Juhi Chawla celebrated her birthday on November 13, 2020, and it set me thinking of my 34-year-long association with the star. Even after so many years, Juhi’s characteristic quote: “My philosophy in life is to laugh a lot; a good sense of humour cures a lot of fears”, still rings like peals of church bells in my ears.
I met her for the first time when I was a cub reporter and she was a fresh face to films. For a cover story, I had organised a photo session featuring a bunch of mid-’80s neophytes including Juhi, Rohan Kapoor, Karan Shah, Neelam Kothari, Atlee Brar, Khushboo and Rajan Sippy. Juhi was the first to arrive for the ghoda-gaadi shots at Marine Drive. But later, when the gang was still shooting pictures at the magically-lit art deco buildings near Churchgate, Juhi begged off, insisting that it was past midnight and she had to head home. Her prim Cinderella moment still brings up a smile.
Juhi cannot be sweet-talked into doing anything, but paradoxically can be accommodating in your hour of crisis. In the ’90s when I was the editor of Movie magazine, I would organise a ‘Talk To A Star Scheme’ in which a star came to our office on a pre-publicised date and had a telephonic gabfest with a multitude of excited callers. I launched this idea with Juhi but, on D-Day, her manager called to say that Juhi wanted to call off the teletalk because she had lost her pet dog, Lira, and was inconsolable. I was disappointed but, what do you know – a few hours later, Juhi arrived, sans makeup and with puffy eyes from crying buckets. Somehow I even cajoled her into letting my photographer shoot pictures, which she complained about to me for months thereafter.
More sugar than spice
Juhi was that rare star who would call me up and guffaw about a cartoon series we ran in the magazine; she sportingly enjoyed even those caricatures that featured her. The only time she flinched is when we referred to as Juhi Chuhi because she was soft-spoken and avoided face-offs.
Indeed, in the 1990s when most heroines aggressively protected their sexuality, Juhi Chawla became the nation’s sweetheart with her scrubbed-clean and wholesome appeal. Never one for speeding down the fast lane, Juhi was sparkle in the age of sizzle and sweet in the era of spice. But I also remember featuring her on the cover in an image-reshaping photograph that had Juhi standing and facing a wall in black lace stockings, her head tilted towards the camera. Sceptics who thought Juhi couldn’t look sensuous did a double take.
For the first half of the ’90s, she ran neck and neck with Madhuri Dixit, holding her own with Hum Hai Rahi Pyar Ke and Darr. But she kept her sense of humor intact even during the lows. When things didn’t go her way one year, she quipped: “Last year my career was like a bowling alley, one pin got knocked, then another.”
Levity and gravity
Her bouncier-than-a-bad-cheque image in films was mirrored in her offscreen persona, too. Most conversations with her were peppered with her sparkling laugh – she was extremely witty and talking to her was fun. She could mock reprimand friend, co-star and co-producer Shah Rukh Khan with, “I hope you haven’t put only your shots in the film’s trailer.” Asked if she was dating Jay Mehta, she would sass evasively, “Curious, curious,” and, on being prodded, would let off a tonsil-tickling guffaw with a “All my dates are with my producers.”
“Fears and insecurities invade my mindspace because… here failure is very public, everyone knows if you stumble”—Juhi Chawla
She was light-hearted but never flippant. When I dedicated an issue of my magazine to women, she wrote a long heartfelt piece on actresses and insecurity, admitting, “Every actress in this industry is insecure; I am too. Fears and insecurities invade my mindspace because successes in the film industry are very unstable. And here failure is very public… everyone knows if you have stumbled.”
The passage of years has added gravity to her levity. She has faced major losses and it’s with a heavy heart that I have met to condole her. Fortunately, she has her family for support and her spirit. She is lace threaded with steel.
We haven’t met recently but still exchange messages through my reporters in the field or on WhatsApp, where she occasionally exchanges greetings but more often advocates for her pet passions: she sent me a message about not sleeping next to a cellphone to safeguard against the effects of radiation and her last missive was about her live conversation with an ayurvedic doctor. Her tagline reads Actress, Environmentalist.
Juhi remains happy despite the vicissitudes of life. And that resonates with me.
Dinesh Raheja is a reputed film historian, columnist and TV scriptwriter who has been writing on cinema for over three decades