Not quite a superstar: The unbearable niceness of Madhuri Dixit

Sandip Roy

Jun 18, 2014 18:12:48 IST

When M F Husain died in exile his most famous muse Madhuri Dixit told a news channel about the “sadness that I feel for him that he was born in India but couldn't breathe his last here”. On being asked whether artists in India should have rallied around him when he was being targeted by his enemies, Dixit said “I think something should have been done in an organised way. Maybe something should have been done, something should have been said. But it didn’t happen.”

I don’t know what Dixit did or said at the time Husain was driven into exile but her reaction to his death in 2011 sums up both the secret to her longevity as a screen goddess and the limitation of her appeal. It is very proper, tempered, uncontroversial and oddly passionless. She is very un-Rekha in that respect.

I bring up the Husain anecdote because Raja Sen’s expansive profile of Dixit for Caravan’s culture issue devotes a lot of space to Gaja Gamini. Dixit actually seems most animated when talking about the “fabulous fabulous” Husain, sharing stories about Shah Rukh Khan’s utter befuddlement with his role in a painterly movie that took the “picture” part of “moving pictures” very literally.

Gaja Gamini was a muddled but ambitious project, and Dixit dazzled in it, turning in a performance that had no previous cinematic reference point,” writes Sen. “One reason she sparkled so uninhibitedly could be that Gaja Gamini was a purely artistic endeavour, made without an eye on the box-office. It is this strategy that may be Dixit’s ticket to greater prominence now.”

 Not quite a superstar: The unbearable niceness of Madhuri Dixit

Madhuri Dixit. AFP.

Sen’s story is not just about Madhuri Dixit the superstar of the 90s but raises the more audacious question about whether at 46, Dixit could become “the superheroine we have always longed for".

It’s up for debate whether we have indeed “always longed” for a superheroine but Dixit has chosen unconventional films these days – a vigilante in Gulabi Gang and a lesbian-ish poetry-loving empress in Dedh Ishqiya. Yet as Sen discovers from Dedh Ishqiya’s Abhishek Chaubey she did get cold feet from the first more explicit “lesbian draft”. It was toned down based on her fears though he admits the ambiguity made for a better film. But when Sen asks Dixit about the role not a hint of cold feet or the thought process that went into honing the part is revealed in her answer.

“I knew exactly what we were doing. There was a lot of ambiguity in it. We left it to the viewer to interpret it themselves, so it could be two women were fed up of the men in their lives and they want to be by themselves, or it could be something else. And I love that little ambiguity.”

It’s like Fire (1996) never happened.

Dixit’s determined uncontroversial pleasantness is like a Teflon armour that has helped her survive and make a comeback in an industry ruthless to its leading ladies. But it certainly makes her a daunting subject for a fine journalist like Sen trying to write about her. All the fire in the piece is about Dixit, there is very little of it from Dixit herself. She is the most unquotable of stars as if determined to say nothing that can become worthy of a pull quote. Caravan is forced into using something about having a family and kids being part of her dream as a pull quote. Very nice and laudable but it hardly screams “Read me”.

Instead it’s a Pervez Musharraf who is quoted as remembering Pakistani cricket fans at Sharjah chanting Madhuri de do, Kashmir le lo. Shah Rukh Khan calls her “the most solid man” he has ever met in the industry because she’s a “solid thinker, the most solid emotionally, a solid believer”. Apparently those are characteristics unique to men but say what you will, Khan, when he is on, is never boring.

But when Dixit and Juhi Chawla appeared together on Koffee with Karan to promote Gulabi Gang the sweetness overload was a little too Barfi. “Poised but too proper” was Mumbai Boss’ verdict about Dixit. Even Miss Malini’s list of five juicy revelations from that show are really all about Juhi Chawla. It also didn’t help writes Mumbai Boss that while Johar quizzed Sanjay Dutt about his alleged romance with Dixit, he has never brought up Dutt’s name even once in all of Dixit’s three appearances on his show. There’s something about Dixit that makes everyone back off into safe territory where a daring question is asking whether she’d agree to do a film without a script. The anecdotes from her directors in the piece are largely reverential e.g Dixit is such a pro she danced with a migraine.

Let’s face it. We are not nice people and we like our iconic stars to have messy lives. That’s why even now we are fascinated by a Rekha or the long-dead Meena Kumari. A Suchitra Sen preserved her glamour by locking herself out of sight resulting in a sort of media cat-and-mouse game over the years with a journalist disguising himself as a hospital orderly to snap a picture of her. Even our male superstars like an Amitabh Bachchan, despite his current Father Time persona, have had colourful lives. Of course no one can grudge Dixit her happiness but there is something oxymoronic about the “happy superstar”.

Dixit has carefully cultivated a kind of niceness both as a leading lady and as Mrs Nene shopping in Denver in her tracksuit. She might have broken the glass ceiling as an actor, enjoying higher billing than Salman Khan in Hum Aapke Hain Koun, but Sen admits it didn’t “pave the way for other women” and a Kareena Kapoor and Deepika Padukone still get less than half of what “a second-rung hero- think Shahid Kapoor or Imran Khan-makes per film”.

The only slightly arch jab Dixit manages in the entire profile is when she talks about Beta, where she starred with, and outshone, Anil Kapoor. “Beta should have been called ‘Beti’ people tell me,” says Dixit but says nothing more about the challenges she faced when top actors were wary of sharing screen space with her because she was getting too big.

Her diplomacy has helped her survive and remain in the industry’s good books but the reinvention of Madhuri Dixit is going to be a challenging project. While she is beautiful, danced like a dream and could emote, her appeal seems very rooted in her heyday as the pin-up girl of that generation. There’s just something missing when it comes to that X-factor that makes for a superstar. Perhaps what she needs to do is loosen up a bit and I am not talking about the calculated risk of a Gulabi Gang.

Dixit glows on screen but a glow is a steady dependable kind of light. A superstar is different. A superstar must twinkle, sparkle on and off, even erratically, giving us hints of the fire that burns at its core.

The June 2014 issue of Caravan is currently on newsstands. The Madhuri Dixit profile is not yet available online.

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Updated Date: Jun 18, 2014 18:15:00 IST