LOW IQ wala baat,” mutters Amitabh Bachchan when his sister-in-law tells him she didn’t accept a job because her salary would have been more than that of her husband. Piku, played by Deepika Padukone in the eponymous 2015 film, smiles.
As she should. For many women marriage defines their lives, so much so that time stops, individuality takes a backseat and freedom becomes a limiting exercise. For Padukone, it has been part of a journey of self-discovery she has been on especially since 2014, when she was diagnosed with depression. With serene fearlessness and a quiet dignity, the 36-year-old is reshaping the idea of the Hindi film heroine and of the Indian woman, one movie at a time. It is not an easy process. It is polarising, political and profoundly upsetting for status-quoists.
But clearly Padukone has learnt to embrace everything, the criticism and the praise, the bouquets and the brickbats. It isn’t easy. Yes, she is a rich woman, who got where she is by dint of hard work. Yes, she is beautiful. Yes, she makes mistakes. But she is also all-too-human, whether it is questioning the focus by a national media house on her cleavage, or refusing to give into goons asking for her head for acting in Padmaavat (2018), or standing in solidarity with students assaulted by a mob at Jawaharlal Nehru University or choosing to play the needy and dysfunctional Alisha in Shakun Batra’s dysfunctional drama, Gehraiyaan.
At a time when movies are choosing to either valorise women or infantilise them, it is refreshing to see a star, 15 years after she made her debut, breaking out of her gilded cage to play someone who is not an obvious heroine. Alisha is a young woman, beautiful, stuck in a relationship that is going nowhere, scarred by a misremembered childhood trauma. She meets her cousin’s fiancé, a flashy neo-rich outsider who is on the make. Clearly his energy attracts her, and the affair that follows leads her into unchartered waters, literally and figuratively. “It’s probably the most nuanced character I’ve played, so lovely, so meaty, so juicy. A lot of people have been asking me why I took this role, and I was like, ‘Why would anyone say no to it?’ There was so much to play and so much to have fun with. But at the same time emotionally and mentally exhausting,” she says, adding “You say yes to a part and your journey as an actor begins.”
Shakun Batra had offered her the part over two years ago when she was shooting in London for 83. He flew down, narrated the story to her, she thought about it for two days, as is her wont, then said yes. A lot happened in between. The pandemic, the lockdown, the second wave, in between which they shot most of it. The movie was to be shot in Sri Lanka, it was shifted to Goa. “I was living through all this with this emotional baggage that I had to hold on to because of the interruptions, and even within the film where I have to portray that I am ok when I am not ok. I found that to be the most difficult,” she says. “All of those bits that are so internal, to hold on to that tension and vulnerability, ah, it’s been tiring.”
“Beauty for me today is simplicity, honesty and authenticity. I feel the most beautiful when my mind and body are centred. At 21 it was about my body, how many kilos have I put on, is my make-up okay? At 36, none of that matters,” says Deepika Padukone
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The film has attracted equal amounts of censure and acclaim. While many have praised its raw honesty, others have frowned upon its physical intimacy. Questions about and comments on Padukone have ranged from the cringe worthy to plain offensive. How did Ranveer Singh, her husband, “allow” her to do such a film? Why did she accept “such” a role? What did her co-star Siddhant Chaturvedi feel about romancing the wife of his co-star from Gully Boy? “Why should an actor’s choices change because of her personal life?” asks Padukone, adding, “What does marriage have to do with it? The intent of these questions itself is coming from the wrong place.”
Padukone has been here before, when she chose to do the role of Veronica in Homi Adajania’s Cocktail (2012), a role that has caused endless reams to be written against it by both feminists (who thought it didn’t go far) and conservatives who thought it went too far. Imtiaz Ali, who wrote the film, remembers that Padukone first read for the part of the submissive and perfect-for-marriage Meera but then he suggested that she play Veronica, who was more boisterous and lively, with a lot of heart but also a lot of ferocity, and closer to her real self. The result was a woman onscreen who yearned to be loved, even to the point of wanting to change herself for her man. “Deepika’s image at the time was a good, conventional Hindi film heroine of the time,” says Ali, and Veronica was wild, “But because we became friends on Love Aaj Kal (which he directed). I could see a certain streak, which was completely unseen in Deepika. It turned out to be unique. She explored a certain side to her and we got to see a side of her that we had not previously witnessed.”
Her public admission of depression was equally divisive. While she used her own expression to launch a foundation, currently run by her sister Anisha, to support those with mental health issues, it was enough to anger those who wondered what she had to be so unhappy about.
Gehraiyaan, she says, made her realise how much of our lineage we don’t know but also the burden we carry forward. “I feel the film has opened up conversations for families that live like that, where so much that is brushed under the carpet, so much that is unaddressed. It’s so typical of the way we function as a society. Everyone is fighting their own battles. Everyone has a story that they don’t want to share for fear of being judged.” Being judged didn’t cross her mind, she says.
Amrita Satapathy, who teaches English at IIT Bhubaneswar, and is interested in popular culture, says that Padukone has redefined and expanded the idea of womanhood in Bollywood. “We saw her at the start of her career portraying two diametrically opposite sides of a struggling ’70s actor, Shanti and her doppelganger Sandhya (Sandy) in Om Shanti Om (2007).This movie and Deepika’s effortless essaying of two diversely different women can be said to be the beginning of the pragmatic, intelligent, self-reliant, thinking woman eschewing a very modern yet democratic worldview in Hindi movies,” says Satapathy. It was no surprise that she has been earning a living by modelling since the age of 18. Daughter of badminton legend Prakash Padukone and his travel agent wife Ujjala, she is close to her family and proud of what she has achieved through her own hard work.
She has grown up in front of us, from the long-limbed model of the Kingfisher Calendar to the Om Shanti Om girl to the representative of the Gen Y woman who scripts her journey and re-tells her story in her voice, adds Satapathy. From the smart taxi driver in Sydney, Gayatri in Bachna Ae Haseeno (2008) to the balanced yet shy wallflower Naina in Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (2013); from the nonconformist art restorer Meera Pandit in Love Aaj Kal (2009) to the supportive and kind girlfriend in Karthik Calling Karthik (2010); from the visually impaired skater in Lafangey Parindey (2010) to the free-spirited party animal in Cocktail. But it is her portrayals of the sensible yet smart village belle Meena in Chennai Express (2013) and her Gujarati avatar of Shakespeare’s Juliet in Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela (2013), that took the idea of womanhood in Bollywood to a whole new level. The idea of a stable, autonomous, standardised ‘heroine’ or woman for that matter is no longer relevant, is something that her Meena and Leela proved, says Satapathy.
Piku Banerjee only established this new woman further, managing the household chores, a cantankerous and constipated father, a confused house-help and her professional life in Piku. Piku’s writer Juhi Chaturvedi says, “The journey of an entire film is a long one. Actors are the last to join it. When Deepika came on board, I had already completed the script of this cantankerous father-daughter duo. Shoojit, in his mind, had already shot it and her saying yes to the idea meant that she believed in his vision completely, and would give her all, in a way as if it originated from her in the first place. If you understand the emotional investment that an actor has to make in such a short span, it is huge. Working alongside Mr Bachchan and Irrfan, picking from their tender creative energy, feeding them with hers, and all in such a palpable way that there is no room for ‘performance’ because it has to look real but in the form of pure art, and that isn’t an easy ask. Deepika identified with her character Piku, instantly.”
“I feel the film has opened up conversations for families, where so much is brushed under the carpet, so much that is unaddressed. It’s so typical of the way we function as a society. Everyone is fighting their own battles. Everyone has a story that they don’t want to share for fear of being judged,” says Deepika Padukone
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But that didn’t mean she had to play herself, adds Chaturvedi. It meant that her understanding of an ageing father, of an only child, of the limitations that nuclear families bring, of the desires of a young woman desperately seeking some respite from the weight of responsibilities sapping her youth matched the same depth as Shoojit Sircar, and now she was supposed to live in that place for as long as it took to bring out the truth of the Banerjee family in the most soulful way.
With Alisha in Gehraiyaan, Deepika goes from the good Indian daughter to an angst-ridden millennial woman caught in a moral quandary, searching for happiness, getting a grip on her childhood trauma and navigating fractured relationships. The world though would like to project the conventional heroine on her, which doesn’t do justice to her instinct, intellect or athleticism, says director Rohan Sippy who got her to do the electric song in Dum Maaro Dum (2011).
Where does this new, refreshed Deepika go from here? She has a mix of movies, the tentpole Pathan with Shah Rukh Khan and John Abraham; a movie with Telugu superstar Prabhas; the Hindi version of The Intern with Amitabh Bachchan; and Fighter with Hrithik Roshan. “I worked hard to get to a place where I have the luxury of doing all of it. I can do a Rohit Shetty film, a Shoojit Sircar film, an Ayan Mukherjee film, or a Sanjay Leela Bhansali film. I’m just relying on my gut,” she says. There was a time when she didn’t listen to her heart, she says. “I was probably swayed by a big name or just the idea of a film.” She’s referring to the period after her debut in 2007 and Cocktail. “That was a point in my life when I was so ready to let go of my inhibitions and the expectations of what a heroine is supposed to be. In a lot of ways people think I fall into that mould, but that is not in my control.”
She says Imtiaz Ali had a big role to play in the transformation and from there on the floodgates opened. She is enjoying herself the older she gets. “The experiences have shaped me and helped me become the person I am today. My definition of beauty has changed. Growing up you’re conditioned to believe in beauty as a certain stereotypical physicality. I’ve also been a victim of that. I’ve bought into that ideology. As I’ve grown and evolved, beauty for me today is simplicity, honesty and authenticity. I feel the most beautiful when my mind and body are centred. At 21 it was about my body, how many kilos have I put on, is my make-up okay? At 36, none of that matters.”
The pandemic has taken a toll on her, for her the fragility of life came home in 2014 when she woke up feeling she didn’t want to live anymore. “That was a life-altering moment for me. The journey for me now is of authenticity, honesty and living my truth. If I have to bear the consequences, so be it,” she says. Whether it is speaking up against #MeToo directors during her stint as chairperson of the Mumbai Academy of the Moving Image or taking time out to shoot a video for a fan, it’s Deepika, uncut, unfiltered, unafraid.