As someone who grew up during the 1990s will tell you, there were few things as uplifting as Juhi Chawla’s giggle. She would bring all this energy to screen (it would later be described as ‘bubbly’) and it was simply impossible to resist the charm of a Juhi Chawla performance. Sadly, Hindi films never quite saw her as anything beyond that image. Except maybe the stray 3 Deewarein and My Brother Nihil.
In Bollywood’s usual ageist ways, A-list projects distanced themselves from Chawla over time.
Last seen in Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga, Chawla was talking to Hindustan Times about why we don’t see more of her – “I feel very awkward picking up the phone and saying I want to work.”
“Films still come to me, though few and far between, but not necessarily satisfying. There’s a sifting process. There are some which aren’t worth considering at all. Not to put anyone down, but some who come really don’t have a proper project or a complete story. I’ve worked in smaller films and in big projects, too.” – she was quoted.
Before Ek Ladki… Chawla worked on a little-known film called Chalk & Duster. “I loved the script so much, I went to Shabana ji (Shabana Azmi) saying ‘can we do this together’. I’ve done that too. But I’m not very good at this,” she said recalling her experience on the relatively small film.
Where actors like Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon are still calling the shots on projects like Big Little Lies, and Meryl Streep is still considered a prestige actor, the limited opportunities for women in Hindi cinema deserves more spotlight. While young actors like Priyanka Chopra, Anushka Sharma and Deepika Padukone, have taken matters into their own hands by setting up production houses, the generation before theirs wasn’t as enterprising. There’s a reason why we keep seeing Tabu and Madhuri Dixit make ‘comebacks’ every few years. Sridevi seemed set for a longer second innings before her untimely death.
The lack of opportunities for women in showbiz is not singularly an Indian phenomenon, and Juhi Chawla is not an exception. But the road towards correcting this is going to be long and will require a lot of introspection. Meanwhile, Tom Cruise can proceed with his obscene/unnatural number of franchises.