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The girl from Bangalore, and the daughter of a sporting icon, deviated from the father’s path to become a Bollywood original
A year-and-a-half ago, at an awards night held by a popular national news network, Prakash Padukone, one of Indian’s top sporting icons, stepped up to present the trophy for best sports achievement to tennis ace Leander Paes. Right after, he was asked to stay back on stage but wasn’t particularly sure why.

“I knew Deepika was getting an award that night, but I did not know they were going to ask me to give it away,” he says. It was a special achievement award for her work in 2013, and Deepika was asked at the time how she felt about receiving it from her father. “She broke down,” he remembers. To the family, it was a night that encapsulated Deepika’s journey ever since she decided to get into movies. “She has been by herself in Mumbai ever since she was 18. We have missed her and tried to be there for her as much as we could,” he says.

The family, including Deepika, thought she would be in badminton like her father, and for years of her childhood had followed a punishing schedule to that end. “Deepika would wake up at 5.30 am every morning and train up to 7 am at the sports ground near our house in Bangalore. She’d then attend school till 3.30 pm, come back and train for two more hours up to 6 pm. She’d then return home for a cup of tea and biscuits, finish her homework, eat dinner and go to bed. That was her life for many years,” he says. “She was good, but I knew she would have her limitations. She wasn’t as passionate about the sport as she was about becoming a model. I’ve always asked my kids to do what they enjoy. I was never going to impose badminton on them.”

Seven years since Om Shanti Om and 20 odd films later, Deepika Padukone is now at the top of Bollywood. She is the only heroine in the history of Indian cinema to have delivered five back-to-back Rs 100-crore-plus grossers: Cocktail, Race 2, Ram Leela, Chennai Express and Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani. These weren’t women-oriented films, but what surprised the world was how she held her own in hardcore commercial potboilers where heroines have traditionally been no more than eye-candy.

Deepika’s 26the floor South Mumbai apartment is plush, large and cosy. “This space is everything to me now,” she says during a conversation with me on a red velvet couch in her living room. “If you have your own home to come back to, it’s half the battle won.” She bought the Rs 16-crore flat about four years ago, but had been dreaming of it for years. The balcony overlooks some of the most beautiful sights of the city.

In a maroon tanktop and tights, a high pony and lip balm adding just enough colour to her face, Deepika looks radiant. The only things that ornament her face are fetching dimples that flash every time you say something nice about her. “I’m not good at taking compliments,” she says, “I get very awkward and say strange things in return sometimes.”

It doesn’t show on her, but Deepika has been toiling away on the sets of Shoojit Sarkar’s Piku for the last 50 days, hopping between Kolkata, Ahmedabad and Delhi. This is only the second time she’s playing a title role after the Kannada film Aishwarya in 2006 which marked her official cinema debut. “This is my first break in two months,” she says; Piku is about a unique father-daughter relationship, and the conversation naturally turns to her father. “When I was little, Dad would always hand-hold me. I was a hyperactive child, jumping off sofas every chance I got,” she says, “But now I feel like he tries to learn from his daughters. He messaged me the other day to say, ‘The best quality about you is to be the bigger person and say sorry, even when you’re not at fault.’ That means he’s observing keenly what his daughters have become. It is now that I feel my bond with him the most.”

Growing up in Bangalore city, Deepika’s was a semi-strict South Indian household. Movies were a distraction allowed only on weekends. Late-night parties weren’t encouraged, and Deepika and her younger sister Anisha were expected to meet their 10 pm bedtime strictly. Their father was a sports legend, but Deepika insists that they are products of a regular middle- class upbringing. “Mum made sure we’d never bask in Dad’s reflected glory. He even used to come to pick me up from parties. Missing school was never an option,” she says. Academics, however, was never Deepika’s thing. “Even in school, my friends were brilliant. They would take part in interschool competitions, sleepovers and still get great marks in exams. I was never the leader of a group or the prefect or head girl. I never became anything. I was the average student who’d get into trouble every now and then. I failed in some tests, just about scraped through and got average marks in school.”

The only constant in her life were badminton tournaments as a national level player. She travelled in second-class train coaches to represent her college. “I enjoyed badminton, but I never gave it my 100 per cent,” she says. Her mother’s friend Anila Anand, a model co-ordinator in Bangalore, introduced her to modelling. “She told Mum that I really had it in me,” says Deepika.

From the age of 17, Deepika started taking up modelling assignments in both Bangalore and Mumbai until it became impossible to keep shuttling between the two cities. “When she decided to move to Mumbai, it took us almost a year to come to terms with it. She was a shy girl, she still is. She takes time to make friends. This industry was so big, that her mum would always worry about how she was going to manage,” says the father. He says he has never fully expressed his anxiety of letting her go. “If I’d tell her anything, she’d say I was giving her gyaan,” he adds, with a chuckle.

Mumbai was a different world. “I was used to open grounds. My school was so big that we had to move from one building to another for classes. But here, all I saw were walls and grills.” It did not stop her from doing what she wanted to. With a face and figure most commercial models would kill for, thanks to genes and an athletic lifestyle, more than enough advertising work poured in.

“I lived off other people for a very long time. I was basically like a nomad with a suitcase every few months, going from one place to another. I was living with my aunt in Andheri and then at times with my granddad at Peddar Road. Whenever I didn’t have work, I’d go back to Bangalore.”

It was R Balki’s Liril campaign in 2004 that actually put her out there. Hoardings with images of Deepika dressed in tiny orange shorts and a tank-top bathing under a rain shower against the backdrop of a giant half orange were splashed all across the city. “After Aishwarya Rai, she was the first striking face I came across,” Balki had then said about her.

Films were yet a faraway dream, until Farah Khan spotted her first in a Kingfisher campaign and then Himesh Reshammiya’s music video Naam Hai Tera. “I only fully moved to Mumbai once Om Shanti Om happened [in 2007]. They saw it in me before anybody else did. Farah sent my pictures to Shah Rukh [Khan] and said ‘Look at this girl!’”

Deepika doesn’t have a struggle story. She never even auditioned for that film. “Farah said she’d cast me opposite Shah Rukh only if I was good. I remember it took them a year to actually start making the film from the time I met them. It was surreal. The way Farah presented me and how Shah Rukh walked me through every little process during the shoot. I never had to audition for any film after that. Om Shanti Om was a show reel in itself.”

Her father remembers the night at Yash Raj Studios when her family saw her on the big screen for the first time. “Just two years before Om Shanti Om released, we had planned a family get-together to watch Filmfare Awards on TV. That was our only connection to the film world. I couldn’t believe it was happening,” says Prakash.

It was a blockbuster, Om Shanti Om, but her real journey from a star to an actress began after that. She was stunning but it takes more than looks to spark life into a character. Her first film did not teach her what acting meant. Neither did her second. “In Om Shanti Om, I was just doing what Farah asked me to. She hand-held me through everything. I did not know anything about the craft. It took me time to realise that acting was not just about learning your lines and saying them.”

Director Imtiaz Ali, who is also a close friend, remembers working with a Deepika who’d easily let people dominate her in a scene. “During Love Aaj Kal, the only problem I had was she was too tender and sensitive. She would try and go into the background and I’d always ask her not to.”

On an average, Deepika had at least two releases every year since her first film. She kept busy. Sometimes too busy to take a break and evaluate her growth or lack of it in front of the camera. There were films like Love Aaj Kal and Shonali Mukherjee’s Karthik Calling Karthik, which gave her fine performance opportunities, but it was Homi Adajania’s Cocktail in 2012 that really unleashed the actress in her. It took her five years, but it was the movie with which she truly arrived.

Adajania recalls meeting an excruciatingly sweet girl the first time he met her to discuss the role of Veronica in the movie. “I admitted to not having seen any of her work and that I had no intention to until our shoot was over. She was hesitant though beautiful and earthy. I had no idea of her acting capabilities, but her reputation as an actor wasn’t much to speak of at the time. I told her that if she trusted me, after the film was out, everyone would see her as an actor to reckon with.”

That prediction wasn’t wrong. Veronica was everything Deepika was not—outgoing, rebellious, sharp tongued and free- spirited. “When my friends saw me in Cocktail, they couldn’t recognise me. They said, ‘This is not you! You are always so ‘proper’... even with your relationships.’ I was always the under-confident one. The self-doubting one. The conventional one. So they were completely shocked!”

During the making of Cocktail, it is said, she had been having turbulence in her personal life but she channelled it into her performance. The film was her leap of faith. It wasn’t the role that changed her, but her new-found fearlessness in her approach to it. “As soon as she submitted fully without doubting her capabilities, I could use that faith to take her to the next level. And then we fed off each other’s strengths until I really didn’t need to direct her anymore,” says Adajania.

For Deepika, it was a classic case of trial-and-error in an industry she had no knowledge of. “I’d never been on a film set before I started shooting my first film. Then you slowly start discovering the process. It’s your own journey as a person. You discover your likes and dislikes, the kind of films you want to make, or be a part of, and I think all of that at some level has made me the person that I am today.” Now she enjoys the process a lot more. “I learnt that it is most important to be in the moment and be true to the character you are playing. Everything else is immaterial.”

But there have been a few breaking points. “During a dance sequence in Ram Leela, which took about 12 days to shoot, I was literally culling out chunks of skin from my feet and flinging it away. All the other dancers on set were professional garba artistes. I wasn’t. I even broke down on the sets of the film on day one because Mr Bhansali [the director] handed me a one-page monologue on the morning of the shoot. He decided to do that scene where my mother had been shot and I attend the kacheri for the first time as the don. And he had set up for a close-up! I told him I couldn’t do it. I cried, haggled, complained, but eventually it happened. I’m working with him again in Bajirao Mastani and willing to go through that experience again. I want to be pushed like that.”

Today, she is perhaps the highest paid actress in Bollywood, with Katrina Kaif her only competition in that bracket, and Deepika chooses films irrespective of their commercial appeal. Be it the loudmouthed Meenamma in Chennai Express or the ferocious Leela in Ram Leela or the laid-back Angie in Finding Fanny, her performances have surprised everyone. She is particularly pleased with an indie English language film like Finding Fanny standing on its own and making money. “Scripts are changing, the audience is changing. Films are getting more real, more relatable. There is a lot of new, exciting work that’s being created and I’m glad to be part of that change,” she says.

There was a time when Deepika found it difficult to adapt to the world of showbiz. “Both Farah and Shah Rukh asked me to reach out to them if I needed them, but I did not take up that offer. I wasn’t going to pick up the phone on them and discuss my issues. I used to miss my family terribly. I still do, but I’ve learnt to deal with it. I’ve been independent for very long, and responsible for the choices I made, both professionally and personally. So I have no regrets,” she says.

But now, she is self-assured and confident. Recently, she took on a leading national daily for posting a picture of hers online, tagged, ‘OMG... Deepika’s cleavage.’ She responded to it on Twitter, ‘Yes, I’m a woman and I have a cleavage!’ It was an unexpected response from someone known to weigh her words. “I did not speak as Deepika Padukone the actor. I spoke as a girl. I had to stand up for being a woman and that’s all I did,” she says.

Deepika has adopted Ambegaon village in Maharashtra and is also closely involved with Olympic Gold Quest, the organisation her father co-started that trains Indian athletes. “Aamir [Khan], Karan [Johar] and myself were doing a summit recently, and somebody asked us, ‘Sir, you people have so much money. Why don’t you do charity?’ I wanted to get up and tell him that I was 17 years old when I started my career—with not a single rupee. Whatever I have today I have made on my own. I have gone through my ups. I’ve gone through my downs. I’ve seen success. I’ve seen failure. I’ve seen rejection. Whatever I have today, whether materially or otherwise, I’ve worked hard for. Today if I do a film for a friend without charging a fee, that could be charity for me. When one does charity one doesn’t need to talk about it,” she says.

She thinks she still has some way to go as an actor. There are exciting projects coming up next year, including Bhansali’s Bajirao Mastani, Imtiaz Ali’s Tamasha and Shoojit Sircar’s Piku. “I have a doting dad, a mum who gives me a reality check now and then, and a sister who is my most honest critic. The few friends I’ve made in the city are available for me 24/7. I’m happy!” she says.

Her friends, however, think she slogs too much and Homi Adajania gives me a message for her: “Tell that workaholic of a woman that I said she needs to take time out and smell the roses—after all, they bloom for her!”