How did you become a part of the film industry? Photographer Gautam Rajadhyaksha played an important role in your introduction to films.
I really miss Gautam Rajadhyaksha, he’s not with us anymore, but he was instrumental to my journey. I have to credit Pandhari dada (Pandhari Juker) the veteran makeup artist, who is also not with us anymore. These two individuals played a significant part towards me being in the industry. Gautam had done my first photoshoot, which was also by fluke. I was on a holiday in Mumbai, and I was doing some other ad for a very close family friend. Gautam was shooting that and he saw me in front of the camera when I was very young, I was 15 years old. Gautam would keep telling me, ‘You have to do a shoot with me’, I told him I was on a holiday, I was just doing this one bit. Since the equation was such that I couldn’t say no, and I wanted to do it, he convinced my parents for the shoot. While we were in Mumbai, we’d dedicate one day to him. I still remember I went to his house and he organised the make up. Mickey Contractor did my hair and Padhari dada did my makeup. For me everyone was new, I didn’t know who was who. I did that shoot, I had never done anything like that before and I was my playful self.
What happened after the shoot?
I came back to Delhi. After almost 4 months I got a call, Pandhari dada said that Gautam had shown my pictures to filmmakers for a film that was being planned with Salman. Dada said, ‘It’s called Kurbaan and they are looking fresh faces’. He said I had been shortlisted, but I would have to come to Mumbai for a screen-test. All I heard was Salman Khan and that was it. I got after my parents to let me go, I’d do this one film and that’s it, if I get it that is. My parents gave in and I came with my mother for two days. I went for the screen-test and there were so many girls there, I was quite put off, because I thought I wouldn’t get a chance. There were some nice, beautiful, tall girls. I went in when my turn came, my mother wasn’t allowed inside. There was a small room where the director, producer and a lot of team people were present. First, as I walked in I was nervous, and they asked me to speak a dialogue, but I hadn’t done anything like that before. I told them I was happy to dance, so they played some music and I started dancing in whatever way I could. They just smiled and asked me to wait outside. I remember coming out and telling my mother what happened inside, and one assistant director came and asked all the other girls to leave. I was sharp and I thought I had bagged the role, because they had asked everyone else to leave. My mother told me to just sit and keep quiet. Within 15 minutes they came and told me I was on for the role. That’s it. I couldn’t believe it. While shooting the first schedule in Mumbai I got my next film with Mehul Kumar, Meet Mere Man Ke and then suddenly after that I got Khiladi and then Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar and then there was no going back.
After Kurbaan, were you at all resentful that you were asked to leave the 1991 film Narsimha, with Sunny Deol and Dimple Kapadia?
Yes I was pretty put off with the incident. More than anything it hurt me because I had not even begun, and I was thrown out of films. It was quite a controversy, it made it to the headlines, that Ayesha Jhulka was replaced, that hurt me a lot. But I have to give credit to my family, the support system I had in terms of my parents, my sister and the people around me. Everyone came to my rescue, and the biggest rescue was the team of Kurbaan. They said to wait till our film came out and everyone told me to not feel bad. With their support, I came out of it pretty fast and my journey began when Kurbaan released. It was a box office hit and everyone was talking about me. In fact, for Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar, Mansoor (Khan) saw a song from Kurbaan and finalised me for his film. He went to the editing room, saw one clip of the song, and said she’s the girl. That’s what he told Nasir ji (Hussain, producer), not to me directly because he was always a shy guy. It was all meant to be.
1992 was your year. You had two back-to-back films, both blockbusters. Let’s talk about Jo Jeeta first, you played a girl who works in her father’s garage, fixing cars. We’d never seen an actress doing that on celluloid. Most portions of the film were also reshot, at any point were you anxious about the fate of the film?
That was like a dream, and I can never forget most of it, even though so many years have gone by. It feels like just yesterday, because the film is alive even today. It’s so strange that even when I travel abroad, in the strangest of places, people recognise me with that film. I cannot take Jo Jeeta out of my system, ever. From day one, when I went to meet Nasir ji in his office, I was so privileged to have met him, and spent time with him. He was so sweet. It was so unlike what I thought about the industry and its people. He just asked me if I would like to have tea or coffee as a courtesy, and I said I’ll have tea. My mother nudged me, we’ve come to such a big personality’s office, and then I told him I asked for tea so that I can’t spend more time with you, while sipping tea. He started laughing. The Jo Jeeta set was a place of learning for me. Even though I was young, I had a lot of fun. At that time, I was childish, everything was like a picnic for me. Every set was all about fun because I used to enjoy working so much. I enjoyed meeting so many new people, and trying to take instructions from my director, and trying to do my best with the take. However, Mansoor was different, he was so clear with what he wanted, there were discussions, there was explaining of the character so well. Everything was so lively, there was food coming from their house. There was a lot of togetherness, pranks by Aamir, him running behind me and I running behind him. We were like kids on set. Honestly, Mansoor was very clear with whatever he shot and saw. If he was not happy with it, he made certain decisions. When we reshot scenes, as an actor I didn’t feel anything. For me, I forgot that it was being reshot, because it was a fresh thing that I was doing.
Talk to us about the cult song Pehla Nasha. It was a first for Indian cinema, where the song was shot in high-speed and slowed down on edit.
hat was a new experience for us. Firstly, I was new, and then this technique which I had never seen. I used to ask silly questions, like if it’s high speed, will our lip movement also have to move at high speed? It was Mansoor and Farah who had conceived it, and it was beautiful. The memories are still so fresh.
Two weeks after Jo Jeeta, came Khiladi, another huge success. Your chemistry with Akshay Kumar was liked by all. And to think at that time there were no distributors for the film.
I would give all the credit to Abbas Mastan. There was so much tuning, it was like they were working with a rubik’s cube, they knew exactly what they wanted. They were so sure and convinced that what they were doing was the right thing. In fact, for the actors of Khiladi, there was tuning among all of us because we took it in fun. We thought everything was funny. I think that added lightness to the film. We didn’t even know what was going to get cut from where, and which portion of the film would get joined where. I still remember we were shooting with Johnny Lever for a scene, where he had kids, and he says mere chhote chhote bachche. It was in Madh Island and the whole night Johnny lever was at his best, entertaining us. We were just laughing and the a murder sequence was being canned. Again, it was the producer Ratan Jain and Abbas Mastan who were so sure, because we were too young to even understand. But yes when the story was narrated I could tell it was different. But to analyse the whole thing in earlier times, I think I was too young to do it. I never used to put my head to such things either.
In the 90s there was a lot written about cat-fights among actresses, what was your equation with your co-stars and contemporaries?
I think it was hyped beyond the obvious. Maybe we were also childish, and sometimes there would be small little things. There wouldn’t be cat fights, but there would be complaints to the director or the producer. I really think it was blown out of proportion.
I was very fond of Divya Bharti, and so was she. She used to say ‘I’m in love with you’. We were neighbours and would connect often. We did a film where we played sisters, it was called Rang. We were very close, though we wouldn’t meet that often, but there was a connection. I did Waqt Hamara Hai with Sajid (Nadiadwala), and she would come to the set and say, ‘Ayesha has to do this film’. Then there was Mamta (Kulkarni) who was in the same film. Why don’t people talk about Divya Bharti, who went out of her way and let me do Waqt Hamara Hai. She used to come on my set in Mahabaleshwar. She would come and give me her bindi to wear. She would buy the same pair of shoes for me that she’d got for herself. These are things people don’t know about and these are such beautiful friendships. When we were shooting for Rang, we had such lovely chemistry. I was one of the first few who got that news of her passing and I was numbed. I just couldn’t function. When I was dubbing for Rang, after a really long period, I just couldn’t dub. I was just crying and the dubbing was cancelled, almost three times, because I just wasn’t able to dub. The moment Inused to see myself with Divya on the screen, all the memories would come rushing back. People don’t talk about the beautiful parts of the industry. We’d never met before, but Divya and I just connected. I don’t think catfights were as important as love.
In the 90s, would you get bound scripts and dialogues in advance? You would even do 2-3 shifts in a day…
Yes, at times we’d do 3-4 shifts in a day. I rarely remember getting a bound script, and I never even asked for it to be honest. It was the narrations that were important. Either the writer or the director would come and narrate the script, and in that narration they would try and convince you that your part is the best. And that was highlighted. So you have to decide at that point whether you want to do the film or not. But like I’ve said before, the kids today are very smart. Nevertheless, it was a lovely time – there was no pressure, of course the films that don’t do well are always spoken about and are called mistakes, but no one knows the formula to a hit film, even today. So you try to work to the best of your ability, you try to select the right film/subject and you do various films for various reasons. Khiladi was just meant to be. That is one film where we went all out. We went to the theatres, with mics and asked people did you see the film? Did you like it? Who did you think was the murderer? Despite being the film’s actors, we did that outside theatres. It was a different time. We put up posters, we did the campaigning ourselves, and then we went into the theatres with the public, to see how they were enjoying the film and at what point would they blow whistles. It was a different kind of excitement and the teamwork was different, today things have changed.
Do you recall the reactions in the theatres when Anant Mahadevan came with the knife from behind?
People used to scream peechhe dekh, they would yell at my character, ‘Look! he’s behind you!’. We’ve heard that and it was funny. I remember Gaiety, Galaxy and Gem in Bandra had Kurbaan, Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander and Khiladi, all playing at the same time. It was a lovely week for me.
A lot was actually spoken about your ethics, during the Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander climax, where you were badly injured on your forehead, yet you completed the shoot. In Khiladi you permitted Akshay to spit water on your face. Did you at any point resist, or say that you were not comfortable and not shoot?
I strongly believed then and believe it even now, that if you have taken on a project you have to surrender yourself to your director and your team. Have faith in them and just do what they are telling you to. Yes, when it comes to the don’ts, you must say establish don’ts before you get onto the set, or before you sign the project, which I have. I have also had my restrictions, that I would not wear a particular costume, or not be comfortable doing certain scenes. I have also had those don’ts, but not after coming on set. Once I decide to do a project, with all the clarity, then I would go all out, surrender myself, try to be punctual, try to be the director’s actor, and I don’t like to throw tantrums unless I am being troubled unnecessarily.
Case in point Prem Qaidi, where you were to have an introduction scene in a bikini, and you said no to that. Did you at any point think, or re-think that decision?
I felt bad that I had to say no, but then unfortunately, my comfort was most important, and I really wouldn’t have been comfortable because it was a very big film for me to have lost. It was a very big decision for me to say no. I took a lot of time to say no, but time and again when I asked myself, can I do this, the answer was always no, so I had to say it.
You’ve also said no to Phool Aur Kante and Roja, which made Madhoo a huge star. It’s said that you didn’t have dates at that time. Were you upset with that decision as well?
Yes you do feel upset, not because the films have become hits and then you feel bad about it, but certain times you were stuck. And when you are new people don’t adjust that easily. You can’t have everything in life, so you have to be happy with what you’ve got. I had to choose Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander over the other films, I couldn’t help it. I wish I could’ve taken all three, but I couldn’t.
Did success ever affect you?
imes have changed. Back then, I was just happy with the success, and I was just happy doing more work. I don’t know how time flew. I didn’t plan anything. I didn’t even know I would make it, so I was not expecting anything more. I already had so much more than what I expected. My family kept me grounded, it’s very important to have people who can keep you grounded at that time, and my family was always with me.
Talk to us about your chemistry with Akshay Kumar. You two were a hit pair, and you have done almost 5-6 films together.
We did a lot of films together, and I think it’s very important to have good chemistry with your co-star. It helps a lot in terms of performance, the comfort that others have. If there is friction, if you are not gelling with one another, or if you are trying to catch hold of the other person’s performance, a lot of times that happens too, but it didn’t happen that way between us. I’ve had good chemistry with most of my co-stars but yes with Akshay it was the best. I’m so happy the way he has gone ahead and reached where he is today. It’s because of his hard work and probably, we are the few people who have seen that hard work. We’ve seen him actually working so hard, and he deserves all the success. I’m really happy for him.
You’ve worked with Salman, Kamal Haasan, Govinda, Mithun Chakraborty, Jackie Shroff among others, but who was your favourite co-star?
It’s a very difficult question but then again if you really ask me, some of them are very senior, I was a newcomer in front of them. Everyone in their own way is the best. When you speak about the chemistry and the equation, I think Akshay was the best, where I was being absolutely protected and helped. I had good chemistry with Govinda and Mithun da, Jackie was a different co-star. He is still a very good friend and well-wisher. Salman was always a prankster, but he had a soft corner for me. He would always appreciate me. Aamir was a learning experience, he was always a prim and proper man.