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Interview Hindi

I don't live in the past, you have to evolve to continue working: Manisha Koirala

In a conversation with us, the actress spoke about her role as the legendary actress, Nargis, in Sanju (2018), adapting to changes in the film industry and her evolution as an actress and person. 

Suparna Thombare

Manisha Koirala, who will always be remembered for her brilliant performances in films like Bombay (1995), Akele Hum Akele Tum (1995), Khamoshi: The Musical (1996) and 1942 A Love Story (1994), among others, is slowly and steadily coming back to form this year with roles in films like Sanju, Lust Stories, and the in-the-making Prasthaanam (2019).

Having worked with some of the best directors like Mani Ratnam, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Ram Gopal Varma, Onir, and Rajkumar Santoshi, Koirala in the 1990s and early 2000s, the actress has now worked with one of the most successful filmmakers in today's times, Rajkumar Hirani, in the much-awaited Sanjay Dutt biopic, Sanju.

Koirala plays a small, but crucial role of late actress Nargis in the film, and if her look in the trailers and a song is anything to go by, she is set to impress.

In a conversation with Cinestaan.com, the actress spoke about playing the important role of the legendary actress, adapting to changes in the film industry and her evolution as an actress and person.

How was the experience of playing a real life person on screen?

I was very nervous about whether I could do this role, looking at Nargis Dutt ji's health history and my health history. When Raju sir explained to me that he doesn't dwell too much on  that, I was very keen and excited to do this part. I am so glad I did this film.

The thing is when you have a good director, half of your hard work is covered. They've done so much research and they guide you thoroughly. That the character has this graph, it becomes very easy to work when you are working in a good setup. I would give all credit to Hirani sir.

I didn't know her at all. And I really got to know her while I was doing research for this role. Hirani sir had some documentaries to show me and Priya Dutt met me and gave me this book.

Was it difficult at any point because it is too close to home?

It was too close to home. Would I be able to relive the moments? I was scared, but when Hirani sir told me it didn't revolve around that [the disease] I was comfortable.

How has your acting evolved over the years, especially now after working with newer directors?

Choosing to work with good directors is the first step. Since I love my work, I have to see what today's trends are. I can't be stuck in the older zone. What I did in my 20s, I can't repeat it now, right? So I have to see what the younger generation is doing, what movies they are doing, the quality of acting, quality of cinema, quality of narrative. I think with changing times you have to change yourself a little bit, because everything is evolving towards something. So nothing gets stuck, only we do.

So you have to be constantly agile. You have to up yourself to what the market is if you want to be working. I am doing all that. A lot of things have changed from before to now. I am still adjusting. I have still not adjusted a 100%. But it is a work in progress.

Do you feel things are a lot more professional and organised in the film industry today?

Yes, everything is a lot more professional and it's a good change. The good thing about today's times is focus, discipline, professionalism and high competition. Everybody is trying to do their best. See the figure, everybody is in the gym, everybody's looking good and your fashion. There's so much hard work everywhere.

In my time, it was more relaxed, people were more forgiving — 'theek hai ek boori film kar li ab achhi karo'. Today there is no scope to do a bad film, because it's high competition.

Is there something that you miss about working in the 1990s?

Not really. I am enjoying. I am very much in the present. I am not one of those people who live in the past.

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Another change we see is the way that women are looked at in the industry today. Do you feel the actresses get a lot more respect now than they did in the 1990s?

Absolutely! This is the best thing in today's times. That women have started speaking their mind, asserting and men have accepted that. And they are appreciative. It is a great aspect of today's times. I love this. If I had done Lust Stories earlier I could have been condemned. But today I am appreciated. I feel it has a lot to do with the younger generation. With women from the younger generation standing up for themselves and men supporting them.

You did films with Sanjay Dutt earlier, including Sanam (1997) and Kartoos (1999), when he was going through one of his worst phases. Did he ever share about his life at that time?

I never really got to interact with him personally. I always interacted with him on sets. He was always very charming, friendly, fun loving. And we always knew that he is someone who is all heart, rather than calculating or conniving. While we were working we never... You know Raju sir said also that while reading the story he didnt realise, because he has done movies with him, that he didn’t actually know all the things Sanjay had gone through. So me being his co-star really didn’t know what he has gone through. This movie will show.

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Were there any things that you were shocked to learn about him that you didn't know?

I haven’t seen the movie. Just haven’t had the time. I know my whole bit. Honestly, when I saw the trailer I was actually shocked. I was like 'Oh my God, he has actually gone through that and that'. I was also clueless like everybody else. I also didn’t know. So now I am waiting to see the movie.

What was it like doing scenes with Ranbir Kapoor?

I think he is a phenomenal actor. He is the best in today's times. I am in awe of his work, his capacity as an actor. When I saw few rushes of Sanju... I was like 'he's so good'.

Did you ever feel like you look so much like Nargis?

Long ago, when my film Bombay (1995) had released, Sunil Dutt ji had called me and said to me ‘Manisha you remind me of Nargis Dutt’. Wow, she is a legendary figure. For me, to get a compliment like that at that age was huge. I had no clue that years later I will be acting as Nargis Dutt ji. I have always admired her as an actor. I have also seen her as a beautiful woman. A very bold and strong woman.

What was your reaction like when you did the look test because you ended up looking so much like her?



Honestly, I am one of those people, who, till they get a feedback from someone I wouldn’t know. I gave my 100%. After that I really didn’t know. We had all these pictures of Nargis Dutt ji and I had to be that. I was trying to look into her spirit, her eyes... what message are they giving, what are they. I was just hoping that I get that right. I didn’t know how well I had done, honestly. Or how much resemblance I had. It’s only when I started getting feedback I started realising and it felt damn good.


What do you feel when you look back at some of your older films which didn’t do well at the time, but have come to be loved over the years like 1942 A Love Story (1994), Akele Hum Akele Tum (1995) or Khamoshi: The Musical (1996)?

I feel blessed that I worked in some good movies. They were few, but they were very good movies. In my times they were really the best movies. And I really feel that good directors chose me. I did those movies and got appreciated for that. To me, it is important that I was a part of good cinema.

It must have not been easy for you when you first came into the industry since your parents were really thrilled that you wanted to be in the movies.

Both my parents had a problem. See, today it's completely different. The whole society is different. Those days it used to be more conservative. What used to happen is there was a lot of yellow journalism, and the magazines would portray like it is a very bad place... casting couch and all that. A lot of wrong things and the juicy gossip used to be there. So getting into films was a bit of a problem. But I had the support of my grandmother. And she was the head of the family. She told me choose whatever I wanted. She was ahead of her times. In fact, in my grandmother’s era... someday I will write about that. So she was far ahead and very encouraging. Once she supported me then nobody could say anything.

What was the process of working with Dibakar Banerjee in the Lust Stories anthology?

Lust Stories (2018)

We did workshops. Dibakar is a new-age, intellectual director. And he is very well-versed with cinema and he knows his medium too well. So he could be confident enough to explore and to come on set without a bound script. It was like 'okay let's do this and let's do that. He clearly told me that Manisha this is the film where I can experiment because there is no baggage of huge money coming into the project. It’s a low budget film and we directors are experimenting with the style and the narrative, with the story and everything. So you actors also get to experiment. I said absolutely! We had lots of conversations and we had debates. I didn’t agree with Reena’s character in some places. But it was always open to discussion. And we did workshops and rehearsals. We read the scenes before going on the sets. But on the spot we would change a lot of things. I enjoy working with people who have the guts to improvise, not bound artistically and you can explore.

Was the method different during Sanju (2018)?

Sanju was very rehearsed. When I was younger I was (more about) spontaneity. But now, I like to be well-prepared and well-rehearsed. So to be able to fit into Dibakar’s genre and then to be able to do mainstream genre – this is an actor’s challenge. If I want to go beyond and stretch my boundaries then I should be willing to be [in] discomfort. I should not fall into a certain mould. I should be willing to change – be perfectly fine with method acting and perfectly fine with spontaneity.

Do you feel like the aura of the stars of the 1990s is missing today?

It could be because everything is so easily available. All the info. Those days there was a little bit of the mystery element. The wait to know certain things about a person. It is nothing to do with us. It is got to do with that information that's easily available. But I must say that today's actresses are on par if not superior. I enjoy Kangana [Ranaut], Alia [Bhatt], Deepika [Padukone] and others. It's a very talented generation. You can't take that away from them because they are so hard-working and talented. I love them.

Is there any film you did in the 1990s that you gave more than 100%, but it did not work at the box office and you felt it should have?

All the films that I did with Mani sir, 1942 A Love Story, Sanjay Bhansali or with Mansoor Khan, I really gave my 100%. When I was working with a good director I would be full on. It's only when you are not working with a competent director or actors that's when you feel demotivated.

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Lust Stories has received a great response...

I am pleasantly surprised. I am so happy that people have evolved, people have matured to accept it.

Looking at that, do you feel some of your films would have done better if they had released today?

I think Akele Hum Akele Tum (1995), Khamoshi: The Musical (1996), Dil Se...(1998)- these were the movies I really wish had done well at that time. Today, I'm remembered for these... so at least I am a part of that. I do feel bad though because I wish they were doing well at that time as well.

Do you miss the song and dance element?

It's there even today. But I'm glad [about films being made without song and dance]. As long as it is entertaining, as long as it is fitting the story, it's great. As long as people are making films without song and dance and people are accepting those movies, we can have the best of both the worlds.

Now, you are working with Sanjay Dutt in Prasthaanam after playing the role of his mother on screen. Did you discuss the biopic and the old times?

Sanjay Dutt with his mother Nargis

I had a lovely time. When I was shooting for Prasthaanam, at that time the poster [of Sanju] was released. So he commented. He said you are looking so much like my mom. He was very happy about that. He complimented me. It's wonderful to work with him. I know the kind of turmoil he has gone through. I may not know the details. But I know he has gone through rough phases and he has come out a strong person. He now has a wonderful family. The world has accepted him back. He is where he belongs. To see his journey and now to work with him again, I told somebody the other day that all this has made him a better compassionate human being and a better actor as well. It's wonderful.

Even your story is really inspiring. Do you think you will ever write a book or make a movie on it?

I am writing a book, which is mostly on my health journey, to understand health. On my life... someday I will probably.

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You are an inspiration for people who could be dealing with a life-threatening disease, as you have fought and come back to life. What would you say to others who are struggling with the same?

I really feel that we human beings have enormous strength within us and we are God's children. All of us are. So we should never feel small. We all have that power inside us and we can get what we want provided you actually have that fire in the belly to want that and to have that passion. I was striving. Once I fell sick I really wanted my health back. God was kind. He gave me this chance. Now, I am doing everything possible to retain my good health. There are some things that are within our capacity, use hume poora nichod lena chahiye. In the same breath I would like to say that we are not God, we are children of God, and so we have limitations. It’s a paradox, but do whatever is humanly possible for what your desire is, but at the same time leave it to your destiny, your god, your life, the universe or whatever you believe in, and it will bounce it back to you.

Now, I am so strict when it comes to health. I have changed my whole life. If you have health, then you can enjoy everything. When you fall sick you are so helpless and you realise you can’t ignore your health. So number one priority for all of us should be health.