Dil Se.
I remember how my mother was upset when the news came out that she was diagnosed with cancer. And then, after her chemotherapy when she made her first appearance in a TV interview…Ma saw her and sat down saying, “how could life be so cruel to this beauty? Oh God! Is she the same Manisha Koirala?”
Finally, I met Manisha in 2017 when she gave me the first interview for her comeback film Dear Maya. This time, the 90s star is an actress, a much stronger human being, with all her wrinkles, the vivacious smile and cosmic experience of a life where she encountered death, fought it and came out strong!
It is quite interesting to observe how in all her films post-cancer, she looked completely different in each of her characters. Starting with Dear Maya, I had to ask her, how comfortable she was to play an old lady, who looked so unkempt, haggard…and well, not glamorous at all.
She looked straight into my eyes, and answered with a smile, “Whether it is in Mani Ratnam’s Bombay in my no-makeup look or in other films where I wore make up, all my life, the critics and my fans, never fell short of words to praise my beauty. I am thankful…but I think from now, they would get to see me much more, that is beyond the surface.”
We continued that conversation of constant balance between the vanity of an actress and immersing herself in a character ignoring the vanity.
Perhaps, it only suits Manisha to say that she does not want to compromise on a ‘good role’ in a film and would rather sacrifice her vanity. Yes, she is the one who can confidently carry off a swimsuit onscreen at the age of 47 — as she did in the anthology Lust Stories for Netflix.
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