The last actress to enjoy superstar status in Hindi cinema, perhaps, has been Madhuri Dixit. Taking over from Sridevi as the numero uno heroine of Bollywood, following the thumping success of Beta (1992), Madhuri ruled Hindi filmdom for rest of the decade. She is that rare performer, who has it all – stunning beauty, a dazzling smile, phenomenal histrionic ability and indelible dancing skills. Sadly though, in spite of all this, Madhuri never quite reached the critical heights of a Madhubala, Nutan, Meena Kumari or Nargis, who featured in several films that are now regarded as classics of Indian cinema. This is because Madhuri’s best years at the top were coupled with them also being dire years in terms of quality filmmaking in Bollywood. Sure, she excelled in most of her films, often rising way above the script, but it has to be said that a large percentage of these films are trite and are eminently forgettable. I would, in fact, say that Madhuri’s achievements are perhaps more commendable because of this very reason but let’s be clear. When one thinks of Ms Dixit, the first thing that comes to mind are not her performances but her fantastic song and dance sequences. In that respect at least, she has been considerably luckier having her share of some truly well-choreographed dance sequences where she has shone beautifully.
Madhuri was born on May 15, 1967 in Mumbai in a typical middle-class family, the youngest of four children. She did her schooling at the Divine Child High School in Andheri, a suburb of Mumbai. Aspiring to be a microbiologist, she then took admission at the Sathaye College for her BSc degree. Madhuri had shown an inclination towards the creative arts from a rather young age, training in the Kathak dance form for eight years and taking active part in dramatics while in school. It was when she was studying in college that she got her first offer to act in films and from the prestigious Rajshri banner no less. The film was Abodh (1984).
In Abodh, directed by Hiren Nag, Madhuri plays the central role of a naïve, childish, young, small-town girl, Gauri, who gets married. But her husband, Shankar (Tapas Paul) realises she is still too young and is unable to consummate their marriage. Through the course of the film, we see how Gauri finally matures and realizes the true worth of marriage and intimacy . Despite a decent enough performance by her, the film was a dismal failure at the box office. To make things worse for her, the same year, she also acted in the pilot of a proposed TV serial, Bombay Meri Hai, only to have the Indian national television channel, Doordarshan, reject it! She also did some modelling and was thought to be the next most exciting face to take over from Kitu Gidwani on the Indian modelling scene but Madhuri’s priority always was film.
By now Madhuri had discontinued her studies to concentrate on a career under the arc lights. But the going was tough. Playing the second lead to Meenakshi Seshadri’s heroine in Awara Baap (1985) and Swati (1986) did nothing for her career. She did a dance number in Subhash Ghai’s Karma (1986) and Ghai, most impressed by her, decided to re-launch her in a big way. He deleted her dance number from Karma and advised her to stop doing smaller roles thereafter. As a result, Madhuri pulled out of Sadaa Suhagan (1986), where she was playing the second lead opposite Govinda, after having shot briefly for the film. Ghai, meanwhile, put out a massive publicity campaign for her in trade magazines and the like, announcing the birth of a new star.
The big, big breakthrough came with N Chandra’s Tezaab (1988), co-starring Anil Kapoor. And with the super success of the Ek Do Teen song and dance number, Madhuri, showing herself to be a dancer par excellence, had the entire country grooving to her beat. Choreographer Saroj Khan, in a later interview, mentioned how impressed she was with Madhuri’s dedication. Madhuri rehearsed long and hard for the song with Khan for 17 whole days. The results were up there on screen. A new star was born. But to be fair to Madhuri, Tezaab was not all about her dancing. She gave a fine performance as a young girl, who is exploited by her alcoholic father to perform and earn for his lifestyle and of course, his booze. Tezaab also cemented a fine partnership with her leading man, Anil Kapoor – they went to a series of successful films together – and in particular, her choreographer, Saroj Khan.
Thereafter, Madhuri consolidated her position in the film industry. She rose steadily to the top ranks to challenge the then reigning queen of Bollywood, Sridevi. It helped that she had at least one big successful film every year post Tezaab. So if in 1989, there was Tridev and Ram Lakhan, the latter directed by Subhash Ghai, 1990 saw her win her first Filmfare Award for Best Actress playing a feisty young girl, who first clashes with Aamir Khan before falling in love and eloping with him in Indra Kumar’s Dil. 1991 saw her getting big time success in the love triangle, Saajan, co-starring Sanjay Dutt and Salman Khan and the thriller based on The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978), 100 Days. With her incredible dancing skills, naturally she also began getting more and more memorable songs and dances filmed on her such as the ‘Koli’ dance in Sailaab (1990) or the Thamma Thamma Loge number in Thanedaar (1990). In this period, she also garnered critical acclaim for her fine performances in Bapu’s Prem Pratigyaa (1989), Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Bombay underworld saga, Parinda (1989), and Nana Patekar’s Prahaar (1991). And then in 1992, came the biggie that reunited her with Indra Kumar and co-starring Anil Kapoor, Beta.
Beta would see Madhuri reach the very top, displacing the reigning queen, Sridevi. To say that she dazzles in the film is an understatement. In a strong, author-backed role, which got her a Filmfare Award for Best Actress, her second, she gives a brilliant performance as a young no-nonsense woman married to an illiterate man, played by Anil Kapoor. She takes on his scheming step mother and her mother-in-law, Aroona Irani, who has deliberately kept Kapoor illiterate so that she could control the family’s property. The confrontation scenes between Madhuri and Irani, each trying to upstage the other, are easily among the film’s major highlights. The highpoint, though, is undoubtedly Dhak Dhar Kare Laga, perhaps the most popular song of Madhuri entire career. It sees her at her seductive best thanks to Saroj Khan’s sensual choreography. The song’s popularity gave Madhuri the tag of the ‘dhak dhak girl’. Critics raved about her in the film saying she owned it and that it should have been called Beti instead!
Khal Nayak (1993), reunited Madhuri with mentor Subash Ghai. However, despite a strong performance by her as a cop, who goes undercover to catch criminal Sanjay Dutt, the film made bigger headlines for the Choli Ke Peeche Kya Hai song. The song and lyricist, Anand Bakshi, came under the fire as its lyrics were deemed vulgar and raunchy. In fact, a BBC report on the film said that the song “had all of India hot under the collar!” The controversy helped, however, to make the film a resounding hit and one of the biggest selling albums of the year.
The third Filmfare Award for Best Actress would come for a film that would reunite Madhuri with the Rajshri banner that launched her, Sooraj Barjatya’s Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! (1994), or as it’s better known, HAHK. The film, an ‘upgrade’ of an earlier Rajshri film, Nadiya Ke Paar (1982), saw Madhuri reach the peak of her career giving yet another superb performance. Be it the mischievous but strong minded independent girl who gives it to Salman as good as she gets or the woman willing to sacrifice her love believing she is doing the right thing, Madhuri is absolutely spot on, creating one of the more memorable female characters of mainstream Hindi Cinema. Her histrionics and dancing charmed no less an artist than the great MF Hussain, who made her his muse. He would not only do a series of paintings on her but would go on to direct her in a film as well, Gaja Gamini (2000).
HAHK proved to be a big trendsetter and extremely influential on subsequent mainstream Indian cinema of the 1990s as wedding songs and marriage rituals became a necessity in most Indian films thereafter. What’s more, the film become a yardstick for defining ‘Indian traditional values’ and its obvious affect on filmmakers like Aditya Chopra and Karan Johar cannot be denied. Leave alone films, many real life weddings in India began having the same functions and same games shown in HAHK with women all over the country copying Madhuri’s outfits in the film as well!
While no doubt, Madhuri had proved there was no matching her when she was in her element, if there’s one thing her career lacked, it was a true blue quality film with a strong script and a role which called for a genuine performance. Sure, she was great in the films she had done but these were largely rising-above-the script acts including Beta, Khal Nayak (1993), HAHK, Anjaam (1994) and Raja (1995), a hat-trick of hits with Indra Kumar, where this time the critics and audiences said that not only should the film be called Rani, it should actually be called Maharani! Fortunately for Madhuri, that quality film did come her way. It was Prakash Jha’s Mrityudand (1997).
A powerful, feudal tale of patriarchy and gender-inequality, Mrityudand sees Madhuri’s greatest ever performance by a mile. She is in blazing form as an educated, young girl who is married into a conservative, oppressive, male chauvinistic family in a village in Bihar. As she witnesses the injustices of her upper class family, particularly on women, within her family and in the village, she refuses to be cowed down and takes the fight to the men. It is a superb act by Madhuri, who stands up and matches a veteran actress like Shabana Azmi scene-for-scene. Though there were strong feelings that Madhuri was a shoo-in for the National Award for Mrityudand, unfortunately for her, she was pipped to the post by Rituparna Sengupta and Indrani Haldar, who won jointly for the Bengali film, Dahan (1997).
She did, however, get the Filmfare Award for Best Actress, her fourth, for Yash Chopra’s Dil To Paagal Hai (1997), co-starring Shah Rukh Khan, Akshay Kumar and Karisma Kapoor. The films sees Madhuri cast as a Mills and Boons type heroine, who is waiting for her prince charming and who is convinced he’s there for her. Sure enough, he is and he’s Shah Rukh Khan! However, the film itself is longwinded and in spite of having its moments, is unsure if it wants to be an Aditya Chopra film or a Yash Chopra film and is an uneasy mix of the old and the new. While Madhuri is admittedly too old for the role, (she looks extremely awkward in those purple leotards) and has the disadvantage of playing off against a young, svelte Karisma Kapoor, she still more than compensates with her performance. See her in the climactic theatre scene and you know you are seeing an actress in total control of her craft. The film also helped her get out of a prolonged box-office slump post Raja and in a rare moment of emotion, Madhuri made it a point of holding up her award and dedicating it to her critics, who were saying her best days were behind her.
Sadly for Madhuri, none of her subsequent films that followed made much of a mark. Pairing opposite younger heroes like Akshay Kumar, Ajay Devgn and Saif Ali Khan, proved to be an unsuccessful move, only highlighting the fact that she was ageing. She still scored big time in Pukar (2000) and is the one redeeming factor in Lajja (2001), both films directed by Raj Kumar Santoshi. Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas (2002) saw Madhuri easily give the best performance among the cast in the film as the courtesan Chandramukhi but beyond a point, all the actors are defeated by the loud, overblown treatment given to the film. Still, Madhuri won her fifth Filmfare Award for the film, this time as Best Supporting Actress. By now she had become such an icon that a film telling the story of a struggling actress wanting to make it big was titled after her – Main Madhuri Dixit Banna Chahti Hoon! (2003).
Following Devdas, Madhuri took a break from the film industry. Earlier in 1999, she had got married to UCLA-trained cardiovascular surgeon, Dr Sriram Nene, based in Denver, Colorado. She settled there with him to concentrate on raising a family. The couple have two children Arin, born in 2003, and Ryan, born in 2005.
After a five year break, Madhuri finally returned to the silver screen with Anil Mehta’s Aaja Nachle (2007).
Madhuri returned to India in 2011 with family, but has done just a handful of films since – a dance number in Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (2013) and full fledged roles in Dedh Ishqiya (2014), Gulaab Gang (2014), the Marathi film, Bucket List (2018), Total Dhamaal (2019) and Kalank (2019). To be honest, it has to be said that the famous Madhuri spark has been missing from most of these films. In fact, post her return to India, she has been more visible on television as a celebrity judge on dance-based reality shows than on the big screen. Which is a pity. For artistes like Madhuri are rare and deserved to be seen more frequently where they rightfully belong – under the arc lights and up there on the silver screen. With the right project, of course.