It’s been 16 years since Bollywood star Rani Mukerji played the role of Vimmi, an infamous con-artist in Bunty Aur Babli, a local hit which took $3.4M at the box office This week, the multiple-award winning actor returns to the role for Bunty Aur Babli 2, the much-awaited sequel that hits Indian theaters on November 19 after its original release last year was delayed by the pandemic. The Hindi-language romantic comedy is backed by production giant Yash Raj Films and produced by the company’s chairman Aditya Chopra (who also happens to be Mukerji’s husband). Mukerji can also be seen in recent Hindi title Sooryavanshi’, which was released just after Diwali on November 5, taking $1.3M in its opening weekend in India.

This year, Mukerji is celebrating 25 years of her career as a Bollywood actor. She’s starred in a raft of commercially successful love stories such as Saathiya and Hum Tum, which propelled her career and resulted in her being one of the most sought-after Hindi actors since the early 2000s.

Mukerji has long sought roles that challenge her. While she has played many romantic roles in her films, her repertoire includes physically challenged characters who strive for the greater good. For instance, 2018’s Hichki, which saw her play a woman with Tourette syndrome who lands a job in an elite school, went on to become India’s highest-grossing female-led film of the year and the sixth Bollywood film to gross more than $13M in China.

Mukerji spoke to Deadline this week about her latest film, her career to date, the changing attitude of women in the industry and whether she will ever step behind the camera in the future.

DEADLINE: You revisit the ‘Vimmi’ character after 16 years in Bunty Aur Babli 2. It must’ve been quite nostalgic for you. How important was it that this film was released in cinemas?

RANI MUKERJI: Of course, it was and it is so important [to have a theatrical release]. India being a movie loving country, the future looked so dim during the pandemic. The decision that Adi [Aditya Chopra] took, he stood with the film and pulled back the release. He did not let it release on OTT. He strongly believes that Bunty Aur Babli 2 is a film for audiences to watch in theaters on the big screen with their families. I’m so happy that wish and dream is coming true that we will now watch Bunty Aur Babli 2 this coming Friday.

DEADLINE: The film was originally set to release in June 2020 before it got postponed due to Covid-19. What impact did the pandemic have on the post-production of the film? Were there any hiccups?

MUKERJI: The hiccups were because we couldn’t complete the film in March and the pandemic hit us then. We were due to finish by the end of March but everything had shut down by March 13. All the actors were pretty nervous to come on set and shoot, rightfully so. Then we had to stall the film. We had the ‘Tattoo Waaliye’ [a song in the film] set standing for nine months. We then came back in the middle of the pandemic to finish the shoot because Saif [Ali Khan, co-star] had other commitments and do other films. Siddhant [Chaturvedi, co-star] had a commitment. Sharvari [Wagh, co-star] went on to do another film and so did I. We had to complete the film. At the end of it all, I feel the hard-work is worth it and stress we took over the last two years, the labour of love, is now coming out.

DEADLINE: You also celebrate 25 years within the industry this year. What does success mean to you and has that definition changed over time, if at all?

MUKERJI: For me, success is the success that fans feel towards me when I do a good film. The happiness they share and pride they feel in being my fans, for me that is true to success that I’ve earned in these 25 years. I truly believe they have made me the star that I am. When I came into the industry, there was a whole myth that actresses cannot have the voice that I have. I don’t have the height of an actor, I’m pretty sure. Also, my skin complexion is not as fair as what audiences would like a mainstream actress to have. So I think the audiences accepted me from my first film. They support me even today, in a day and age of social media – where I’m not on social media but they keep me relevant till today, through their fan pages. I am super blessed to have loyal fans like them who love me with all my shortcomings and strengths.

DEADLINE: Be it a compassionate lawyer in Veer-Zaara or a headstrong cop in Mardaani, you’ve always pursued roles that convey a strong social message but yet have mainstream appeal. To what extent is commerciality a driving force in your decisions to do a film?

MUKERJI: I’m a true-blue commercial artist at heart. I love the 90mm screen and love the fact that people watch the films on the big screen and that you can call as the love of my life, to actually have films release on the big screen and to see yourself there. The first time I saw myself on the big screen, I couldn’t imagine myself the way I looked on screen. It was a really amazing thing. I personally feel when you are an artist, it is very important that you love your craft rather than you loving the trappings that come with being a star.

In these 25 years, if I have to take back anything which is completely something that I have owned and what has been constant with my films and characters, is that I love the fact that I get to portray strong Indian women characters on screens. So when I have people out of the country meet me, they always say “Rani, it was wonderful to see you play an Indian character like this who is so strong because we get to know Indian women through your characters.” So with each passing film of mine and with each passing decade, you’ll see that the strong women that I’ve portrayed makes people realise what Indian women stand for and you have a lot of Indian women who are so strong and I love to show that on screen. That has been something which has always been constant because I’m attracted to those characters a lot.

DEADLINE: A lot of actresses in Bollywood and Hollywood are stepping behind the camera. Do you have an interest in producing or directing movies too? If so, what style of stories would you be keen to explore?

MUKERJI: I would say that right now, it’s too early for me to actually take the plunge. I truly believe that when you get into something, you have to get into it whole and soul. Like the way I give my 100% best to my films as an actor, if I become a director or producer, I have to give 100% then as well. But right now, my daughter is very young and needs my time the most. I can’t now get out of that zone and start directing and producing because for a director and producer, the journey that they take with a film starts much before we come on a set and stays even much longer than me being on set. For an actor, it’s easy to get in and get out. But as a director and producer, you have to stay with it for a long time and give double the hours of time that I might be giving today because of being an actor.

Today, as an actor, I can choose to work for some amount of time but as a director, I don’t think I can choose that. So till such time, till my daughter grows and is completely independent and does not need my time anymore and she gives me the dialogue that “mum, don’t disturb me. I’m at my friends’” [laughs] when that happens to me, I think I’ll immediately just direct a film.

DEADLINE: How liberating is it for women to finally take centre stage across all areas of the industry and what more can be done to improve gender parity within the industry?

MUKERJI: I think it’s such a sad thing to even talk about this. The thing is, why should we always talk about equality of men and women, when it should be a given? It’s so sad that this always has to become a point of conversation where we have to make it into a subject of concern. We should come to a stage in our life where these kind of questions are never even asked because it should be a given where women and men are given equal opportunities and they get to speak their minds.

It is a deep-rooted issue and I think we, collectively, as a community and society should work towards it and try to make it as normal as it can be.

DEADLINE: We’ll be next seeing you in Mrs Chatterjee Vs Norway about a mother’s battle against Norwegian welfare services who took her child away from her. What can you tell us about this film and how distinctive will it be to your previous works?

MUKERJI: I’m just so happy that it has wrapped up because it’s a very special story and film that I am doing. When you all will watch it next year, I am sure that my fans will be in for a treat because it’s a story that connected instantly with me when I heard [about it]. What makes it even more special is that it’s a real story and inspired by a true incident that actually happened. I am just glad that we got to shoot it the way we wanted.

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