What Madhuri Dixit did next

Madhuri Dixit on a film set in Mumbai, in 2000. This year, Dixit completes three decades in Hindi cinema. Jonathan Torgovnik / Getty Images
01 June, 2014

“WHAT DID YOU CHOOSE? The coffee?”

There is such a thing as a very Andheri office. One building away from Mainland China, one alley away from a horrid little advertising agency I worked in for a few weeks when I first moved to Mumbai, stands a functionally grey monolith. It houses, among many others, an office so utterly nondescript it could belong to anyone from a realtor to a stockist of ballpoint-pen refills. It would, however, have to be a stockist obsessed with privacy. Ringing the doorbell that sultry afternoon in April this year led to a voice through a speaker—with the curt tone of automated gates in California-based TV shows—asking me to identify myself. I promised the voice that I did indeed have an appointment “with Madam,” and waited interminably while my claim was checked and double-checked.

The reception area was tiny—a couple of chairs plonked across a man at a desk, surrounded by phones. Clearly, not too many were allowed to come in at any one time. “Two minutes,” said a voice too busy to sound reassuring, and I sat back amid the exaggerated normalcy. Then I looked to my left and saw—within that small, unspectacular bastion of the humdrum—a massive painting, vibrant and striking and carrying a stylish signature that even a philistine like me could recognise. This was certainly a present from the painter—the only modern artist who is truly a household name in India, a man who was besotted with “Madam,” and famously watched one particular movie of hers several dozen times.

It was a movie, in fact, that most of the nation watched far too many times. Video piracy in India took off in earnest with Hum Aapke Hain Koun, and I was there when it began. It was the autumn of 1994, with Delhi at its most affectionately crisp. The Sooraj Barjatya behemoth, released that August, monopolised every theatre in town. Video rental libraries were booming, and VHS cassettes regularly hit shelves a few weeks or, at most, a couple of months after a film’s release. But despite high demand, Barjatya stubbornly held out, leaving Hum Aapke Hain Koun exclusively in theatres, nearly bankrupting entire families compelled to ritually re-watch it. I was thirteen when a close friend sidled up to me after class and asked if I knew anyone who might want to buy a copy on VHS. My mother’s ecstatic yelp when I told her about this convinced me we had hit a goldmine. Thus—with my enterprising chum producing copy after copy and me pasting magazine pictures onto cardboard boxes to approximate cassette covers—did we please many an auntie of our acquaintance.

It is, therefore, with more than a smidgen of disbelieving gratitude that—two decades after squeezing that unbelievably long movie onto VHS by cutting out the songs—I was ushered into a conference room and watched Madhuri Dixit walk in and wonder if my cup had coffee in it.

A still from Prem Pratigyaa, which was released in 1989. Gopal Pandey / Indian Express Archives

FROM SCENE-STEALING INGÉNUE TO PINUP GODDESS,  through magnificence and misstep, Madhuri Dixit has always been worth watching. She has sobbed, snickered and shimmied through movies of varying quality—taking on both clichés and surprises with equal brio—and the mesmerised masses have lapped it up. By the numbers, she is Hindi cinema’s most successful heroine of all time: the highest paid actress, and the only one ever to get paid as much as her leading men. She has bested any so-called rivals, been billed above the biggest actors, and, in an industry defined by songs, shown us the most unforgettable dances of all.

The last three decades have seen her celebrated, deified, dreamed of and craved. In 2001, Pakistan’s then president, Pervez Musharraf, sounded almost wistful when, at the Agra Summit, he remembered Pakistani fans at a Sharjah cricket match singing “Madhuri de do, Kashmir le lo” (Give us Madhuri, take Kashmir) to the tune of ‘Joote de do, paise le lo,’ a song from the bootleg-inspiring Hum Aapke Hain Koun.

In 1994, Dixit starred opposite Salman Khan in the phenomenally successful Hum Aapke Hain Koun. Indian Express Archives

For an actress topping the A-list, Dixit frequently avoided predictability, taking chances with her scripts, directors, and co-stars. The gangland drama Parinda came in 1989, alongside her first blockbuster, Ram Lakhan; 1991 saw her in both Lawrence D’Souza’s weepie love-triangle flick Saajan and Nana Patekar’s introspective Prahaar; 1992 had her dancing the famous ‘Dhak dhak karne laga’ number in Beta, as well as playing a blind danseuse in the understated Sangeet. In 1997, while basking in the spotlight of Yash Chopra’s Dil Toh Pagal Hai, she gambled on one of Prakash Jha’s  earliest films, a woman-oriented character drama called Mrityudand.

Her acting proved to be as impressive as her screen presence; the star often gleamed in films duller than the tired old tins their reels were packed in. Her eyes sparkled with eagerness, and a seemingly effortless spontaneity coloured her performances even in failed films; an infectious energy carried her through moments of tremendous farce as well as painful melodrama. Looking back at, say, the absurd Deewana Mujh Sa Nahin (1990)—where Dixit had to contend with portraying an annoying character, the worst wardrobe imaginable, and an obsessive stalker, in the form of Aamir Khan at his most cutesy—her innate charisma is still evident. As with all actors the camera adores, even her lowest points are worth smiling at, and often show remarkable untapped potential.

It is a potential which may soon bear fruit, at last. While Madhuri Dixit may seem to have proverbially done it all, she is now—having returned to the movies after a hiatus of some length—picking radical roles and sharp filmmakers. Our cinema, staunch in its dated ways, isn’t prepared for her refusal to go quietly into the twilight of supporting roles. She may not command the numbers she once did, she may not be the starlet setting young men afire, but she is unquestionably, defiantly—almost inexplicably—still a superstar. What she does makes a difference, and she could alter how Hindi cinema treats its heroines. Dixit’s experimental films never showed up vividly against the light of her considerable filmography, because her mainstream hits always dwarfed them. But, thirty years after she first showed up on screen, Dixit appears keener than ever to shake up the status quo—if only to make room for herself, one more time.

Madhuri Dixit movies aren’t what they used to be. In one of her two 2014 releases, she played a poetry-fetishising empress in love with her handmaiden; in the other, a parkour-trained outlaw quick with mid-air kicks. Both were huge risks for a megastar in an industry not used to rewarding bold choices. Playing a gay aesthete in January before playing Rajinikanth in March—there has never been anything quite like it.

In the Andheri conference room where we met, Dixit, now forty-six years old, sounded content about the new films. “I’m trying to think of any movie in the past,” she said of Gulaab Gang, the action film, “that, in that setting of a Bollywood potboiler, has women in the key roles. A movie with all the masala, all the dialogue-baazi, and yet with a female protagonist and antagonist.” Based loosely on the crusading Uttar Pradesh vigilante Sampat Pal and her brigade of pink-saree-clad women, Soumik Sen’s film was hardline commercial cinema, a movie unsubtle enough to have starred, say, Akshay Kumar. “That a woman was playing that kind of a role was fascinating, I thought, because it changes the rules in one go,” Dixit said. “It’s like throwing down a bowling ball and watching the pins go flying.”

Gulaab Gang is not a great film, although there is a definite thrill in watching Dixit swagger about kneeing rogues in the chest. She enacts her role with a marked dignity; but the best part of her performance might simply be that she took on a film so unlikely: an old-school movie by a rookie director, with a lower budget than Dixit, or the action-cinema genre, is used to. “The film also spoke about women’s rights and education, and society in general,” she said. “It was a statement on what’s happening around us: laws need to be stronger; we have this whole infrastructure and yet nothing really happens. There were a lot of things that made me do Gulaab Gang.” One of which, clearly, was the opportunity to be trussed up in harnesses and swung around trucks in order to beat up goons—if only because her sons would enjoy watching mummy wreak some havoc.

In the 2014 film Gulaab Gang, Dixit played a character loosely based on the crusading Uttar Pradesh vigilante Sampat Pal. {{name}}

Abhishek Chaubey’s Dedh Ishqiya wreaks very different havoc. It is a decidedly child-unfriendly film about conmen hoodwinked by an imperious lesbian with a literary bent of mind. It is a highly nuanced movie, and Dixit—as the once-wealthy Begum who plays up to men to pay her bills—imbues her character with a delicacy and a self-aware grace that appears to have eluded every other actress currently in the business. “The old culture is fast fading,” she said of the world of Hindi cinema. “The nawabiyat is crumbling to pieces. As things become more ‘new-age,’ there’s no place for characters with old-world charm, and they try desperately to fit into the new generation.”

Dedh Ishqiya is also a film where our most mainstream actress plays a woman who prefers the company of women—a twist that, while telegraphed subtly enough, is certainly a shock. Dixit assured me she was never worried about it. “I knew exactly what we were doing. There was a lot of ambiguity to it. We left it to the viewer to interpret it themselves: it could be two women who were fed up of the men in their lives and they want to be by themselves, or it could be something else. And I love that little ambiguity.”

Chaubey, whose first “lesbian draft” was wickedly explicit, confessed the script initially gave his heroine cold feet. But then he realised, while subsequently honing the script, that overt sexuality would kill the loveliness of the story’s eventual reveal, an angle pegged on Lihaaf, the Urdu writer Ismat Chughtai’s scandalous classic short story. “She told me about her fears, and I addressed it: This is exactly how I’m going to treat it. If you’re observant, you’ll get it fairly easily. However, if you aren’t watching carefully, you don’t get it, and that’s it. It doesn’t harm your enjoyment of the movie,” said Chaubey, who co-wrote the script with Vishal Bhardwaj. “And then she was fully on, you know. Unlike Huma”—Huma Qureshi, who plays the object of Dixit’s affections—“who was very excited and who was constantly talking to me about it—‘How do I touch her? How do I look at her?’—Madhuri didn’t fuss, she didn’t discuss it too much. However, when shooting, there were absolutely no inhibitions. She was all systems go.”

IT IS A CAREER that took off with an advertisement.

Screen India was the most powerful industry publication through the 1970s and 1980s; for a considerable part of this time, its third-page advertisement was the hottest real estate in Hindi film publicity, reserved largely for paid announcements for films celebrating a grand theatrical run, or first posters for films with whopping budgets. It was, therefore, rather startling to see a dramatic six-page ad starting on page three “launching” a heroine who wasn’t merely unknown, but unknown because her first five films had flopped.

The number ‘Humko aaj kal hai intezaar,’ from the 1990 film Sailaab, was one of Dixit’s early dancing successes. Indian Express Archives

In 1984, aged seventeen, Madhuri Dixit did a tiny film called Abodh, opposite the Bengali actor Tapas Pal, which sank without a trace. So did her next four films. During the shoot for Awara Baap, the second of these flops, however, she met Subhash Ghai. Ghai, a hugely successful director who was bulletproof at the box office for two decades straight—from the 1980 release Karz to the 1999 Taal—glimpsed something special in her. “When I first met her in Kashmir,” he said, remembering a trip to scout locations for his 1986 multi-starrer Karma, “she was playing some very small role as Rajesh Khanna’s daughter. A hairstylist, Khatoon, who had worked with me on Karz, came to greet me and said, ‘Ek chhoti ladki hai, side-role kar rahi hai’ (There’s this little girl, doing side-roles)—and she introduced me. Patli si ladki thi” (She was a slim sort of girl).

Ghai was impressed by the slim girl’s face, one he recalled as “absolutely photogenic,” and by her persona, “well-mannered, cultured and innocent.”

“She was an unpolluted actor,” he said, “and I had the confidence that I could shape her into a star. So I took her on as a project.” Ghai spoke of this phase as “re-erecting” Dixit’s career, because he discarded her flops outright, refusing to even watch them. “I told her, ‘I am making this film called Karma, and after finishing this film, in one year, I will make a film properly to launch you.’ I wanted to sign her to a five-year contract so I could groom her properly, and all I wanted was her loyalty.”

Ghai shot a quick showreel with Dixit, sending it to eight producers and directors. “Ramesh Sippy, Indra Kumar, Shashi Kapoor Productions … Everyone I knew well. I said to them that ‘If you think this face, this video is okay, then contact me. I am signing this girl and if you want to sign her, send me a cheque for Rs 5,000.” By the end of the week, Ghai had eight cheques, following which he took out his historic advertisement. Ghai summarised it thus: “This girl who was a flop yesterday is blooming today and will be a superstar tomorrow.”

“She had become a flop heroine,” the trade analyst Amod Mehra recalled. “But what a launch that was! Six pages continuous in Screen? When nobody had even heard of her? It made her career.” Ghai’s coup de grâce was the ad’s final page, emblazoned with the names of the eight producers who had already signed the relatively untested actress. Thus, Dixit became a sensation well before she stepped forth as Ghai’s heroine.

Then, like a much-shaken fizzy drink finally uncorked, came the stream of hits. First Dayavan, Tezaab (1988), then Tridev, Parinda and Ghai’s own Ram Lakhan (1989). From this point, there was no stopping Dixit, who got stronger with each successive triumph. The film industry reacted the only way it knew how: as a herd. Dixit had nine releases in 1989 and ten in 1990. Everyone wanted her.

Tezaab (1988), which ran in theatres for more than fifty weeks, featured Dixit’s breakthrough song ‘Ek do teen.’ delhi press images

“If you wanted histrionics,” Mehra said, trying to sum up what producers felt at the time, “Madhuri Dixit was your number one choice. Very quickly, in the 1990s, everyone started comparing her with Madhubala, as a beauty who could charm anybody. But Madhuri grew as an actress besides just being a star.” Mehra dismissed any serious competition to her at the time. “Sridevi was a great comic actress, but that was it. She was a very commercial heroine. For big masala movies people wanted Sridevi, but when they had a role that needed acting, they had to have Madhuri. She had an edge; everyone felt she was the complete Indian woman.”

“Madhuri Dixit is the most solid man I’ve met in the industry,” Shah Rukh Khan told Filmfare magazine in 2006. “Yeah, you heard right. She’s truly like a man. She’s the most solid thinker, the most solid emotionally, a solid believer. And of course, her talent is unquestionable. From her I’ve learnt the most.” Evidently one of those overachievers who believe that comparing a woman to a man is the ultimate compliment to her, Khan told the magazine that he merely followed Dixit’s lead. From a famously cocky star, who knowingly plays the charming narcissist in public, this was a telling compliment: “She is the only one I feel I am not as good as.”

Dixit’s first “hit pairing,” in tabloid parlance, came with Anil Kapoor, with whom she acted in hits like Tezaab, which was her breakthrough movie. The duo became a golden ticket for producers, and collaborated sixteen times, most recently on Pukar in 2000. But all was not peaches and moustaches. One of their biggest films together, Beta, in 1992, cast Kapoor in the unflattering role of a bullied simpleton, and Dixit as his firebrand wife, defiantly challenging her husband’s mother. Dixit, eyes blazing, was the most striking thing about the film, especially while melting the screen during the suggestive song ‘Dhak dhak karne laga.’ “Beta should have been called ‘Beti,’ people tell me,” Dixit said, and smiled nonchalantly at me. Amod Mehra, however, said that Kapoor had not enjoyed the fact that Dixit walked away with the lion’s share of the applause.

In Beta (1992), Dixit appeared alongside Anil Kapoor, with whom she formed a memorable onscreen partnership. Indian Express Archives

Kapoor wasn’t the only leading man wary of, well, being led. “She only started Dil because Anil didn’t have dates at the time, and Aamir”—Aamir Khan, who had a string of unsuccessful films following his 1988 debut hit, Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak—“was a nobody,” Mehra explained. Dil, released in 1990, was a great success. “So another hit pair was born. But once she became a superstar, the biggest heroine … Anil pushed for actresses like Urmila”—Urmila Matondkar—“and Sridevi in films like Judaai, while Aamir was picking actresses like Manisha Koirala”—in the 1995 Akele Hum Akele Tum. “Nobody wanted to take on Madhuri anymore.”

Even if these actors weren’t threatened by Dixit herself, they might have had something to say regarding the characters she played. Most were canny, independent girls, bright students or feisty professionals, who suffered little foolishness, especially from leading men. Mainstream directors such as Ghai—even on the loud, testosterone-filled Khalnayak, ostensibly a vehicle for Sanjay Dutt—always made sure they wrote a meaty part for Dixit.

By the mid 1990s, Dixit was queen. She had the films, the roles, and the audiences she wanted. Once it became clear to producers that her name on a marquee resulted in that all-important box-office opening, she began to render her heroes redundant. For Hum Aapke Hain Koun, for example, not only did she enjoy a higher billing than the hero, Salman Khan, but—according to a recent article in the Indian Express—she was paid a then-astronomical Rs 2.7 crore for the film, more than almost anybody else at the time.

“This is what happens when the heroine becomes bigger than the hero,” Mehra said. “Stories and films have to be built around her stature. So they become heroine-oriented films—which then don’t work at the box office.” This did not mean that independent, intelligent female characters were rejected by the audiences of the 1990s. On the contrary, actresses such as Kajol and Manisha Koirala brought nerve and audacity to their best roles in this period—but, according to conventional industry wisdom at the time, the characters they played belonged alongside even stronger male leads. Sexism, then as now, ran deep in the industry. (To this day, male stars cherry-pick the actresses they work with. )

Treading on her heroes’ toes ought to have signalled Dixit’s imminent downfall in the second half of the decade, but she avoided the precipice in defiantly heroic fashion. She began to do what only the heroes do—working with younger co-stars, and taking charge of the commercial reins of her films.

Dixit broke new ground carousing with a young Akshaye Khanna in 1997’s Mohabbat, nine years after audiences saw her being pinned down by Khanna’s father, Vinod, in Dayavan. Hindi cinema is notoriously unfair to ageing actresses, first relegating them to the dreaded sister and mother roles, and eventually forgetting them entirely. (Rakhi Gulzar, for instance, played Amitabh Bachchan’s lover in Barsaat Ki Ek Raat in 1981, before playing his mother in Shakti just a year later.) But Dixit had broken on through. As producers inevitably bowed to her box-office potential, she hiked her fees to rub shoulders with the highest-paid men—and got what she asked for.

“I’m proud I did it because it paved the path for others to follow,” Dixit told me. “And when you do something groundbreaking, there’s always a risk. But I think I was always clear what I wanted to be, where I wanted to be, and where I wanted women in cinema to be. So that always dictated my choices, whether it was the pricing or the choice of films, I wanted it to be the best and I thought I deserved the best.”

Dixit’s ceiling-shattering act did not, however, pave the path for other women. Even today, the most feted heroines, such as Deepika Padukone and Kareena Kapoor, are paid less than half of what even a second-rung hero—think Shahid Kapoor or Imran Khan—makes per film. That Dixit managed to achieve—and, on occasion, exceed—parity in an industry so irredeemably sexist is a testament to her singular star-power.

ONE OF THE WAYS Dixit managed to avoid slipping from the top rungs at a time when younger actresses were threatening to pilfer the spotlight was by retreating unexpectedly into the shadows. In 1999, she found herself a soft-spoken cardiovascular surgeon living in Denver, Colorado, who shared her Marathi Brahmin roots. Her marriage to Sriram Nene was a largely un-filmi affair. A few significant films followed, including Pukar and 2001’s Lajja, but after Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s massively publicised Devdas in 2002—where, for the first time since her fledgling days, Dixit took the supporting role instead of the lead, which went to Aishwarya Rai—she decided to relocate to the United States.

Her “comeback,” after five years off the greasepaint, was a 2007 production called Aaja Nachle, about a non-resident Indian dancer returning to India to save a theatre in her village. Produced by the maximalist Yash Raj Studios, the film was mounted on a scale so lavish that its earnestness was buried in bling, and the movie failed. For her part, Dixit dismissed any question of ring-rust. “It’s like bicycling. Or swimming, for that matter. Or,” and here she paused for a hint of drama, “actually even walking. You can’t forget. Once you’re in front of the camera, it comes very naturally.” Clearly, she had picked the film because its concept had touched a nerve with her. “I loved the fact that there’s this woman who leaves her country and goes somewhere else, makes a life for herself, and then finds out that whatever she was passionate about is crumbling and she has to come back, and she has to fight for that culture.”

So Madhuri Dixit had come back to save us all? “No!” She burst out laughing. “You can’t save anyone, it’s not possible. But at least you can contribute to making people aware, at least educating people about what we’re losing. Even today, the masters who are experts in Kathak, Bharatnatyam, in classical dancing—they all say people don’t want to learn it because they all want to be dancers overnight. Which isn’t possible when you don’t know classical dance. Once you know classical, you can master any kind of dancing in the world.”

Then, to drive her point home, she talked to me about cyborgs. “Do you watch Star Trek at all?” she asked, a raised eyebrow topping her smile, aware her metaphor might have been lost on a non-Trekkie. “Cyborgs just come and assimilate people into their own culture, and turn them into half-men-half-robots. They’re one, they think as one. But if you really want to live in a world as one and yet have your identity, then your culture is something that you uphold, because that will give you identity.”

I lingered on the revelation that the ‘Chholi ke peeche’ star was a lover of science fiction. As talk turned to genre cinema and animated movies, she pointed out how emotive the superhero movie genre could be. “With the dead parents and the villain going ‘hahaha,’” she said, “or the uncle being killed.” I asked her if she would consider doing a superhero film.

“Oh yeah,” she said. “Absolutely. It would be fun. It has its own fascination, from Spider-Man to Catwoman. There’s something exciting about these characters. And they’re all made from comic books. Which is just … amazing.”

Dixit is currently intrigued by the Hollywood model of stardom—getting writers and directors to develop material specifically for her, instead of hewing to the way things are traditionally done in the Hindi movie industry, which consists of wading through scripts thrust her way. If Dixit could facilitate the kind of movies she likes to watch, we might be in for an interesting time, but it was not clear to me if she could command a Krrish-sized budget today. If not—given the fickleness of the industry’s producers and distributors, and the ever-changing list of eight actors considered “safe bets” by them—the new, smaller kind of Madhuri Dixit film could prove to be no bad thing.

Dixit, a classically-trained Kathak danseuse, performs on a film set in January 2000. Jonathan Torgovnik / Getty Images

A clue to her future may lie in one of her best and most offbeat past performances. Maqbool Fida Husain, India’s most iconic contemporary artist and a painter of movie posters in his earliest days, watched Hum Aapke Hain Koun sixty-seven times in theatres, having become completely and famously obsessed with Dixit. He also made a series of paintings featuring her, which he signed simply, and dramatically, as “Fida”—smitten. When the film came out, he was seventy-nine, and Dixit twenty-six. But they struck up a firm friendship, and in the year 2000, Husain made a cinematic ode to her called Gaja Gamini. In the film, whose Sanskrit title translates to “one with the gait of an elephant,” Dixit played three (or perhaps more) muses: a woman who inspires Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Kalidas’s Abhigyan Shakuntalam, and a model for a young photographer’s finest work.

The film was an indulgent, unforgivably theatrical bit of navel-gazing, but it was also, without question, a visual spectacle. “There was a bound script,” Dixit explained to me. “There was a whole storyboard. But his thing was not about the dialogues, not about what we were saying to each other, but about how he was going to shoot it, and how each visual was going to look. He used to say he wanted to make ‘moving pictures,’ where if you just snip any of the frames out from the reel, it should look like a painting. And that’s exactly what he did.”

The role of the photographer went to Dixit’s Dil Toh Pagal Hai co-star Shah Rukh Khan, who didn’t quite understand what was going on. “I remember Husain-ji would come and say ‘Abhi aese bolna hai, abhi aese bolna hai’ (Now you say it like this, now like this), and Shah Rukh,” she laughed, before putting on a completely vacant voice, “wondered ‘What does this mean?’ And I explained that we shouldn’t ask what it means but follow what it says.”

I said it must have been a daunting brief for an actress. “It was! What Husain-ji was trying to do with the film was to say how mysterious a woman is. Poets are trying to describe her with their poetry, painters are trying to capture that magical moment, that smile or whatever, and yet she’s so mysterious that nobody can really describe or, say, define her, because she just plays so many roles.”

It was eccentric, she agreed, “but very cutely eccentric. And it was, in a way, liberating, because I could give it my own interpretation. It wasn’t like he knew the nuances of what acting is or stuff like that, so I had a lot of freedom. And we created something that was very different. The dances, also, were very innovative.”

She spoke fondly of the “fabulous, fabulous” Husain and his spirit. When he came to visit her in Denver, he frantically looked around for a canvas, assuring her he was carrying his own paints. “And I said, ‘Why don’t you just relax? Sit back, I’ll give you a cup of tea, put your feet up and don’t paint.’ And he said, ‘You’re punishing me!’ And that was an eye-opener to me, the way nothing else mattered and he just wanted to paint, and go on painting.”

The masala movies of the 1970s and 1980s traditionally made a big deal of something called the hero’s “entry shot,” the first time the camera shows the leading man, often a dramatic pan up from his boots to his face (at which point the camera, like an overconfident stand-up comic, freezes for a second, for applause and whistles). Husain, in his two-hour film, obscures Dixit’s face for the first half-hour; we see her dancing, but her face remains covered with strategically raised mudras. We first sight Dixit’s face smiling beatifically—she is a blind woman being wooed by music. Suddenly, she launches into an aalaap, and, with a dramatic spurt of energy (and a change in setting) breaks into dance next to gigantic musical instruments painted as white as her sari. It is a preposterous set-up, but Dixit’s electric vitality makes it come alive; gasping, thrusting and touching the instruments with a devastatingly fluid grace. A minute later, Dixit is sitting and talking, softly and realistically. In contrast to the actors around her, who project their lines in infuriatingly theatrical fashion, Dixit keeps things crisp and clear, meant for the camera rather than the stage. It becomes evident that she possesses a mastery, unwavering and self-assured, whether negotiating a tricky dance or a demanding turn of phrase.

In 2000, MF Husain, here in front of a print featuring Dixit, directed Gaja Gamini, a cinematic ode to the actress. DAVE NIRAV / India today Images

Gaja Gamini was a muddled but ambitious project, and Dixit dazzled in it, turning in a performance that had no previous cinematic reference point. One reason she sparkled so uninhibitedly could be that Gaja Gamini was a purely artistic endeavour, made without an eye on the box-office. It is this strategy that may be Dixit’s ticket to greater prominence right now.

MUCH OF THE GO-FOR-BROKE AMBITION of the current phase of Dixit’s career might have to do with the fact that she already exited stage-left while on top once: there is nothing left to prove. She genuinely enjoyed being away from the studios, she told me. She could stroll through a supermarket in Denver—“which is a very Caucasian kind of place, and the Indians there are mostly the transient kind, who come there for three or four years for their tech companies and move on”—occasionally being spotted by an Indian or two and waving a quick “Hey” before carrying on with her day, in gym clothes and bereft of makeup. There were no minders to warn her against stepping out because crowds and the press were around. “For me, having a family, a husband, a home, kids, was always a big part of my dream. Despite being so used to working, I was living the dream I’d made for myself. I was playing it to the hilt, really,” she laughed. Then she quickly clarified, “It wasn’t like a role, it wasn’t just play-acting. I come from a family of four kids and for me family is very important.”

But once she returned, it became clear that some things had not changed. Stories emerging from her sets revolved, much as they once did, around her work ethic. “We were doing one of the songs,” Soumik Sen, the director of Gulaab Gang, recalled, “and around lunchtime, she called me into her van. And the first thing she asked me was, ‘Do you have this location day after?’ And I was surprised but said yes. ‘Do you have the other artists day after?’ Yes. Then she broke the news that she’d been dancing through a migraine attack since the morning. Now, it was getting too much, she’d had two pills, and it hadn’t gotten any better. If she felt okay, she’d resume shooting, otherwise if I could please excuse her? It’s unbelievable for someone to ask you these questions first.”

Abhishek Chaubey said he was thunderstruck, on the first day of shooting a Dedh Ishqiya scene, when Dixit asked him, “in a very childlike way, ‘Was I good?’ It was a very vulnerable moment, one where she was admitting, ‘I could have fucked up, did I do it badly?’ It could have been an eighteen-year-old actor trying out a scene for the first time. That nervousness was there.”

In Dedh Ishqiya, which premiered earlier this year to popular and critical acclaim, Dixit plays a once-wealthy begum with a love of poetry who shares a romantic relationship with her handmaiden, played by Huma Qureshi. {{name}}

The new phase of Dixit’s career occasions the question of whether, like Amitabh Bachchan over the last decade, she has been forced to embrace the unexpected in order to stay important. Is she choosing not to do a commercial vehicle opposite Salman Khan, or will that not be offered to her at all? Or has she found enough calm in order to do what she likes?

The Bachchan analogy draws itself. In the late 1990s, Bachchan aged gracelessly into self-parody, starring in unfortunate films such as Laal Baadshah and Sooryavansham. Having re-invented himself with the unusual decision to host a game show on television—the smash hit Koun Banega Crorepati, which premiered in 2000—he was able to spring back into relevance. No longer the leading man, he built for himself a niche filmmakers were forced to respond to. Even when playing a hero’s father, Bachchan could demand a texture and weight for his role that no one else could. Because of this, other senior actors—Rishi Kapoor being a telling example—have found fresher and more challenging roles now than in their prime.

Some older actresses, too, have carved similarly interesting niches. Shabana Azmi, for instance, continues to shine despite her age, with roles as varied as that of a witch, don, affectionate mother and manipulative politician. But as an art-house actress, Azmi does not have the commercial cache required to make producers and filmmakers change the way they write roles.

On the other hand, when Dixit does a small film,  it does not remain small. By playing a lesbian and a bandit in the same year, then, Dixit has changed the terms of perception and possibility. Thanks to her—and Sridevi, whose English Vinglish in 2013 was a runaway hit—Hindi cinema is poised to create a space that didn’t really exist for the commercial movie heroine before. Suddenly, it appears possible for actresses to stay relevant despite conventional diktats that they have a certain age, marital status or kind of look.

And, to do all this, Dixit might not even have to dance.

DURING HER ALL-CONQUERING 1990S, it was easy to draw parallels between Dixit and Julia Roberts—another amazingly successful star with an iconic smile and paychecks as big as the boys—but things have changed. In Dedh Ishqiya, Dixit’s  performance shows just how far she has travelled, from heroine to actress. Somewhere in the mid 1990s—between Beta and 1994’s Anjaam—she grew aware of the breadth of her narrative range, and began to steer clear of false notes. Now, with an increased capacity for risk, she may be able to sculpt more complicated characters and mature performances. To extend the Hollywood analogy, the eventual parallel for Dixit would be Meryl Streep, who is both a veteran revered for her acting, and still a leading lady. A Meryl Streep film, too, never quite remains a small film.

Dixit yelped at the mention of Streep. “That’s a big shoe to fill, though. I just want to be different. I want to surprise with each film I do next.” As we spoke of her Hollywood influences, Streep “obviously” is the first name she took, but her choice of the second struck me as telltale. “The new girl, Jennifer Lawrence. She just gets into whatever role she’s playing and she’s so young and it’s crazy.”

The very fact that she cited a twenty-three-year-old wunderkind as an influence indicated how serious Dixit is about avoiding motherly roles. She might not have to. Dixit came of age at a time when the “heroine-oriented film” was box-office blasphemy, but recent trends in cinema, including the success of actresses such as Vidya Balan in 2012’s Kahaani, and Kangna Ranaut in 2014’s Queen, have created hope that the mainstream has evolved.

Dixit also said she believed that women are now getting more textured parts. “She plays a character now. It’s not just a revenge drama, and she’s not either avenger or victim, which is what heroine-oriented films used to mean.” She was also most gratified that female characters no longer have to justify whatever ambitions they might have. “Earlier you had to think that abhi aesa dikhaaenge toh (if we frame it this way) audience might not like it. There’s a sick brother and uske liye kucch karna hai (something has to be done for him), and that’s why she’s a cabaret dancer.”

A pivotal development in aid of extraordinary performers and performances in the current cinema is the fact that hits and flops don’t matter as much as they used to. Now, an actress can feature in a critically appreciated flop, and use the momentary acclaim to springboard toward her next project, ideally one with more visibility. This is not a foolproof method, but there are now more chances and better odds for talented actresses to succeed. Newspapers and magazines now look beyond the usual, starry suspects when measuring out the plaudits: in Irrfan Khan, Rajkumar Rao and Nawazuddin Siddiqui, we are beginning to see the rise of the unconventional leading man. There are no Streep-style roles in Hindi cinema quite yet, but if Dixit were to succeed in her way, we might finally have the superheroine we have always longed for.