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Ever since Madhuri Dixit Nene returned from the US to make India her home once again, she has been a happy butterfly flitting over a spectrum of work opportunities. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Ever since Madhuri Dixit Nene returned from the US to make India her home once again, she has been a happy butterfly flitting over a spectrum of work opportunities. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

Minority report | Reigning heavily

Madhuri Dixit Nene's second innings in Bollywood tells us a thing or two about women in Indian popular culture

In an entertainment industry that has been largely dependent on youthful glamour to attract audiences, Madhuri Dixit Nene is turning into an exception. The Bollywood star, who won many awards in the 1990s before a certain US-based doctor by the name of Shriram Nene won her heart, is doing better in her second innings than she did at her so-called peak. Ever since she returned from the US to make India her home once again, this time with two sons and a cardiologist husband alongside, she has been a happy butterfly flitting over a spectrum of work opportunities. From endorsing Neesa basmati rice as a ravishing homemaker and doing the gorgeous mommy act for Dabur Chyawanprash to becoming a svelte judge in blingy designer saris on celebrity dance TV show Jhalak Dikhla Ja; from front-row appearances at fashion events to magazine covers; from mesmerizing dance performances at film events—many times with her husband applauding from the audience—to some good film roles, Dixit’s career seems to be at an enviable high.

For a 46-year-old female star, it is the stuff memorable work trajectories are made of. If you saw her in the recent Dedh Ishqiya as Begum Para, who expresses the repressed parts of her conflictual self through an exquisitely choreographed piece of Kathak dance and then, again, last week, performing to her hit dance songs at the Filmfare awards event in Mumbai, Dixit’s new phase is a story worth following. The only other person who managed to tap into a wide range of appreciated and successful celebrity-focused career dimensions long after his prime is Amitabh Bachchan. Some termed his Kaun Banega Crorepati avatar an extraordinary reinvention in the history of fame management; others called it a fat slice of luck. Dixit isn’t close to Bachchan’s métier but if she plays her cards well, we could be reading a tome on What Madhuri Did Next.

Across careers, very few people, however passionate they are about what they do, get a second run that mimics their peak achievements. In the glamour industry, the rules are even more fragile where the word peak is unavoidably linked with youth. When that phase ends, a resplendent star or fine actor either becomes a character artiste or now, in the current scheme of popular culture, an endorser of insurance schemes, residential colonies, medico-herbal lifestyle solutions and if she or he still looks terrific and speaks well, a judge of a reality TV show.

So Dixit’s good rerun—a reading based entirely on perception of her public life—needs to be seen in two contexts. One, her persona that continues to be relevant and loveable across two decades, despite the last 10 years having seen a flood of changes in our glamour culture. While that famous smile and her ebullient beauty contribute to the endorsements she gets, her prowess in Kathak and Bollywood dancing are something no actress younger than her or among her peers has been able to compete with. Many heroines have danced to popular and seductive item songs across the past decade, and some do it very well, but none have Dixit’s oneness with her craft where she forgets herself by being herself.

More importantly, Indian cinema and the landscape of commercials, TV shows, fashion and cultural events dependent on Bollywood have made room for an older female star in very many ways without turning her into an also-ran. As the “heroine" of Dedh Ishiqiya, nothing was done to make Dixit look younger or nubile; the focus, in fact, was on graceful frustration of a glorious woman past marriageable age—a role clearly written for her. Ditto for Gulaab Gang, her forthcoming film in she which she plays an anger-spewing, feminist-crusader from the hinterlands. Nobody expects the middle-aged actor to dance around trees in stilettos. Her colleagues and competitors on TV shows are svelte women like Malaika Arora Khan and Shilpa Shetty (also judges of different dance shows)—yet Dixit often steals the show with heaps of attention from audiences. Sridevi, who was touted as Dixit’s primary competition in their heydays, has not managed this oeuvre despite delivering a fine performance in English Vinglish or being a great dancer and a fashionista.

Read a little more into her image and Dixit is a symbol of how things change yet strain to retain a quality of pastness. She represents the cultural classicism we respect in “Indian" women, regardless of our acceptance of feminism’s many global-local faces. We admire women who are sensational, but only because of their work, not their reputation or their socio-political stands, are mothers and wives, have careers but a life beyond their careers, and are talented and beautiful. Who can cook rice, make sure the children get their daily Chyawanprash, then go out and knock sense into a misogynist.

Madhuri Dixit Nene’s image manages to include all this.

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