It’s Monday lunch hour and Anushka Sharma is sitting in her tastefully done up living room waiting for her first cup of coffee. She’s dressed for a packed day of promotions in a colourful printed top, slender black pants and a new perky short hairdo, armed to answer questions about her big hit PK, her new role as a producer, and life as one of Bollywood’s top stars. But about five minutes into this interview, she takes a pause. “It’s exhausting to constantly talk about myself. You tell me. Where do you live? Are you married?” she casually asks. Her candour is refreshing, and that she asks for permission to rant in the middle of our conversation lends her a charm quite distinct from other stars. Her success in cinema hasn’t taken the girl-next-door out of her, an image she has had ever since her debut in Aditya Chopra’s Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi (2008). “It’s very easy to start thinking that the swag is more important than the real thing; to just play the actor and not really be it. I like to keep things simple. I’ve always been like this,” she says, stirring her cappuccino.
Easily one of the best young actors today, Anushka isn’t struggling to keep her stature among the leading ladies. She knows her performances do that for her. From the very start of her career, she was among a director’s top choices when they needed a girl to pull off a spunky role. A few years ago on Koffee with Karan, she cockily said that she could act the pants off most of her contemporaries. Her confidence, she admits, comes from a sense of self- assurance. “I can doubt myself on many things, but I can’t doubt myself on this,” she says, “Because this is the only thing that’s kept me going—the fact that I can perform.”
Despite that, Anushka has always chosen to take it slow. She went without a release for almost two years before PK in December, but that doesn’t bother her. “I don’t believe out of sight is really out of mind. One good film and you’re back!” She has done eight films in six years and is now taking the plunge as a producer, the first among her peers to do so. “It’s something new and exciting for me. People feel it’s too early for me to turn producer, but that’s only because no one in my place has done it before. I don’t believe in bombarding myself with work, but when something like this comes up, I just know I have to do it,” she says of her film NH10 that she has co-produced with her brother Karnesh and Phantom films. “I wasn’t the one watching movies at home, it was my brother. He has been the reason for a lot of the choices that I have made,” says Anushka, who set up a production company called Clean Slate films with her brother two years ago with a clear vision in mind. “We used to watch these fabulous films being made in the West with such strong content. We’d always wonder why these films are not being made in India. Initially we just had ideas we’d brainstorm with friends. I’m inclined towards writing, so I’d tell him, ‘Chal, let me write something, and we’ll make it.’ But when NH10 came, I knew I had to back it,” she says.
The film is a thriller that features the story of a couple—played by her and Neil Bhoopalam—who witness a brutal crime not far from Gurgaon, Haryana. Directed by Navdeep Singh, whose debut Manorama Six feet Under was much lauded by critics, NH10 deals with Real India far more closely than anything Anushka Sharma has starred in so far.
Is that a dichotomy, especially for someone whose acting fee is as high as the total budget of independent projects these days? “I want to participate in building that block of good cinema. NH10 might have a niche audience, but it’s not any less commercial. I believed in the story and it just made sense for me to cut down my fee as an actor and participate in risk sharing with the studio. I think being a saleable actor helps me because I can do films like NH10, which is great,” she reasons.
Anushka Sharma already sounds like a budding entrepreneur, a far cry from the 15-year-old Army-brat whose sole aim in life was to become famous. “I was very ambitious as a kid. I just wanted to be really famous by the time I was 18. Not like reality star ‘famous’, but I knew I wanted to make something out of my life.”
She started modelling with photographer and fashion guru Prasad Bidapa in Bangalore and was more than happy to be working hard so early in life. “My friends were bunking lectures and doing other things kids my age were, but I was just either attending college or working,” she says, “Whatever time I would get off, I would go for shows and shoots and auditions and stuff. I made sure I studied hard and was a top student so no one could use that as an excuse to stop me from modelling.” Soon she moved into army accommodation in Mumbai’s Malad area with her mother in the hope of nailing more modelling assignments. “Bombay initially came across as a cold place. There was a hectic energy to this place that was very new to me.” At first, she also had reservations about getting into films. “You have a certain image about movies and how they work. It never seemed like a good option for somebody from outside Mumbai. I knew nobody. But my agent said I should audition, so I’d just do it.”
It was that scene from Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995), where Kajol asks her father for permission to travel across Europe, which got Anushka her break. “They asked me not to imitate her, but to do the scene my way. And I did it my way. Next thing you know, I was sitting across Aditya Chopra in his office discussing dates!”
Her first ever talking shot in front of the camera was one where she had to deliver a monologue opposite Shah Rukh Khan. “I remember, after the scene he turned to Adi, and he was like, ‘She’s damn good, yaar. She says it like it’s her own lines’.” It was a dream launch, Rab Ne, but Anushka was soon written off as too much of a Plain Jane to be a star. “People knew me, recognised me and stuff, but that wasn’t bringing me shitloads of work. Neither was the media touting me as ‘the next big thing’. It’s not like I wasn’t disappointed, but now when I look back, I’m glad I didn’t get that mad stardom overnight. I found time to ground myself.” It was Maneesh Sharma’s Band Baaja Baaraat (2010) that saw Anushka come into her own as an actor. She was unassumingly convincing as the carefree Punjabi kudi determined to fulfill her dreams. “I don’t think I did anything different in Band Baaja, as opposed to a Rab Ne or a Badmash Company or even Patiala House. It’s the writing that made all the difference.” In the authenticity of the characters she played, she had an edge over heroines like Katrina Kaif and Deepika Padukone who were still struggling to find their voice. Anushka had no formal training as an actor, but she came across as a natural. “I need to be completely believable. No actor can be larger than the film,” she says.
Ever since, she has made some safe yet strong cinematic choices. From Yash Chopra to Vishal Bhardwaj to Raj Kumar Hirani and now Anurag Kashyap, she has the best in the business signing her on. “She was so sure of what she wanted to do in her scenes, that it made my job very simple. There’s something very real about the way Anushka performs. She feels for her characters,” says Vishal Bhardwaj about directing her in Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola (2013). Anushka has had failures in recent times; while she did not impress critics in Jab Tak Hai Jaan (2012), Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola did not do too well. Last year, she found herself in the middle of a news storm around an alleged lip job gone awry after she appeared on Karan Johar’s show. The smart girl persona was seen slipping a bit.
She may have nailed the perky girl act in most of her films, but is yet to give us a truly intense performance. This year, though, she is ready to put her versatility to test. Apart from NH10, she stars in Anurag Kashyap’s Bombay Velvet and Zoya Akhtar’s Dil Dhadakne Do, two of 2015’s most eagerly awaited releases. Though she loves how diverse each of these films are, doing them has been a challenge. “I was shooting PK and Bombay Velvet at the same time, and they have very different mindsets as directors. If Raju Hirani gives me a few seconds to relay an emotion, I could really juice it out in Anurag’s film. So once during PK, Raju sir joked with me, saying, ‘Ab Anurag Kashyap ko chhod doh, Raju Hirani waali acting kar lo. (Let Anurag Kashyap be, now do Hirani style acting),” she says.
Apart from her professional life, which is on the cusp of a comeback, Anushka Sharma also happens to be in one of India’s most high profile celebrity relationships. Unlike a few months ago, she is now more than comfortable talking about her cricket star boyfriend Virat Kohli. Her presence at cricket matches may have got a few fans grumbling about her ‘distraction value’, but she seems to shrug it off. “I’ve chosen to date Virat not because he’s a cricketer. I like him for who he is,” she says, “Funnily, Virat and I are very unaware of our own positions in life. We keep wondering why people are so excited about us seeing each other… I mean what’s the big deal?” It is their modest upbringing that has kept them together for over a year now. “We like each other because we come from similar backgrounds,” she says, “We both are regular middle-class kids who have come so far. I can’t discuss how my mother would look at the right side of the menu-card before the left side with my actor friends.”
With such highly demanding professional lives, they find it imperative to keep their relationship on an even keel like two ordinary people who enjoy each other’s company. “When we are together, we prefer to just take long walks and eat by the side of the road. He comes on sets and watches me work, just as I go to watch a match, but I don’t think he gets the process of making a movie. He’s just a great bouncing board after the film is complete.” And if you’re wondering if she sees a future with him, the answer is a resounding ‘yes’. “Sometimes I feel we are the same person,” she says with a smile.
It would be safe to say that Anushka Sharma is in a secure place in life. Whether she can make it last, quite a few of her fans would be interested in seeing. “I’m turning 27 in four months, and they say once you cross that age, you can survive anything!”