Only five years in, and Deepika Padukone appears to have figured it out: “It hits you all of a sudden one day, the realisation that no amount of magazine covers and red-carpet appearances will get you very far, if you don’t have solid performances to show for yourself.” As wild-child Veronica, who spirals into a self-destructive mess when her love is thwarted in Homi Adajania’s recent hit Cocktail, this former model from Bangalore has finally put the ‘act’ into ‘actress’. As if confirming her ascent to the league of leading ladies with promise, she was signed up by Sanjay Leela Bhansali to star in his Gujarat-set Romeo & Juliet adaptation Ram Leela, barely hours after the ink had dried on those rave reviews for her performance in Cocktail.
Dressed in a blood red shirt and pair of white jeans that hug her curves, Deepika towers above most others at an art gallery in Bandra, Mumbai, her two-inch heels creating the impression that she’s literally walking on air. Complain that you have to look up to her now, and she laughs, but only slightly, as if she’s heard this joke a few times already. “I can’t wear heels in films… have you seen how tall my co-stars are? I look forward to days like this when I’m not shooting; these are the only times I can wear them,” she says.
Just to get it straight, Deepika isn’t here to admire a Husain or Souza; it just so happens that the gallery rents out space for television interviews, and she’s here to participate in one of those. Even as the crew adjusts the lighting and locks their frames, the 26-year-old star settles into a sofa to talk about her career reinvention with me. She does, after all, have a promising year ahead, with work to do for filmmakers as diverse as Abbas-Mustan, Ayan Mukherjee, Bhansali and Rohit Shetty, not to mention a role opposite Rajinikanth in the motion-capture fantasy Kochadaiyaan.
Five years is not a long time in Bollywood, where actors—particularly heartthrobs—invariably find themselves spending the early phase of their career merely learning the ropes and figuring out their strengths. Few—Ranbir Kapoor, Kareena Kapoor and Hrithik Roshan come to mind—burn up the screen in their very first film. Others inevitably require more time. Given that she had no familial connections to the movie business, and was raised in Bangalore by parents who emphasised the importance of participating in sports aside from excelling in academics, Deepika hasn’t done too badly.
How many newcomers can boast of having been handpicked by an A-list filmmaker to play the female lead opposite superstar Shah Rukh Khan at 21? Making her debut in Farah Khan’s retro comic-thriller Om Shanti Om, in a double role—as an ethereal 70s movie star who is betrayed and killed by her filmmaker boyfriend, and a flaky current-day starlet who is groomed to avenge the actress’ death—Deepika went from virtual anonymity to nationwide stardom in a matter of days.
Of the 11 films she’s done since her blockbuster bow, it’s interesting to note that she’s mixed the unapologetically commercial with the relatively challenging. So for every Bachna Ae Haseeno, Chandni Chowk To China or Housefull that stares at you from her CV, there’s a Lafangey Parindey, a Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey, and an Aarakshan that stares right back.
None, however, worked for her in the way that Imtiaz Ali’s Love Aaj Kal did. Making the most of her yet-unseen potential, this double-stranded love story required her to summon a palette of emotions—confidence, vulnerability, bitterness and sheer lovesickness—to play Meera, a practical-minded girl who breaks up with her boyfriend amicably when they realise their careers are pulling them in different directions, and that a long-distance relationship is unviable. The film’s director, Ali, has said it was a risk casting an actress as raw as Deepika in the part, “but she was a revelation”.
It was Ali again who was instrumental in her landing the gig that, by all accounts, has changed her life. When Adajania consulted Ali on casting the part of bindaas girl Veronica in Cocktail (which Ali scripted), the Love Aaj Kal director recommended his ‘Meera’. “I didn’t think I had it in me when Homi narrated the role,” Deepika remembers, “But when Imtiaz insisted that he was confident I could do it, I decided to risk it.”
It’s unfair to talk of Cocktail—and the praise that came her way for her uninhibited performance in the film—without bringing up the flak its makers received for writing that regressive arc to her character… the overnight mellowing of the party girl, who trades her spunk for some good ol’ fashioned traditionalism in order to bag her man. Taking a moment to gather her thoughts, choosing her words carefully before presenting her defence, Deepika insists that the film is a reflection of our times: “So many of my single girlfriends are independent and bohemian and modern, and they’re forced to change the way they dress or speak when their parents are looking for a boy for them. I also know enough men who like to date free-spirited girls, but who look for exactly the opposite kind of person when it’s time to settle down.” Acknowledging that what she’s saying is delicate, yet making it clear this is all she will say on the subject, Deepika adds with finality: “It is what it is! Imtiaz and Homi were clear they wanted to present things the way they are, and not the way they perhaps should be.”
Whatever critics may have made of the film, Deepika is clear it has been a turning point for her. “Suddenly I feel the energy around me has changed.” For one, people—and the media—are talking about something other than her romantic liaisons. “The response to Cocktail has reaffirmed my faith in the fact that it’s really the films you do and the characters you play, and what you make of those parts, that ultimately defines who you are and how people perceive you,” she says. “I don’t worry about tabloid stories anymore. I don’t care who they’re linking me with.”
In case you care, they’re linking her to Ranveer Singh, whom she stars with in Bhansali’s film. The two have been spotted together at coffee shops and at cinema halls. But Singh has rubbished the rumours, claiming they’re only getting to know each other before diving into the romantic film they will spend over a hundred days shooting together.
When I run into Deepika and Ranveer at a preview of Shirin Farhad Ki Toh Nikal Padi, directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s sister Bela Segal, there is no awkwardness whatsoever. None of those guilty ‘oh-shit-we’ve-been-caught’ looks.
During my conversation with the actress, no mention is made of Kingfisher scion Siddhartha Mallya, whom she was reportedly dating for two years before the couple broke up earlier this year. She will admit, however, that she’s currently single and isn’t looking for love right now. “I think I’m scared of being hurt again,” she says, and leaves it at that.
Deepika definitely appears more comfortable talking about Ranbir Kapoor, whom she’s working with in Wake Up Sid director Ayan Mukherjee’s next, Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani. Ask if it’s difficult to muster romantic chemistry with a former lover, and she insists it’s not: “We have no emotional baggage left over from that time. Ayan, who’s a friend of both of ours separately, wouldn’t have cast us together if he thought we’d be awkward.” She has previously said that Ranbir and she became lovers before becoming friends. Now they’re finally good friends and nothing more.
It’s harder establishing friendships with other actresses, particularly one’s contemporaries, she’ll admit. Makes sense, given that there are only around five top heroines who vie for every significant project. “This is an extremely competitive field and it would be naïve to think two actresses can be best friends. But it’s not difficult to be warm and cordial to each other.”
Deepika, who describes herself as “a sportsperson at heart” (her father is celebrated badminton champion Prakash Padukone; the actress herself played state-level badminton in school), says it’s important to be ambitious and aggressive, “but only on the field”. Her background in sports, she claims, has contributed to the shaping of her personality. “There were times I played matches against my best friend and I beat her—or lost to her—and then we’d go back to being best friends and we’d share the same room again,” she remembers. While it’s virtually impossible to expect that level of camaraderie in Bollywood, Deepika says she does share “comfortable vibes” with Priyanka Chopra, Vidya Balan and Kareena Kapoor.
Not that acquiring the title of Miss Congeniality is something she worries herself with. “I’ve got to a place where filmmakers trust me with challenging roles, and my only priority is to do justice to them,” she says. The television crew, which has been waiting patiently for us to wrap up our chat, makes sad puppy dog faces in her direction, and Deepika asks if I have all I need. Turning the question back to her, I enquire if she’s satisfied with where she finds herself currently. “I’m pleased with where I am, hardly satisfied… long way to go,” she says, and then adds with unquestionable sincerity, “I’m here for the long haul.”