'I was heartbroken, reeling from the sadness that came with the realisation that I would never working with him again.'
There was a time when she ruled the Bollywood box office as 'Chirpy Chawla' or 'Bubbly Chawla'.
She still laughs a lot, is as warm as ever, and so real despite being a part of the wonder world for over three decades.
But there is a change which runs deep.
As an actor, Juhi Chawla is not a part of mindless mainstream entertainers today.
She pops up on screen occasionally in a film that says something important even when it's a light, feel-good entertainer like Sharmaji Namkeen, which, incidentally, is her last film with frequent collaborator Rishi Kapoor.
In a conversation with Rediff.com's Senior Contributor Roshmila Bhattacharya, Juhi talks about her last days with Chintuji" "He would scold my hair and make-up person if they came for a touch-up before we faced the camera and I would giggle because this was the Chintuji I had always known."
The first of a two-part interview:
It's been such a long journey with Sharmaji Namkeen...
Yes, I heard the script almost three years ago and loved it instantly.
In fact, I was a little envious of Chintuji (Rishi Kapoor) because Sharmaji was such a lovely role which fitted him so beautifully that even during the narration, I could image him bringing the character to life.
A month or two later, the film took off in Delhi, but then Chintuji fell ill and left for the first round of treatment.
He returned after a year.
Excel took over the project and we were back on track.
I remember how excited Rishiji was when still in the US, not just to return home, but to get back to this shoot. What was he like when he returned to the set?
He was in his elements, doing his shots with ease.
It was such a joy working with him.
Any signs of discomfort?
Well, he was trying to be careful and avoiding crowds, occasionally, sitting quietly by himself.
If the hours got too long, he would admit to feeling tired.
But otherwise, he was his usual impatient self, chiding me for acting like a 'heroine' if I went to check on a shot, saying the monitor was for the director, not the actors.
He would scold my hair and make-up person if they came for a touch-up before we faced the camera and I would giggle because this was the Chintuji I had always known.
(Laughs) Hitesh (debutant director Hitesh Bhatia) got yelled at too between shots and I would shout for someone to roll the camera because what was happening behind the scenes was funnier than what we were playing out, but unfortunately, no one did.
I shot with him for maybe a week, then flew back to Mumbai because I had a two-day break.
The very next day, I was told that Chintuji wasn't feeling too well so they were cutting short the schedule and would resume when he was better.
And that was the last you shot with him?
Yes, because soon after, we went into lockdown and then Chintuji passed away.
I was heartbroken, reeling from the sadness that came with the realisation that I would never working with him again, when a week or two later, Ritesh (producer Ritesh Sidhwani) called and surprised me by saying they had decided to somehow complete the film since it was Chintuji's last piece of work.
It's wonderful when a producer stands by a project after a tragedy like that.
We tried everything before Mr Paresh Rawal eventually stepped in for Chintuji.
It's unique to see a character being played by two actors so seamlessly that after a point, you just accept them unquestioningly and let the story carry you forward.
To be honest, before the release, we had wondered how people would react since this ploy was so new and unique.
But from the calls and messages that I have been getting since the film's release, people are enjoying it.
It's like one actor goes through the door and another emerges and people take it in their stride because they are so much in sur... In complete sync.
Which was your last scene with Rishji?
The one in that small mithai shop where I take him for rabri kulfi and he recalls how he would come there with his wife who had a sweet tooth and his two sons.
That child-like delight on his face as he is slurping up the rabri kulfi is unforgettable...
(Laughs) Yes, with me pointing out that he has a milky moustache!
It was so much fun working with Chintuji and this mad bunch of ladies.
While I had a somewhat boring part because Hitesh wanted a certain balance, some of the other ladies went wild.
I've never been a part of any kitty party circle, but doing this film, I realised that each of these women had certain aspirations, but got pulled into domesticity and in the process, had to sacrifice some dreams.
So then they found others like them to let their hair down with instead of wallowing over aborted passion projects.
Being a part of this world even boosts Sharmaji's sagging spirits after he is forced to take voluntary retirement from a job that had been his life.
It's ironical that his son Rinku should urge him to get out of the kitchen and get a life, when his father's life is far more exciting than his own thanks to his kitty pals.
There's also a hint of a romance...
Yeah well, the idea is to underline the fact that life goes on even when you think it has ended.
And one day, without you looking for it or seeking it, small joys may find you again.