Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

The evolution of Deepika Padukone

For Deepika Padukone its always been about gut instinctfrom her first film 'Om Shanti Om' to her Hollywood debut in 'xXx: The Return of Xander Cage'

It’s around 1 am in the Dominican Republic and actor Deepika Padukone has just wrapped up a 12-hour shooting schedule for her Hollywood debut xXx: The Return of Xander Cage. If she’s exhausted, her voice shows no signs of it. Nor does she think Hollywood is very different from Bollywood, “apart from the fact that we have to have weekends off".

“I’ve been here for around two months now and, honestly, the only difference is the language...," she says.

“Otherwise, it’s the same. People are passionate; it’s just like back home."

The 30-year old actor, who is currently filming with the Hollywood action icon Vin Diesel, was offered Fast and Furious 7 with him in 2012 but had to turn it down owing to prior commitments. But it was only a matter of time before something worked out.

“Deepika is a talented actress, and talent transcends geography," says Tracy Brennan, Padukone’s agent at Creative Artists Agency in California. “Hollywood is increasingly looking to produce films with strong international appeal."

Padukone sees the Hollywood film as just another part of her journey, and the decision to do it was based on instinct, she says.

“Because of the way that my performances have come through, or the way my films have done, people probably feel like there is something specific that has changed in how I look at a script," Padukone says.

“But it’s always been about my gut instinct—right from my first film to what I’m working on now. (It’s about) how I feel at that point, what I’m going through in life. And most importantly, it’s about being honest to oneself, at least as far as the reason for doing a particular movie is concerned. Is it the script, is it the director, is it the producer, is it because you want to have a fun time with the people you’re working with?"

That instinct seems to have paid off big time.

Right before she left for the US, Padukone picked up every single best actor trophy this year for her no-nonsense turn in Shoojit Sircar’s Piku. She was also nominated for her warrior princess avatar in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s period saga Bajirao Mastani, and many said she was pretty much competing with herself.

Despite not having made a formal announcement on an Indian film project this year, she is at the top of the heap in Bollywood. The question is, how has Padukone emerged as the biggest female star in a very long time?

“I think the biggest thing Deepika’s done is changing the definition of success for an actress in India," says Anirban Das Blah, chief executive officer of talent agency CAA Kwan that manages Padukone’s brand.

“Before she came along, success (for a female actor) was about being number one, it was dependent on box office, or the names of heroes you were acting opposite. I think that whole conversation has changed and it has changed because of her," he says.

Photo: Gurinder Osan/HT
Photo: Gurinder Osan/HT

Blah refers to the kind of roles Padukone has chosen over the years—a two-heroine film ( Bajirao Mastani) or Homi Adajania’s bilingual black comedy Finding Fanny or just half a character in Imtiaz Ali’s Tamasha. But all were great stories, and Padukone ended up being part of them.

Blah argues that this choice blurred the lines between conventional “hero" and “heroine" roles and obviated the need to worry about new projects and instead focus on the important stuff—making good films.

“Good actors like her, as in those who want to be known as artistes have realized they have to come up with meaningful stuff," agrees Piku director Shoojit Sircar. “It can’t just be about song-and-dance, the delivery has to be performance-based."

It also helps that the movies Padukone has chosen to do have ended up doing well at the box office. She hasn’t really delivered a flop since 2011, though Imtiaz Ali’s Tamasha did appeal only to a small, high-end niche audience, managing collections of 67 crore.

But the others have more than made up. Padukone’s four blockbusters in 2013—Race 2, Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, Chennai Express and Goliyon Ki Rasleela-Ram Leela—together made about 635 crore.

Her last release, Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Bajirao Mastani not only recovered its massive budget of 140 crore, with domestic collections alone touching 184 crore, but also beat Shah Rukh Khan-starrer Dilwale that released simultaneously.

“She’s been very selective. If you see, two or three films a year is not a common phenomenon, as far as Indian female actors go," says trade analyst Atul Mohan.

“But she has always veered towards roles of importance, where she gets to be more than a showpiece. There is a certain understanding within the distribution and exhibition circuit that if it’s a Deepika Padukone film, it has to be a good script backed by a great banner. In that sense, she’s the female Aamir Khan."

Mohan adds that while actors like Kareena Kapoor have been big stars too, this is the first time since Madhuri Dixit-Nene (in the 1990s) that a female star can be banked upon for box office returns.

Getting where she is has not been easy for Padukone.

A hugely successful debut in Shah Rukh Khan-starrer Om Shanti Om (2007) was followed by a bunch of insipid films that made no impact at the box office: Chandni Chowk to China, Karthik Calling Karthik, Break Ke Baad, Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey, Aarakshan and Desi Boyz.

“It was a period of discovery for her as an actor and a human being," says Prabhat Choudhary of Spice Entertainment, another communication firm that handles Padukone’s imaging and joined her around 2011. “It was a natural course where she was making certain choices, and they weren’t paying off. That happens in the lifespan of every actor."

Apart from unsuccessful films, Padukone was also struggling with a media-created public image that wasn’t really her.

But it’s always been about my gut instinct—right from my first film to what I’m working on now. (It’s about) how I feel at that point, what I’m going through in life. And most importantly, it’s about being honest to oneself, at least as far as the reason for doing a particular movie is concerned. Is it the script, is it the director, is it the producer, is it because you want to have a fun time with the people you’re working with?- Deepika Padukone, actor

“When I met first Deepika, I found someone who was very real, shy, grounded and sensitive —a typical, middle-class Bangalore girl," Blah says. “The media, meanwhile, had this completely different perception of her as this supermodel with a glamorous, high-profile life. She, on the other hand, was too shy to state unequivocally who she was."

In 2011, Blah says, “Deepika decided to be herself unapologetically, not caring about how it was interpreted or the risks it imposed."

That decision, Blah adds, led to a lot of things. Importantly, it led to a film called Cocktail.

Helping Padukone’s career turn around almost single-handedly, the Adajania-directed love triangle notched up collections of 71 crore at the box office and immediately put Padukone back into the reckoning even though she played, an almost negative, second lead—a choice she had made voluntarily.

“Deepika was offered Cocktail and told to choose whichever role she wanted. I was pleasantly surprised when she chose Veronica," recalled director Adajania. “I didn’t really think she would be able to pull it off until she submitted to the character completely, which was one week into the shoot. Magic happens when you choose to embrace a challenge rather than mechanically walk through life in your comfort zone."

Homi Adajania describes Padukone’s performance in Cocktail as “the complete re-invention of an actor".

“I told her that people may like or hate the film, but that she would walk out of it and nobody would be able to question the credibility of her performance. Deepika managed to subtly layer Veronica’s character, but what really worked for her was that she was effortlessly cool and that is what made it believable," he said.

Building on the success of Cocktail, Padukone soon belted out more hits and critically acclaimed performances—from Rohit Shetty’s entertainer Chennai Express to her first collaboration with Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Goliyon Ki Rasleela-Ram Leela— firmly establishing her as the queen of the marquee and the darling of the critics.

I told her that people may like or hate the film (Cocktail), but that she would walk out of it and nobody would be able to question the credibility of her performance. Deepika managed to subtly layer Veronica’s character, but what really worked for her was that she was effortlessly cool and that is what made it believable- Homi Adajania, filmmaker

“With Deepika, I think what’s been incredible has been her phenomenal evolution and her ability to bring so much to every role she does," says film critic Anupama Chopra. “Honestly, I did not see this sort of a career and this level of acting talent getting into place when I first watched her in Om Shanti Om. She was of course very beautiful and attractive, but it wasn’t like she swept off the screen the way that, say, a Ranbir Kapoor did. But today, she’s become a really fine actress who can hold your gaze for as long as she needs to. The fact that she’s had great success also makes her impact greater."

Chopra adds that in a slew of films—ranging from Happy New Year and Chennai Express to Cocktail and Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (co-starring Ranbir Kapoor)—that released around the same time, Padukone was the best thing.

“I remember, in that whole time, you would see these movies and she is what would hold you," Chopra says. “She’s such a potent combination of gorgeousness and talent; that’s not always easy to get in one person."

Padukone’s success comes at a time when other female actors have also come into their own (Kangana Ranaut with Queen, for example) and expanded the definition of being an Indian actor (Priyanka Chopra with her international forays, including the serial Quantico).

But Padukone has had other demons to fight too.

In 2015, she spoke about her struggle with depression and founded the Live Love Laugh foundation in order to spread mental health awareness.

A few months before that, she took on The Times Group over an inappropriate video and tweet posted about her.

“I think very quickly before anyone else did it, or anyone else told her to, Deepika grasped the need to be honest," says Blah.

“There is a realness to her, whether it’s the heartbreak, the vulnerability, the relationship with her parents. Not many of our celebrities possess that because too many of them are trying to package their persona and sell products. People are so careful. Truly, she’s not interested in being careful, she’s interested in being honest."

Sircar agrees and recalls the first time he met her. She had invited him home late at night. “She came out in a pair of pyjamas without any make-up, apologizing for being turned out like that. I just looked at her and said “That’s Piku," Sircar says. “I did not think of her for the role purely because of her previous films, it was a combination of her looks, that spark of simplicity and genuineness."

Sircar adds that Padukone was comfortable and well-prepared while facing the camera with stalwarts such as Amitabh Bachchan and Irrfan Khan. She could relate to the character of the middle-class girl in a cosmopolitan city—completely belying Sircar’s perception of a star who’d be hesitant to do a film on a taboo subject like constipation.

That honesty appeals to the brands too.

Padukone currently endorses several high-value brands including Coca-Cola, Axis Bank, Kellogg’s, Vogue, Tissot, Van Heusen, Tanishq and Nike.

“We wanted to focus on how Tanishq values true and beautiful relationships and Deepika is the perfect representation of that," says Deepika Tewari, general manager (marketing, jewellery division), Titan Co. Ltd.

“She wears her heart on her sleeve when she talks about the people she loves. She is a woman of today who knows what she wants and makes her own choices, and at the same time, is rooted and values relationships, which is a mark of true progressiveness."

Compared to the 50-60 lakh she got for endorsements when she started out, Padukone’s fee now stands at 2.5-3 crore, according to Mint research. She’s not just the highest-paid female brand ambassador but also the second-highest paid after Aamir Khan, who commands 3.5-4 crore for endorsements.

“Deepika Padukone is the classic combination of beauty, brains and spirit, and that makes her an invincible talent for brands," says Vinit Karnik, business head (entertainment, sports and live events) at media buying company GroupM. “She’s obviously beautiful, her intelligence reflects in her smart choice of films and her spirit comes across through her athletic background, personality and ability to collaborate with a team."

Even when it comes to her film deals, while remaining grossly underpaid compared to her male counterparts, Padukone remains the highest-paid female actor, taking home about 8-10 crore per film, according to Bollywood insiders.

And the studios don’t mind.

“Not just Deepika but several other female actors, such as Sridevi and Kangana Ranaut, have proven that they can carry films, and how. Question is whether studios are willing to back these projects commercially," says Jyoti Deshpande, Group CEO at Eros International Plc. “I would back the right films with female leads every day of the week, and Deepika has proven that she is a big box office draw."

The road ahead for Padukone, evidently, is global. As she shoots for a major Hollywood action franchise, the actor is already fielding questions on whether an Indian actor can command respectable space in a Hollywood project.

I’m not saying I know everything. I hope I never reach a day where I feel I know everything. But I think I know better (now) what I need to do with myself in front of the camera versus seven years ago when I started and had no clue what I was doing- Deepika Padukone, actor

“She couldn’t start with something truly substantive, say a Woody Allen film. People need to know who you are before you start exploring more content-driven cinema," Blah admits.

Box office figures and success aside, the crux of the matter, a person close the actor says, is the change in her as a person. From becoming a sharper student of cinema to keen observer of her environment and colleagues, “it’s like something has just switched on in her", adds this person who didn’t want to be identified.

“Of course Deepika’s evolved immensely," Bhansali agrees. “She’s become comfortable with the medium, with the shooting process, the importance of characterization. In a sense, she has also become more meditative, she doesn’t expend time in random conversations, she tries to conserve that energy for the camera. She’s become understanding and appreciative with her co-actors and of what goes into creating a scene. It’s not just ‘my’ line or ‘my’ dialogue, it’s ‘our’ film. So I think she’s enjoying the process, she’s loving playing a role, the fame and adulation, and just being an actor."

The actor herself confesses she does not know how the change that people talk about has come.

“I’m not saying I know everything. I hope I never reach a day where I feel I know everything. But I think I know better (now) what I need to do with myself in front of the camera versus seven years ago when I started and had no clue what I was doing," says Padukone.

“Today, the only thing I look forward to at the end of a long working day is coming back home to a hot meal. And if it’s a south Indian meal, nothing like it," says the star over the phone from the Dominican Republic.

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