Back then, Punjabi films were not being made in large numbers and there were only a handful of actresses who remained loyal to Punjabi Cinema. Where 50s and 60s belonged to Nishi & Indira Billi, 70s had Meena Rai and occasionally Radha Saluja to Aruna Irani. Daljit Kaur, who joined post mid 70s remained in demand for over next two decades as the leading lady. Similarly, 80s and 90s belonged Preeti Sapru and Rama Vij. 90s needed fresh faces and there were three popular faces Manjeet Kullar, Upasana Singh & Ravinder Mann who were star actresses of that period but only till Punjabi Cinema went into the rough phase.
Manjeet was born and brought up in Bombay (Mumbai) and even did her schooling from there itself. She was still a school student when film offers came her way.
How did she get her first acting assignment?
"I was spotted by a gentleman who belonged to film industry, when I was still in school. Soon I enrolled myself in dance classes and since my parents had no objection, I took up acting assignments. I was suggested by the industry people to change my name but I shrugged the suggestion as this name had been given to me by my parents and I did not want to change it," she said.
Her first acting project
Manjeet was to make her dream debut opposite superstar Mithun Chakravati in a film called Soochna but it got shelved after a few reels. She started her career around the same time when Madhuri Dixit and Juhi Chawla joined the industry.
"See Hindi Film Industry is one big place and everyone can't become a top bracket actress. Even after my film with Mithun shelved, I was not upset. It was not like my world ended with a film which remained in cans!"
Which other projects did she do? Which film turned out to be a breakthrough for her film career?
Manjeet did a few more movies such as Misaal, Mohabbat Ke Dushman, Lootera Sultan, but the surprise success was the lead role in Ramsey Brothers' Bandh Darwaja.
Was she not sceptical about doing a horror film in times when this genre wasn't really seen as A grade?
She says, "In an industry where people don't get a chance even after a lot of struggle, it would have been a foolish act to refuse the work that was coming directly to me. Luckily, I never got to ask for work from anyone, and film offers kept coming my way. Ramsey Brothers' films were like a brand as Ramsey were a big family that had everyone involved in different aspects of filmmaking. I have never seen that kind of unity anywhere in the industry. Their wives were there to look after the whole unit.
I never look at my films with any grade. The most important thing for me was the work atmosphere. I got to work with nice people in the industry and for me, working with the right people was more important."
She then got to do some big projects like Mr Bond, Yaalgaar, Ikke Pe Ikka, Maahir, Dil Ka Kya Qasoor to name a few, in which she had important parts to play.
A song lead her to the Punjabi film world and there was no looking back
"I had just done a Punjabi song Jugni for Jalandhar Doordarshan which became very popular. Soon after this song, I was offered Jatt Jiyona Morh. I wanted to work in my mother tongue and accepted the offer. I completed my work in less than two weeks and moved back to Bombay. I had no idea that the film was such a big hit. I only realised it when I had offers of half a dozen Punjabi films right after its release."
Hindi or Punjabi films - Preference?
Post her big and successful film debut with Jatt Jiyona Morh, she was next seen in Mirza Jatt, Jid Jattan Di, Vairee, Bagawat, Jaildaar, Deson Pardeson, Pachtawa, Main Maa Punjab Di, Muqadder etc.
"Contrary to beliefs that Punjabi film industry is unprofessional, I found it to be opposite. I enjoyed working in every Punjabi film or for that matter even in Hindi films and serials."
"In Punjabi films there were budget issues but it was understandable as it is a regional film industry. Even Hindi film industry back then was not completely organised in terms of script, time management, etc. While we used to shoot for Hindi films in proper film locations, in Punjabi films, we generally shot in real locations. Compared to Hindi films, Punjabi films would wrap up quickly. I found more fame with Punjabi films and was overwhelmed to see fans coming in huge numbers for autographs and to see my film shoots."
Which one is her best performance according to her?
"Jatt Jiyona Morh will always remain a special film. Playing the legendary lover Sahiba in Mirza Jatt was a good experience too. Usually actresses did not have much to do in action dramas, but I had an equal author backed role in Zaildaar, along with Guggu Gill.
I will rate Main Maa Punjab Di as one of my best performances as it gave me a lot of satisfaction as an actress. From playing a young village girl to an old grey haired businesswoman, the role had many layers to it. The actors who played my sons in the film were older than me. Thankfully, I managed to look the part. I felt so good when my film won the National Award.
In Hindi films I enjoyed playing the comical role in Ikke Pe Ikka and the grey shaded role of Akshay Kumar's step sister in Dhadkan. Bandh Darwaja has got cult status over the years in horror genre films.
I was given an option to choose between the two roles in Mehndi Wale Hath. I was to choose between the role of Guggu Gill's wife and Rana Ranbir's wife. Since I had already done many emotional roles I opted for the wicked mother in law character in it. Mostly roles can be comical or negative, this was one rare role for me which had a mix of both."
Take on co-stars
"Akshay Kumar was still struggling when I started getting acting offers. We started our career at nearly the same time. Later, I got to work with him in a couple of films. From playing his sister to sister in law and doing parallel lead, it was always a pleasure to work with him.
Gurdas Maan is such a down to earth person with jolly nature. I did maximum films with Guggu Gill, and he is a wonderful co star. I feel blessed to have worked with legends like Dara Singh. I also worked with Yograj Singh a few years ago in a TV serial. He has not changed as a person in all these years.
Daljit Kaur, such a beautiful and humble lady. We used to go on world tours. I loved working with Rana Ranbir, given a chance I'd love to work with him again. I felt very sad to know about the demise of Gurkirtan. I had some very good dramatic scenes with him in films.
While working with Preeti Sapru, it was surprising to see how she was managing so many things at one time. Upasana (Singh) and Ravinder(Mann) were wonderful co stars too. I worked with Raj Babbar briefly but it was a delight to work with him."
Married to businessman Sunil Mehan, Manjeet is mother to a daughter and son. Talking about her family she says, "Ours was and arranged marriage and I am thankful to god for giving me such a loving and caring husband."
On asking will her kids join the acting field, she said, "They are still studying and I will support their career choices, but only after they complete their education."
Break from films
By the time Punjabi films stopped getting made, Manjeet had also lost touch with Punjabi Cinema.
"I had no idea about the rough phase of Punjabi Cinema as by that time I was very busy with my personal life. In fact, I had just done Dhadkan and had some very good Hindi films offers but I had to let them go because of my pregnancy. I did not want to act in films leaving my young daughter at home. When she started going to school, I accepted the offers of Mehndi Wale Hath and a few more films. I also did TV serials in that period but took break again when I was pregnant with my second child. I was a full time mother, and enjoyed seeing my kids growing up. Then I started taking deep interest in our business of Audio-Video Visual."
Now when Punjabi film Industry is in it's best phase, is she not planning a comeback?
"There were two three offers in the past, but I did not find them good enough and also, I could not take out time for them. I have been told to be active on social media, but I am so not used to it. May be the makers assume that I am not interested in doing films but its not true.
My husband has been very supportive of my acting career. I am not eyeing for lead roles as I am very secure as an actress. I have played lead roles opposite Guggu Gill and in one film I even played his mother.
So if there will be any good offer of a Punjabi film, I will surely do it again, I promise."