ANUSHKA SHARMA HAS done 13 films in nine years, with Bollywood’s leading directors (the stellar list includes Aditya Chopra, Yash Chopra, Vishal Bhardwaj, Raju Hirani, Anurag Kashyap, Zoya Akhtar, Karan Johar and Imtiaz Ali). She is also the only Hindi film actress to feature in two of the four Rs 300 crore-plus grossing Bollywood films. But not one to abide by the rules and rest on her accomplishments; she chose to turn producer at 25 with Clean Slate Films. While the media seems to have an unhealthy preoccupation with her personal life, Sharma has made it clear that she has other concerns and bigger battles to fight—such as trying to bridge the wage gap for female actors.
With her new film, Phillauri, releasing in theaters this week, she speaks candidly about making movies that matter to her and why she hates the ‘Number One’ game.
You are an atypical star in that you have stayed away from masala fare, you have never done a ‘special number’, you are never seen at parties and don’t dance at weddings. What’s your belief system?
(Promptly) Peace. I’m a big believer in peace (smiles). I don’t do anything that takes away my peace of mind. Going to a party is not peaceful to me, you know. Having done those masala films would not have been a peaceful experience for me. I’ve always been somebody who doesn’t want to be ordinary; I never had that herd mentality. Like, while growing up, I never even tried to fit in… I was happy just being in my own la-la land. I would enrol myself in ‘Art of Living’ classes because I used to feel this identity crisis of sorts—at 12 (laughs). I think, to me, my personal growth as a human being is far more important than anything on this planet.
So when people ask me, even when Karan Johar asked me on his show, about the ‘Number One’ game, it makes me feel, like, not good, you know? It just feels sick. I don’t even want to walk on that path.
How did you manage to keep yourself away from these trappings, given that you were only 19 when you made your Bollywood debut? It would have been tough to deal with…
(Cuts in)…Everything. Yes, it was, especially if you come from an army background, where your life is very different. There’s so much uniformity, you live in the same houses, you don’t see any disparity. I don’t think I faced reality, quite honestly. And then, I’m suddenly, like, this Bollywood actress, and I was so afraid all the time about what I am supposed to say or how am I supposed to be.
I used to get so uncomfortable when people would come to me for photographs. And till date, I’m not someone who goes, like, ‘Yeah, please, let’s take a selfie’. I’m not that ‘cool person’, you know. I really envy people like Ranveer Singh, who go on stage and they’re like, ‘Yeah! I love you all!’ I can’t do that (laughs). I can’t get myself to kind of embrace this.
But from the beginning, I had this thing where even if I didn’t know what I wanted to do, I definitely knew what I did not want to do. And I think, I met the right people in the beginning of my career, like my first director, Aditya Chopra, who allowed me to be who I am. So I had the courage to react instinctively and then back those instincts, even early on.
Did you have an idea of what you wanted to accomplish as an actor? Because it’s interesting how you have done only 13 films in nine years. Deepika Padukone has 22 in 10 years; Alia Bhatt has already done nine in five years.
I was struggling with what I want to do in the moment. So I definitely did not think so far ahead. But yes, when I was growing up, I always knew I was going to be famous. I don’t know why. But I used to sit in the bathroom and give interviews. One day I was a sportsperson, the next day I was Rani Mukherjee.
I always had a big belief that some really special things are going to happen with me. I do feel that I’m a very blessed person. And because I feel so blessed, I take risks. I’m an outsider, I come from a non-film background. I did not even think I was going to do this, then why am I doing well? So I have to treat this as a gift and make the most of it.
I’ve always presented myself exactly as who I am because I don’t want people to think that there is a right way of being this perfect person, who is not real. It’s really okay to be the way you are
As for Deepika, you know, she has been a huge, huge motivator in my life. I’m from Bangalore too. When I was in junior college, she was my senior, and she was this beautiful, tall, very popular girl. Everybody knew who she was, and I always thought, ‘Man, this is cool!’ And I swear to God, her life has inspired me. It’s so bizarre that I was launched with Shah Rukh too. So the better Deepika does, I feel like, I’m also going to do that good.
So what made you turn producer at 25? It’s a huge responsibility for a young actor to undertake.
There was never like a ‘Eureka’ moment. Whenever I would watch something good, I would feel this urge to either act in it or create it, you know? So when NH10 came to me, I thought that when I’m taking this film on my shoulder, why should I not do it completely? The success or failure of it will still come to me, then why don’t I get into it as a producer?
When I started doing this, people told me, ‘This is what actresses do at the end of their careers.’ And I thought that was so bloody stupid. Why would you not capitalise on your hard work and your position, that you’ve worked so hard for? I should take charge of it, na? Of course, none of this would be possible without my brother, Karnesh. Clean Slate wouldn’t exist without him.
Bollywood does not have too many great scripts for actresses, so was part of your decision influenced by the fact that you’ll be able to create good work for yourself?
Yes, the best an actress gets is a romantic comedy, where you have a good role to play with a guy. Vidya Balan kind of started a whole phase of films led by actresses, with Kahaani and Dirty Picture, and I have a lot of respect for her. After Queen and then NH10, producers now want to make ‘female-centric films’—and I hate that term—because this is a business.
But NH10 had no reference. And nobody wants to put in money until they have a ‘reference’. So you start feeling, ‘Kahaan se aayenge roles?’ And when you get less opportunities, you work even harder. You come at it even stronger. Because you know that you are not entitled and you are not privileged. By that, I mean that the satisfaction you get from work on merit, that is not something we experience. So if I want things to change, I need to go to writers and directors and put things together and make those films.
My trajectory is going to be different because I do a really successful film and then I produce two of my own where there’s obviously no money
But Clean Slate is not to make films just for me. Right now, it’s easier for us to produce a film if I’m in it, but we want to tell stories, and we want to back new people. I come from outside and Adi backed me, and if I’m in a position today, I want to be able to do that. By doing this, I feel like I’m doing a little bit more than just caring about my life.
Why was Phillauri a must-make film?
Karnesh and I have known Anshai (Lal) for many years. So when Anshai and Anvita (Dutt) came to pitch the film to us, I thought the idea—of a guy who gets married to a tree because he’s manglik, and he inherits a ghost —was too cool (grins). It was funny and emotional and fresh. And then we made her a ghost who flies, who vanishes, who has fairy dust. She was a character, not just a ghost. I also knew that an A-list actress doing something like this would be interesting for the audience.
NH10 made a statement about honour killings and Phillauri seems to take on superstitions like being a ‘manglik’. Do you feel a responsibility to tell such stories?
See, I understand that I may have a certain amount of influence on society through my films. And yes, the films I act in or the films we produce will never reinforce something that is not correct. But if you are telling stories thinking like that, that’s being very opportunistic, I think.
As an actor, and as a human being, I do take social responsibility by leading my life in a certain way. I don’t want to say I’m a role model because I’m not a perfect human being. I have a lot of flaws, I’ve made a lot of mistakes, and I have owned up to my mistakes too. I’ve always presented myself exactly as who I am because I don’t want people to think that there is a right way of being this perfect person, who is not real. It’s really okay to be the way you are.
Do you think that’s enough in today’s world? The discourse has become so sharply divided into extremes, isn’t it important for role models to speak up more actively?
I deal with a lot of sexism in whatever I do. I think all women do. But I have never shied away from speaking about it, not because I’m a role model but because I’m like that as a person. Having said that, when you talk about speaking up, trust me, what Meryl Streep spoke at the Golden Globes, if someone here had spoken about something that was against the grain of the majority, people would have pelted stones at their house.
We can’t say one should exercise free speech here; look at the repercussions that come with it! You can’t go out there and just be foolish about it... because it amounts to what? You are compromising the safety of your family, your own safety and the safety of the people who work with you. Like what happened on the Padmavati sets. How can that happen? I don’t even know how it’s possible, but it happened, na?
When actors in Hollywood talk against things, there may be people who might abuse them on Twitter, but they are not going to come and actually hit them in person, which is an actual risk that we have. For example, because I’m a huge animal lover, I had this positivity campaign on Diwali about keeping pets safe. For something like that, people sent me videos and photographs of meat, and said, ‘This is your chopped dog’. So I’m like, ‘Don’t listen to it na, baba?’
I meet a lot of misogynistic women, who cannot see somebody else doing well, and if they have the power to do something to bring you down, they will do it
You want to burst crackers, go put them up your ass and burst them for all I care. I don’t give a shit. But how can you be so aggressive?
This hasn’t deterred you from being outspoken about feminism.
Yes, but I think I have said a lot more in interviews that has gotten me into trouble within the industry. Case in point, Anupama Chopra’s interview, where I went and spoke out against the wage gap. I got a lot of shit from some really powerful people in this place. But I spoke out not because I wanted to be sensational, but because I believe that the only way people can change is if you try to change their thought process.
The fact is that this disparity exists today is not because people are against it, but because it’s a deep-rooted tradition of looking at women actors in a certain way. So I wanted to bring that out to the surface and I was fine with whatever I got out of it too. I will continue to be vocal about feminism.
After multiple Rs 300 crore-plus films, are you in a position where you can demand the money you want for a film?
See, my trajectory is always going to be a little different because I do a really successful film and then I produce two of my own films where there’s obviously no money. So, for me, the success of any film is important so that I can produce and push the stories that we want to make through Clean Slate Films.
As far as the monies are concerned, you have to have the ability to say ‘no’ and walk away. I guess there’s a sense of fear that’s put into actors when the media, industry insiders and the biggies pit you against each other. You have to be very cautious of that, so you should just walk away. That’s why I have a lot of respect for women who are doing that, like Kangana. She’s asking for what’s hers, and more power to her.
Do you face misogyny as a producer as well? There are very few women in the top management of Bollywood studios, barring Ekta Kapoor.
At Clean Slate, no, because we truly believe that working with good people is the most important. But otherwise, let me tell you, misogyny is not male centric. I meet a lot of misogynistic women, who cannot see somebody else doing well, and if they have the power to do something to bring you down, they will do it. And that, I think, is a lot worse.
But since I’m one of the first actresses to do this, I will face it in small ways because to see a female actor who’s having a conversation with you is something that they are used to. For example, you will be asked to explain how you produce films. Like journalists will ask you, ‘So what do you do in it?’
And then this recent thing, where people started crediting my ability to make a big film like Phillauri to my partner. You will face people thinking that a woman cannot do something on her own; she needs a man to help her. And that’s like a dagger, and I cannot believe people think like that. And of course it affects me, but you have to ignore it and move on because that’s the only option.
How do you deal with all the social-media abuse that has come your way because of your relationship?
You know, if my film tanks, or if I do badly and you abuse me, it is something I will take. But when you get blamed for somebody else… you feel belittled. You are made to feel small. You have blamed me for someone’s failure, which is something that is a part of their life, while the success also is. It’s heart-breaking.
But what do you do? I don’t think anybody will be able to understand who I am as a person or the nature and simplicity of my relationship. People look at it as some high-profile relationship, when it is actually the simplest relationship you can think of—of two very simple people who want nothing out of their life but to be peaceful and successful in what they are doing.
People like to speculate even more about your relationship because you keep it private now.
I was not at all private about it. But then, it became only about that. While I know my partner is not going to experience that in his place of work, unfortunately I will have to, because I come from the entertainment industry, and my personal life is entertainment for somebody. And I want to be taken a little bit more seriously than just my relationship. I’ve been subjected to journalists literally... what is the right word for it?
Yes, bullying me. You’ve called me to your own office and you are asking me questions about my personal life, which I have answered jitna I want to answer; then you are constantly asking me questions only about that. Why should I allow you to do that? Why should I allow you to use a part of my life to sell your own magazine, newspaper or channel? It’s not for sale, you know. I’m a very private person and I’m very guarded. I don’t have that many friends also, quite honestly. I don’t even open up emotionally to too many in my family. My brother is literally my best friend. And my relationship is a very personal thing, and I have to protect it. Because it means a lot to me.
I’m not someone who puts up vacation pictures on social media or asks people to come to my house on Diwali and shoot it. I don’t even like people seeing my house. For me, the important thing is to safeguard my relationships. And that’s just how I am.