SHE WAS THE angry daughter in Netflix’s Tribhanga (2021), a grieving mother in last year’s theatrical release Salaam Venky, an elevated courtesan in Netflix’s anthology Lust Stories 2, and most recently and triumphantly, a wronged wife in The Trial on Disney+Hotstar. Kajol, who first burst onto our screens as a 16-year-old in Rahul Rawail’s Bekhudi in 1992, is still wowing old admirers and winning new ones in a career that has defied time and gravity.
She puts it quite picturesquely when she says: “I’ve fallen down, broken my leg, hit my head, gotten married, had my kids. I’ve been fat, I’ve been thin, I’ve had long hair, I’ve had short hair. It’s almost like a family album when I look back at my career. I have people who’ve loved me unconditionally from that time and never once judged me. Regardless of whether the film was good or bad, I was always loved. I have this immense gratitude for this unconditional love.”
It comes from being part of some iconic films, from the freedom-loving Simran who is afraid of her father in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995), to the boyish Anjali who is transformed into an ethnic beauty, dazzling enough to be noticed by Shah Rukh Khan in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998) to the Anjali of Chandni Chowk who is a proud national anthem-singing patriot in London in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001). And those are merely her movies with Shah Rukh Khan.
She’s played lovers, friends, orphans, and in one celebrated case, Gupt (1997), a killer. She’s taken time off to have her children (two, now 20 and 13), and has not been guided by anyone else’s clock. And now she’s one of the biggest stars on OTT, as the lead of The Trial, adapted from CBS’s hit show, The Good Wife. “I’m a great fan of the original but I had to see whether it works for me as an Indian woman. We had to adapt to the Indian judicial system but more importantly to Indian society. Let’s face it, whatever happens in a marriage is always the woman’s fault here. She is always victim shamed. How society looks at her, her reaction. I think we’ve handled it with the right amount of emotion, not too much, because at the end of the day, Noyonika [her character in the series] is an eminently practical woman. But then 99 per cent of women are like that, especially if there are children in the mix.”
Showrunner Suparn Verma calls her the most honest person he’s ever met. “She means everything she says. What you see is what you get.” It translates beautifully onscreen, he says. “She creates magic on set, in the moment, tweaking and tuning the scene, in the most organic way,” he adds. In The Trial, she has to play a betrayed wife, a lawyer struggling to get back in the workforce, a mother trying to protect her children, and a daughter-in-law dealing with an overbearing mother-in-law.
She brings alive Noyonika’s fears and frustrations over eight episodes, her temper and her passion, her triumphs and trials. Revathy, who directed her in Salaam Venky, finds her instinctive and able to plunge into depths of emotions with ease. As a mother of two children, there is something that comes from within Kajol, she feels, which “cannot be faked”. Additionally, she says Kajol is a joy to work with. “Certain people don’t need to be in character to perform in front of the camera. She gets involved very easily but doesn’t carry the emotions like a burden,” she adds.
Joy is a constant when her contemporaries speak of her. Filmmaker Karan Johar has known her since he was five, and still remembers her loud laugh when he turned up at a casual party in a three-piece suit when he was 15. “I can still hear that laugh,” he says. It defines her, he adds, “She is a happy person when surrounded by love. And when she loves she loves you with complete abandon. Otherwise, she is indifferent. She is family to me, my mum, and even my dad when he was alive, and has been so for decades.” There is no false bone in Kajol’s body, he says, not as an actor nor as a human being.
That may explain her fan following, which has remained with her, as she points out, through thick and thin. It has accommodated her unibrow, her often outrageous ’90s costumes (as she says, she has worn little skirts of varying colours and shapes), and even her quirks such as carrying books to interviews (as one magazine noted snarkily in the ’90s, in case the conversation got boring). Unlike a few of her contemporaries who are critical of the way the film media objectified and gaslit them in the ’90s, she seems to have no such quibbles.
“The media has been judgmental of both men and women, and social media has just exacerbated it, but as far as I am concerned whenever I am in the world, I have found people who have only helped me. I recently lost my luggage flying back from America and I had people come up to me and say, ‘I’m a big fan,’ and I would say, ‘Great. I’ve lost my luggage, can you help me find it?’ And they did. They found it, not the airline nor its 70,000 employees,” she says. “Whenever I walk out of my house, I have been greeted with so much respect and love whether I am in Santa Cruz market, PVR Juhu, or London or American airports. How can I not be thankful? I judge the love by the people around me rather than the reports of the people around me,” she adds.
Does the public’s attention and scrutiny become too much sometimes? “Yes,” she replies, “That is why I don’t work that much, I like to take time out sometimes, sit in my room and do nothing. You need a life that has more to it than just work. There has to be more on your bucket list than just the 15 films you want to do. There are places I want to travel to, things I want to do.”
“I’m a great fan of The Good Wife but I had to see whether it works for me as an Indian woman. We had to adapt to the Indian judicial system but more importantly to Indian society. Let’s face it, whatever happens in a marriage is always the woman’s fault here,” says Kajol, actor
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Married to actor Ajay Devgn since 1999, she represents two dynasties, which built the Hindi film industry from the ground up. Her great-grandmother Rattan Bai, grandmother Shobhna Samarth, mother Tanuja, and aunt Nutan were pioneers of their time. Her filmmaker father Shomu Mukherjee was the son of Sashadhar Mukherjee who helped build Bombay Studios and then founded Filmalaya. She grew up partly in Grotto Villa, her father’s family ancestral home in Santa Cruz, and her mother’s flat. “I remember living in Grotto Villa as a child with my father’s brothers and their children. I never felt alone ever, I never needed friends, I had so many cousins. Even after my parents separated, I lived with my mother, my grandmother, great grandmother. Later when my grandmother passed away my uncle, aunt and their two daughters came to live with us. So, we were four girls growing up. There was always family around me. I thank my mother for giving me an awesome and amazing childhood. There was no social media, I would walk everywhere, never worry about getting dressed to go anywhere.”
Things have changed now. Her daughter Nysa is often followed by paparazzi. “I can give her advice from an adult perspective but I can never be in her shoes,” she says. Change is everywhere, whether it is in her daughter laughing at her Instagram posts or the facilities available to actors. There is no more changing behind curtains or lack of washrooms for women. Everyone has a vanity van and grooming has been taken to unnatural levels, creating photoshopped standards we all have to live up to, she says. “It was a much smaller industry when I began. We had fewer people. One person did ten things as opposed to 15 people doing one thing now. That’s the difference between being a corporate and a mom-and-pop store,” she adds. For instance, she notes, there were lawyers on the sets of The Trial to nurture authenticity. “Earlier we would just go around yelling and screaming at each other in courtroom scenes,” she adds.
She is happy with the work she is doing now. “These roles say a lot about who I am today. It’s challenging playing very different characters. It doesn’t matter if you’re a particular size or don’t have a perfect nose. There is so much to experience and experiment. A huge part of me is being a mother, I always say my sister is my first child. Mothers today don’t have the social pressure to be completely perfect. Moms today are more than merely moms. I like that there are so many more women working, I like the way society is changing.”
She doesn’t want to plan anything. Even as she prepares for her next Dharma Productions film, Sarzameen with Ibrahim Ali Khan (whose father, Saif, she starred with in the charming Yeh Dillagi in 1994), and Do Patti, a film with Kriti Sanon, she continues with her knitting, crocheting, and reading. “There’s a part of you for public consumption and a part for soul food. Which angel do you feed more? I try to feed my good angel.”
She is spiritual, believes in the mother, in Kali and Durga. “I have great faith that I am guided and protected at all times,” she says. Even when she puts her foot into her mouth. As she says, “I’ve put my size-12-feet inside my mouth, outside my mouth, on top of my head a100 times over and people still love me. What can I say?”