(This appeared as the cover feature of the November 2013 Anniversary special issue of THE MAN magazine.)
She adjusts her frames a bit and flashes her dimples at the long line of cameras that are clicking away. In a red Pankaj and Nidhi lace dress, Deepika Padukone stands tall. Not just metaphorically, but literally, too, thanks to her 5’9″ frame and the high-heeled nude pumps she sports. Head held high and right hand resting on her waist, she strikes pose after pose with ease. “Time’s up guys,” informs the pubicist, who then leads her to the green room. Deepika leaves the room the same way that she had entered Bollywood six years ago… with a wide smile, a confident gait and a slow wave. When Shanti Priya, the star she played in her debut film Om Shanti Om (OSO), steps out of her car and on to the red carpet, many a heart skipped a beat.
Back in the green room, Deepika laughs as she kicks off her pumps and makes herself comfortable on the big beige chair, when I mention that she has pretty much the same effect on her fans now. “Poetic justice, huh?” she says, with a twinkle in her eye. “Honestly, I feel I got my due with OSO itself. In fact I think I got a lot more than I deserved. I never expected I would get that sort of love and appreciation in my first film. People welcomed me so warmly and I am where I am now because of that love.”
And, where is she now? Right at the top, say box office numbers. In her six year career, her films have grossed a total of Rs 1,030 crores at the box office, with half the figure being added on in this year alone. Her first release this year, Race 2, was the first to join the Rs 100 crore bandwagon of 2013, and was followed by two huge hits Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (Rs 184.79 crore) and Chennai Express (Rs.218.29 crore). Deepika followed this up with Goliyon Ki Rasleela Ram-Leela, which has already amassed a total of Rs 52.75 crore on the third day of its release.
But it is not just numbers that are doing the talking. Critics, who had written off Deepika as just another “goodlooking face”, now seem to be eating humble pie. Ever since her wild party child act as Veronica in Homi Adajania’s Cocktail, Deepika has been the talk of the town. For once, an actor’s peformance made more news than her bikini. From then, be it the sensitive Naina Talwar of Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, the over-the-top Meenamma of Chennai Express or the openly sensous Leela from Ram-Leela, Deepika has struck gold with each of her big screen outings. With Kochaidayaan with Rajinikanth, Finding Fanny with Arjun Kapoor and Happy New Year with Shahrukh Khan, looks like even 2014 belongs to this 27-year-old.
Did she see this in her future when Farah Khan signed her up for OSO? “Well, a little bit yes,” she says. “I think its good to be ambitious. It is good to have a vision for yourself and at the same time I think it is also important to not lose out on life.” And, no, she is not ready to credit anything other than her earnest diligence for her success. “I am glad that I have worked hard to achieve whatever little I have. It is not like it has fallen in my lap,” she says. “But I am definitely not satisfied. I think there’s a lot more for me to achieve.” Her father, badminton champion, Prakash Padukone, who confesses that he has a lot to learn from her daughter, can’t seem to agree more. “For a person her age, Deepika is very hard-working, organised and focussed,” he says. “She is prepared to make a lot of sacrifices for her dreams.” Deepika, he feels, has evolved as an actor over the years. “With every movie she is getting better. However, I must confess that she has a long way to go before she can even come close to some of the great heroines of yesteryears,” says Prakash.
It is this rootedness that runs in the family that keeps Deepika’s feet firmly on the ground. That is her USP, feels Anirban Blah of CAA-KWAN, who manages the actor’s endorsement deals. “Honestly, I think no one at her level has the qualities that she possesses—of being a simple Indian girl,” says Anirban. “She has no attitude, no hang-ups. She is very rooted, grounded and with middle-class values, which is unique to a person like her.” This makes her “relatable”, the reason why each of the 11 A-list brands she endorses claim to have her on board. Deepika, who started her modelling career with small-time endorsements like Liril and Close-Up is now the face of many global brands like Vogue Eyewear, Van Huesen, Tissot, Nescafe and Neutrogena. “She is one actor whose image has the capability of cutting across every possible demographic, without gender, age or geographic differences,” says Anirban.
Even with all this appreciation coming her way, she does not take this phase of her career too seriously, says Deepika. Of course, she enjoys success but does not cling on to it and let it grow on her. She moves on after her hits just as quickly as she does with her failures. Deepika learnt this lesson quite early in her career because despite the huge acclaim that came her way after her debut, things went downhill. A spate of flops followed and her personal life, which was nothing short of a masala flick, came under the scanner. A roller-coaster ride of a relationship with co-star Ranbir Kapoor, a tattoo at the nape of her neck, a high-profile break-up, some ex-boyfriend bashing on national television, an even more high-profile rebound relationship and some more flops…! Phew!
“It is definitely not a nice feeling when your films don’t work,” she says. “Is it Ok? Yes, it is. But do I feel bad? Of course, I do. Because I have chosen every failed film of mine like any other in my career. So it definitely is slightly disheartening.” But it was not that bad a phase professionally, says Deepika, putting ample emphasis on the last word. “I can, today, sit back, analyse and say that it was a low phase. But it was never so bad that I was written off or people said that I shouldn’t be doing films,” she says. “I was still being offered a lot of good work by top directors like Ashutosh [Gowariker] and Prakash Jha.” Sure, it was nothing as compared to her newfound success, she admits, but every film she did was a learning in itself. “If I have reached somewhere in my career today, it is because of the journey that I have been through,” says Deepika. “Everything… the good, the bad, the ugly. Every experience, every interaction and every co-star teaches you something.”
It is also the fighter spirit which she owes to her sports background that helped her find her feet during these times. A national level badminton player, Deepika had given up the game at the age of 17 to chase her showbiz dreams. “When she told us that she wanted to become an actor, the only question was whether we as parents would allow her to take it up as a career,” says Prakash. “My father had let me quit studies to follow my passion–badminton. So I felt we should let our children do the same.” However, Prakash and his wife Ujjala, were a bit apprehensive when Deepika shifted to Mumbai. “She was barely 18,” recalls Prakash. “We were not sure whether she would be able to handle the pressures at such a young age.” But Deepika adapted to the city, thanks to the many New Years she had spent here as a child. “Every December of my growing years, I have been in Mumbai, because my mother is from here,” says Deepika. “We would spend the time from Christmas to New Year here. This was what made my shift much easier because I was familiar with the city and the people here.”
Although people rave about Veronica, director Danish Aslam of Break Ke Baad fame, believes that Deepika, the actor, broke her mould with her character Meera Pandit in Imtiaz Ali’s Love Aaj Kal. There was a spark in her performance, he says, which made him approach her to play the fiesty Alia in his film. Deepika, too, agrees that Meera is a character she identifies greatly with. “She is so much like me,” says Deepika. “Confident, yet withheld. Sure, still unsure. There is a certain vulnerability, a certain warmth, likeability and relatability that Meera has.” Another character she identifies with is Naina of YJHD. The director and writer of the film, Ayan Mukherjee, had admitted in interviews that he had written the character with Deepika in mind.
Much like Naina, Deepika, too, was socially awkward as a teenager. “There was always some inhibition. But it is different from stagefright. I was never so shy that I didn’t even want to go up on stage,” says the actor, who was active in extra-curricular activities in school. “I always enjoyed performing. Like, if I was part of a group dance, I didn’t want to be in the front row. I wanted to be at the back.” Much like Naina, Deepika, too, took a break-free trip after her board exams. While Naina chose to go to Manali with friends, 16-year-old Deepika chose to go to her birthplace Copenhagen for a three-month-vacation all by herself. “I had no agenda. I just wanted to experience life being on my own,” says Deepika, who says she had a very “normal, protected childhood”. “In those three months, we did a 15-day road trip through a lot of countries in Europe. That was the time I took to sit back and think what I wanted to do in life.”
Like all parents, Prakash and Ujjala want Deepika to be the best in the industry. “But I feel it is more important for her to enjoy what she is doing throughout her career,” says Prakash. Deepika echoes her father’s sentiment. “What I look for when I am offered a film is whether I will have fun doing the film. It is as basic as that,” she says. “We can sit and analyse and say this and that, but the bottom line is that I am going to spend six months of my life on that film and if I don’t have fun, it will show in my performance.” The story does matter, too, she says. So does the character she plays. But the fun element comes first. For instance, she had signed on Cocktail even before she had made up her mind on which of the female leads she would portray. It was Imtiaz, who co-wrote the film, who suggested that she play Veronica as the other character was similar to Meera’s in Love Aaj Kal.
However, Deepika is in a happy space now. Happy that she is not limited to any specific genre or being treated as a mere prop to glam up a film. “I am glad that I am being able to add value to a project I am part of,” says Deepika. “Leela, Meenamma and Naina are as important to those films as are Ram, Raj and Bunny. And, there are so different from each other. I am glad that I haven’t been typecasted and that I have got the opportunity to be versatile.”
Currently shuttling between Goa for Finding Fanny, Dubai for Happy New Year and Mumbai for Ram-Leela promotions, Deepika admits that life is hectic. But she has no complaints. “The key is to enjoy what you do,” she says. “I have no scope for complaining about how busy my day is because I love what I do.”