Manisha Koirala plunged to the very depths and then, rose up higher. Battling cancer and depression with help from friends and loved ones, she finds joy in simple things. A ParentCircle special.
By Aarti Kapur Singh
Manisha Koirala’s social media handles are replete with images of finding beauty and goodness in life. From tips on what food to eat, savouring little joys or, ideas for a healthy lifestyle, Manisha is happy to share them all.
She attaches great importance to enjoying simple everyday moments — like the thrill she experiences on discovering a squirrel's nest in her garden, or the feeling of fulfilment that overcomes her when she lies down on the grass to stare at the sky after a seven-hour 24 km trek.
The diva made her Bollywood debut with the box office superhit Saudagar in 1991 and won four Filmfare Awards within a decade. But, as she was gradually easing away from the silver screen, Manisha was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2012, for which she underwent a gruelling six-month treatment in the USA.
After recovering, the actress made her comeback with an indie film, Dear Maya (2017), and more recently acted in Rajkumar Hirani’s Sanju, where she essayed the role of Nargis Dutt. But, in her own words, she is “enjoying the best role of my life — being me!”
In her exclusive interview with ParentCircle, Manisha talks about what helped her tide through the difficult phase of her life and why is it important to "just keep swimming…"
You had a great start to your career and enjoyed a dream run in the movie industry. How do you look at life today?
Life is a great opportunity. It’s full of surprises — some good and some bad. But, it is a beautiful experience as long as we observe it from a distance and live it, without going in too deep. We should try not to feel too elated during happy moments or too depressed during sad times. If we detach ourselves and maintain a balance, life will always be a beautiful experience. I wish to live life to the fullest and grab all opportunities with both hands.
What do you think was the best moment of your career?
I am grateful for so many things, I don't think I can pick just one. Not only will it be unfair, but I think I am not capable of picking one. If you are talking about films, I think I like Bombay, Agni Sakshi, Lajja…again, not one, but several (laughs).
People imagine that celebrities lead great lives. But, do you think that fame and success can also have negative effects?
There are two aspects to being famous. The first is whether you let fame affect you in a way that you begin feeling isolated. The second is how you cope with the isolation that comes with being famous. Because it does — to a large extent. I think most celebrities lead lonely lives. They may project their life as being wonderful and amazing, but deep inside, they are aware that this phase of life is transient. They all know that they are as good or bad as their last project. And, that is not a comfortable space to be in. But, as celebrities, we have learnt that this as an inherent part of our lives and how to deal with it. Actually, why just celebrities? I think all human beings are, at some level, alone. We are born like that and we die like that. So, it’s important not to get too attached to anything.
We all value our privacy, but you took the bold step of opening up about your life through a TEDx talk. Was it a difficult decision to talk about your life? What prompted you to do so?
After being healed, I was grateful for a new lease of life. My battle with cancer opened my eyes to several things. I was able to share my experiences and my journey with those facing similar situations. When I was diagnosed (with cancer), I reached out to several people. Lisa Ray and I were constantly in touch and she would help me not just with what to do, but also hear me out patiently. She would share her experiences, which made me feel I was not alone. This is why I thought TEDx would be a good platform. If I can use even the wee bit of influence I have and prompt people into thinking or doing something positive, I will feel that I am being helpful.
You have spoken about experiencing depression. What was that phase all about?
I became more introspective because I thought that I was going to die. I thought a lot about what I did with the days I lived for. And, I felt bad because I thought that I had wasted my life. I didn’t live my life to the fullest and I followed an unhealthy lifestyle. All these thoughts made me sad and I think this negativity made me cut myself off from everyone who mattered. I should not have done that. It is important to talk to people — not everyone, but those you are close to.
Tell us about how you overcame your depression and what you feel now…
I felt sad and was scared too. But, that phase is over now. In the past few years, I have had a lot of time to introspect. I consider myself in a better space now. I don't want to look back. I have been through bad times, I have had heartbreaks, low phases and gone off the track, but it has been a learning phase. I am content with my life and have made peace with many things, including my relationship with my parents. What matters to me now is that I remain happy. I know it is not going to be easy, but I also know that everything is transitory. I have seen the greatest of highs and lowest of lows, and I no longer fear challenges. That is my inner strength. I have decided that I won’t accept defeat. I believe that, ultimately, what happens, depends on God, but I should always give my best shot.
Along with depression, you overcame an extreme form of cancer. How has your outlook toward life changed after going through these struggles?
Cancer changes people. I felt like there was a dagger over my head and I didn't know when it was going to fall on me. I didn't know if the long treatment, of a minimum of six months, would get me out of the tunnel, and whether I’ll be fine and healed. What if it recurs? This prolonged period of uncertainty is the catalyst that transforms most people — cancer is unlike other diseases. For example, a person undergoing a heart surgery knows he'll be fine. There is a physical angle to cancer as well — patients are in pain, and look sad and pathetic as their eyebrows and hair fall off. And, it happens quite fast! I would wake up with clumps of hair on my pillow and I would scream in fear! So, when I came out of this dark phase, I began finding joy in small things like walking on the grass, the breeze blowing across my face, looking out of my bed at the sky and clouds, sunsets and sunrises. The very same things that I took for granted, I begin to value after I literally stared death in the face.
Was that easy? To persist day after day?
Oh no! Now, I sound like it was all okay, but those days were hell for me and those around me. There were times when I felt like throwing in the towel, that I had had enough! But, I had my mom. I remember I was in agony one day and my bones were hurting very badly. Even the painkillers wouldn't help. I told my mom I really can’t go through this, and if, by being alive, I have to endure such pain, I’d rather die. She scolded me and said: “If you are in our lives, if anything happens to you…how can you even think like that! Think of the good things and make them manifest." That made sense to me. We are, after all, what we think. My mom put sense into me — like moms do all the time! (Laughs). My mom, dad and brother were by my side and never for a moment did they let me think that I was fighting a lonely battle. That also kept me going.
What is your message for people who are suffering from depression or other mental health issues?
First and foremost, seek help. It could be professional or friendly advice or, help from someone you can open up to. Do not hesitate. Second, never think that you are alone. For, there is always someone willing to hear you out. And, don't ever give up on yourself — you can survive everything!
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