Amrita Rao on playing Meenatai in Thackeray, and why she hadn't signed a Bollywood film in last five years
'Meenatai was a very pure, pious, sacrificing, generous and a selfless woman. People have that image of mine in their hearts and mind,' says Amrita Rao.
Amrita Rao, best known for films like Ishq Vishq, Main Hoon Na, Masti, Vivah and Shyam Benegal’s critically acclaimed Welcome to Sajjanpur, was last seen on the big screen in 2013 releases like Jolly LLB, Satyagraha and Singh Saab the Great, after which she has been missing, and now, after a hiatus of about five years she is back with the new release, Thackeray, a biopic on the life of late Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray, with Amrita playing the role of his wife, Meenatai.
“But I haven’t had any disconnection from acting because I was doing television, ads and events. I debuted in television with the finite series, Meri Awaaz Hi Pehchaan Haiwhich was inspired by the singing legends Lata (Mangeshkar) ji and Asha (Bhonsle) ji. The only thing that I didn’t do in these five years was not attend any of the awards function, or film events, or have paparazzi chasing me. I knew that if I am away then I am away. I don’t confuse the industry, and now I am back,” said Amrita.
Amrita revealed that the makers left her with no choice of saying ‘no’, as they specifically had her on mind to play Bal Thackeray’s wife. Was she surprised when they came with the offer? “No, I wasn’t. I was overwhelmed. I didn’t even know that Thackeray was being made, whereas Nawazuddin (Siddiqui) had already shot for the teaser. I got a call from Sanjay Raut’s (producer and Shiv Sena leader) office that Abhijit Panse (director) and Rohan Mapuskar (casting director) will come and meet me. They came, they narrated the whole script and Abhijit sir closed the subject saying he was taking for granted that I am part of the film because they couldn’t see anybody else playing the part. He did not even give me the chance to say yes or no. But I really liked their confidence in me,” said Amrita.
“The other big compliment they gave me was, that Meenatai was a very pure, pious, sacrificing, generous and a selfless woman and people have that image of mine in their hearts and mind, and hence they couldn’t see anybody beyond me,” she added.
Meenatai never came into the spotlight and since there was no reference point for Amrita, she largely depended upon an exhaustive interview of Bal Thackeray’s sister which gave her some information on his wife. “Mr Raut and Uddhavji (Thackeray) also did a lot of search in many video libraries to get some footage of her but they couldn’t find any. I only had a handful of photographs and later I chanced upon one interview of Balasaheb’s sister after a lot of looking around. She has mentioned about Meenatai very briefly but that was a good clue for me. But to an extent I have worked the way I wanted to, I imagined a bit to give some shape to the character. It was more like gathering information, giving it your own imagination and then bringing out Meenatai to the audience.”
“But,” she continues, “I didn’t have to fictionalise much because Sanjay sir knew Balasaheb so well and he had also interacted with Meenatai very closely hence there was no one better than him to guide me. They were very clear that this is not a candy-floss representation of Balasaheb, he was known for his outspokenness and being controversial,” said Amrita, furthering, “I was wrestling with the thought of meeting the Thackeray family but first I wanted to gather my resources and if I felt the need then only I will meet. But there was no need and Balasaheb’s sister’s interview was sufficient.”
Further, explaining her apprehensions, because it involved age transformation from a teenager to a 60-year-old woman, the actress said, “I was stepping into the shoes of a very mature woman. I just had this slight fear that the audience shouldn’t start believing that I am that old because people go by the face value. Also, my character in the film has a wide graph from when Meenatai gets married to Balasaheb as a teenager and it goes on from her 20s to her 60s. So there were different phases of her life that I had to project. Thanks to the prosthetic make-up team, when I was in the get up of an elderly woman, Nawaz ji didn't recognise me."
“The other challenge was stepping from that girly space into a womanly mould. I am still my mama’s girl, whereas from the first frame itself you will see her as the mother of four-five year old kids. Her whole attire is so mature with those big size bindis, long braids, saris and elbow length blouses. I think those days women were more mature with early responsibilities, early family life and the way they dressed as well. It gave them different kind of maturity that our generation has not experienced. And finally I had to play the wife of an iconic politician, someone who remains a constant support of her husband, away from the spotlight and help him dedicate himself to the service of the people,” Amrita said.
Looking back at her career and ruminating over not making the most despite giving couple of super hit films like Vivah and Main Hoon Na, Amrita said, “Yes, I have seen the highest of high and had the first right of refusing. I have always done big films, worked only with big banners, with topmost directors. But there was a time, little before 2013 that the society and lifestyle was changing so fast and the onscreen requirement for actors was also changing equally fast. Cinema after all is slice-of-life and I found myself refusing big projects because I was not comfortable doing those kissing and intimate scenes. Hence I had to decline those films. Most directors took it very gracefully and they respected that my comfort zone was sacred to me,” said Amrita, who is now raring to go.
“It is a great time to be in movies than ever before. Two years back when I was working on the tele-series, the big topic of discussion was, when would Netflix come to India. It has come and taken us by storm. I would love to get into the digital space but I want to break my mould. I would love to play a negative role, do a thriller, murder mystery, suspense, horror... these kind of genres. Andhadhun was an inspiration. Manto was amazing. I still have to catch up on a lot of films,” she says.
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