Ask your average Hindi film fan to name a few of today’s hottest Bollywood actresses (or ‘heroines’ as they as popularly referred as) and they’ll likely drop names such as Aishwarya Rai, Priyanka Chopra, Kareena Kapoor and Preity Zinta. All are undoubtedly blessed with good looks and have given some fine performances in recent years, but there is one other actress out there who is equally as beautiful and even more talented - having delivered more hits at the box office during her career than any of her female peers. And yet despite a slew of awards, acclaimed performances and blockbusters to her credit, somehow her name always seems to get lost in the shuffle. It’s the industry’s finest regularly-working actress today; Rani Mukerji.
Daughter of Bengali film director Ram Mukherjee and playback singer Krishna, Rani Mukerji was born in West Bengal’s capital of Calcutta (now Kolkata). Initially hesitant at becoming a movie actress, she did so at the encouragement - or more accurately, insistence - of her mother, who would go on to decide a large number of Rani’s film choices herself… with at times disastrous results. Her debut came in the form of 1996’s hideous ‘romantic’ drama Raja Ki Aayegi Baraat in which her character of Mala marries her rapist by order of court. This moronic piece of drivel deservedly sunk without a trace at the box office. Two years and one college degree later, Rani re-entered Bollywood for another try in 1998 with far more success this time around thanks to her turn in the action drama Ghulam alongside superstar actor Aamir Khan. Though her supporting role of the generic romantic interest offered her little screen time and the film itself was largely unremarkable, her performance was nonetheless a memorable one due to her and Aamir’s comedy song number ‘Ati Kya Khandala’ (‘Let’s Go To Khandala’) scoring with the public and setting India’s music charts on fire.
For the moment she was at least now famous if not respected as an actress, but that too would soon change after debutant director Karan Johar needed someone to fill the role of the glamorous Tina in 1998’s biggest hit of the year, the glorious rom-com Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. Johar had already been turned down by just about every major actress in Bollywood by the time the role was eventually offered to Rani, whom Johar was reluctant to hire even then because of her dark skin, round face, husky voice and plump figure - all no-no’s in Hindi cinema’s shallow world of casting. While Rani lit up the screen in KKHH with a charming and assured performance that betrayed her mere two years in the biz and earned her a ‘Best Supporting Actress’ Filmfare trophy, her newly-found mega-stardom did not come without its, erm, modifications. Her so-called ‘ugly duckling’ appearance was deemed such a problem by filmmakers that she would be continually caked in layers of white make-up before being washed out by blinding stage lights for good measure. Her voice too was considered unacceptable for a time, being as it was dubbed for the whole duration of Ghulam and was about to be again for KKHH before she managed to persuade Karan Johar to allow at least her voice to be natural.
Seen but not heard: A dubbed Rani finds fame in 1998’s Ghulam
Still, having her looks tampered with and settling for being second, third or fourth choice for a part was something Rani would have to get used to in future. In the meantime, her mother continued to hand-pick a poor selection of garden variety masala movies for her to star in, resulting in a multiple-year box office dry spell as well as media allegations of an affair with frequent co-star Govinda (which was strenuously denied by both sides). The damage to her image and career proved only temporary however; she impressed critics with her deglamorised role of the ill-fated Aparna in South Indian actor/filmmaker Kamal Haasan’s mesmerising and disturbing take on Partition - 2000’s Hey Ram - before later securing her first hit in years alongside Vivek Oberoi with 2002’s Saathiya, a remake of the Tamil romantic drama Alai Payuthey. From there, Rani never looked back and over the course of the next few years eventually rose to the top of the industry - churning out hit after hit, including 2004’s When Harry Met Sally tribute Hum Tum and the epic romance Veer-Zaara, in which she earned more plaudits from film journalists with her portrayal of a Pakistani lawyer.
Frustratingly though, despite her proven audience pulling-power and having never delivered anything less than accomplished performances, Rani continued to find herself low down on the wish-list of Bollywood producers and directors obsessed with hiring slim, fair-skinned heroines. This even remained the case in 2005 when filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali sought to cast the part of Michelle McNally - a blind, deaf and dumb character - in the magical and riveting drama Black. Bhansali had written the role for Kareena Kapoor, but after co-star Amitabh Bachchan refused to work with her (huffing at her sister recently dumping his darling son), Rani yet again found herself stepping into shoes not meant for her yet making them her own undeterred. Her breathtaking performance as Michelle set new standards for both herself and others in Hindi cinema, and once again the awards came rolling in faster and in larger quantities than ever before.
The last laugh: Rani acts up a storm in 2005’s Black
Nowadays, Rani remains the darling of both Bollywood fans and critics, and the cross to bear of gossip columnists and filmmakers. She’s a simple girl, in every sense. Conservative, unassuming and always politically correct, she denies the tabloids the controversy other stars provide in abundance and her unconventional looks still find themselves hidden under a camouflage of white light and make-up by directors. Still, they really should thank their lucky stars. She may not be their ideal vision of what a Bollywood heroine is meant to be, but when there’s ever a top role going spare in Hindi cinema, Rani Mukerji will always end up as their Miss Dependable.