Rachana Dubey (BOMBAY TIMES; May 6, 2017)

They say, when the realisation dawns that your life could be taken away from you is when your perspective on life - its real meaning, purpose, the definition of true happiness - changes. Manisha Koirala would know. One of the most sought-after Bollywood heroines of the 90s, she has seen it all - fame, success, adulation and stardom. But a battle with cancer changed it all. Today, the Nepalese beauty is a transformed person, who values the little joys of life that we all tend to take for granted in our pursuit of a greater, elusive and delusive happiness. In an exclusive chat with Bombay Times, the actress talks about her second innings on the silver screen, the cinema of today and how a close encounter with death can be a life-changing experience. Excerpts...

What was your first response when you were offered Nargis Dutt's role in the Sanjay Dutt biopic?
I was thrilled. I adore Raj's (Rajkumar Hirani, director) work. There's a positive twang to every situation in his films. I'd seen the rushes even before I joined the cast. I must say, Ranbir (Kapoor) has done a fantastic job as Sanjay. To top it all, I was offered Nargis' role. I wish the entire film was based on her (laughs), but it's based on one of my favourite co-stars, so it's okay. It's a huge responsibility to play Nargis because people remember her vividly.

Any apprehension about playing a mom on screen?
I am apprehensive about all the work coming my way. In your 40s, you are too old to play the hero's love interest and too young to play the typical celluloid mother. As an artiste, I am looking for roles that allow me to act, but without the tag of mummyji and didiji. I wouldn't have taken up Raj's film if it had been a typical mummy role.

How did you prepare for the part?
We did look tests and I watched her movies and videos. Also, I rehearsed my scenes thoroughly. I've known about Nargisji as my colleague's mother and a legendary figure. She was a natural beauty, who seldom wore make-up and was effortlessly elegant. I relate to that aspect of her personality.

Let's rewind a bit. You quit movies when you were at the top...
I had some personal issues and then, I was diagnosed with cancer. There were bigger battles to be fought. Also, I was overworked. I once told Dimple Kapadia, 'I'm fed up of this routine of waking up, going to the shoots and coming home drained out after long hours'. She replied, 'Enjoy this while it lasts because it will not last forever.' You don't know when things will change. That's the truth of life.

Would you dole out Dimple's advice to younger actresses?
Not really. I respect what Dimple told me, but I would tell the girls, 'Do it for as long as you enjoy it. Don't do it because you have to do it. Grab the work if it makes you happy. If it doesn't pull you in, look around, there could be something more engaging.'

Where did you find support during your low phase?
During your low phase, people hardly come forth. And it's not because they are mean or selfish. Sometimes, people are genuinely scared to see you in a dreadful condition. I was hurt when I didn't find too many people around me, but I also realised that they would have felt very bad if they had seen me battling the disease. My family and friends like Jackie Shroff and Gulshan Grover stood by me. I was in the USA then; had I been in Mumbai, maybe more people would have been around me. I also had many cancer survivors write to me, which filled me with hope.

Post recovery, it took you long to make a comeback...
I wasn't happy with the work that was coming my way. I have decided to take up roles only if I am fully convinced. Fortunately, I don't have to work to sustain myself. So, quality of work matters more today than it ever did.

As one of the boldest heroines of the 1990s, how do you think cinema has evolved in recent years?
I don't think I was bold. I haven't gone beyond kissing on screen. Yes, I have been a bold person all along. I have been honest about my relationships, I smoked and drank openly... I've been frank about things that most people are shy and quiet about. I am a rebel by birth, I was never the timid, compromise-to-get-work type of girl. Yes, I was cornered and conned into doing Ek Chotisi Love Story. As for the cinema today, it's in one of its best phases with great storytellers and fantastic actors who are extremely professional and technically sound.

The audience is also open to all kinds of stories. Cinema is a much stronger part of our culture now. Do you feel it's a good time to be a leading lady today?
Yes, it is. I am sorry to say, but the 80s and 90s were mediocre times for Hindi cinema. We were too dramatic and loud. The line between art-house and commercial cinema has blurred now. Today, it's more real. In a lot of ways, the quality is as good as what we see in the West. As for my favourite performers, Alia Bhatt and Kangana Ranaut are brilliant. I watched Queen and thought to myself, 'I could never have done this so well.' Vidya Balan is also wonderful. They're all way better than me.

Looking back, do you feel that you took your life for granted?
Yes, I did and because of that, my health and career went for a toss. I paid the price for it. Now, I deliver talks about whatever I learnt from the dizzy heights of success and the pits of loneliness and professional downs.

How important is it for you to find a companion now?
It's not important at all. Look at my house; look at the beauty of nature that I enjoy and the kind of life I lead. I don't feel the need for a companion anymore.

Has battling cancer made you stronger and more worldly wise?
Sunsets and sunrises, birds, hills, sea, the sound of water hitting against the rocks...I find great joy in these small things. My life before cancer was about projected happiness. Today, I have a luxury car and my closet is full of brands, but I don't need them to make me happy. In our bid to find happiness, we forget to value what the nature gives us for free. I didn't care for my body, my work or my friends till I was face-to-face with cancer. Today, I focus on living my life well. I don't know when death will knock on my door again. So, I don't want to feel that I am wasting my days. I want to close my eyes with the feeling that I have lived my life to the fullest.