By Sonali Kokra May. 15, 2019
I have grown up on stories about my father’s not-so-secret childhood crush on Madhuri Dixit from the time when they were neighbours in Mumbai. As a child with a congenital heart condition, Papa had spent a large part of his childhood as the one-boy audience for her daily kathak practices. She didn’t know it, but Madhuri Dixit was making life a little bit bearable for an angry teenager.
How often do you get to stand in a room with your father’s childhood crush, securing her sari’s aanchal with safety pins, while she wobbles on four-inch heels next to you? Not too often, I’d imagine. I knew that the moment had all the makings of an amusing anecdote even as I was living it. I’d grown up on stories about my father’s not-so-secret childhood crush on Madhuri Dixit from the time when they were neighbours in a humble Mumbai suburb, a far cry from the homes both she and my father would keep as adults.
No trip down memory lane by my father or his siblings is ever complete without a pit-stop at Madhuri’s doorstep. About how, as a sickly child with a congenital heart condition, my dad had spent a large part of his childhood as the one-boy audience for her daily kathak practices. While the other kids ran around the compound playing cricket and lukka chuppi, my dad would shyly peer through the grilled windows and watch her dance. She didn’t know it, but Madhuri Dixit was making life a little bit bearable for a teenager trapped in a body that often frustrated and angered him.
I’d grown up hearing my aunts tease my father for his adoration, and seen my mother’s expression curdle comically every time her name came up during family dos. When your husband’s very first love is also the woman whose smile has inspired undying devotion in generations of ardent admirers, you’re bound to be secretly delighted when she gets married and moves thousands of miles away from home and out of reach of a media who goes into raptures every time she grins. I still remember my mother’s stormy frown and my father’s unsuccessful attempts to appear nonchalant when news broke that she had moved back into the country and was making a full-fledged Bollywood comeback. We ate a lot of lauki and karela that week. When I landed an assignment with her during my brief stint as a celebrity stylist’s assistant soon after she moved back into the country, it was weeks before I could work up the courage to tell my mother what my top-secret job was. Even more lauki and karela followed that announcement. Those four weeks were possibly the most interested my dad’s ever been in my career.
Many years later, it would be among the few memories that would make my father smile as he spent several months in the hospital, hooked up to tubes and wires, fighting for his life. I spent so many nights I spent by his bedside, yammering on about how Madhuri came to pick this sari over that gown for a gala, the colour palette she seemed to prefer, and how she looked far bigger in screen than she was, in real life. He’d never tire of hearing about the first time I met her — about how I was bowled over by her simplicity and niceness; and how, despite that or perhaps because of it, I had always been too shy to tell her about the forgotten link that connected her past to my present. Madhuri Dixit was our escape, even if temporary, from the terrifying possibilities that lay ahead.
As Bollywood-obsessed as my family was, I never imagined my father to be the sort who would lose his mind over a celebrity. Our vacation home on the outskirts of Mumbai shared garden walls with some very important Bollywood surnames, but I’d never once seen Papa show any inclination to further an association that went deeper than a friendly smile of greeting while pulling in or out of the driveway. He’d dutifully help them fill their coffers every weekend — Papa has this unique ability to enjoy even awful, unwatchable Bollywood fare — but he had no interest in breaking bread with them.
Not Madhuri, though. I thought my father’s regard for her was an aberration — the exception that proved the rule, but it was only during those months in the hospital that I learned what made Madhuri’s magic so irresistible and enduring. It wasn’t about being star-struck or holding on to shared history; what drew him to her was that no matter how big or famous she got, to him, she was always the quintessential middle-class girl he knew, understood, and cared about. Watching her movies was like a warm hug from a life and a time he may have left behind, but wasn’t quite ready to sever ties from.
Much like Madhuri Dixit, Papa belonged to a generation of men and women who had spent their life-shaping years in small homes filled with big dreams.
Much like Madhuri Dixit, Papa belonged to a generation of men and women who had spent their life-shaping years in small homes filled with big dreams. They’d both worked their asses off to get to where they were and build a better life for their children. But their experiences and struggles made them who they were.
When you go from having next to nothing, to having almost everything you ever wanted in a matter of years, life can feel adrift, and divorced from the reality of you. As my father’s life marched on, and took him further and further away from his roots, he yearned for even fleeting connections with his past. Maybe because Madhuri’s life had changed just as drastically, or maybe she’s simply that good an actress, but somehow, she had the power to transport my father to simpler times.
In the four months that he was in the hospital, Papa and I spent hours watching old Madhuri Dixit movies, and for the first time, I saw her the way he did, not the superstar I had helped dress. I watched my father’s face light up when he saw her as the loveable but stubborn pain in her father’s posterior that she was in Ram Lakhan. In another life, maybe Didi and I would have turned out like her. I watched him smile indulgently at her pampered and cosseted act in Dil and Dil Toh Pagal Hai. Did he see his daughters in Madhuri, or himself in her father, or perhaps a bit of both? He simply rolled his eyes when I asked.
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In his sterile hospital room, we watched Prem Deewane and Lajja and Khel, and each time I saw admiration in his eye. I know that he’d sooner perish than see his daughters become unwed mothers, scam artists, or police inspectors so we can put food on the table, but he can identify with the sentiment of finding a way or making his own. “When good things don’t get handed to you on a silver platter, you spend less time whining and more time doing,” has been Papa’s constant refrain, used every time he gets fed up of hearing us complain.
We watched Hum Aapke Hain Koun…! and our reactions couldn’t have been more different if they had been scripted. While he grew increasingly misty-eyed at the sky-high sanskaar quotient and parivar-love on steroids, I couldn’t help but groan internally. To me, a plot that revolved around marrying someone out of a sense of duty seemed bizarre, to him, the movie was a blueprint for ideal beti and bahu behaviour. It was the movie that sealed Papa’s conviction — Madhuri simply can do no wrong.
As I write this indirect ode to Madhuri Dixit from one of her oldest fans, preparations for my parents’ marriage anniversary party are underway. Their marriage turns 37 the same day she turns 53, a fact that never ceases to annoy my mother. She’s still not sure whether the party each year is to celebrate them, or her.
Sonali Kokra is a journalist, writer, editor and media consultant from Mumbai. She writes on feminism, gender rights, sexuality, relationships, and lifestyle. In her 12-year-long career, she has written for national and international magazines, newspapers and websites. She was last seen as the lifestyle editor of NDTV, and HuffPost.com, and has published a coffee table book on Shah Rukh Khan.