by Shefalee Vasudev
Editor’s Note: Long before our Bollywood heroines became size zero there was Madhuri Dixit who reminded us choli ke peechhe kya hai. Shefalee Vasudev looks at the enduring dazzle of Bollywood’s only Mohini. Excerpted with permission from Bollywood’s Top 20: Superstars of Indian Cinema, edited by Bhaichand Patel from Penguin Books India.
Mohini, the name of the character which Madhuri played in Tezaab, means enchantress in Sanskrit. In Hindu mythology, Mohini is the name of the only female avatar of Lord Vishnu, a damsel who enthrals lovers, sometimes leading them to their doom. The earliest mention of Mohini was in the samudramanthan episode of the Mahabharata. Mohini stole the amrit (nectar) from the asuras, the villains, and gave it to the devas, the gods. This story is retold and recounted in numerous ways in different texts and puranas. Even in Bollywood.
Madhuri Dixit would become Hindi cinema’s only Mohini. Madhubala was mesmerizing, Waheeda Rehman engrossingly attractive, Hema Malini the ultimate dream girl and Rekha sensational, but Madhuri—oh, she was something else. An incidental sum total of desirable parts of moh (allure) and maya(illusion). In the post-liberalised India of the ’80s and ’90s, every big and small idea was in the churn of social transition. The story of the New Indian Woman, which would become a laborious cliché by 2000, had just begun to be written. On the one hand there was the clear emergence of the women’s movement through strident anti-dowry protests. On the other, even before fashion became an industry, female models were interpreting women’s liberation with their bold choices.
A bald Nafisa Ali, the lissome Lubna Adams, the stick-thin Mehr Jessia and the tall, dark Noyonika Chatterjee infused new ideals of commercial beauty into popular consciousness. The first Kamasutra condoms advertisement in 1991, shot by photographer Prabuddha Dasgupta and modelled by Pooja Bedi and Marc Robinson, wasn’t just daring, it was erotic. Never before had a female model been seen in an audacious sexual embrace. It upset the moral police. As did another commercial also photographed by Prabuddha, which had model Madhu Sapre, another middle-class Maharashtrian girl, wearing nothing but a python around her navel and a pair of Tuff shoes as she posed with her boyfriend Milind Soman.
That was a multilayered time in popular culture. It provoked both shock and awe. Feminists like Madhu Kishwar and Nandana Deb Sen worked hard to liberate women from the confines of body and beauty, and models worked hard to enslave them. Film heroines did neither. Hindi cinema had manufactured popular consent for the angry young man with Amitabh Bachchan’s undisputed reign, but hadn’t begun to script or record the women’s movement in any way. Nor was the flagrant indulgence of the fashion industry reflected anywhere except in the costumes of cabaret dancers. Leading ladies were compassionate women, not fashion models or feminists. Zeenat Aman, the sexy Zeenie baby of the former decade, had seen success and popularity, even envy, but hadn’t been able to recast the notion of womanhood in the minds of directors or audiences. Heroines still had to be Mohinis—beautiful, provocative, meaningful even, but nourishing and companionable, never wild or bizarre.
In 1989 both Yash Chopra’s Chandni with the sultry Sridevi, a trained Bharatanatyam dancer, and Subhash Ghai’s Ram Lakhan with Madhuri, a trained Kathak dancer, were released. Chandni left audiences awash in its romantic glow with the lovelorn twists of its story, but Madhuri in Ram Lakhan was the new moon. This was the kind of woman that India then was comfortable with—a noble enchantress; a flash of lightning between Madhu Kishwar and Madhu Sapre.
Madhuri was named Radha, not Mohini in Ram Lakhan. Same difference. Heartrending and evocative, she convinced audiences that seasons changed with her smile. Men lusted for her and women engaged with her at an emotional level. She had sexual shimmer, charisma, mystique and the nobility people searched for in the (ideal) New Woman. Comforting, but not numbingly conformist as a doff of the hat to modernity. Madhuri could beautifully depict all the nine emotions, the navrasas, of any filmi script with her dancing talent. Dil, her 1990 film with Aamir Khan, proved that when she expressed viraaha (separation) from her beloved, viewers felt something was wrong with the world. That was the popular and the critical perception as the role got Madhuri her first Filmfare Best Actress Award.
Most successful film stars have a web of creative people around them: writers, directors, dance directors, song writers and playback singers who work towards making them who they are. Sometimes they consciously create an aura or image around them; that’s how the life script of an actor begins to be written. In Madhuri’s case, directors and scriptwriters were dazed by her charisma initially but soon withdrew in relief. There was no need to change a film’s script for Madhuri or especially write one for her. They could go back to worrying about the New Indian Hero’s role. The heroine was taken care of by Madhuri’s natural grace. All big banners wanted to work with her, because of her easy heroine-ness and her dancing glamour…
As a heroine, Madhuri was neither the ‘imported’ Alpha Cat nor the Omega Kitty but a rare combination of ‘Hindustani sexy’. Not too much has been written about the heroine’s cleavage in Hindi cinema but if it were, Madhuri’s mention would be in the foreword. She had an anatomical kit bag, not a theatrical one. Acting prowess was seen as a subsidiary talent in Bollywood of the ’90s, just as well for her. Anatomical correctness may sound crude while dissecting a star’s appeal, but without its mention, Madhuri’s Mohinihood would be only partially understood.
Her smile was a perfect symphony as her eyes and mouth danced in tandem, darting between high and low emotional notes. This emotional notation of a smile distinguishes a real smile from a fake one, as California psychologist Prof. Paul Ekman noted in his outstanding study of the human face. First presented in the late ’70s, the study evolved over the decades as Ekman continued mapping the geography of the human face. The psychologist listed seventeen kinds of smiles as a part of that research that was made public in 2003, the year Devdas released. In a rare comment, Madhuri’s husband (she was by now married) said that he was stunned when he saw her smile in the film.
Madhuri didn’t just have an engrossing smile; she was also busty and voluptuous. Those were not the days of size zero, and well, Madhuri was bigger on the bust than even a size twelve; but her cleavage contributed to the way in which she got interlocked in the consciousness of the audiences. Sexy, yet ‘good’. In the Indian man’s psychological battlefield where sexy women are not good and good women are either desexualized or must be made so by marrying them, Madhuri brought a peculiar resolution of conflict. She was a combination of compassion and sensuality; unobstrusively desirable. Never come-hither.
‘Choli ke peechhe kya hai’, her jaunty, sexy number in Subhash Ghai’s Khalnayak, was fused out of this matrix—her smile and voluptuousness as well as the intense awareness she had of both these virtues. She played Ganga, a police officer—symbolically both holy and justice-seeking. But with the director’s poetic licence, Ganga was once again turned into Mohini in that song, biting her lip, heaving her chest as Alka Yagnik’s amorous playback voice and Neena Gupta’s steamy side act added fuel to the fire.
Madhuri became a powerful actress only later. She was first an enchantress with a wholesome figure and a heart-stopping smile—blessings which could be easily exploited on celluloid and in art. It also explains why painter MF Hussain made her his muse. Later in 2000, he would make a film called Gaja Gamini, ostensibly a tribute to the actor’s beauty but really a celebration of her femininity that combined the risqué and the conventional…
She was the potential number-one female actor even before the 1994 film Hum Aapke Hain Kaun, made by Sooraj Barjatya of Rajshri Productions, unleashed a frenzy in India. Fourteen enjoyable songs stuffed into a family saga soaked with weddings, finery, truth, loyalty, love, longing and motherhood; our Mohini cavorting through the navrasas of a young woman’s life as Pooja, strung between love and viraaha; an unprecedented run at the box office till then and the film wrote history. It brought home another Filmfare Award for the leading lady.
The purple crepe sari that Madhuri wore with a backless choli while dancing suggestively to ‘Didi tera dewar deewana’, raising Salman’s Khan smiling sexual distress in the film, must be given its due. It became ‘Indian fashion’. It lured desis and NRIs in droves. Manish Market in Mumbai or Lajpat Nagar in Delhi, designers or darzis, everybody was busy making clones of that purple sari and its lehnga-esque cousins. Local sari traders and garage boutiques realised that when embellished with sequins, shimmer and gota patti, the original six yards could become bestselling wedding bling. Shaadi fashion, the most unoriginal idea that rules the retail market today, was born. Madhuri saris are still around…
The Family Happiness Inc., formally inaugurated by Hum Aapke Hain Kaun as a school of cinematic exploration, didn’t just influence directors like Aditya Chopra and Karan Johar. It became inspiration in the life of the Indian television soaps. Till today, TV serials are reworked subsets of Hum Aapke Hain Kaun. Blingy saris and lehngas, kind uncles, bitchy aunts, men in kurtas with tassels hanging from their stoles, boondi laddoos, marigold flowers and rangolis, festivals celebrated with joy and ghee— that’s still the sum and substance of fictional TV. All held together by the bahu as the glue, goodness incarnate. That is a Madhuri construct of the perfect woman, a noble, beautiful, daughter-in-law. Unlike movies which have moved on to the ‘glocal’ streetsmartness and come-hither womanhood of Priyanka Chopra, Bipasha Basu, Katrina Kaif and Kareena Kapoor, TV soaps are still playing house-house in Madhuri’s memory.