Actress Bhagyashree is as unfailingly charming on-screen as she is off it. She made everybody fall in love with her some 30 years back with her first film, Maine Pyaar Kiya. Surprisingly, after cementing her status as India's sweetheart, the actress left the celluloid in a blink. Why? Because one she thought the adulation she earned at the age of 19 is momentary and second because she wasn't convinced if she's prepared to balance her personal life and give the kind of commitment an actor needs to sustain in the business. She may have not lived in front of the camera as much as she has spent time scrutinising the functioning of the industry. Now, in her 50's and three decades after her debut, the actress wants to rule hearts with a long inning in Bollywood.
In a freewheeling chat with India TV, Bhagyashree opens up about her ambitions, the perspective of the audience and filmmakers towards actresses in their 50's and how conditions have evolved for women artists from 1989 (when she made her debut opposite Salman Khan in Maine Pyaar Kiya) to 2021 (when she stepped in again with Kangana Ranaut starrer Thalaivii). Excerpts from the interview:
Your most recent release, Thalaivii, is garnering much appreciation. How are you perceiving the success?
I am lucky to have this release after a really really long time. The kind of response and appreciation that I've got for the film just gives me a way to connect to people and say, 'Well, I'm back and ready for more work'.
In a film like Thalaivii where there's an extremely strong protagonist, there are fair chances that it may dominate other characters. Were you at any given point apprehensive that your role may go unnoticed?
I'm quite secure as an actor. As long as you know that the script by itself has reasoning behind the character, an artist can show his or her presence in a single scene. As far as this was concerned, for a biography of Jayalalithaa, her mother had a very strong presence in her life. There were turning points in her life that happened due to her intense relationship with her mother. Having known that, the question of 'oh, it will be a blink-and-miss thing' was not possible. It was needed for character growth. When a script is strong, I don't think you need to feel insecure as an actor at all. Then it's more about how much you put in the role to get noticed. In my case, it worked and people did notice. However, due to the length of the movie, there was a lot that was shot but it had to be edited down the line. But I think it is fine. When you look at the big picture and see the graph of the story it is always in the editor's hand.
In the film, we see your character as a strong pillar to her daughter. How's your relationship with your son, are you both a team like Sandhya and Jaya?
No, I do not interfere in my children's career at all. I have given them a secure foundation and would rather interfere when it comes to them being nice people rather than what they do in their professional space. I would rather wait in the wings and clap for them from there. Children today need to be set free to realise their dreams and fly towards their sky.
There's a scene in Thalaivii where we see a disappointed Jaya when being a superstar she was offered a supporting role. Has there been a moment in your life when you wanted to play some other character in a project other than the role you were offered?
When Thalaivii came to me, I (AL) Vijay Sir told me there's Sasikala, Arvind Swami's wife Janaki Ramachandran's role and then there's this role of Thalaivii's mother. I asked him where he would see me. He said as a viewer this is where I would see you at. Since I was coming back to screen after a very long time and if that is what viewer's choice would be, I would want to give them what they want to see rather than what I want to take. It worked out perfectly too. I think you just have to go with your gut feeling.
According to popular opinion, the entertainment industry looks at middle age actresses with a different lens than their male co-stars and limit their roles. Do you agree to this?
I think the narrative of many stories and opportunities are changing now, which is also a reflection of society. Today we are accepting women in different positions where they are at. This reflection will eventually play out on screen also. We will see women coming out with different roles. We are seeing some changes too. Now, there are so many women on the (film) sets. Back then, when I was shooting for Maine Pyaar Kiya, it was an all-male crew. Today, you walk onto a set and you'll see men and women in a ratio of 60-40%.
Given the rise of releasing mediums like OTT, can we expect mainstream Hindi cinema to have more meaningful roles for women actors in their 40s and 50s?
It did limit roles so far. But again I believe that the narrative is changing. Because now the audience is exposed to a lot of international cinema. We have been stuck in our homes for the past two years and most of us have gone through streaming platforms. The kind of content we have seen there is very different (from the mainstream cinema). Today's script has to be content-driven to be liked by the audience. Now, it's not going to be a dictate of people saying, 'Yeh kahani aisi hee honi chahiye'. They will have to give the audience what they want. And if the audience wants to see real characters then you can't show a 25-year-old playing a 50-year-old or vice versa. Today when people look at me they say you look amazing the way you look at 50. If I can be an inspiration for other 50-year-olds then why not. I mean you can look at a 50-year-old on the screen and be like, 'Oh my God. I want to be like her'. Minds are opening up, there's acceptance, so it's a great space to be in. I look towards more scripts coming by.
Recently you shared that there was a 'hug sequence' in Maine Pyaar Kiya that you were apprehensive about in the initial stage and it was improvised keeping your comfort in mind. Many would think that was very brave of you to put across your point as a newcomer.
Honestly, I didn't have any reservations about speaking my mind. I wasn't this person who was dying to do the film. I didn't have this scare of losing it. So right from the beginning when Sooraj Ji (Barjatya) had narrated the script to me, there were so many points during the course where I said, 'I can't do this'. I was searching for excuses to not end up doing the film. We agreed to things to a level when he said, 'Bhagashree don't worry we'll do everything that you're comfortable with. We are not going to try to force you to do anything. We'll push you, yes, but not force you.'
There were a lot of times when we were sitting and convincing ourselves for things. We went ahead only when we were convinced. When we look back, the places where I put my foot down and searched for alternatives to show the same scene, are the ones that actually left an impact on the audience. Sometimes, some things always turn out to be good. At that point you might think, things are not working out, why she's acting so stuck up, this is the way things should be done but someone out there always plans for the right thing.
You also said you would not have given up acting after Maine Pyaar Kiya if you had the kind of learning you have today. What has changed now?
For one, I had no idea that this kind of adulation would come to me. I wasn't aware of it. I was completely lost and busy bringing up my family. Today, when I look back I see people remembering Maine Pyaar Kiya, talking about Suman, still showing love for the character I played some 30 years back. I do think to myself if this is what people feel now, how they felt at that time when the film had released. It must have been so crazy and amazing. But I had put myself into a bubble and not thought about these things. At that time I thought all this is momentary and it's going to go away. And if this happens I will be lost. I didn't want to be lost. I wanted to be in control of my life.
Second, we all know the celluloid, the silver screen or the film has a lot of inputs from everybody who's associated with it, especially the actors. Today so many people talk about nepotism or the actors who had the advantage to perform something on the screen. But they don't know how it is working in this industry. Every single person puts in a lot of effort and if you don't, you cannot reap its benefit. It's only the people of the industry who understand how much one has to go through into creating what people finally see on screen.
During the phase of Maine Pyaar Kiya, I think I understood how much I have to be into it and give up to sustain. If you see my contemporaries, you'll see many of them had late marriages, some had to hide their weddings, few probably gave up on their love, not had children or didn't even get married at all. There were all these situations in their personal lives. That was something I wasn't prepared to give up at that point in time. I didn't know how to balance it. Today when I look at Kareena Kapoor Khan, who can manage her home, do films, be a star as well as have a kid, it's a situation that has occurred today. People are accepting it now. Relationships have evolved where things can be balanced. Back in the day, it wasn't like that. I had to give up on a lot of things to continue after Maine Pyaar Kiya, which I wasn't ready for.
After Maine Pyaar Kiya there must have been a lot many roles that would have been offered to you. Now, when you look back, do you regret not doing a particular role?
Post the film, practically till five years after it every big movie that became successful was offered to me. I don't even want to go there. Doesn't make sense for me now to go back and think, 'Oh I wish I would have done that'. I want to see forward. Things have changed now. It was larger than life then, now it's more about being realistic. I have re-entered the space as a newbie and learner and looking for a long inning now.
When you say long innings, what are your expectations?
Honestly, I'd enjoy doing more work now. I just want to ask everyone to tell me about my films. What they like and what they don't and I will make that effort to put it across the next time. Also, don't forget Suman, she can rule your hearts even now.