Bollywood: Juhi Chawla on her 'Sharmaji Namkeen' journey with Rishi Kapoor

The actress recounts the emotional making of the late actor's slice-of-life swansong.

by Enid Grace Parker

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Photos: Supplied
Photos: Supplied

Published: Tue 12 Apr 2022, 5:30 PM

Last updated: Wed 13 Apr 2022, 4:58 PM

Being an integral part of the swansong of a much-loved Bollywood star was both poignant and fulfilling for the lovely Juhi Chawla.

The versatile actress who has endeared herself to a loyal fanbase over decades, with memorable roles in films like Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, Yes Boss, Bol Radha Bol and 3 Deewarein, is currently celebrating the success of her most recent project, Sharmaji Namkeen, also the last film that industry stalwart Rishi Kapoor worked on before he passed away in April 2020.

Sharmaji Namkeen, streaming now on Amazon Prime Video, is a feel-good, light-hearted tale about a retiree, Brij Gopal Sharma, who is at a loss as to how to fill his time when he’s laid off, eventually finding fulfillment in cooking for and mingling with a ladies ‘kitty’ gang, that includes Veena Manchanda (Chawla), a widow who owns a boutique.

Juhi shared moments from the heartwarming journey of Sharmaji Namkeen, whose quirky characters and situations had her “laughing” when it was first narrated.

“It was just a wonderful script, and there was no way I was going to say anything else but ‘yes’,” she told City Times in a Zoom conversation.

“I knew right away that Chintu ji (Rishi Kapoor) was going to play Sharmaji. And I was envious of him, because... what a lovely role to play! You could almost just imagine him doing it, because it was just so apt. The casting was fantastic.”

Having shared screen space with Rishi Kapoor in many films, the initial shooting was a breeze for Juhi in the Delhi winter, where everyone “had a lovely time”.

“Of course Chintu ji was his usual self — sometimes grumpy, sometimes impatient — and always brilliant, always witty! Such a wonderful, effortless actor. Ek to weather itna accha, phir hamare scenes itne cute se, mazedaar (firstly the weather was so good and then, our scenes so cute and fun-filled).”

After over a week of shooting, Juhi shared, she took a break in Mumbai before heading back for the next phase of the film.

“I came back and a day or so later they called up and said, wait, don’t come back, we’re going to take a break from shooting because Chintu ji is not feeling very well. So we will resume when he is better.”

She gets emotional recalling how, just a few months later, Rishi Kapoor was no longer with them. “We’d had such a funny time with him on the sets… losing an actor who you have laughed (both) with and at, was really shattering.”

Could the shooting of Sharmaji Namkeen continue without its lead star around whom the story revolved? Producer Ritesh Sidhwani seemed to think so, and called Juhi to relay news of an important decision.

Anything for Rishi Kapoor

She recalled, “He said, you know what, it’s his last work and we are going to take it to the end. We will complete the film. I was like, that’s so lovely, because it’s so much easier to just give up on a film and say, you know, it’s not meant to be, forget it.”

Ritesh said he would do whatever it takes, and Juhi reiterated her commitment to Sharmaji Namkeen. “I said I would do anything at all for Chintu ji and the film. Just let me know. Say it, and I’ll be there.”

Options including computer graphics were considered, to fill the rather big shoes of the late thespian. Then Juhi was told that another actor was being considered for the same role, to complete ‘Sharmaji’ scenes that were left unfinished; Hollywood films had succeeded in the same circumstances, and this one hopefully would too, the makers assured her.

She said, “So that’s where it began, and a month or so later we filmed with Paresh(Rawal) ji. And now, the film was complete and releasing and you say, gosh, but how will it go down over here?”

The response to Sharmaji Namkeen, she shared, has been “overwhelming”.

“I think Ranbir Kapoor’s introduction kind of helps the film. It’s God’s grace, and Chintu ji hai na Sharma Ji ki tarah; woh upar gaye hain, unhone apni kadchi ghuma di aur magic ho gaya hai (isn’t Chintu ji like Sharmaji, he has gone up and turned his (cooking) ladle and made magic happen)!”

Juhi added how “people who don’t normally comment on my films were sending messages with ‘Sharmaji Namkeen’ and hearts, saying how they really enjoyed the film, or watched it again. So I feel something from up there (points upwards) has happened; I’m very deeply grateful and happy that it’s worked out.”

An emotional farewell

One of the reasons Sharmaji Namkeen will remain evergreen to the actress is not so much for any challenge her role may have presented creatively but for the opportunity she had to work with a long-standing co-star — with whom she shared a great equation — in his final film, where art imitated life as it does ever so often.

“Veena Manchanda was the one person Sharmaji found, that he could at least talk to or relate to and a friendship happened over there. But of course, the script was so funny and cute that I would have loved to be in this film for any of the parts! Now, when all this has happened, I say, how amazing. I have worked with, or known Chintu ji, or of Chintu ji when I used to see him on screen and never imagined that I would be an actor.”

She spoke of how she would, as a newbie in the film industry, feel nervous around bigger stars when she had to say her lines, Chintu ji being one of them.

“I’ve faced Chintu ji in that situation, and then from there gotten to know him a little, become more comfortable, then started laughing at all the things he does on the sets because he’s so cutely grumpy half the time; how many times he has scolded me over the years!”

Sharmaji Namkeen was no doubt an emotional farewell to a legendary actor from a colleague who knew and loved him well.

A visibly emotional Juhi said, “It hit me, very recently... an actor of that calibre and (the amount of work he’s done), it’s amazing that his last work, has been with me.”

Enid Grace Parker

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