“Give me five,” she tells me, scrubbing her face free of make-up before going into her suite at Mumbai’s ITC Grand Central, where she’s camping for the day. As I wait, I look out of the same French window and contemplate the charmed life of Deepika Padukone. Daughter of a sports legend, a sexy star with men vying for her attention, surrounded by media frenzy, and now of course, super successful, as Cocktail, Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani and Chennai Express break box office records. Life couldn’t be better.
From the shy Shanti Priya of Om Shanti Om to the feisty Veronica of Cocktail, from the spunky Meenamma of Chennai Express to the sexy, fiery Indianised Juliet in the upcoming Ram Leela, Deepika has had quite a journey as an actress. In spite of a hit debut film, she was dismissed by critics and filmmakers as “a pretty face but an ordinary actress”.
But in true “sportsperson style”, she used the criticism to improve herself. “Post Om Shanti Om, a lot of stuff got written about me. All of it wasn’t always nice,” recalls Deepika. “In fact, there was this critic who loves pulling people down. And she wrote very critically about all of us who had made a debut that year. But I didn’t let it upset me. I cut that column out, highlighted what she had said about me and looked at it every day. I used negativity to work harder and improve whatever I could.” It worked.
Dressed casually in an off-white top and beige leggings, sans make-up, her non ‘diva’-ish character is striking. Deepika’s aura is old world, an absolute rarity today. In fact, it is this old-world charm that had director Farah Khan hooked. “Deepika exudes grace like no one else. And Shanti Priya, my heroine in Om Shanti Om, needed that innate grace,” says Khan, who launched her in Om Shanti Om in 2007. Deepika credits it to her genes. “It’s all my mum in me. Even in the colours that I wear – whites, beiges, pastels,” she says pointing to her attire. And her attitude? Shy, self-conscious, almost withdrawn… where does that come from? Her father? “A bit of both I guess. My parents are a complete no show-off couple. Dad was a huge name in the sports world. But at home, he was a regular father. In fact, I realised much later (when I finally understood what an autograph was) what all that signing of papers that dad did when we went out was. Mum too made sure we didn’t gloat in his reflected glory,” says Deepika.
So, for the shy and socially awkward Deepika, it almost felt like battling a multiple-personality syndrome when she decided to face the camera full time. But somehow, that was always the career she had in mind. “See, I told you, I am a good actress,” she says laughing as she puts up her feet on the table. A national-level badminton player, Deepika was sure, even as a child, that the “family sport” wasn’t her calling in life. By the time she passed her class 10 Board exams from Sophia High School in Bangalore, her priorities had changed to modelling and films.
She was born in Copenhagen, Denmark, but Deepika’s father, ace badminton player Prakash Padukone moved back to Bangalore with his wife Ujjala when Deepika was just a year old. Playing badminton was one of the first things she learnt. “I’d wake up at about five in the morning, go for training, go to school, return and go to play again. I was a very outdoor person, but I didn’t have a big circle of friends. Life was pretty simple,” Deepika says. “Well, borderline boring,” she laughs.
The culture at home reflected a disciplined sportsman’s nature. Late-night parties or typical ‘teenage’ behaviour were not appreciated. “Dad didn’t understand why a party needed to start so late at night – the time one should go to bed! Dad would come to pick me sharp at 10, my deadline, if at all he allowed me to go anywhere!” So, even though they grew up as Prakash Padukone’s daughters, Deepika and her younger sister Anisha (now a national-level golf player) had completely ‘normal’ childhoods. “There were no unnecessary indulgences. Getting `5 as pocket money on a Wednesday and eating ice-cream or dosa in school with that money was a big deal.”
It was the same discipline that Deepika followed when she travelled for her badminton matches. No air tickets. Often, not even a train berth. She slept on the floor with her teammates if last-minute reservations were made.
But she doesn’t grudge any of it. “I had to be a team player. I couldn’t expect to be treated as Ms Padukone,” she says. “And I wasn’t a rebel. Honestly, I wasn’t uncomfortable with any of it.” In hindsight, she feels her patience and lack of rebellion helped her win the bigger battle, to quit studies and badminton and do movies. “Guess I had given enough reason to my conservative parents to have faith in me,” she smiles.
For Prakash Padukone, it was his daughter’s passion for cinema that clinched the matter. “I gave up my studies to play badminton at 17. That was back in the ’70s. And my own dad backed me all the way. Had he insisted I become a doctor or an engineer then, I would have been nothing but a loser in life. So how could I let my own daughter down when all she needed of me was to have faith in her passion and capability?” he says.
Decision taken, Deepika’s first stop was family friend and Bangalore-based model coordinator Anila Anand’s home. “Deepika had the ‘X’ factor that is needed to be successful in the glamour industry. So when she came to me, I was glad to be of help,” says Anila. Her first task was to ask Deepika to lose the weight that she’d put on while on a holiday to Europe after her Board exams. That wasn’t a tough task for the sporty girl.
Then followed the drill of creating a portfolio and sending it to ad agencies. Around the same time, Deepika finished junior college. Offers for print ads started coming in. It was after one such assignment that ad guru and now filmmaker R Balki spotted her face on a billboard in Chennai. He tracked her down, called her for an audition and selected her to be the next Liril girl. “I was asked to fly down to Mumbai for an immediate audition and the very next day I was selected. Suddenly I was the face of this big brand.”
Around the same time, Deepika made her ramp debut. Soon she moved to Mumbai. She was enjoying her work and new found independence when composer Himesh Reshammiya offered to cast her in his music video Naam Hai Tera Tera. Initially, she was sceptical. “I didn’t want to do a music video. Not my style,” says Deepika. But she went ahead because she loved the song. Today, she’s glad she did it. “It was here that Farah saw me and decided to give me the mega launch opposite Shah Rukh in Om Shanti Om. My dream of being in the movies was finally coming true,” says Deepika.
So, unlike most Bollywood stories, Deepika’s doesn’t have any ‘struggle.’ Not even any momentous beauty pageant wins! She came into movies at 17 without any stories of hardship or any life-changing events. “It was all a bit of luck and sheer good timing,” she acknowledges. “Although there were a lot of rough edges that needed to be worked on,” recalls Farah Khan. From diction and classical dance to basic acting skills, they worked on everything. “But I was sure she could be Shanti Priya, the star. I went with my instinct!” says Farah.
Farah’s instincts were right. Om Shanti Om went on to become a hit. But the ‘X’ factor that had worked in the modelling arena wasn’t enough for screen. Most films that Deepika did post Om Shanti Om, however different they may have been, didn’t work (Karthik Calling Karthik, Aarakshan, Bachna Ae Haseeno or Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey).
Till 2012, when director Homi Adajania’s Cocktail happened. In fact, Deepika’s career graph can be divided into pre and post Cocktail phases. After labelling her “thanda,” suddenly critics, friends, foes, audiences sat up and wondered what had hit them. “When I was hired to direct Cocktail, Deepika was already on board. I hadn’t seen any of her work but promised her that people would come out of Cocktail and say that she wasn’t just a pretty face but a damn good actor! At that point, I don’t think even she believed me,” says Homi. “That’s true, I didn’t,” agrees Deepika. “But it was also because I was nothing like Veronica (her character in Cocktail). Her mindset, thought process, lifestyle, everything was alien to me. And I didn’t know how to bridge the gap,” says Deepika. “Till Homi told me to loosen up and made me ‘feel’ Veronica, who was uninhibited and fearless. And Homi turned me into that.” She remembers all the nights that Homi spent taking her out, getting her to experience London’s nightlife and its people. But director Imtiaz Ali (he wrote Cocktail and suggested Deepika play ‘bad girl’ Veronica instead of plain Jane Meera) insists that Deepika has a wild streak deep inside, which flashes to the surface only occasionally. “The idea is to catch that moment of wildness and make it into a story. While shooting Love Aaj Kal, in the middle of a serious shot, she wanted to communicate something to me. She was at a distance, so to attract my attention, she started jumping up and down like a child. I was stunned at the otherwise propah Deepika. So much so that I tried to catch that playful mood in a few scenes in the film!” says Imtiaz.
Director Ayan Mukherjee who cast her in the year’s big hit, Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, sees Deepika as a strange mix of calm and storm. “She can be all mature and quiet one minute and go ahead and sky dive on an impulse the next, even as the rest of us are sh****** bricks!” he adds.
It is perhaps this balance that has stood Deepika in good stead. Leading a life where every minute can become the subject of headlines, it is tough to maintain your dignity, especially if you aren’t thick-skinned. “And I am not,” says Deepika. “So I’ll be lying if I say that all the talk about anything and everything, didn’t bother me. Looks, clothes... fine, I am an actress so people are bound to watch and comment, but on the personal front, I still don’t understand why I can’t be treated like a normal 27-year-old. I can go out for coffee or a film or even ask a friend to drop me back. Is that such a big deal? When I was truly in love and the relationship was paramount to me, I talked about it. But after that, I haven’t, because maybe I don’t feel as strongly about any other relationship. Over time though, I have learnt to handle the scrutiny.”
With two back-to-back releases, Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani and Chennai Express breaking box office records, and two big soon-to-be-released films, Ram Leela and Happy New Year, Deepika has finally found her groove and is emerging as an “actress” in her own right. Ayan Mukherjee insists it has a lot to do with her confidence and skills – she can hold her own against bigger stars like Ranbir or even Shah Rukh. “She isn’t just an accessory in her films,” he says.
For Deepika, this is her first experience of being a key player. And she’s decided to play the game of life in the right spirit. “Learn to let go. And after every fall, get up, dust yourself and go for the next shot,” she smiles, flashing her famous dimples.
From HT Brunch, October 13
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