Mukerji portrayed a rape victim who is forced to marry her rapist in the 1997 film Raja Ki Aayegi Baraat. Although a commercial failure, Mukerji's performance was praised, and she won a special recognition trophy at the annual Screen Awards ceremony.Following the film's failure, Mukerji returned to college to complete her education. However, inspired by her cousin Kajol's success in Bollywood, she decided to pursue a full-time career in film.
In 1998, Mukerji starred opposite Aamir Khan in Vikram Bhatt's Ghulam (1998), a moderate commercial success. Though her role in the film was small, the song "Aati Kya Khandala" earned her widespread recognition. Due to Mukerji's broken voice texture, Bhatt hired a dubbing artist with a much higher pitched voice to dub for her lines. When asked if the director's decision to not use her voice in the film affected her, she said that her voice was dubbed as it "did not suit the character".
Later that year, Karan Johar cast Mukerji opposite Shahrukh Khan and her cousin, Kajol, in his big-budget directorial debut Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. The role was originally written for Twinkle Khanna, but when she rejected the role, Johar approached several leading actresses, all of whom refused the offer. He subsequently cast Mukerji after she volunteered to play the role. Johar had originally intended that a dubbing artist dub Mukerji's lines in the film, but she improved her diction and eventually dubbed for her own lines. She portrayed Tina Malhotra, a college student who is in a relationship with Khan's character. Writing for India Today, film critic Nandita Chowdhury considered Mukerji to be the scene-stealer and added, "Oozing oomph from every pore, she [..] proves herself an actress whose time has come." Kuch Kuch Hota Hai proved a breakthrough for Mukerji; it emerged as a blockbuster in India and abroad with earnings of over  1.03 billion (US$16 million), and won eight Filmfare Awards, including a Best Supporting Actress trophy for Mukerji.
Following the success of Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Mukerji played leading roles in the social drama Mehndi (1998) and the comedy Hello Brother (1999). Both these films were critical and commercial disappointments which failed to propel her career forward





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