The year was 2003. Anant Balani was making a film on a sex worker in Mumbai. He wanted to cast Ameesha Patel, fresh from the double success of Kaho Na Pyaar Hai and Gadar. At the other end of the stardom spectrum, Kareena Kapoor–the newest face from the illustrious Kapoor family–was busy with masala entertainers like Main Prem Ki Deewani Hoon and Talaash: The Hunt Begins. The two were not even on the same plane. How they converged not only ended up giving cinephiles a memorable film but also transformed Kareena’s image and career. As the actor turns 42 on Wednesday, a look back at arguably her finest performance and how it almost never came to be. (Also Read | Filmmaker Onir was offered to direct Chameli but ‘Kareena Kapoor wasn’t keen to work with a new director’)
Chameli, as we all know, was a small-budget, low-key film that told the story of a single night. The titular heroine was a saree-clad sex worker, completely de-glam and not like the heroines Indian audience were used to in their commercial films. It did not make sense for an actor like Kareena to be even approached for it. And she was never on filmmaker Anant Balani’s radar. Ameesha Patel was the first choice. She refused the role because she felt the audience would not accept her in that role. And hence, Anant went to Kareena.
In an interview with Rediff in 2003, four days after shooting began, the director explained his choice. “I wanted someone who has never played a sex worker before. I wanted to cast against type, break the mould of someone from mainstream cinema,” he had said. And while Kareena liked the script, she was hesitant. The actor was worried how her family–the first family of Bollywood would react.
One needs to understand the Kapoor family first. They have been in the film industry since the first talking film was made in India. The 1931 film Alam Ara had Prithviraj Kapoor–Kareena’s great-grandfather–as the villain. His sons, sons’ sons, and sons’ sons’ sons–have all been actors and filmmakers. But as you’ll notice, there was very little mention of daughters in that statement. Up until the 90s, the Kapoor girls never acted. It was not considered respectable. Kareena’s sister Karisma broke that glass ceiling but the actor largely stuck to the traditional heroine mould, doing safe roles through that decade. It was a compromise she made to keep her elders ‘relatively happy’. Kareena did the same for the first few years of her career. She was 22 when Chameli was offered to her. It was a risk, indeed.
So Kareena went to her parents–actors Randhir Kapoor and Babita–with the proposal. In a 2004 interview with Tribune, she recalled, “I had a talk with my parents and they backed me saying it was a bold theme and would do wonders to my career. And that, if I didn’t take the plunge now I could run the risk of getting stuck in the glossy image that’s been built around me.” And that’s how she came on board and the shooting began, in August 2003.
Days later, director Anant Balani died of a heart attack. The film was at the risk of being shelved. But producer Pritish Nandy had other ideas. He contacted director Sudhir Mishra to finish the film. Taking off from Anant’s notes and existing script pages, Sudhir resumed the film with a new script, and Chameli continued.
What truly makes a film? To me, it’s a combination of performance, script, and direction. In Chameli, all three changed drastically within six months, and it must have become a very different film from what Anant initially intended. But the end product, which hit the screens in January 2004, was splendid nonetheless. The film didn’t make money. Such films rarely do but it cemented young Kareena as a ‘serious actor’.
She has said in the past that the critical response to the film enabled her to take on challenging roles like Yuva, Omkara, and Jab We Met later in her career. And like her parents had predicted, she allowed herself to break free of that ‘glam doll’ image that she may have otherwise been stuck in. It can be argued if it was her strongest performance or not, but it was certainly her most important. In the sense that it gave Kareena’s career a direction it would have never had without it.