Beyond Ek do teen: Madhuri Dixit, the last queen of Hindi cinema
Madhuri Dixit, the last of the queens of Hindi cinema, possesses just the right mix of elements to change the notion of timelessness
In the universe of popular Hindi cinema, where timelessness means two totally different things for men and women, there are only a handful of actors that have what it takes to make new rules. For the leading men, timelessness means the ability to play college students way into their 40s or prance around with heroines who are younger than their daughters. For leading ladies, the concept of timelessness means the films they did two decades ago are still worth watching. In the middle stands Madhuri Dixit, the last of the queens of Hindi cinema, who possesses just the right mix of elements to change this notion.
For someone who arguably would be considered the last of the divas in the traditional sense of the word, before Hindi films transformed into Bollywood, Madhuri hasn’t been able to do as much justice to the honorific. Ironically enough, in spite of her immense popularity and star power, Madhuri Dixit rarely had films written specifically for her while she was ruling the roost or even now when her stardom is enough to evoke interest in projects.
There was a time in the late 90s, following the success of a Tezaab (1988) or a Ram Lakhan (1989), when she was pitted against the reigning queen bee of commercial Hindi cinema, Sridevi, and for a while, the intense competition between the two had pushed all other heroines into an inconsequential league. Even the trade had nearly split in the middle when it came to them, and people like Saroj Khan, make-up artists and costume designers had to willy-nilly choose a side. In fact, Saroj Khan has even mentioned how the two would push her to give her best steps to them, and she, in turn, would tell both to fetch her the Filmfare for Best Choreography on alternate years. Khan was the first-ever recipient of the award with Tezaab’s 'Ek do teen' and won it the next two years as well for Sridevi’s Chalbaaz number 'Na jaane kahan se aayi hai' and then Madhuri's hypnotic 'Hum aaj kal hai intezaar' in Sailaab (1990).
At the onset of the 1990s, the surge in Madhuri’s popularity and the dip in Sridevi’s almost happened simultaneously. Dixit had huge hits such as Dil (1990), Saajan (1991), Beta (1992), Khal Nayak (1993), Hum Aapke Hain Koun…! (1995) and Dil To Pagal Hai (1997) and the only Sridevi films that one can recall from this period are Lamhe (1991), Khuda Gawah (1992) and Laadla (1994). There were very few peaks left for Sridevi to conquer. After all, how many heroines can reduce their male co-stars to supporting actors (Khuda Gawah, Chalbaaz) or inspire filmmakers such as Yash Chopra to come up with a role for her in Lamhe. While it’d be wrong to ascribe Dixit’s popularity to Sridevi running out of steam, it’d not be completely incorrect.
Unlike Rekha, for whom Hrishikesh Mukherjee came up with Khoobsurat (1980) or Hema Malini, who was the sole reason for Seeta Aur Geeta (1972) to become a reality, Madhuri only had a few occasions where films pivoted around her. Of course, it’d be foolish to reduce her fame and her screen presence to the success of songs like 'Ek do teen' or 'Tamma tamma' (Thanedaar, 1990) or a 'Dhak dhak' from Beta (1992), but for this writer, the only films that might have been developed with Madhuri in mind would be Saajan, Khal Nayak and Hum Aapke Hai Koun…!
In hindsight, one can’t imagine these films to be the same without Madhuri and Hum Aapke Hai Koun…! would probably be the only film that would impossible to imagine without her. The films that seemed designed for her, such as Sangeet (1992), Aasoo Bane Angaarey (1993), Dil Tera Aashiq (1993) and Yaarana (1995), are largely forgotten today. Even though one could squarely blame the rules that govern popular Hindi cinema for not being able to display fairness towards heroines beyond a certain age, Madhuri Dixit, too, needs to look beyond templates. Her refusal to play Sonam Kapoor’s mother in the proposed Hindi remake of Freaky Friday, where a mother and her teen daughter’s bodies are switched, seemed strange considering that she would have been more-than-perfect for the role.
Although Madhuri Dixit was one of the last superstars of Hindi cinema, she never carried the burden of her stardom. This is a trait that few with immense box office clout display, and in Madhuri's case this wasn’t exploited as much as it could have been, by filmmakers. This is exactly the trait that is seen in films such as Lajja (2002) or Devdas (2002) and the more recent Dedh Ishqiya (2014). The dexterity with which she could blend into the background in Lajja or not be overwhelming as Chandramukhi in Devdas and make Dedh Ishqiya’s Begum Para traverse finely between being desirable and diabolical, more than shows just how fine an artist she can be when needed.
These three films are separated by nearly a decade and the manner in which the diva and her deewane have embraced them show that Madhuri's eminence isn’t limited to an 'Ek do teen', 'Dhak dhak' or a 'Choli ke peeche' or a 'Maar dala'.
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