‘Leggy lass’ was the adjective that was almost always used to describe Deepika Padukone. “There is more to me than my legs,” she cried in an interview, when the media went gaga about her bikini act in Homi Adajania’s Cocktail. But the character she portrayed in the film, the wild party child Veronica, went on to become a milestone. Her next two releases, Race 2 and Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (YJHD), became top-grossing films of the year. Her latest release, Rohit Shetty’s Chennai Express, broke all box office records by joining the Rs 100 crore club in just three days. Critics are all praise for her performance and trade analysts have declared that with Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Ram Leela and Rajinikanth’s magnum opus Kochadaiyaan in her kitty, 2013 belongs to Deepika.
Dressed in a long white and blue floral maxi dress, Deepika’s 5’9” frame dwarfs everyone in the room. She is elegance personified. Her dimpled smile is not flashed unnecessarily. Nor do her answers flow in easily. She pauses, thinking over the question, and speaks very little. “I am not a very talkative person,” she says. “For the longest period of time, I used to be socially awkward. I couldn’t handle a lot of people around me. I didn’t know what to talk to them about. When we were shooting for Om Shanti Om (OSO), I couldn’t even hold a proper conversation with Shah Rukh [Khan]. He used to talk a lot to me, about films and life, and I just used to listen. Even when people appreciated my work, I used to doubt my talent.”
Hard to believe this comes from someone who started modelling at the age of eight and walked the ramp for the Lakme Fashion Week at 19. Neither the crowds nor the cameras have scared her, she says. “It was not stage fright. I was always interested in extra-curricular activities when in school and was part of every concert, dance, play or fashion show. But I was a bit inhibited,” she says.
But everyone who knew her somehow had a feeling that films were the girl’s calling. “I was never the kind who stood in front of a mirror and mimicked actors,” says Deepika. “There was no one in my family whom I could accompany to a film set. As a family also, we didn’t watch too many movies. But somehow while watching these movies, I used to see myself doing the same things some day.”
Being the daughter of the country’s most celebrated badminton champ, Prakash Padukone, however, made it almost inevitable that she played the sport. What started as ‘something to do with my sister after school for fun’ changed into a mad, demanding professional badminton training, before Deepika could even realise it. “My life became regimented,” says Deepika. “The programme was all set. Wake up at 4-4:30 in the morning, go for training at 5, come back by 7-7:30, be in school by 8.15, finish by 3:15-3:30, come home by 4:30, have my glass of milk and snack and head to the badminton court for my on-court training. Then I would come back home, do my homework, have dinner and go to sleep.” It was after her board exams that she got some breathing space.
Deepika took a three-month break-free trip to her birthplace, Copenhagen in Denmark, at the age of 16. “I had no agenda whatsoever. I just wanted to experience life being on my own. I wanted to experience a holiday without having my family around,” she says. “I took those three months to sit back and think what I wanted to do in life. Although I enjoyed badminton, I knew I was not crazy enough about it to pursue it professionally. And, I knew inside me that I was not completely enjoying my life at that moment.” Finally, she told her parents that she wanted to do films professionally. “We were not surprised at all,” says Prakash. “Right from her childhood, we knew she would ultimately choose modelling or films. The only question was whether we, as parents, would allow her to take it up as a career. We let her do it as she was extremely passionate about it.”
And then she moved to Mumbai, the city of dreams. “We were a bit apprehensive about the shift as we were not sure whether she would be able to handle the pressures at such a young age,” says Prakash. So was she, confesses the actor. “It was a trying time,” she says. “Work doesn’t come to you that easily. You have to wait for the right projects.” Her patience paid off in the form of two big ads, a music album and the 2006 Kingfisher calender.
Atul Kasbekar, who recommended her for the calendar, remembers Deepika as a coltish teenager. He was introduced to her through her aunt, the gynaecologist who delivered his twins. “I was so struck by her beauty then,” he says. “During that first shoot itself, I knew she was destined for bigger things.” Her professionalism and dedication are her biggest strengths, says Kasbekar. Her father agrees. “I am always in awe of her,” he says. “For a person of her age, she is very focused, organised and hardworking.”
But Deepika learnt it the hard way that her good looks and hard work were not enough to make a mark in Bollywood. After her dream debut in Farah Khan’s OSO, things went downhill as none of her later films did well. Then came the roller-coaster ride of a relationship with Ranbir Kapoor and the story of a tattoo that made more news than her films. What followed was nothing short of a masala flick—a high-profile breakup, some ex-boyfriend bashing on national television, an even more high-profile rebound relationship and some more films that flopped.
It was not that low a phase professionally, argues Deepika, placing ample emphasis on the last word. “Maybe the films I did then were not working as much as OSO did or what YJHD or Chennai Express is doing now, but I was never written off as an actor,” she says. “People never said that I shouldn’t be doing films. Even during what you are referring to as the low phase of my career, I was being offered so much good work. I was working with top directors like Ashutosh Gowariker and Prakash Jha.”
But it was when director Imtiaz Ali, who hadn’t even seen her performance in OSO, saw his character Meera Pandit in Deepika that her career took a huge turn. “Somewhere, even I feel that I am so much like Meera,” she says, on her character in Ali’s hit Love Aaj Kal opposite Saif Ali Khan. “Confident, yet withheld. Sure, still unsure. There was a certain vulnerability, a certain warmth, likeability and relatability that I think Meera’s character had that I identify with.”
Arjun Rampal, her co-star in OSO and Housefull, feels these very same qualities are her appeal, and so does Anirban Blah of CAA KWAN, the talent agency that handles Deepika’s portfolio. “Her relatability is the key to her image in the endorsement circuit. Deepika is probably the only female actor whose appeal cuts across every possible demographic,” says Blah.
And now with films like Cocktail and YJHD, Deepika has managed to add ‘acting skills’ to her list of positives. But even with all the praise coming her way, she has her feet firmly on the ground. “I, for one, know that all what is happening to me now did not just fall into my lap,” says Deepika. “It came with a lot of hard work. But I am not satisfied with my work and I know there is a lot more for me to achieve.” Her father echoes her sentiment. “Whenever Deepika has worked hard, she has got her due,” he says. “She has evolved as an actor over the years, with every movie she is getting better. But I must confess that she has a long way to go before she can even come close to some of the great heroines of yesteryear.”
As her manager informs her that she is running late for her next appointment, Deepika stands up to leave, but continues to talk. “Life has become very hectic, but I am not complaining,” she says. “I enjoy every second of it. I am glad that directors trust me enough to offer the kind of films and roles I am being offered today. I am glad that I haven’t been typecast and I have got the opportunity to be versatile.” She pauses and adds, “Sometimes I find it hard to digest the fact that I am actually living my dream.”
A group of excited teenagers walk up to her and request her to pose for a picture with them. She does so readily and they shower her with compliments of how gorgeous she looks. “I get that a lot,” she says. “People talk about my looks, my clothes, my height, my life. But when someone comes up to me and tells me that they loved me as Veronica, or when they shout out Naina or Meera when they see me, it is a different feeling. It is a confidence boost and such an honour.” That, she says, is her real cocktail.