Actress Juhi Chawla opens up about love, life, her pageant days and finding her place in the glitzy world of Bollywood.
I was a quietly ambitious kid. I wanted to do well, and worked hard for what I wanted but didn’t feel the need to tell people I was doing it.
PUNJABI KUDI FROM CUFFE PARADE
I come from a Punjabi family and grew up in Cuffe Parade, Mumbai. My childhood was very normal and I grew up in a home where we were well provided for, but within reason. My parents were the hardworking sort, my mother was an executive in the housekeeping department at the Taj while my father worked with the Income Tax department.
Our little family also included my elder brother. He was tall, handsome and had all the girls chasing him. While I, on the other hand, was a lalloo. My brother was bright but didn’t like working hard, and as a result my mother would often scold him. This had a direct impact on me, and I decided to do better so that my parents would be proud of me and not worry about me. But on the whole, as a family, we grew - from one strength to another - together.
QUIET & AMBITIOUS
I studied at the CJM Fort School in Mumbai, and was a conscientious little kid. However, till the 7th standard, I had no clue what was going on in school, and simply could not grasp my studies. But I got better after that and by the time I completed school, I was one of the toppers. I even became the head girl in my final year.
My dad wanted me to become either an IAS Officer or a Chartered Accountant, while my mother wanted me to take up sales and marketing. But I was a quietly ambitious kid. I wanted to do well and worked hard for what I wanted, but didn’t feel the need to tell people I was doing it.
WINNING THE MISS INDIA TITLE
I was only 17 or 18 when I was crowned Miss India. When you’re young, you’re more likely to think less and just plunge into things. I was in college at that time and there were these forms floating around. My friends decided to
I was only 17 or 18 when I was crowned Miss India. When you’re young, you’re more likely to think less and just plunge into things.
participate in the contest and I decided that if they could take part, then so could I.
Luck was on my side and I got through the first round of the competition. The next round involved an interview at the office of the magazine organizing the competition. There were about 200 applicants and we all went through several rounds till the final event, where I was crowned Miss India 1984!
I couldn’t believe it, as I was still that gawky kid who was nobody, and then suddenly I became Miss India. But it was also very exciting.
RUBBING SHOULDERS WITH THE QUEENS
But the real shock came a month later when I realised I had to represent India in the Miss Universe pageant. I had never stepped out of India and suddenly they were sending a little girl to America for the Miss Universe pageant. I was like, ‘Oh my God! What am I going to do there?’ I entered Miss India for a laugh but this was a big shock!
The pageant was being held in Miami, Florida, USA. It was my first trip abroad but what an experience it was! There were girls from around the world and suddenly I was thrown into a situation where on the one hand you wanted to be friends with others as you were far away from home, but on the other hand, it was also a competition. However, I did make some friends and had a lot of fun hanging out with some of the girls there.
On the last day, my mum flew down to surprise me. I was thrilled but the moment I saw her, I started crying - I didn’t realise I had become homesick. In the end, I didn’t win the crown but I did get the award for the best national costume and I was happy with that.
MY PARENTS’ REACTION
My parents were open-minded and would have supported me in whatever I chose to do. They were surprised when I participated in the pageant as they didn’t know that I was thinking about something like becoming Miss India.
Recently, I found a video clip of an interview they did for Shemaroo. When the interviewer asked them, ‘What was your reaction when she took part in Miss India or when Juhi got into films?’, my mum said, ‘She did it like any other job which has its advantages and disadvantages’. And my father said, ‘I think whatever my Juhi will take on, she’ll do it well’. That’s when I realised what my parents thought of me when I was young.
FORAY INTO FILMS
A few months after I returned from the Miss Universe pageant, I received calls from Ajani Murani’s office saying that they were making a film and requesting if I was interested. At that time, I had a thirst for adventure and said, ‘Why not?’ My mum and dad were a little apprehensive and so my mum came along with me for the audition.
A few months later, I got a call saying that I had been selected for the film ‘Sultanat’. This was my first film and a new experience for me. There were so many stars like Sridevi and Sunny Deol, who until then I had only seen on screen. Everybody was larger than life. It was a bilingual film and I had been cast opposite Karan Kapoor, Shashiji’s (Shashi Kapoor) son. But it turned out to be a very tiny role in the end because I wasn’t well-known. Nevertheless, it was unnerving for me to be on the sets. I felt like nobody there, my teeth would chatter and knees knock. There were times I would pray my shot didn’t come today or it would be done with really quickly.
I had done some plays in school but being in front of the camera with big stars was different. You feel so tiny. I remember when we were shooting the first song in Kashmir - it was a duet between Karan and me - I was so scared. I was tongue-tied. There was Karan Kapoor in front of me, who was so good looking and handsome, and I didn’t know what to say.
I was still studying then, so when I went to college, everyone asked me, ‘You are working with Karan Kapoor? How is he? What is he like? What did you say?’ And I was like, ‘Actually, I didn’t say anything’.
It was unnerving for me to be on the sets. I felt like nobody there, my teeth would chatter and knees knock. There were times I would pray my shot didn’t come today or it would be done with really quickly.
BECOMING A STAR WITH ‘QSQT’
After ‘Sultanat’ came ‘Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak’. By that time, I started modelling and doing ad shoots. I think Nasir Hussain sahab had seen some of my ads or maybe he saw me in ‘Sultanat’; either way, his office contacted me, asking me to meet with him regarding a film. I met them at their office for a screen test and was introduced to Aamir (Khan). We were both nobodies then. Nasir
sahab told Aamir to teach me the lines and I did some rehearsals with Aamir tutoring me. A few days later, I got a call saying I had been selected for the role.
Around the same time, I was selected for a film in the South Indian film industry. The film was in Tamil and Kannada. I was not familiar with the language but I decided to go for it. It was not easy and I really slogged over there. Day and night, I would sit and study my lines and would learn how to dance on the set. Then I would return to Mumbai to shoot for ‘QSQT’ which was a cake walk because it was in Hindi, the language I understood. It was comparatively easy and the people I was working with were new as well, so there was nobody to be scared of.
My South film released a few months before ‘QSQT’ and it was a super hit. ‘QSQT’ also did well, but not from day one. By the third week, it
‘Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak’ is what anchored me in the industry. Had it not been for that film, I would have been doing some small roles somewhere.
started picking up and after six weeks, it was doing very well. Today, the media will tell you whether a film is a hit or flop within a day, but back then we had to wait for the figures and if you weren’t from the film industry, you didn’t know what was going on. But ‘QSQT’ made me famous and my career took off after that.
AAMIR KHAN – MY GOOD BUDDY
My career began alongside Aamir and we had a great time together - he was like a buddy to me. We were around the same age and he had no airs about him and no attitude. We have helped each other along the way and if there’s one person who I felt at ease with or I had to call when in trouble, it was Aamir. It was wonderful working with him. I was not from the industry so if something happened, then I would call up Aamir and ask him. And if he was in a film and I was approached for the same, I would say yes immediately. I felt very safe and comfortable when he was around but there were no link-ups.
TIFF WITH AAMIR
Aamir was somebody I liked as a friend. We used to fight about tiny things. Once we fought over something stupid and didn’t speak to each other for some time. We were shooting for ‘Ishq’ and Aamir and Ajay (Devgn) would pull pranks on me on the set. They went on till a point where I almost cried. I was upset and in an egotistical moment, declared that I would not shoot the next day.
And to my word, I didn’t go to the set the next day. The following day, Aamir, Ajay and Induji came to my house and Aamir apologized. But once that was resolved, Aamir got very upset with me. He said, ‘You can say anything to me or fight with me, but you cannot not come to the set. The whole day of shooting got stalled because of you. And that’s a big loss to the producer because the whole unit turned up’. I didn’t know about these things because I didn’t belong to a production background. He didn’t talk to me and because of that I was a little afraid and didn’t know whether I was supposed to go and talk to him or not.
But years later, something happened and I went to meet him and said, ‘Aamir, it was very stupid’, and he said, ‘Why didn’t you just come and say something to me before?’ He thought I was angry with him and I thought he was angry with me. That’s why it is so important to clear things because sometimes it’s just a miscommunication. We end up creating a rift by not saying and leaving things unsaid, and people end up believing what they think is true.
CREATING MAGIC WITH SHAH RUKH
A year or two into my career, Vivek Vaswani approached me
Aamir thought I was angry with him and I thought he was angry with me. That’s why it is so important to clear things.
with a film he was making with Sippy Productions. They were casting a new boy - Shah Rukh Khan - and Vivek told me that he’s just like Aamir. I was like, ‘ Achaa, very good’, because Aamir to me was very good looking; in fact, much better looking than I was. So I said fine.
I didn’t watch a lot of TV but they told me Shah Rukh is very big and well-known for his serial ‘Fauji’. Then Azizji came to me and told me the story of the film ‘Raju Bangaya Gentleman’. Azizji is the nicest, most pleasant looking gentleman you can work with. I can’t remember what story he told me but I said, ‘Yes, I am doing this film’. When I went to the set, I saw Shah Rukh Khan - who turned out to be thin, not very tall, very brown with hair up to his eyebrows. I thought to myself, ‘This is the hero?’ But as I started working with him, I realised he was very good at what he did. He was not at all like a newcomer. He rehearsed, added to the scene and helped the director. He made us laugh but he was also very intelligent and bright.
But I remember this one scene we were shooting at Mukesh Mills which was just five minutes away from my home. I was thrilled, my aunties had come from Delhi to visit us, so they came to meet me at the set and said, ‘ Arey, this is the hero! But look at the director’. So they would come especially to see the director. It was great fun working on the film and Shah Rukh and I became good friends and developed a good rapport.
Comparisons in the film industry are inevitable. It wasn’t just outsiders, my own family would see Madhuri and say, ‘See how well she’s dancing, see how good she’s looking. What are you doing?’
BEING COMPARED TO MADHURI DIXIT & SRIDEVI
Comparisons in the film industry are inevitable. It wasn’t just outsiders, my own family would see Madhuri and say, ‘See how well she’s dancing, see how good she’s looking. What are you doing?’ I would say, ‘Please don’t compare me. I am me and I can’t be like her’. I knew that Madhuri was an excellent dancer and I couldn’t do what she did. But, luckily, I found my strength in comedy and romcom films, which I excelled in. Madhuri and I only met socially, we never did a film earlier.
Srideviji, I don’t think I was ever competing with. In fact, I was inspired by her. She was already a huge star and I was a big fan and still am. She is excellent. I have tried to learn from her films or scenes. But Madhuri was a contemporary actress and if you ask, ‘Were you competing with her?’ I would say, ‘Yes, at that phase of my career, I was competing with her’. A year or two later, Karisma Kapoor, Raveena Tandon, Manisha Koirala, Urmila Matondkar etc came in. We were all heroines at the same time and in the same decade.
FINALLY WORKING WITH MADHURI
Much later, Madhuri and I worked together for a film called ‘Gulab Gang’. It was an amazing and wonderful experience. Since I had not done anything like this before, I hesitated in the beginning. But then I realised it was an exciting
Madhuri and I worked together for a film called ‘Gulab Gang’. It was an amazing and wonderful experience. Since I had not done anything like this before, I hesitated in the beginning. But then I realised it was an exciting role.
role. Obviously, I could not imagine Madhuri and I being together in a film and doing similar things - like both of us dancing - because people would compare us. But here was a film where I was poles apart from her in characterisation. She was playing the heroine and I was the villain. There was no one scene where you can say she did it better than me. I had my own role and I had a blast shooting for it.
But since we hadn’t met or chatted before, they called us to the office before we started shooting. They just kind of let us be and that’s where we got to know each other a little bit. We broke the ice and then we started shooting.
MAKING IT WITHOUT A GODFATHER
I didn’t really have a Godfather but there were people who helped me. Nasir Hussain sahab gave me a film, and fortunately, for all of us, it did well. ‘QSQT’ is what anchored me in the industry. Had it not been for that film, I would have been doing some small roles somewhere. So I am always grateful to him.
B R Chopra was going to give me the role of Draupadi for his ‘Mahabharata’ serial but by then I had got ‘QSQT’, so he said, ‘Don’t do television, go and do films’. Likewise, I met some good people and some not so nice people too.
I think destiny, God and my own willingness to work kept me going. I am always grateful to God and my family for having been there for me always. I feel when you come from a secure home, then it automatically makes you feel stronger.
But beyond that, I am amazed at the audience who accepted me for who I was. Because now whenever I see ‘QSQT’, I say to myself, ‘Look at my makeup, oh my God, how bad I was looking! What did people like about me?’
MEETING JAI & MARRYING HIM
Coming to my love life and marriage, it all started when the Hindu-Muslim riots took place in Mumbai. The industry had shut down. No work was happening. I went to dinner with my friends in town and that’s where I met Jai. It wasn’t the first time we met, but I hadn’t seen him in six to eight years. The last time was back when I was in college. We reconnected at that dinner, and few months later, he came for my birthday party. After that, we started keeping in touch. A year later, we got engaged and soon after that we got married. As a husband, Jai is very good. He is very nice and has been very supportive. Actually more than him, I got really lucky with my mother-in-law. She, from the beginning, told me, ‘You are like another daughter to me. You are like my Radha’, my sister-in-law.
CONTINUING WORK POST MARRIAGE
When I lost my mother, I was devastated. I couldn’t believe that the person I loved the most on earth was snatched away. It was earth-shattering for me. And soon after that, I was getting married. Also, you know when you’re getting married, your career is supposed to be over. So I was feeling very low. I felt like everything that I lived for was being taken away from me. My mother-in-law came to my rescue and said, ‘If it doesn’t make you happy to stay at home, then do what makes you happy’. Jai belonged to an industrialist family. Ideally, I would’ve given up my career and just been his other half. But my mother-in-law let me continue my work and that’s why my career has gone long, I owe a lot to her.
But Jai has been with me through thick and thin. We are different in many ways but I know I can lean on him. He lets me be and gives me space. Otherwise, we are like a regular couple, fighting over silly things but he’s still my best friend. He will always want the best for me. Now, I am part of his company, on the board of directors and have been attending his board meetings.
MY KIDS, MY WORLD
I don’t know if marriage changed me or not, but motherhood certainly did. I am learning every day about parenting and I still can’t say that I know how to be a mother. And what I have learnt, and I keep reminding myself, is to not push my dreams and aspirations onto them. They have to be who they want to be. I try and help them find themselves.
As a husband, Jai is very good. He is very nice and has been very supportive. Actually more than him, I got really lucky with my mother-in-law.
I think the IPL decision was more between Shah Rukh and Jai. I had just invested. Also, at that point, they wanted glamorous names to create that stir.
So whenever they say I want to be this or that, I say, ‘Okay, if you really want to do it, then enjoy it’.
The moment I had my kids, my life changed. The moment my kids are coughing, I run them to the doctor or spend sleepless nights. My outlook towards children and the environment changed after having them. So whatever they want to do, I will encourage them.
STARTING OUR PRODUCTION HOUSE
The idea to start our production house ‘Dreamz Unlimited’ was Azizji’s initiative in 2000. Shah Rukh and I had done ‘Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman’ and ‘ Yes Boss’ with him. And we were going to do ‘Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani’. So Azizji said, ‘Why don’t we only produce the film?’ It was his idea and I knew nothing about it. I just joined in with Shah Rukh and Azizji. That’s how we started our production house, and we did not stop at anything to make it the best film of the year. So we overspent on everything but the film didn’t do well. Obviously, it was disheartening.
A year later, we put up a little company and said let’s do something smaller. So we started work on ‘Ashoka’. Then we made another film, ‘Chalte Chalte’. I was having my second baby then, and Azizji’s wife passed
away, so things changed after that. Though ‘Chalte Chalte’ did well, somehow after that we couldn’t get back together for a film.
GETTING INTO IPL
When the IPL was being set up, nobody imagined that it would become such a big success. This was when Lalit Modi invited us to own a team and my husband thought it was a good idea, and told Shah Rukh about it. Shah Rukh said: Let’s do it. We just thought that we would own a cricket team, we didn’t think it would become so big. We were lucky to get into it in the beginning, now you can’t even think of getting into it.
But I think the IPL decision was more between Shah Rukh and Jai. I had just invested. Also, at that point, they wanted glamorous names to create that stir. So Priety Zinta and other big industrial houses also got into it. Initially, we were involved in all the meetings and I would just be there. I then dropped out as there was too much to handle. It was very exciting but there was work to be done and decisions to be made. Luckily, Jai and Shah Rukh knew more about this field than me.
The initial years, however, were very rough for the KKR team (Kolkata Knight Riders). Our team just collapsed every year. And my kids used to scream and cry and say, ‘Why is your team like this? Why did you buy that team?’ We would get so stressed out during the matches. But things started to get better in 2012 when we got a new CEO in place and Gautam Gambhir as the captain. The team started to shine and then we won the trophy twice.
PASSION FOR MUSIC
While all this was happening, I decided to reignite a passion I left behind as a kid. Growing up, I would listen to songs on the radio. I don’t know where this thought came from, but I wanted to be a singer and so enrolled myself in Hindustani Classical music, and the classes were at a school near our house. I used to go with my book and write all my sargams very nicely and practise them on the way home and to class. Six-seven months later, our teacher left. Then about 10 years ago, I realised that I had time and could relearn singing. So I am pursuing it slowly now.
I would be happy to work with Salman, with whom I’ve never worked except for a small scene in ‘Salaam-e-Ishq’ and ‘Deewana Mastana’.
I would be very happy to work with Shah Rukh and Aamir once again. In fact, I would be happy to work with Salman, with whom I’ve never worked except for a small scene in ‘Salaame-Ishq’ and ‘Deewana Mastana’.
But now I wouldn’t want to do the kind of films I did earlier. There was a time for that. Now I do films which interest me. However, they are still doing the romantic movies with young actresses which is fine. But I am on to different things - what I love to do is work with good directors and exciting scripts… After ‘Chalk N Duster’, I will play a teacher again; this time a music teacher in a Kannada film titled ‘Very Good’. I have shot for the role, and the film is yet to release.
I have recently launched a project close to my heart, ‘Citizens for Tomorrow’, to create awareness for the well-being of the environment and look at creating an impact with gradual steps for the betterment of our planet at large. ‘Citizens for Tomorrow’ primarily works on creating noise against the harmful effects of plastic on our environment.
I am also working on spreading awareness about the harmful effects of plastic through various social media platforms, talk shows and presentations around the city. Plus, I’m backing Sadhguru’s (Jaggi Vasudev) current initiative ‘Rally for Rivers’.
Though films will always be a big part of my life, I am passionate about doing my part to help the enivornment, spending time with my family, taking on new endeavours and living my life to the fullest.
I am also working on spreading awareness about the harmful effects of plastic through various social media platforms, talk shows and presentations around the city.
With kids and husband
Photograph: Ram Bherwani Hair & Makeup: Natasha Britto & Naima Rahimtulla Outfit: Rebecca Dewan Styling: Karishma Gulati
Stills from the film ‘Ishq’
With Aamir Khan
With Shah Rukh Khan
With Madhuri Dixit Nene and Saroj Khan
Stills from my films
With Madhuri Dixit Nene
With husband Jai Mehta
Photograph: Ram Bherwani Hair & Makeup: Natasha Britto & Naima Rahimtulla Jacket: Curio Cottage Styling: Karishma Gulati
With Karan Johar and Madhuri Dixit Nene on ‘Koffee With Karan’
With Salman Khan on ‘Bigg Boss’