Cover Story

Being Deepika Padukone

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What makes her an Indian original

WHEREVER YOU ARE in Mumbai, there is one sculpted life-size face that is constantly looking back at you. She is on the edge of skywalks, outside suburban malls, on the Metro line, inside autorickshaws, on the back of a BEST bus, on ginormous hoardings across the beach, inside showrooms of executive class cars, on shiny biscuit wrappers—the list is endless. It is almost like she is part of the most basic as well as the most important aspects of a regular day here. Yet, it never seems like there is too much of her. It never feels like she is invading our lives. In those images there’s a soft, steady, confident woman who has pretty much become the darling of every cinema lover in the country. Be it hair oil or history, if she is selling, we are listening.

With her unparalleled charm, beauty and box office success, Deepika Padukone embraces all it means to be a woman. She refuses to let the spotlight distort her humanity or become a caricature of the real, sensitive woman behind the icon. As an actor and as a woman, she defies glib characterisation. And so, an ad shoot in which she is dressed in a white shirt and khaki pants, sitting in style on the bonnet of a police jeep, goes viral, even as her period drama Padmaavat, renamed after Rajputs rose up in protest against the film’s alleged distortion of history, hopes to make it to its release date of January 25th without further incident. On January 18th, the Supreme Court cleared the way for its release as it stayed notifications issued by various states banning the movie.

At the cusp of the release of her latest—and by far her biggest— film, Deepika is maintaining an eerie silence. She is choosing to not speak, just so her film that almost didn’t make it to theatres doesn’t face the brunt. Anything she says can be misconstrued. It is a small price to pay for a project she worked on for over 200 days. The stakes are high, especially for the filmmakers who have depended on her to carry the film forward. “She is every director’s dream come true,” Sanjay Leela Bhansali had casually remarked at a press conference of their film Bajirao Mastani (2015). With shiny eyes, she had smiled back at the audience, as if to say, ‘This is more than what I asked for.’

“Acting has never been just a job for me. I don’t think it can ever be,” she had said to me the last time we met. It has been 10 years since her debut Bollywood film Om Shanti Om (2007), and in the last decade, no male or female performer has had a success graph as striking and transformative as Deepika’s. It rightfully makes her India’s biggest star at the moment. She has had back-to-back hits over the past five years, and if not the films, her characters have stayed with us. She has become the highest paid Indian female actor ever, at approximately Rs 12 crore a film. She endorses 21 brands, and her net worth is estimated at over Rs 100 crore, expected to grow at a double-digit rate every year. Forbes India has voted her the highest ranking Indian woman actor three years in a row. She has already had her big Hollywood debut, and is soon expected to announce her next international assignment. Arguably, no contemporary Indian actor—male or female—commands the kind of presence and prospects that Deepika does at the moment.

“If you look at influencers among sports and entertainment [celebrities] who have had a deep impact on Indian society, after Virat Kohli, it is her. She is not seen as a female persona, but as a brand of the nation and that hardly happens with a heroine in India,” says Vijay Subramaniam of Kwan, a company that has been managing brand Deepika for years. But what is interesting is that she’s not just about numbers or popularity. Even if she doesn’t have a film up for release, it seems like she is present, around us, every day. Her presence has percolated into the homes and lives of almost every Indian who may or may not watch Hindi movies, not as an oversold image of femininity or a cultural figment, but as a real person.

From Madhubala, Madhuri Dixit, Rekha and Aishwarya Rai to Smita Patil and Shabana Azmi, many women actors have held us rapt, some with their performances, others for their parallel choices in cinema and yet others for being pure entertainers. Deepika, however, seems to have become a phenomenon that is here to stay well past her cinema career. She is an actor and she is so much more. We don’t remember the last Indian actor who was so universal.

Be it hair oil or history, if she is selling, we are listening. With her unparalleled charm, beauty and box office success, Deepika Padukone embraces all it means to be a woman

“Here is a woman whose face is now synonymous with success. Young, ambitious girls growing up in remote corners of the country see their journey in hers. Beyond her characters, she’s a friend, a guide, a person whose footsteps one would like to follow; an artist and a woman who has gradually become so much a part of the country’s ethos, that she represents India in more ways than one today,” says writer and director Imtiaz Ali, who worked with Deepika in some of his best films, Love Aaj Kal (2009) and Tamasha (2015).

How did this big-eyed, badminton player from Bangalore became the person she is today? At the age of 17, she may have been juggling sports tournaments and modelling assignments, but she was just another girl from a big city looking to make it bigger. Just another model with a beautiful face hoping to become an actor. Yes, they say it is a classic story of an outsider cutting it through the big league, but it wasn’t that simple.

Director Indrajit Lankesh, who cast her in her first feature film, Aishwarya (2006), after watching her walk the ramp in Bangalore still remembers Deepika’s first day on the set. “It was a scene with a kid who was playing her younger brother in the film and he was already 20 films old. He was asking all kinds of questions about the camera angle and the lenses being used, etcetera. I saw Deepika sitting next to him and she was still. She didn’t move an inch. She was so nervous, it almost felt like she was holding her breath. But what I also remember was that she was eager, almost hungry to learn the ropes. She was just 21, but professional as hell. She was shooting in her home city, but she never really wanted to be spoon-fed or feel domesticated. She knew her weaknesses, right from the very beginning, wasn’t afraid to face them and wanted to overcome them,” he says.

Soon, Deepika packed up for Mumbai, but the move brought her face to face with something she was uncomfortable with. Public attention. Happy with her strict regimented life as a professional sportswoman, Deepika wasn’t prepared for the kind of eyeballs she got here, unfortunately for the wrong reasons. Sister Anisha Padukone remembers watching Om Shanti Om with her and sensing how important this was for her big sister. “When she moved out of home, I knew she was chasing her dreams. I missed her, and she missed out on the most important years of my growing up. But when I saw her first film sitting right next to her, I sensed what it meant. We have been brought up in a modest middle-class family, like other children. We didn’t have anyone even from our extended family in films. So this was a breakthrough for her and such an important one,” says Anisha.

But Deepika the actor did not arrive fully formed like Athena born with a set of armour. Almost everyone who set eyes on Deepika in that film criticised her for a plastic performance. The critics wrote her off as just another pretty face. “Let’s not forget that there was another explosive debut that year, Ranbir Kapoor’s. He was such a fine performer that this girl was almost [overshadowed by] her male peers, which included Shah Rukh Khan. She didn’t really make much of an impression, and the films she chose thereon were just too weak to create any stir. What’s incredible is that in the last few years, she’s turned the tide over in such a powerful way that the very people she made her initial few films with, be it a Khan or Kapoor, have now been left behind,” says film critic Anupama Chopra who has been studying Deepika’s career for years now. “A few years ago, I had Deepika, Mr Bachchan, Ranveer Singh and Farhan Akhtar on my show, and I asked her how she managed to go from ‘not acting’, to becoming such a superlative performer. Mr Bachchan was stunned and he said to me, how could I even ask a question like that, but Deepika was never once defensive about it,” she says.

Deepika speaks openly about her relationships and films and isn’t apologetic if any of them fail. Ten years in cinema, she still gets a few butterflies in her stomach before the release of a film

SOME YEARS LATER, after her first flush of films, Deepika was still trying to figure out her place in an industry that was exploding with good looks and less-than-good performances. You could be just a cut above the average and make it work in Hindi films. But she was looking for more. “When I met her first in 2011, she was a different person. There was nervousness, anxiety, confusion, like any other person going through her career and her love life. She was an independent, ambitious girl, who at the same time was also just a girl. She would have her personal dilemmas, sometimes she would be awkward about it. She was going through her formative years and it reflected in the choices she made,” says Prabhat Choudhary, who is not just her publicist but one of the people she relies on for professional advice.

It was with Homi Adajania’s Cocktail (2012) that she declared herself a dependable actor. Veronica’s breakdown moment in that film was almost parallel to how Deepika broke the walls around her, brick by brick. “I don’t know what happened with that film, but I felt so close to the struggles Veronica was going through that I could cry with her, laugh with her, and just be alone with her. I allowed that part to consume me, and for the first time in my life I felt like I could be someone else and still not lose myself,” Deepika had said about working on Cocktail.

The challenges only escalated. The benchmark she set for herself with Cocktail was one she had to live up to, and it wasn’t easy. She said in a television interview that went viral that her first day on the sets of Chennai Express (2013) was nothing short of a nightmare. In her words: “There was this awkward energy around me. Then they told me that my performance wasn’t working, the humour wasn’t coming through. This, on my first day on set! Next morning, I don’t know what happened, but I gave my shot and people started clapping. Something had changed, I still don’t know what it was.”

Something really had changed and it comes through in her performances since. Chennai Express was perhaps the first Shah Rukh Khan film where the female lead took away all the attention and applause. Deepika’s comic timing in the film was over-the- top, yet hilarious. Was this the beginning of her redefining the role of a female actor in commercial Hindi cinema? We think so. She was now listening to herself a lot more. She had now come into her own and consistently so. Just after Chennai Express, she gave us Ram-Leela (2013), her big success with Sanjay Leela Bhansali after which the two have been inseparable. Deepika’s depiction of an Indian Juliet was liberal, heavily improvised and often unpredictable. Then came Piku (2015).

In Shoojit Sircar’s film, she was flanked by two superlative actors—Amitabh Bachchan and Irrfan Khan—but she held her own. The performance wasn’t flawless, but as the independent, hyperactive Bengali girl dealing with her father’s idiosyncrasies, it was vulnerable and honest enough for her to pick up every other award for that role. “The characters we play are reflections of me and you and any regular person with challenges. Deepika understands this very well and is not interested in letting her larger-than-life image dominate who she is on screen. She is willing to make mistakes and is happy to leave a bit of her within the role that she is playing. That’s what worked for Piku,” says director Sircar.

DEEPIKA WASN’T PERFECT and perfection is not what she is looking to achieve. She isn’t even the best female actor we have, with Vidya Balan and Priyanka Chopra giving her tough competition in the acting department. But her success is consistent and that is not something anyone else has managed to achieve. Her co-actor and partner Ranveer Singh, who has known her for years now, remembers a girl who would once stretch herself to a limit that almost broke her. “She is immensely hardworking, but now she has learned to choose the jobs she does and balance them out,” he says. “There was a point she was clocking in three shifts a day. She was promoting Chennai Express, then shooting scenes with me for Ram-Leela and then rehearsing for a song at night, till she could barely stand. When things are going for you and you have to take your foot off the pedal, it’s not an easy decision to make. But she did that.”

“It took her a while, but she is someone who will ask for help if needed. It’s a very humane quality and that makes her real” - Ranveer Singh, actor

“Through all the changes that she manifested, the one thing she stuck to was the values she grew up with. Her perspectives as a human being have evolved and so has her ability to learn and process. She has become so intuitive with her choices, it is the key to her creative success,” adds Prabhat Choudhary.

This inner growth spilled over from the big screen into the real world. It was almost like she was fearless and happy to let go of her politically correct ways. When a media house put out a picture of hers with an encircled cleavage, she fearlessly took them on for body shaming her. ‘I have no issue celebrating my body and I have never shied away from anything onscreen to portray a character. In fact my next character is a bar dancer who titillates men as a means to support her livelihood. My issue is you propagating the objectification of a REAL person, and not a character being played,’ she wrote to the organisation in an open letter.

Within six months of this, Deepika came out with her experience of battling depression. This was at a point in her career where she was already way ahead of her peers and being hailed at the top of her game. But it didn’t stop her from talking about an issue that, even today, is in dire need of de-stigmatisation. “She isn’t afraid of exposing her weaknesses. It took her a while, but she is someone who will ask for help if needed. It’s a very humane quality, and that makes her real,” says Ranveer Singh, who has known her through her toughest times.

She ripped open a wound in front of the world on a mainstream news channel and instantly became the girl who everyone could connect with. She was one with her audience. She was someone who hurts and heals. She was famous, but she was also normal. This was truly the turning point for the person she has become today.

“It was the most vulnerable we’ve seen her, and her courage to come out [with] this was laudable, to say the least. An American digital magazine, OZY, celebrated this by calling her to sit down with her psychiatrist and her mother on a public platform to talk about mental illness. She became a trailblazer of sorts. There was a point in her life where she was unwilling to get up from bed. From that to being the brain of an organisation which today has reached out to over 60,000 students in 120 schools, is highly inspiring,” says Anna Chandy, who was counselling Deepika at the time and now helms her The Live Love Laugh Foundation, dedicated to spreading awareness on mental illnesses.

From being just an actor, Deepika has had a lot of tags attached to her, especially over the past two years. She has been called a social activist, feminist, path-breaker and woman of substance. She has got entangled in socio-political arguments, hit back at her ex-boyfriend Ranbir Kapoor by saying on a chat show that he should endorse condoms, and launched her own clothing line. She insists it is not the labels that define her, but they are part of a journey that has just begun.

“The sportswoman in her always trumps the actress, and it’s a good thing. It helps her maintain some order through this madness,” sister Anisha adds.

Today, at 32, she is taking both work and life in her stride. She still takes time off to meet her childhood friends in Bengaluru and post pictures of them on Instagram. She ensures she gets the downtime she needs and wants to spend quality time living and not working. She speaks openly about her relationships and films and isn’t apologetic if any of them fail. Ten years and almost 30 films old, she still gets a few butterflies in her stomach before the release of a new film. “The past year, she has had to deal with rape and death threats for no real fault of her own. But she has handled it with grace and poise and it will reflect in the number of people who will go and watch this film,” says Anupama Chopra.

Deepika is more than her movies. She is the kind of person who will read out her father’s letter on an awards platform and cry her heart out when she feels like it. A letter her father Prakash Padukone wrote her and her sister says this: “You are in a world where there is a lot happening, but I hope you are the game-changer in it. Strive to generate positivity around you even though you are too small a player to affect a big change.” Deepika has been a game-changer and continues to be. “She runs her own show!” Ranveer Singh says, summing her up beautifully.