Among the most enduring symbols from the nostalgic 90s, Juhi Chawla indisputably figures at the very top. An actor par excellence, she has enshrined a place in my heart, and in many others’, that no entertainer has since been able to. Chawla’s on-screen persona signified by a heady mix of innocence and grace has always been unique; including a comedic timing that her longtime friend, co-actor, and business associate Shah Rukh Khan famously said was the only one in film business he could “never outdo.” Marking her birthday today, on November 13, it seems only fitting to trace a journey through the life and times of this universally beloved woman, both on celluloid and off it.
Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, An Empowering Breakthrough
Juhi Chawla entered Indian cinema with the 1986 film Sultanat alongside the magnificent names of Sridevi, Dharmendra and Amrish Puri. Despite the legendary cast, the film failed to perform well. Chawla went on to do a few more films, including one in Kannada before her big breakthrough in Bollywood came. In 1988, Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak released to thundering success. A musical rendition of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak was recognised as a landmark film and immediately propelled both the leads, Chawla and Aamir Khan, into the national limelight making them “overnight stars.”
A film review in Firstpost notes, “Juhi Chawla, with her flouncy ghagra and passive but assertive demeanor was an early predecessor to the sexually liberated Bollywood heroines of today. She wore what she wanted and initiated a relationship with the man she desired.”
Juhi Chawla As India’s 90s Sweetheart
As a new decade began, Chawla began delivering a series of hits, carving her path as one of the industry’s most bankable stars. Romantic comedies like Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman and Hum Hain Rahi Pyaar Ke cemented her place as the reigning comedy queen of Bollywood, as also set the stage for her most successful on-screen pairings with the two Khans – Shah Rukh and Aamir respectively.
Hum Hain Rahi Pyaar Ke, especially, saw her in a titular role upon which the entire film pivoted. As Vyjayanti, she played a vivacious business heiress on the run from home and her father’s pressures of marriage. It was an easily likeable character whose comedy was reminiscent of the Sridevi school of acting, as also a precursor to the “bubbly” women actors like Preity Zinta would come to play. The beauty of such female characters has always been their standalone entertainment value, which doesn’t need to rely upon the male characters’ timing. They’re independent.
When one thinks about it, Chawla’s characters have always had a measure, or at least a semblance of a measure, of individual agency. And that is no small feat for a mainstream Hindi film actress, which is what she had become by the late 90s. In 1997, with consecutive hits Yes Boss, Deewana Mastana, and Ishq, Chawla had captured the public imagination as India’s sweetheart. The audience was positively floored by Chawla’s dazzling toothy smile, perennially glittering eyes, and affable demeanour that would come to be definitive of much of her career.
In Recent Years
The frenzy around this congenial actress skyrocketed well into the early 2000s, primarily with Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani – another Juhi-Shah Rukh pairing that this time, daringly took on the blindspots in Indian journalism. She followed it up with several other titles, the most memorable of which are Jhankaar Beats, My Brother Nikhil, and a Punjabi production Waris Shah: Ishq Daa Waaris. She even ventured into singing.
Chawla redefined her 90s image from a sweet, frock-clad girl into a ruthless, kohl-eyed politician with the 2014 film Gulaab Gang, where she co-starred with Madhuri Dixit in the lead. Though she played an antagonist – a first in her decades-long career – Chawla was noted for the powerful fierceness of her character in an out-and-out feminist film.
Aside from a stray, misguided statement about pay disparity in Bollywood, where she said, “Pay disparity wasn’t something I got upset about. We just accepted that the male actors would get more than us,” Chawla has known to be conscientious towards the portrayal of women on-screen. She has expressed “contention towards skin show and women objectification,” and believes that women “are still not respected on screen.”
Her most recent projects, the 2016 film Chalk n Duster and the 2018 lesbian film Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga, too have all been women-centric dramas. These films are indicative of Chawla’s shift into socially-oriented cinema and her transition into a more serious actor, all the while retaining that old spark of mischievousness she carried in her eyes all through the 90s.
Views expressed are the author’s own.