At home with the Maans
After Train To Pakistan released, I got a call from Manjeet Maan who had seen the film. She told me she was looking for a child woman to cast in the Punjabi film she was producing, Shaheed-e-Mohabbat Boota Singh, a true-life historical drama. I told her frankly that I did not know much Punjabi. She told me she would not make the film without me. I was touched.
I asked her who was playing Boota Singh and she replied, “My husband.” I couldn’t believe my ears. Gurdas Maan sahab is revered in Punjab, he was my mother’s idol. She would be thrilled. I immediately agreed to play Zainab.
We met for the first time on the set, in a village on the outskirts of Chandigarh. He bowed his head before me, took my hand and touched it to his forehead. I was amazed a legend like him could give a child like me so much respect. His humility and simplicity moved me.
I did three more films with Maan sahab and Manjeetji. Today, their home is my home. I am their ghar ki ladki who can call anytime and say, “I’m coming over, khana khana hai. There is a sense of belonging.”
A child with Gulzar
One day, I got a call to moderate a session with Gulzar sahab in Indore. We spoke about poetry, melody and memories, and far exceeded our allotted time. But no one was complaining.
The next day, at the airport, he insisted that I sit with him and we continued chatting.
When it was time to board the flight, his friend and he were walking briskly and I was left behind. Turning, he saw that I was still on the escalator and stopped. Protectively he held out his hands, like you would to a child, saying slowly, “One… Two… Three…”
I took a leap of faith, and jumped straight into his arms. It was such a beautiful moment and I literally clapped because he had brought out the child in me again.
Word play with Veer
I had always had a crush on Shah Rukh Khan, right from the Fauji days, and was excited to be shooting with him for Veer-Zaara. Our first scene was the one where he bids me goodbye and leaves for India.
Just before the shot he took me aside and asked me how to say “Okay bye, I am leaving” in the dialect I was speaking. I was surprised but realized he was trying to improvise, creating a natural bond between Shaboo and Veer. “Main julla han,” were his final words to me in that scene.
Jalebi in Dilli
Rakyesh Omprakash Mehra and I started out with an ad which featured me with the Indian cricket team, including Rahul Dravid, Suresh Raina and Harbhajan Singh.
Then, I made an appearance in the Rang De Basanti title track.
After Veer-Zaara, Rakeyshji called to offer a role in his next film, Dilli-6. I asked him if she was a chulbuli Punjabi girl. I had been refusing such roles for a year, not wanting to be typecast. He told me Jalebi was totally different. And she was.
Rakeyshji was one of those who saw that the actor in me was capable of more than chirpy, vivacious roles. His fiery, untouchable, Haryanvi sweeper was nothing like anything I had played before. Her body language… Her language was so unlike me. I had never mouthed such gaalis in my life. But he put Jalebi into my system. He made me understand that for the time that I was her, I had to own Jalebi’s world. That’s why I call him the Magic Man.
I just called to say…
I had loved Sriram Raghavan’s Johnny Gaddaar and Ek Haseena Thi so when I read in the paper that he was looking for an older actress opposite Varun Dhawan in Badlapur, I picked up the phone and told him I wanted to do the film.
He was frank, admitting that they had been considering other actresses. “I’m surprised we did not think about you,” he added, and promised to get back after a week.
When he didn’t, I made a second call. This time I was invited to the office and introduced to his co-writer and editor, Pooja Ladha Surti.
When he repeated that they had seen a few actresses for the role of the social worker Shobha, I was prepared to hear someone else’s name. I couldn’t believe it when he said, “And we decided it should be you.”
Milte hain jaldi..
Irrfan Khan is the brightest star in my sky because he made Indian cinema shine. It was fun to have him as a co-star because he was always improvising. He would suddenly throw a line or a gesture and you had to catch it.
We did four films together—Dubai Return which sadly never released, Aaja Nachle, Hiss and finally, Blackmail. He brought magic to the sets… And the screen.
I did not have any scenes with him in Blackmail so we never met on the set. I only met him during the promotions. I arrived at Mehboob Studio just as he was leaving.
I ran to his vanity van and gave him a copy of my book, Maa and Me. He was in a hurry, but he cracked a joke and I laughed. Then, he left, saying, “Milte hain jaldi.”
That was the last time I saw Irrfan. We never met again.