The New Dream Girl
Big brands. Bigger blockbusters. The irresistible rise of Deepika Padukone.
She stretches her legs like a cat, making use of the extra room in business class. Her long, black sun-dress is clinging to her toned, luminous body. “When gay men tell you they would go straight for you, it’s the ultimate compliment,” she whispers, looking out of the window as the plane lands at Goa airport. In that moment, Deepika Padukone, 27, is not a woman afraid of her sexuality. Unlike many others of her age and in her position—image conscious, hesitant to reveal more than their carefully crafted public relations spin would have you see—she is intent on being perceived as honest.
This rawness is integral to who Deepika is. The equation is simple for her: Since she cannot feign affection or establish subsistence-level niceties, it is necessary to seduce, and fall in love with, everyone. “There comes a time when I give myself so completely
to the role that it becomes necessary. I am the character. And I must, in that process, fall in love with everyone I work with,” she says.
It is a quality that attracts a burgeoning entourage of loyalists, but it is a risky game to play. To make her way from the monochromatic Shanti of Om Shanti Om (2007) to the bold, seductive Leela of
Ram-Leela (forthcoming), she has had to break out of her shy babe-in-the-woods cocoon to emerge as a confident, fullblooded woman, an unparalleled metamorphosis in Bollywood.
Barely six years into the film industry, she is now an actor with Rs 700 crore riding on her. She has signed 11 top-end endorsement deals, including one that makes her the future face of Lux soaps. She has starred in three box-office blockbusters this year alone: Race 2 (Rs 110 crore), Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani
(Rs 184.79 crore), and
Chennai Express (Rs 218.29 crore). She is on the cusp of a fourth hit with Sanjay
Leela Bhansali’s Ram
Leela. In terms of her peers, she has inched past her closest rivals Katrina Kaif, whose films collected Rs 319 crore in 2012 and whose year now rides
on the strength of Dhoom 3, and Sonakshi Sinha, who has collected less than Rs 100 crore this year.
Vajir Singh, editor of the trade maga
zine, Box Office India, points out that Deepika is also number one in terms of personality. “She scores highest with trade people, filmmakers, advertisers, coactors. She builds relationships. Scripts are written keeping her in mind—that alone says a lot about an actor,” he says.
Daughter of badminton champion Prakash Padukone, Deepika began modelling at eight. Her mother Ujjala Padukone, 55, says she always wanted to be number one at whatever she did but her new-found balance has astounded even the parents. “She’s got her meticulousness from me, and the ability to tackle success from her father. But the sheer maturity with which she handles her career surprises us every day,” Ujjala says.
More so because, for a while in between, everyone thought she’d lost the plot. She rode the initial euphoria of the dream launch in Bachna Ae Haseeno (2008) and Love Aaj Kal (2009), but failed to capitalise on it. She struggled from
Karthik Calling Karthik in 2010 to Desi Boyz in 2011, picking either bad roles or good roles in films that did badly. The tabloids referred to her as Ranbir Kapoor’s current or ex—tags that seemed to gain precedence over any others that she could find at the time.
Towards the end of 2011, something suddenly changed. “Her takes are intuitive. She has evolved through experience and heartbreak to achieve human understanding. I have been more critical of her than most. I thought she had lost it. But somehow she has reached a whole new level of understanding,” says Farah Khan, her director in the forthcoming Happy New
Year, which also stars Shah Rukh Khan. Deepika has found her craft, and by extension, she’s found herself.
Shortly after her split with Ranbir, she bought a new sea-facing home in the heart of Mumbai’s Prabhadevi area on the 26th floor of BeauMonde apartments. The flat, then priced at Rs 16 crore, is today worth Rs 25 crore. On its wooden sun deck, her vantage point above the world, she sits in the lotus position on the floor. It is evening, and this is her quiet spot. Dressed in a wispy white kaftan, her face shorn of make-up, her incandescence accentuated by 50 flickering candles scattered through the house, she looks serene, self-assured, and at peace.
The gated high-rise is not the typical choice for film stars, who usually live in Bandra or Juhu. Here, Deepika is the girl-next-door. She bumps into neighbours in the elevator or at the pool area. “I love the smells and sounds and feel of home,” she says. Its gold walls, red velvet sofa, mahogany panelling and brass coffee tables, all styled by old family
Maturity is not becoming a different person, it’s accepting the person you have always been in your core.”
friend Vinita Chaitanya, underline where she comes from. “Maturity is not becoming a different person, it’s accepting the person you have always been in your core,” she says.
Ram-Leela director Bhansali sums up her friendly but elusive dream girl persona with his inimitable poetic flourish. “She is beautiful, graceful but pungent. Her face perched on that swan-like neck. She is colour. She is fire.”
Once someone enters Deepika’s world, it is hard to exit. This perhaps springs from her self-professed “desperate need to be loved”. “I cannot stand conflict and I will do anything to get past it,” she says, legs folded under her on the dresser chair in her explicitly girlie pink-and-grey vanity van. It’s a remark that explains why she mends relationships with a vengeance. Deepika has stayed friends with all exes, and continues to work with them—from model Nihar Pandya to Ranbir. “When you’re in a relationship, you take so much from each other. I believe people come into your life for a reason,” she says. She describes Ranbir as a “positive influ-
dinner date is not a relationship. Feelings take time; the world doesn’t give actors time.”
ence” and adds that her relationships have changed her in small ways, making her more certain of what she wants in a partner. “But it’s not like I keep a checklist. That would be like grocery shopping for a mate,” she says. All she once dreamed of was a man who would be tall, dark, and handsome. Today, someone who is genuine and honest is the key.
Ask about her Ram-Leela co-star Ranveer Singh and she says the world has a problem with a man and a woman hanging out. “Every dinner date isn’t a relationship. Feelings take time to develop, and the world does not give actors that time,” she says, before hastening to add, “I have never met anyone quite like Ranveer in the industry though. He’s so true to himself, so unaffected. He has also been a very positive influence in my life. He does his own thing, I do mine.” Make of that statement whatever you will.
Deepika describes herself as traditional in love. Even if she likes someone, she never makes the first move. Breaking up is hard but she’s learnt not to wallow. Her ideas on life, love and marriage are shaped by her parents. Mother Ujjala was a graduate of Sydenham College and grew up on south Mumbai’s Pedder Road, where Deepika’s grandfather still lives. Ujjala wanted to be an airhostess with Air India but was forbidden. She joined the ground staff instead, and there she met her second cousin, Prakash, who would routinely pass through Bombay on tournaments. The two fell in love and were secretly engaged for four years. “Four years and no one knew,” says Deepika, her eyes twinkling at the mischief of their secrecy. “Imagine that!”
WORLD IN HER STRIDE
Deepika’s confidence is borne out of holding her failures as dear as her successes. She takes good natured
ribbing about less successful roles in her stride. Chandni Chowk to China (2009), she admits, was “disastrous” but her action sequences from the film have still made it to her showreel. “Why do you need a showreel at all?” asks director Homi Adajania, with whom she is shooting Finding Fanny, and who has overheard snatches of the conversation. “Hollywood jaana hai na (I have to go to Hollywood, after all),” Deepika replies naughtily.
Her father Prakash, 57, says her instinct to bounce back comes from her athletic training. “You cannot be a sportsman if you do not know how to lose, how to analyse your faults and ensure that you don’t make them again. It’s a sportsman’s instinct that’s in her,” he says. “We always told our daughters to be level-headed, never make enemies, never retaliate,” he says, referring also to his younger daughter Anisha, 22, a golfer.
The role that Deepika most identifies with is Naina from Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani— socially awkward as a child, conventional in her beliefs. “If I were to break out, that is the way in which I would,” she says, referring to Naina’s post-intermission transformation. Roles that personify who she is at heart, her life, and her struggles are the ones she best identifies with. “Women come up to me after my films and tell me that they can connect with me,” she says. “This feedback has become vital for me—this link with them, and with myself.” She is almost apologetic about her Sex and the City- style walk-in closet that houses her large collection of shoes, accessories and clothes. “This is the main reason why I took this flat actually. I really needed the space,” she says.
It’s the middle of the afternoon at Famous Studios, Mahalaxmi. “Dee,” calls out Prasad Naik, her trusted photographer of six years, to indicate the shot is ready. The athlete in her comes to life. She looks down, sucking in energy like a long jumper readying for a leap. When she looks up again, she has receded into her inner happy space. Her ears listen only for the shutter click as she changes postures. She’s having so much fun that three shots down, her smile has exploded into a full-throated laughter. She must pause and go through the routine again. In that moment, Deepika is not a woman afraid of her sexuality. The room watches helplessly, unable to peel its eyes away.