Becoming Bibbojaan: Aditi Rao Hydari Moulded Herself to Heeramandi

Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s debut streaming show sees Hydari playing a courtesan who moonlights as a revolutionary
Becoming Bibbojaan: Aditi Rao Hydari Moulded Herself to Heeramandi

Performance is one thing; presence, quite another. In Heeramandi, Aditi Rao Hydari’s Bibbojaan doesn’t so much appear on screen as much incense the scenes she’s in, perfuming them with a grace that seems innate and easy. A courtesan who uses the money the nawabs throw at her to fund and fuel the independence movement, Bibbojaan uses her body to spy and extricate sensitive state secrets. In the evenings, she does her mujra. At night, espionage.

Also Read: Devdas to Heeramandi: The Vices and Virtues of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Courtesans

In a conversation with Hydari, edited for length and clarity, she describes what it takes to bring such a character to life:

Your entrance in Heeramandi — you walking in with a shawl that with two neat flicks you shed and throw on the ground — is a true moment of grace. Can you talk about the body language of Bibbojaan, the gestures you were paying attention to, to produce this grace?

When Sanjay sir made me do that shot from a lower angle as I was walking in, he wanted that shawl to come off in a very particular way. Bibbojaan is a born dancer, so that nazakat (delicate grace) had to be as natural to her as breathing. There is musicality in everything Sanjay sir does — every scene, every movement has rhythm whether he is making or breaking it. 

See, I have been dancing since I was little and I do not know a life without music or dance. So I understand that it has to be in your blood. You cannot learn grace. It can be extracted and built and tarasho-ed (chiselled into being). So grace is not what I worked on. I just listened to what Sanjay sir wanted. I did work on my diction, because to belong to that era your language should not sound heavy or burdened. The moment you posture, you will not communicate.

A still from Heeramandi
A still from Heeramandi

Talaffuz (pronunciation) is one thing, but what about lip-syncing the songs? In them, you are not opening your mouth wide, it is as though you are not even singing. It has this strange, disorienting effect.   

I know what you are saying, but thumri is a very delicate way of singing. In my mujra, there is a small opening of the mouth, but I was actually singing, because I can sing. But there are ways of singing. It is about bhav (emotion) here. When you open your mouth wide, how can you show bhav? The “jaans” — Bibbojaan, Mallikajaan — were singers and dancers, while the “bais” were only singers. So the moment you have to dance and show bhav, you have to retain the quality in your face. 

You have learned bharatnatyam under Leela Samson since you were a child. Did you face any difficulty in bringing the body of a trained bharatnatyam dancer into a kathak-dancing character, given the two dance forms demand two very different things from the body?

It was not easy, because bharatanatyam is more linear, and kathak has a combination of softness and strength — even though the hand looks soft, there is strength till the tips of the fingers. In bharatanatyam, for example, you look where your hand is, but in kathak, you look away. It is little things like that. Those qualities were hard to bring. 

Sanjay sir knows kathak — he would say a prayer to Birju Maharaj before coming to set — and would say, “See, bharatanatyam has come into her arms. Relax the elbow! Relax the elbow!” 

A still from Heeramandi
A still from Heeramandi

You have two very different mujras in the show — one is more erotic and playful, the other is yearning and melancholic. What were the preparations they required? 

Both took three days to shoot, and a rehearsal of three to four days. But a lot of things are changed on set — for example, in the erotic mujra, ‘Saiyaan Hatto Jaao’, when I put the dupatta on my head and twirl or even the rose. I learned a dance and came, and what emerged was a dialogue between her, Wali Sahab (Fardeen Khan), and the unknown.

When we began shooting ‘Saiyaan Hatto Jaao’, I had recently recovered from COVID and had been overfed and put on weight, which Sanjay sir was immensely happy about because he thinks I am too skinny. What I found interesting is that in that mujra, there is that yearning for azadi (independence) that is woven into it, especially in that last shot, when my neck moves a little forward. 

There is a story with the second mujra, ‘Phool Gendwa Na Maaro’, where the mother is sacrificing the daughter. Sir had given me a particular mujra which I learned, but one day on set, he said there is this other beautiful song, his favorite song, and he asked if I would perform that, instead. Of course I would! He uses this word “aamad”, saying it is my grace that I got this song. 

Goodness on screen can come across as really boring. Is that something you worried about when you read this character, because there are no vices, she is only kind and generous, almost self-effacing. How do you layer this goodness, make it compelling? 

It is so easy to make Bibbojaan one-tone, goody-two shoes and pasty. But it is the simmering that makes her interesting; there is agency, purpose, and rage. You don’t see the result of the simmer till the very end, but you know she is going to do something. That’s what keeps her interesting. 

You die a lot in movies, Aditi.

I really do. (laughs) I know, but this time it counts for a lot, and I love it, and I would have it no other way. The quintessential heroine who can do no wrong, who then gives up everything — and that is the “hero arc” which Sanjay sir has given to the gentlest of the girls. The Joan of Arc-like hair was improvised. He wanted to look like it was just cut off. She almost looks like a little girl, so vulnerable.

A still from Heeramandi
A still from Heeramandi

Was any emotional pitch or scene difficult to crack? 

There was a running joke on set that when there is a fiery, angry scene with Bibbojaan, Sanjay sir would say, “Abhi Aditi shringaar ras karegi. Aur uska love scene shuru hoga  (Now Aditi will do shringaar ras and her love scene will begin).” When the scene involves my mother, I would feel the anger. When it is talking to a hall full of women, that rousing speech Bibbojaan gives — that was hard. Sanjay sir gave everyone a lunch break, but told me not to eat. When I came back, I got it. Those scenes of fury exhausted me. 

Is it hard to find your character and express her when you are wearing all that finery, with heavy jewelry tugging at your ears, metal and sequins and fabrics? 

I forget about the heavy costumes after a bit. I have been dancing as a kid, so I am used to putting on a full costume and going on stage. Beyond a point, these become my clothes. It is mine, I have to live my life as though it is mine. Besides, the world Sanjay sir creates is immersive. And though I do have cuts from the mujras, it is fine. War wounds. Love it! 

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