There is More To Juhi Chawla Beyond Her Giggles


There is More To Juhi Chawla Beyond Her Giggles

Illustration: Akshita Monga


There is a scene in Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga where Juhi Chawla, as the “mind-shattering” Chatroji, admits to Anil Kapoor that she is divorced, because after 22 years of making others happy, she now wants to do the same for herself. Until moments before this dialogue, Chawla is loud and hilarious and everything one expects from a Punjabi aunty in a Bollywood movie. For all intents and purposes, her backstory seems like a mandatory two-minute tear-jerker meant for side characters.

But Juhi Chawla makes it sound like anything but. She slips in and out of this poignant moment with the finesse of a refined actor, never losing the cheer of the character, and yet somehow managing to keep it from becoming frivolous. The moment has a gravitas that clearly undercuts the humour without ever sounding patronising or forced. And that right there is template Juhi Chawla — taking ordinary, stereotypical characters and elevating them to a level barely perceived by the script.

Before watching Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga, I never realised that there is a distinct, recognisable Juhi Chawla brand of characters. Throughout her career, she has consistently played women who are funny and boisterous. The typical “giggly girl” stencil set by Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak – recognised in the post-millennial, post-feminist world as terrible stereotyping – was a weapon Juhi Chawla wielded with perfection. Bogged down by the limitations of her times and lack of imagination of the industry, she did the next best thing. She took whatever was handed to her, and owned it, infusing it with a flavour that was wild, uninhibited, and entirely her own. And so, Juhi Chawla’s giggles weren’t girly and cute. They were loud and ringing, and when needed, downright funny; they made her characters memorable even when they were designed to be forgettable.

She never seems ill-at-ease, even when mouthing the most ridiculous lines and playing the most awkward characters.

Comedienne par perfection, Juhi Chawla is perhaps the only other actress apart from Sridevi who can stake any claim to comic timing. Physical comedy came naturally to her and maybe because her persona largely eschewed the idea of a demure heroine, it was easy for her to slip into even the roles that bordered on the slapstick. There are scenes like her banter with Aamir Khan in Ishq, the barely believable prankster-to-seductress act in Bol Radha Bol, matching Shah Rukh Khan’s hamming in Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani, and the straight-from-a-Disney-cartoon sequences in Hum Hain Rahi Pyaar Ke, which could easily have been rendered cringe-worthy. But with Juhi Chawla in the driver’s seat, they became comic gems that surpassed the script.

There is something about Juhi Chawla that defies awkwardness. She never seems ill-at-ease, even when mouthing the most ridiculous lines and playing the most awkward characters. It is a gift that translated beautifully on screen, and not just in terms of the many shades of her comic prowess that were the highlight of her rather extensive filmography. Nobody did visceral, wide-eyed fear the way she did (except maybe Urmila Matondkar) — a fact well established by the iconic Darr, and then exploited by several duds like Daraar later.


Vinod Chopra Films

Few actresses knew how to work around emotional transitions the way she did. Chawla effortlessly navigated the extremes of horror and hilarity, and everything in between, without a single false note. Her funny characters had no problem slipping into serious moments, and vice versa. Even in the era of convenient typecasting, it was hard to confine her talent to any single box, a fact that was unequivocally established by her enthralling and downright terrifying performance in Gulaab Gang — a sharp departure and a rare instance of her versatility.

In the hands of a lesser actor, Ek Ladki Ko Dekha’s… Chatroji is nothing more than an oft-repeated Bollywood caricature. But Chawla is no lesser actor. Her Chatroji transcends the limitations of her character: She is hilarious, of course, but it is her effortless, matter-of-fact transition into the poignant that takes her story beyond a mere emotionally manipulative plot device. It makes Chatroji real, her beliefs tangible and her struggles palpable.

Despite starring is some of the biggest hits of her times, her brilliance has rarely received the recognition it deserves.

Ek Ladki Ko Dekha…, despite its flaws, is not an ordinary movie. Every character is well-etched and designed to serve a purpose. It made me wonder if the attempt to invoke the Juhi Chawla template was a deliberate creative call, an attempt to subvert the age-old Bollywood trope of a jolly Punjabi Aunty by giving us a character (and an actor) that never lets us forget her humanity. Maybe it was Shelly Chopra Dhar’s masterstroke to make us look beyond a stereotype while staying true to it, and reminding us what we stand to lose in terms of talent and brilliance when we don’t let our actors and characters breathe beyond set expectations.

Juhi Chawla has, arguably, been one of the most underrated actors in the industry. Despite starring is some of the biggest hits of her times, her brilliance has rarely received the recognition it deserves. Watching her again on-screen, as resplendent, vibrant, and fun as ever, made me nostalgic for the times when Hum Hain Rahi Pyaar Ke was my absolute favourite movie, and when Juhi Chawla was a comforting constant whose presence ensured at least a few laughs and some solid entertainment. It made me wonder if Juhi Chawla will take Chatroji’s advice herself and finally unfurl her wings. For decades, she has lived by the industry rules, and abided by the norms of stardom. It is now time, to break the shackles and let her brilliance shine. It is time to claim her due.