Portrait by Rohit Chawla
Portrait by Rohit Chawla

Deepika, hero

They said they would boycott her film. They said they would cut off her head. They said she couldn’t act. Deepika Padukone has spent her career putting ‘them’ in their place

The last time Deepika Padukone acted in a film, there was a bounty on her head. A few fringe organizations claiming to uphold traditional values, plus at least one leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party, made grandiose proclamations of rewards for those who would bring them the actor’s head — announcements amplified by news channels—since they felt aggrieved by Padukone’s portrayal of the fictional Rani Padmavati, in a film they had not seen. Directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, “Padmavati" was headlined by the actor, her biggest project to date. All while hoodlums christened her “Surpanakha", encouraging other hoodlums to cut her nose off.

Deepika Padukone in still from ‘Padmaavat’
Deepika Padukone in still from ‘Padmaavat’

Padukone was having none of it. The film changed its name to appease the mobs, and director Sanjay Leela Bhansali, who had been assaulted on the sets, tried to convince the self-styled sena units that the film would not paint their queen in an unflattering light. The actor, however, was fiery and unapologetic. She was advised to stay indoors, use police protection and travel in different cars, but she stuck to her usual routine, not even avoiding crowds: she went to the crowded Siddhivinayak temple in Mumbai, later flying to Bengaluru to attend a wedding. In an interview last year, Padukone told me she was “amused" by the threats—“How was someone even allowed to enter a newsroom with a talwar in his hand?"—but remains disappointed that no one was ever held accountable. Padmaavat emerged as one of the biggest hits of 2018.

On 7 January, Padukone did indeed use a different car to enter Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, days after an attack inside had left students injured and traumatized. A member of the JNU Teachers’ Association told entertainment website Silverscreen.in that Padukone, having expressed her desire to offer support to the students, had arrived in a professor’s car to avoid being seen. “He drove, she sat in the back seat, squeezed between others so she could come in without anyone noticing," says the report. The visual stunned India: one of the best-known women in the country standing behind JNU students union president Aishe Ghosh and Communist Party of India (CPI) member Kanhaiya Kumar as he called for “azaadi".

Deepika Padukone standing in solidarity with JNU students in Delhi on 7 January.
Deepika Padukone standing in solidarity with JNU students in Delhi on 7 January. (Photo: Vipin Kumar/Hindustan Times)

Showing support for students is not the same as opposing the BJP-led government in the ongoing nationwide debate over the proposed National Register of Citizens and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), a debate that has filled the streets with outrage and protest. Padukone, careful not to say anything during her appearance, demonstrated only that she stands with students, and against violence. Yet at this politically polarizing time, a time when Us and Them are delineated with alarmingly thick boundaries, she has chosen a side.

The Delhi Police has not yet detained any perpetrators in the JNU violence, several of whom have been caught on camera, but has registered FIRs against Ghosh, who suffered a head injury. At this time, an image of Padukone greeting Ghosh, hands folded, is both stirring and unfamiliar.

A country mad about the movies sometimes needs those in the movies to show the way. Padukone has frequently bucked convention and subverted expectations—and this might be her most significant hour. It is a defining moment.

*****

Padukone has long defined her own moments. Growing up a state-level badminton player, she chose to carve her own path after she realized she would forever be measured in relation to her illustrious father Prakash Padukone’s legacy. Already in love with the camera, she moved from Bengaluru to Mumbai to become a model. Striking and lithe, she quickly found success, and her first Hindi film, the 2007 blockbuster Om Shanti Om, catapulted her into rarefied industry air. The critics—including, rather scathingly, this writer—declared that she couldn’t act. Her performances were synthetic, her dialogue delivery stilted and unschooled.

With hits in her bag, she could have drowned out the negative feedback, but chose instead to work on her craft. In a 2009 review, I lamented the way Padukone butchered director Imtiaz Ali’s finely-crafted dialogues in Love Aaj Kal but by the time 2015’s Tamasha came around, it was apparent she had outgrown his writing. She made the silences sing.

“This is an actor who is the most enchanting in silence," Ali told me. “Where she does not stop because of the silence, she actually speaks because of the silence." This was underlined in Shoojit Sircar’s 2015 film Piku, a film held together by Padukone’s glances, from her appraising look at Irrfan Khan to her wary look at her father, played by Amitabh Bachchan. It is a wonderful, tender and utterly grounded performance—I may never get over how spontaneously she laughs while eating an egg roll, discussing a marriage proposal with her mouth full—and it is difficult to believe it’s the same actor who made us wince in 2009’s Chandni Chowk To China. Coming from those dreadful early efforts to shine in mature parts—not to mention her stately conquest of Bhansali’s heroine-worshipping cinema—she has displayed unprecedented improvement.

Deepika Padukone in still from 'Aarakshan’
Deepika Padukone in still from 'Aarakshan’

While her career peaked, Padukone suffered from clinical depression—which we learnt only later in a revelatory television interview. Not only did she display the fortitude to bounce back, but chose boldly to make her battle public, encouraging conversations about mental illness—a vital need in a country quick to stigmatize sufferers. The Live Love Laugh Foundation she established makes an actual difference in terms of getting people help and direction. It goes a long way when a Deepika Padukone tells someone they are not alone.

*****

Last year, ahead of the release of Gully Boy, Padukone’s husband, Ranveer Singh, and the film’s heroine Alia Bhatt dismissed questions about caste in an interview with Anupama Chopra, labelling themselves “apolitical". This feigned ignorance has become a de facto stance, actors often playing impotently safe when it comes to politics. Right now, with India embroiled in a battle against what is perceived as an anti-Muslim law, there has been no word from the biggest screen icons. Amitabh Bachchan, Salman Khan, Aamir Khan, and Shah Rukh Khan—who himself attended Jamia Millia Islamia, where the violence first erupted—have been conspicuous in their silence.

Indian actors rarely express themselves as liberally as their Western counterparts—it is impossible to envision any of them being half as direct as veteran actor Robert De Niro repeatedly talking about wanting to punch US President Donald Trump in the mouth—but not too long ago, they appeared freer of muzzles.

In a 2006 Rediff.com interview about the Narmada protests, ahead of the release of his film Fanaa, Aamir Khan castigated the BJP, saying: “Here is a party that does not believe in the rights of poor people. I believe in democracy and if I believe in a cause, I will support it. Nobody can tell me to keep quiet."

Times change. In November 2015, Khan had publicly spoken of the “growing intolerance" in India at the Ramnath Goenka Awards in Delhi, disclosing that his wife Kiran Rao had contemplated moving out of the country. The backlash was immediate and severe: Khan was dropped from government ambassadorship campaigns, there were calls to boycott the website Snapdeal, which Khan endorsed—though many of the misled mob on Twitter ended up deleting the Snapchat app as well—and then the Union defence minister, the late Manohar Parrikar, said the actor needed to be “taught a lesson".

Khan hasn’t said a word this time.

Neither has Akshay Kumar, a vocal supporter of Prime Minister Narendra Modi who interviewed him ahead of the 2019 general election, only to probe how much the PM likes mangoes. Kumar, in fact, issued an online statement clarifying how he had “accidentally" hit the “like" button on a tweet about the violence in Jamia Millia Islamia. In recent years, many a performer has toed the government’s line, and last year saw the notorious “Bollywood-Modi selfie", where prominent actors and film-makers surrounded the prime minister, all smiles—apolitical stances set aside for a photo-op ahead of an election campaign. The selfie, which featured Karan Johar, Alia Bhatt, Ranbir Kapoor and Rohit Shetty, among others, was shot by Padukone’s husband on 10 January 2019.

She wasn’t in that picture, and this January she gave us a braver one.

*****

So much of what our public figures do is so carefully orchestrated that cynicism is understandable, yet calling Padukone’s stance a publicity stunt is a particularly childish accusation. True, her film Chhapaak had very little commercial buzz prior to the JNU appearance, and faces tough competition alongside very hyped and very masculine films Tanhaji and Darbar, but the actor has more to lose than gain: Chhapaak is the first film she has produced, and any sort of violent protests at theatres will severely affect the relatively modest production; merely taking an actual stance may alienate film-makers and studios ever-eager to play it safe; and politicians may discourage producers from casting Padukone. Twitter has, predictably, exploded with calls to boycott the many products she endorses. The Print has reported that a promo video Padukone made for a governmental “Skill India" initiative has already been dropped by the skill development ministry.

Padukone is one of the highest paid actresses in the country. In 2018, Forbes listed her as the top earning female celebrity in India, with estimated earnings of 112 crore. Her active endorsements include Tissot, Maybelline and Coca-Cola. After Chhappak her next production is ’83, a film about India’s 1983 cricket World Cup win.

Some voices from the film industry have been loud from the start. Swara Bhasker has long been leading the charge against intolerance, and Anurag Kashyap has returned to Twitter now, to battle misinformation and trolls—he has even been tweeting in Hindi so as to reach a greater audience. The two have been strident and relentless, and the brigade of actors and film-makers showing up at protests is growing: Anubhav Sinha, Farhan Akhtar, Vishal Bhardwaj, Zoya Akhtar, Taapsee Pannu. They may not include the Khans, Bachchans or Kapoors, but they cut an infinitely more impressive figure than members of the fraternity who met Union minister Piyush Goyal to “discuss" the CAA at a five-star hotel in Mumbai on 5 January. Some appeared in a pro-CAA clip, summed up a pithy Hindustan Times headline: “BJP rounds up former Bigg Boss contestants for endorsement video."

Slowly, surely, the tide of public opinion is turning. Salman Khan’s Dabangg 3, which released on 20 December, underperformed massively at the box office. Khan’s fans have traditionally seemed to care little about cinematic quality, so a failure from this successful franchise may well be linked to Khan’s silence not going down well with his fans, a demographic that includes a massive Muslim following.

Audiences are becoming vociferous about their disappointment with those silent, or those on the other side. Keeping mum may not be the safest option any more, not when people appear to have taken off their blinkers. Sonakshi Sinha, who starred opposite Khan in Dabangg 3, applauded Padukone on Twitter “for showing up, and all those who spoke for speaking up. This is not the time to stay quiet."

*****

For me, the wisest thing Padukone did in JNU was to not say a word. Making a speech may have exposed her to allegations of hijacking a student movement, saying something ill-informed would have led to ridicule, and directly taking sides may have proved too catastrophic for a figure as public—especially when standing behind these young rebels carries such weight. The industry has applauded her strongly, with many fence-sitters coming forward. Perhaps our so-called heroes will now discover their own voices. As ever, Deepika Padukone’s silent moments are her most iconic. At a time when we need icons to cheer, this leading lady is proving to be a lady who leads.

Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.

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