Cover: Meet Juhi Chawla, the green crusader who is using her voice for all the right causes
IN THE ’90S, Juhi Chawla couldn’t imagine doing anything else apart from acting. In fact, at the peak of her career when she got married to industrialist Jay Mehta, she kept the news secret, for fear of losing her grip over her career. But today, the actress, who has given us hits like Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, Darr, Hum Hain Rahi Pyar Ke, Yes Boss, Ishq and critically acclaimed films like My Brother Nikhil, I Am and Gulaab Gang, is a passionate environmentalist.
In addition, she is also focussed on wellness, another area that’s very close to her heart, and spends a lot of her time and attention on her gurukul in Gujarat. And, if you were to ask her, the Miss India-turned-actor would say, without batting an eyelid, that perhaps she became a celebrity so that she could lend her voice to the meaningful causes she is involved with today.
Recently, Indulge caught up with the actress to learn more about her work in the domain of environment, wellness and education, and her secret to being content. Excerpts
Q: When was it that you realised your responsibility towards the environment?
About six years ago, my brother-in-law and I were attending a bank event and while we were waiting for our turn to go up to the stage, we ended up talking about pollution and what he said about plastic left me shocked — he said, ‘Do you know that there are islands of plastic in the ocean?’ When I came back to India, I started looking it up and realised that there are islands of floating plastic in our oceans, and in the pacific ocean alone, the size of floating plastic islands is as big as Africa. This information just blew my mind. And, this was only the tipping point.
Count the number of toothbrushes that you have used until today. Now, imagine them for billions of people. Those toothbrushes are either floating in the ocean or lying in our landfills. And, every year, we are adding like 300 million tonnes of plastic. The plastic isn’t biodegradable. It breaks down until it becomes microplastic, which then reaches our soil, and when it rains, this microplastic reaches our water and from there, it reaches our homes and our stomach. Besides, millions of little particles of plastic come loose with every wash of our synthetic wear, plastic bottles, lunchboxes or utensils, which then with water go back to our water bodies. The whole thing just left me baffled and I felt the need to do something about it.
Q: Once you become aware of this information, how did you go about making changes as an individual as well as a celebrity and an entrepreneur?
I was certain that since I am a celebrity, I must speak up. I started looking for like-minded people and we formed a little group ‘Citizens for Tomorrow’. We started writing to the government and met Maharashtra’s Environment Minister and within a year, the plastic bags were banned in Maharashtra.
At home, my children were using plastic bottles and tiffin boxes and I was like, ‘Oh my god, what have I been putting into their mouth?’ So I started from the kitchen and there was a lot of plastic there and I told my staff that everything has to be replaced with glass, ceramic or steel or anything but plastic. I also told everyone that they aren’t allowed to bring any plastic bag at home and after two warnings, I started imposing a Rs 50 fine, which worked well with my children.
Then I started with my IPL team Kolkata Knight Riders. The first year, we couldn’t do much since the season was about to start but the next season, we even involved the sponsors and replaced everything that was made of plastic or synthetic material, including flags and cheering material. The only thing we haven’t been able to change is the use of plastic bottles and that too due to security reasons but we brought an NGO on board who took the responsibility to recycle them. We also started composting all the food waste and then we also started planting trees.
Q: You have your own farm. When did you discover this love for farming?
It was my father who purchased a piece of land in Wada (Palghar, Maharashtra) and worked on it. He passed away 13 years ago and then I was left to look after it. At that point, I didn’t know the F of farming. I would even wonder what was my father thinking when he made this decision? But, over the years, as I learnt about pollution, I realised its value and I am thankful to God that it was given to me. Now, I have planted more trees here. I guess this is my new thing — planting trees. I plant trees wherever I can, whether it is my own farm or an initiative by KKR or Cauvery Calling or Jai’s (husband Jay Mehta) factory or even our gurukul (laughs).
Q: Talking about which, you recently came on board for Rotary District 3141 and The Tree Box’s plantation drive, which has even created a world record by planting a million native trees. What do you pay attention to before coming on board?
Just two days before they approached me, I had a native farmer coming over to my farm to guide us about the importance of native seeds. He said that it is important that the seeds that you plant are native because they can be collected and replanted next year by the farmers. But if you are planting hybrid seeds, it might give you a lot of yields but it cannot procreate so the farmer would go back to buy these seeds and add urea, pesticides and fertiliser to grow them well. When I was approached, I asked them about the trees that they would be planting, and they assured me that they are planting native trees like Bamboo and Neem, which would grow easily in the area. My second concern was aftercare because, over the years, I have seen many who would plant saplings, take pictures and then disappear. So, when I was told that they are working closely with Adivasis and farmers, who will look after these trees and benefit from them, I was on board.
Q: How has life in lockdown been for you?
In the beginning, I couldn’t believe what was going on in the world. I had left to go to Austria to meet my children, they wanted to go skiing and as we reached there, we heard that America is locking down, so my daughter who studies in America left on a flight to Austria and now she can’t go back to New York. I was like — ‘Haan? I have never heard of anything like this before’. And, I started laughing to myself. We had spent just two days in Austria when we were told that it is locking down and everyone has to fly back or stay with them until things become better. So we left Austria and came to Switzerland. Literally the next day, Switzerland listed details of last flights that were leaving the country. We then landed in London, where we have a home, but the situation was the same. Wherever we were going, borders were closing. I had never heard of something like this. A week after reaching India, the lockdown was announced. I was very unnerved, like what is happening…
Initially, it was sad because migrants were suffering so the focus was to help them out as much as we could. Afterwards, it actually became a time for relaxation, being at home and not having to worry about going anywhere. I actually started enjoying it and loving the idea that I don’t have to get dressed and it became a time for a lot of introspection.
Q: We are seeing a lot of Instagram series coming from you — Wellness Wednesday, Take It Easy With Juhi… What are you up to?
The lockdown made us all realise that less is more and that one can be very comfortable living a simpler life if they can go back to the basics. I’ve known this for a while but I started practising it a lot more recently since we were at home. There was/is a panic about the virus and it made me wonder that if we are so educated and advanced, how can a small virus scare everybody? That means we are not truly educated. I see that there is a lot of power in our Ayurveda and simple home remedies and that’s where the immunity boosters, antioxidants, anti-inflammatories are... I have seen my brother ill for four years and that showed me a lot of hospitals and a lot of what goes on over there and it built in me a strong urge to seek wellness. And, I thought that now that we are at home, let’s start these conversations and share things with people.
Q: Going back to where it all started, what led you to participate in the 1984 Miss India Beauty pageant?
I have no idea. Actually, I picked it up just because my friends were participating and somewhere there was this thought that if they can, why can’t I but honestly I wasn’t thinking. If I were, I wouldn’t have participated. I didn’t even know where it would lead me because I was in college at that point but it opened so many doors for me and I would say that an ordinary person was given some extraordinary chance in life. I am eternally grateful but this wasn’t the plan. In fact, whenever I have planned something, it hasn’t been very successful (laughs).
Q: Looking back at your films, which ones do you think were your finest?
By god grace, some of my finest were also successful and you know them already. It is Hum Hain Rahi Pyar Ke, Lootere, Aaina, Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, Ishq, One 2 Ka 4 and Bhoothnath. There were also some films that I really enjoyed doing and felt that my work was really good but they weren’t successful. One among them is Arjun Pandit, another is Daraar and then there was Gulaab Gang.
Q: IPL is here. How different is it going to be for you and are you planning to go to the UAE?
It is going to be very different — no Eden Garden and its crowd. If we go to the UAE, we will be in quarantine and then in a bubble, we won’t be able to step out of that and I am in double minds — I want to go but then I am like what will I be doing there? I might go in October if I do at all.
Q: Juhi, you always appear content. How so? Also, there was a point where you felt that cinema was all that you had, but look at you now. What has changed?
There has been a whole transition in the last few years or probably in the last decade. Earlier, I had never spoken about the environment, I had no idea that I was even attached to it. Same happened with our gurukul (Arya Kanya Gurukul, Porbandar, Gujarat) as well. Earlier I would only visit then from time to time but now, I am actively helping them. Modern education creates a vacuum where they put children inside boxes and then ask them to think beyond it, we are changing that and since it is a gurukul, we are trying to combine the wisdom of the East with the smartness and the look and feel of the West. So, besides environment and wellness, this is another thing that has come into my life.
But, honestly, I never considered working in any of these fields. It is not like I chose these things, I think these things chose me. My work in cinema is something that I cherish and I would do it as and when there is a good assignment because that’s what makes people recognise me and when they recognise me, they listen to me. And, I feel maybe I was made a celebrity so that I could work on these areas.