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Thursday, September 28, 2023

How Madhuri Dixit Progressed From A Megastar Diva To Queer Icon

Madhuri Dixit is the epitome of beauty and elegance. Whether it’s her as an actor, dancer or personality. The ‘Dhak Dhak’ girl who is highly revered in India, with multiple awards to her credit, requires no introduction. For the uninitiated, a simple Google search is sufficient to clear any doubts or curiosities. (This article may contain spoilers).

Whether it’s a romantic film like Saajan or a social drama like Mrityudand, her roles have been powerful, yet exuded a sense of beauty. In fact, there have been several reports about her getting paid more than the male lead in Hum Aaapke Hain Koun..! Even if we look at a movie like Raja – where despite the title being of a King, she puts up a good fight against the wrongdoers. Or even recently in a mind-boggling comedy as Total Dhamaal, she is the sole woman in a predominantly male cast. She is the smartest of the lot and most astute.

Almost every Madhuri starrer presents a strong voice against patriarchy. Especially in a role like Chandramukhi in Devdas. Playing the ‘marginalised’ role of a courtesan, she sharply responds back to an aristocrat who publicly humiliates her. Dignity and pride are always kept at the forefront. But roles aside, she also has worked her way to the top, achieving megastardom like no other actress. Dixit, alongside the late Sridevi, has been the highest-paid actress during their reign. Through their work, they have changed the narrative where women are equally strong [if not stronger] to their male protagonists.

“Throughout my career, I was very lucky that I got to play important roles where they had a big hero in the films. I always challenged myself as well. I selected those scripts and did a Mrityudand whilst doing a Beta, for example. It has been a conscious decision to challenge myself. I feel that’s how you grow as an actor,” Madhuri tells Filme Shilmy.

In the last few years, Bollywood’s celebrated ’90s Queens’ like Sushmita Sen, Juhi Chawla, Sonali Bendre and Kajol, to name a few, have made their streaming debuts in roles like never before. Contrary to their image, we are now seeing these loved actors play gritty and murkier roles. This era is the homecoming of all stars to delve into the alleys of acting – as murky as it can get. Dixit played a multi-layered diva who disappears in Netflix’s The Fame Game. But she really changes the game with fame in Prime Video’s Maja Ma. 

She describes the process: “Pallavi in Maja Ma was a challenging role for me. As an artist, you’re always greedy to do different kinds of characters. I thought this would be a great role for me to play because it talks about a lot of things in society.” In the film, Dixit portrays a closeted lesbian named Pallavi, whose truth gets exposed unexpectedly.

Her seemingly happy family is impacted and the marriage of her son is jeopardised. We then see the homophobia and ostracism she faces in society. Where even her own family turns their back on her. The movie’s verdict and flaws aside, Madhuri portrays this role with dignity and sensitivity. Her broken heart is expressed through her eyes and body language and treats this character equally to other performances. In fact, kudos go to director Anand Tiwari for helming such a story too.

We must appreciate other prominent talents like Sonam Kapoor, Shabana Azmi, Bhumi Pednekar, Nandita Das, Kalki Koechlin and several more for playing homosexual roles. Of course, there are numerous actors who have even played other LGBTQIA+ characters too. But it is heartening to see an A-lister like Madhuri find the inner strength and confidence to portray this character who embraces homosexuality.

It encourages the community to be proud of their sexual identity and spread the message of love. There have been, of course, movies that depicted same-sex relationships. However, to see a star of her calibre involved in a movie where the topic is the prime focus. Plus, there is even a solid exploration of existence beyond gender politics.

Whilst being a judge on Jhalak Dikhla Jaa, she has also been supportive of Dutee Chand. Chand is India’s first openly gay athlete who briefly participated in the show. Just recently, contestant Nishant Bhat performs a special act in tribute to LGBTQIA+ identities. Since Maja Ma has been promoted, she has been quite vocal about the community. “With fame comes responsibility. When I did this movie, I took on the responsibility, in a sense. I wanted this message to reach as many people as possible. That was one of the driving forces behind it,” she tells us.

“In our lives, we meet so many people. We have friends whose stories we know. We’ve heard so many instances and not living in a vacuum. Living with people and seeing so many things happening around us. Even Dutee was on our show and told us her experience, all these things were absorbed. Over the years, I have had a lot of audiences who trust me. Who looks up to me. So when I say something, I feel that they would listen… Whether they agree or disagree with me. At least they will watch and listen. So somewhere the message gets amplified because of that,” the superstar mentions.

Even if we rewind a few years back in 2014, Dedh Ishqiya – in which she plays a Begum, lesbian love is inferred. So even at a time when gay sex was criminalised due to Section 377, Dixit displayed the courage to at least exhibit this strand, which is not derogatory nor mocking sentiments. Again, there have been many movies (like Fire) pre-377 which showcased homosexual bonds and they too have been bravely sincere.

The purpose seems to be about the collective dialogue taking place in mainstream Hindi movies. Pictures like Badhaai Do and Maja Ma are pushing the conversation through commercial cinema. However, it is unfortunate how titles like the former are still panned and lacklustre at the box office. Could this be due to a section of society that is still homophobic? Plus, in light of the recent film Joylandwhen can we see LGBTQIA+ actors actually play the lead roles when the parts are specifically of that orientation in Bollywood? These are pertinent questions that require answering.

Hope and change are happening… Surely, but slowly.

Anuj Radia
Journalist and film enthusiast.

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