Moments & Memories: On Juhi Chawla’s birthday

Moments & Memories: On Juhi Chawla’s birthday, Sanjay Suri talks about his friendship with his Jhankaar Beats co-star
‘I wish makers would write roles for her that explore her talent and tap her life experiences,’ he says

Their first film together was Sujay Ghosh’s musical, Jhankaar Beats, and Sanjay Suri, who played her husband in the film, remembers walking to Juhi Chawla’s make-up room and telling her that he had seen her for the first time in Kashmir, when he was still living there. This was during the shoot of her debut Hindi film, Sultanat. “She was learning to cycle near Srinagar’s Oberoi Palace,” he reminisces with a smile.

Juhi was an established star and a seasoned actress then and Sanjay remains forever grateful to his on-screen wife for making him and other actors feel comfortable. “I was very respectful and mindful of my Ps and Qs around her then, but there’s a natural warmth and innocence in her which is charming and quickly makes you feel at ease in her presence,” he shares.

The experience gave Sanjay the confidence to approach her for his debut production, My Brother… Nikhil. “I went to meet Juhi at her place with my co-producer Onir who had never directed a film before and was a bad narrator. I urged her to read the script before making up her mind. She did, and promptly got back with a “yes” and we were over the moon,” he recounts.

Sanjay played Juhi’s brother in the film, a swimming champ whose life and relationships splinter when he is diagnosed as HIV positive. “It was a modest production, but Juhi was such a joy to work with, coming without the baggage of a star but with the excitement of a child. As an actor she is never insecure, she doesn’t try to overpower, but allows other actors to flourish,” he asserts, quick to add that as an actor you have to be alert around Juhi because she brings out moments not defined in the script, instinctively throwing cues you have to grab before they are gone.

While Jhankaar Beats tapped Juhi’s comic timing, her laughter and joie de vivre, My Brother… Nikhil found meaning in her silences, which lent gravitas to her persona. “It was a difficult film for an actor because she had to talk to the camera, to a distant audience, about her brother, and it wasn’t just talking straight, but emoting, sometimes without words,” Sanjay points out, making a special mention of the scene where Purab, Juhi and he are sitting together. “You can see the hopelessness that comes from knowing that her brother will die soon, mixed with the love that can never die.”

He returned to her with I Am “because we couldn’t think of anyone else to play Megha”, admitting that it could have been the story of his elder sister had she returned to the Valley they had fled from and the home they had been forced to leave behind. “Juhi was a huge commercial star, but she was very receptive to our small, indie film, acknowledging while wandering through the dilapidated house that must have once belonged to a Kashmir pandit, that she finally understood what we were talking about, later coming on board as a co-producer,” he says emotionally.

They went on to do a fourth film together, Bas Ek Pal, and he jokes that after Aamir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan, it was Sanjay Suri who made a successful pairing with Juhi Chawla. Over the years, she’s grown from being a friendly co-star to a good friend. “Juhi’s not active on WhatsApp and may not keep in touch regularly, but when I was in the hospital, she called up my wife one day and asked if she could visit. She was one of the very few people who did,” he confides.

Today, Juhi Chawla turns a year older and for Sanjay what sets the birthday girl apart is that she has never seen herself as a know-it-all teacher, but as a student of life who’s always eager to grow and explore, be it in the films she chooses, her pursuit of classical music or her efforts towards conservation of nature. “I wish her a healthy life and professionally, I wish makers would write roles for her that explore her talent and tap her life experiences. There’s still so much she has left to do and give,” he avers.

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