Deepika Padukone is all over the news cycle. The release of Current laga re, her dance video with husband Ranveer Singh from their forthcoming film Cirkus, has made fans of the Bollywood power couple ecstatic; she will soon be unveiling the FIFA World Cup trophy in Qatar before the final game; and she has managed to tick off several people with Besharam Rang from the Shah Rukh Khan-starrer Pathaan, some for the suggestive dance moves and others for the colour of her costume.
They say there’s no such thing as bad publicity, and if this maxim is true, Padukone is having it great. Not bad for someone who was once emphatically dismissed by a famous socialite and writer thus: “She would not win Miss Dombivali contest — no figure, no sex appeal, no looks.” Shobhaa De may not have publicly eaten her words, but 14 years since her premature assessment, brand Deepika has only grown by leaps and bounds.
DP, as she’s otherwise known, is among the highest-paid women actors in Bollywood, raking in Rs 22 crore per film. Not many know that the actor, who hails from Karnataka, made her debut in the Kannada film industry. Her first film, Aishwarya, was with Upendra in 2006. It was a year later that she made her Hindi debut — and what a dream debut it was, considering her co-star was none other than Bollywood Badshah Shah Rukh Khan. Om Shanti Om was an unabashed masala entertainer directed by Farah Khan, and the film went on to become a blockbuster.
Speaking to Film Companion on Om Shanti Om’s 10th anniversary, Farah Khan recalled why she had cast Deepika in the film. “Deepika had an old world charm and poise to her that reminded me of Hema Malini. I added the ‘dreamy girl’ angle after I cast her,” said the director. In the film, Deepika plays dual roles — a Bollywood superstar and her doppelganger while SRK plays a junior artist who dies and is reborn as a superstar, too. The plot didn’t make much sense then and it makes even less sense now, but Om Shanti Om was unapologetic about what it wanted to be — a film that you simply enjoyed with your popcorn.
For the film, Padukone modelled herself on Bollywood stars like Malini and Helen, the "dream girls" of their generation. Years later, Padukone’s success was evident in the words that Malini had for her: “If there is one contemporary actress I like the best, it is Deepika. She is so beautiful and so talented. And so dignified in her public conduct. There are so many of her contemporaries who keep shooting off their mouths to get attention. Not Deepika. I think she is more talented, beautiful, and dedicated to her work than I ever was. And so graceful!” Malini told a film journalist.
Om Shanti Om was Deepika’s big launch into Bollywood, and it brought her all the attention that a newbie would desire. But did she have it in her to become an actor who would stay the course? One review observed about Padukone: “The director uses her with great cunning, making her turn and smile while Shah Rukh does all the melting. She is used sparingly and constantly camouflaged, either by a situation which requires acting incompetence, deftly digitalized song sequences or a complete lack of fabric in the second half. I’m not claiming the ‘find of the year’ can’t act; it’s just that this film doesn’t require her to.”
It was probably with Imtiaz Ali’s Cocktail (2012) that Padukone proved that she had the acting chops, too, and wasn’t only about glamour. Her Veronica is a spoilt rich brat who spends all her time partying but is also insecure, needy and vulnerable when she falls in love. She’s the third corner in a love triangle — and as is only to be expected, the man picks the traditional girl over the wild-child rebellious one. Despite the glaring sexism though, Veronica left a mark on those who watched the film and her performance won praise from critics and fans alike. In fact, Padukone said in an interview that she believes it was Cocktail that made people like her more.
She went on to star in many more blockbusters such as Yeh Jawani Hai Deewani (2013), Chennai Express (2013) and Happy New Year (2014). In 2013, she also teamed up with Sanjay Leela Bhansali, an auteur known for his extravagantly mounted dramas, for the first time. In this Indianised take of Shakespeare’s tragic romance Romeo and Juliet, Ranveer Singh and Padukone played star-crossed lovers Ram and Leela. Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela made over Rs 200 crore at the box office, and Padukone and Singh went on to star together in two more Bhansali films — Bajirao Mastani and Padmaavat.
Bajirao Mastani (2015) was a period drama revolving around the Maratha Peshwa Bajirao 1 (Singh) and his second wife, Mastani (Padukone). Priyanka Chopra Jonas played Bajirao’s first wife, Kashibai. “Deepika Padukone and Ranveer Singh get the epic hots for each other, as spurned wife Priyanka Chopra smoulders by candlelight — under the masterfully assured direction of Sanjay Leela Bhansali,” — The Guardian succinctly described the film, and that’s precisely what it was.
Padukone had done several urban love stories by this time but Bajirao Mastani elevated her star status by placing her in a grandeur-filled narrative of which she was the beating heart. She did another period drama with Bhansali in 2018 — Padmaavat — a film that was mired in controversy from the time its production was announced. A Haryana BJP leader even called for the director and actors to be beheaded, and the Shri Rajput Karni Sena roughed up Bhansali while he was shooting the film. All of this happened over a rumour that a song in the film showed Padmavati romancing Alauddin Khilji.
Based on the epic poem Padmavat by Malik Muhammad Jayasi, the film is about Rani Padmavati, a Rajput queen famed for her beauty. She is married to Maharawal Ratan Singh (Shahid Kapoor) who comes under attack from the ruthless Sultan Allaudin Khilji (Ranveer Singh). The highlight of the film is its climax, when Pamavati performs jauhar (suicide by immolation) along with scores of other Rajput women in order to escape being enslaved by Khilji. While the controversy over Padmavati-Khilji song died down soon after its release (there was no such sequence), the film was criticised for its historical inaccuracies and also for glorifying patriarchal notions of honour. The general audience, however, loved it and Padmaavat went on to make over Rs 550 crore.
Between these three large-scale, lavish productions, Padukone also did Piku (2015), a film that most fans will say was her best as an actor. Shoojit Sircar’s comedy drama saw Padukone play the role of an independent Bengali woman who lives with her eccentric 70-year-old father (Amitabh Bachchan) who is obsessed with his bowel movements. A review hailed Padukone’s performance thus: “As the film’s central character, Deepika is utterly gorgeous — and no, I don’t mean her looks, although there is that too. She completely internalises her character so that it feels like she has become Piku Banerji for us. She is without a doubt one of contemporary Bollywood’s most talented and versatile actresses.”
That same year, Padukone also broke a long-time taboo around mental health and spoke openly about her battle with depression. She won many hearts for revealing a vulnerable side to her when she was at the height of her career, and the actor went on to establish The Live Love Laugh Foundation, a non-profit that works in the field of mental health.
In 2017, Deepika made her Hollywood debut with XXX: Return of Xander Cage, starring along with Vin Diesel. It became the highest grosser of the XXX franchise. She’s had less commercial success with her stint as producer though. Her Ka Productions has made two films so far — Chhapaak (2020) and 83 (2021) — both of which tanked at the box-office despite earning good reviews.
In Chhapaak, Padukone played an acid attack survivor and just before the release of the film, she attended a protest at the Jawaharlal Nehru University where students were demonstrating against the attack on them, allegedly by the Hindu right-wing. While the cynics saw it as Padukone’s desperate attempt to promote Chhapaak, many others lauded her for her courage to take an anti-establishment stance at a time when Bollywood celebrities were cosying up to the State.
If her appearance was indeed a PR stunt, it was certainly a bad strategy since Padukone has been at the receiving end of the Hindu right-wing ever since; the latest being the outrage over the Besharam rang song where she’s dressed in saffron. She was also hounded by the media during the supposed Bollywood drug bust in 2020. If, on the other hand, it was a genuine gesture of solidarity, Padukone’s willingness to use her star power to speak up is a rare talent in Bollywood today.
Her last release, Gehraiyaan (2022), which streamed directly on Amazon Prime Video, received 4.6 million views in its opening week. Directed by Shakun Batra, the film is about an extramarital affair that goes horribly wrong. Padukone played the usually reviled "other woman" with dignity, and her performance as Alisha was unanimously applauded.
Though she is yet to win a National Award, Padukone has won many accolades, including Time magazine naming her in its list of 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2018. She was also selected as a jury member at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival this year. The superstar set up a self-care brand called 82°E recently, and is clearly looking to diversify her brand value.
Her forthcoming film with SRK will be a litmus test of sorts. Directed by Siddharth Anand, Pathaan has two stars who are favourite targets of the "Boycott Bollywood" brigade (ironically, both started their careers as "outsiders" and not "nepo kids"). The rumbles are already growing louder, but it remains to be seen if the audience will reject the film purely because of the politically motivated campaigns around it. Pathaan will hit the big screens on January 25, 2023. There’s a month to go and until then, you can be sure that there will be more and more of Deepika Padukone in the news. Some people were made for the headlines.