Madhuri Dixit, she of the enigmatic smile, has donned many faces in her long and myriad film career.
She has been India’s cinematic sweetheart since bursting into film viewers’ consciousness in 1987 with Tezaab (Acid), despite having a string of earlier films to her name. Dixit is also the Mumbai Girl who managed to re-claim the Hindi film star crown for her city after decades of dominance from South Indian contenders — and the first female superstar in the Hindi film industry to carry films on her own star status, reducing her male co-stars’ to secondary credits.
Today however, it is Dixit’s work as UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador that brought her to the stage of the Women in the World summit in New Delhi. Asked by her interviewer, Parmesh Shahani, Head of the Godrej India Culture Lab if gender issues had always been a primary interest for her, Dixit answered “No!” quickly and defiantly.
She explained that she was raised in a family of three daughters and one son but this was not because of India’s grand love affair with trying for male children but rather, that she had grown up in a family where there was no perceived gender disparity and every child was given the same opportunity to become a successful person. She was very surprised, she said, when she entered the real world and saw that people’s attitudes towards young men and women were so different.
Dixit observed that over the years, as her position in the Indian consciousness grew, she became aware that she had a powerful voice and could perhaps take on a role that sparked debate or changed attitudes. Today, she said, her work with UNICEF is wide-ranging, from bringing attention to child mortality rates to spearheading “Mamta Abhyan,” a campaign to protect the rights of children.
She has worked on “little things” such as providing protective folic acid to young women noticing that that even when “everything seems in place, our target audience is (still) not aware”: “That is my role.”
Dixit’s longevity in the film industry — she has been one of the few stars who has made a successful come-back in an industry which is notoriously cruel to women — has also given her additional clout as an ambassador. She has also been a woman who has juggled the often competing roles of work and home and returned to India after a stint as a soccer mom and suburban housewife to a successful Indian American doctor in the U.S.
Dixit said her husband and son now accompany her as she embarks on her new adventure in Mumbai — Madhuri, forging new new territory and even more travel between continents. And life is particularly sweet now she can add India’s fourth highest civilian award, the Padma Shri, to her stash of film awards.
Dixit told her audience that much of the practical, on-the-ground part of her work is done by the “remarkable women” at ASHA (Accredited Social Health Activists) who work with the Indian Ministry of Health and Family Welfare) and ANGANWADI (Integrated Child Development Services) staff who walk door to door.
However her fame in India meant people listened to her voice and she feels a deep responsibility to highlight the important issues facing her nation.
It seems that Dixit is now also using this confidence and eloquent voice to guide her choice in films. Over the past two years, audiences have watched her play the crusading Rajjo, the head of a group of female vigilantes that challenge domestic violence and the corrupt and patriarchal regime of rural India in the 2013 film Gulab Gang.
Her character was in fact styled on Sampat Pal Devi, a woman who led the Gulaabi Gang, a group of women who took on similar issues in Bundelkhand in central India. Dixit has also played the mysterious Begum Para in Dedh Ishquia last year. (This character would easily have put Lady Macbeth to shame as she plotted her way to success.)
Dixit insists that her newfound appetite for stronger, female characters is solely due to the reality that at the beginning of a career, actors rarely have the luxury to choose their roles.
However because she came from a family of strong women, these choices were natural to her, allowing her to take roles where women revealed varied emotions and the strength of the feminine character was allowed to come through.
So, she said, for every happy-go-lucky character like Neha in the 1994 movie, Hum Aap Kai Hain Kaun she has taken a Ketki, the woman who takes on a lawless village in the 1997 film, Mrityudand. She also reminded her audience of the artist, M. F. Hussain’s film project, Gaja Gamini in 2000 where she represented the face of women over generations.
Her most recent love, she added, is empowering young people through dance. Acting will always be her first love, she says, but dance is “my passion.” Now, she tries to offer learning access for young people and home-makers who may be stuck in small town India or even in far flung suburbs in big cities.
Dixit observed that the power of her internet dance portal could deliver any type of lessons directly into the students home: “Once you learn, it’s a skill. It is empowerment [and] perhaps a new career too,” she said. “But before that, [you] be a part of a virtual dance community, actually dancing, in your own living room. I call it Unite and Move.”
Dixit admitted that one thing that annoys her as an actor is when interviewers direct questions about the work/ life balance only to her and not to the male actor sitting next to her. “Men too should be asked how they feel leaving family and kids back home,” she adds, “after all men too may be leaning in!”
Dixit says she hasn’t forgotten that she is also a mom raising boys in India, a country she hopes will be one day gender equal. “I feel children follow by example. We, [Ram, her husband] and I are setting them good examples: Ram supports me and I him. My kids see that. I want them to respect everyone, whether they are their gurus, or people working for us. I have two boys after all, and it is a big responsibility that they are part of their community and work for it. That they do something. What we do is going to inspire them”.
A role model to so many, she counts the people in the world around her as the best place to watch, learn and be inspired. “These are people I see every day”, she says, “[who] are being citizens who contribue”.
Her greatest inspiration, however, is still her mother who came from an orthodox family in small-town India and had married into an urbane, big-city family. Dixit says her mother raised her young family admirably but was also determined to educate herself and successfully pursued a Masters in Music. It was her mother too who she relied on as a young girl and who kept her grounded in an industry that pushed to mould her it own ways. Dixit says her mother taught her to be her own woman, to stand tall and comfortable in her own skin and never to believe she was “too thin or not thin enough.
“Be what you are, be confident of yourself” is what she remembers her mother telling her.
This is advice that she still stands by as she works in an India – and an industry – that is changing rapidly.
She speaks with her great pride of seeing women working in all areas of the film industry, a big change from her earliest days in the industry when the only women around were actresses and hair dressers, or the occasional stylist or choreographer.
“That gives me hope, slowly we are changing. I have great hope when I hear stories of women helping other women. Summits like these where a dialogue continues; you have to keep chipping away and this keeps me very hopeful.”