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Deepika Padukone isn’t your traditional Bollywood heroine. In a film industry known for meek, decorative female leads, she is rounding out 2015 by starring in Bajirao Mastani, a violent 18th-century epic and one of the most expensive Indian productions ever made. Its ensemble cast features an array of other stars, but Padukone’s horseriding, bow-and-arrow- wielding warrior princess is effectively the lead, underlining her position not just as Bollywood’s most bankable female actor but also one increasingly willing to challenge conventions in a movie world dominated by men.
Bollywood has long yearned for a global crossover hit to match the success of China’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Here, Padukone is bullish. “I think Bajirao will be that film,” she says. Even if not, the past year has cemented her position as Bollywood’s reigning queen, with two other major releases, the most recent of which, Tamasha, a romantic comedy set partly in Corsica, earned warm reviews. More interesting was Piku, a low-budget family drama, in which she played an unattached and sexually liberated professional, struggling to balance the demands of work and her elderly, crotchety father. Her unconventional performance won widespread acclaim, making the film a surprise commercial hit. Elsewhere, she made headlines speaking out on issues linked to female empowerment, not least what she describes as the “huge, huge disparity” in pay between India’s leading male and female film actors.
Yet, more than anything, the most striking image of Padukone’s year came back in March, as she sat on a sofa in a television studio, with her mother and her therapist both sitting close by, her eyes filling with tears as she talked about her battles with depression. Now, curled up on another sofa in her agent’s offices in Mumbai, she speaks carefully about the bleak period the year before, when she felt her life suddenly fall apart.
“Now, when I think back, [the depression] lasted about three months, four months, but at the time it felt like the worst experience of my life,” she says. Some days she struggled to get out of bed. Others were spent weeping in distant hotel rooms. Eventually, she broke down in front of her parents and began to accept the idea of counselling.
“It felt like it was never-ending, because every day was a struggle . . . When I got out, a lot of things changed for me, including my perspective on life. It made me realise how fragile life is.” Recently, she read an interview with Nicolas Hénin, the French journalist held captive in Syria for 10 months by Isis, before being released last year. “I remember reading a beautiful line, where he said that you have two lives and the second one begins when you realise you have only one,” she recalls. “That’s what [my realisation] was as well.”
Padukone’s openness caused a mini-sensation in India, where movie stars tend to guard their privacy closely. Confessional A-list interviews are rare, and tend only to follow misbehaviour says Rachel Dwyer, a cinema expert at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies. Padukone — whose public image is wholesome and unblemished — was different. “It was a really big deal in India, where mental illness remains a taboo,” Dwyer says. “She didn’t have to do this, she hadn’t done anything wrong. She might be this huge celebrity but it showed she wasn’t the old kind of sweet-faced, swishy-haired starlet.”
Padukone — or just Deepika, as she is almost always known — made her Bollywood debut eight years ago, winning praise for her looks, if not her acting. Critics and audiences gradually warmed to her, however, as did India’s voracious gossip columns, which pored over a handful of early romances with male stars. Her breakthrough year came in 2013, when three back-to-back blockbusters made her arguably the most successful female actor of her generation.
Yet it was amid this period of commercial triumph that Padukone found herself suddenly miserable, in an episode that she said at the time was linked to the death of a friend. Today, she talks cautiously about the experience, looking to one side before answering and twirling a sliver of auburn hair between her fingers. “I now know what the reasons are, and that’s something that I’ve been able to talk about and discover, having done many sessions with my psychiatrist and my psychologist,” she says. Having recovered, she decided to go public, and also to launch a foundation to raise awareness on mental health issues.
“Probably the only negative thing . . . was people who turned around and said, ‘She is an actor, obviously she’d go through depression.’ That’s the only thing I didn’t understand, because after having read up so much about anxiety and depression, I realised that it can happen to absolutely anyone.” By opening up, she hoped to help others: “You’ll always have people who want to pull you down and you’ll always have the few who think that, ‘Oh, she’s got everything, why would she have to go through depression?’ Coming out and speaking was because it was such an important episode in my life, and so disturbing for me.”
Padukone’s dignity over this period only seemed to add to her popularity among Indian movie-goers, and women in particular, who had already come to view her as grounded and hard-working — the sort of starlet it was OK for your daughters to like. She avoided the sultry image projected by other female stars, and the diva-ish, temper-tantrum-throwing that often seemed to go with it. This good-girl reputation was further bolstered by the relative ordinariness of her background and her image as a talented outsider who had managed to break into Mumbai’s clannish, family-dominated film world.
Padukone grew up in the southern city of Bangalore, attending a traditional convent school. She enjoyed badminton in the evenings, encouraged by her father, who played the sport for India. “I had a very, very disciplined life,” she recalls. “Breakfast and dinner had to be had at the dining table, with all of us sitting at the table.” The only exceptions came when film awards or the Miss India pageant came on television, both of which captured her imagination. She played competitive badminton as a teenager but jacked it in for modelling. Eventually she moved to Mumbai, making the leap into Bollywood in 2007.
In person, Padukone is tall, her long-limbed physique marking her out from Bollywood’s more typically petite heroines. When we meet she is dressed conservatively in a black polka-dot suit and a pair of dark espadrilles, which draw attention to the floral tattoo snaking around her left ankle. She has a second, more famous tattoo hidden on the nape of her neck, bearing the initials of actor Ranbir Kapoor — the scion of one of Bollywood’s most famous film families, a former boyfriend and her co-star in 2015’s Tamasha.
Padukone’s physical beauty carried her only so far, however, in an early career marked by mediocre performances — a period she blames on her own immaturity. “In my head there was always a stereotype of an Indian heroine, of having to dress a certain way, carry yourself a certain way, speak a certain way . . . eight years ago I fell into that trap,” she says. Escaping meant risking more adventurous roles, with decent scripts and skilled directors. “There’s been a lot of self-discovery,” she says. “I’ve understood the craft better.”
Many of these changes are on show in Bajirao Mastani, an intensely physical picture that required her to learn both horseriding and swordplay. Yet while she is careful not to link acting directly with her depression, she admits to struggling with the mental ups and downs of film-making. “Something that is physical comes to me more easily than having to play something emotional,” she says. “I might be feeling low but I still have to go and do the most difficult scene as far as comic timing is concerned. So, at every level, you are manipulating your feelings in front of the camera.”
Piku showed Padukone’s development more clearly still, partly for her willingness to challenge her audience by playing a short-tempered and largely unlikeable heroine. The film had sharp gender politics too, given her character’s string of casual relationships — still generally a taboo subject in India’s chaste film industry, where onscreen kisses are rare. The film’s sexual frankness chimed with Padukone’s public persona, not least her decision last year to pick a fight with The Times of India, the country’s most powerful newspaper, which ran a crass online video entitled “Deepika Padukone’s cleavage”. Padukone hit back on Twitter — “YES! I am a woman. I have breasts . . . You got a problem!!??” — winning support for taking on humdrum sexism.
Today, Padukone says she is happy to speak out on other issues, for instance Bollywood’s yawning gender pay gap — an issue also highlighted in Hollywood this year by actor Jennifer Lawrence and others. “It’s something that I’m pushing for myself,” she says. “I think one needs to know where you stand, the value that you add to a film.” Even so, she says she has struggled to find a balance between courting controversy and guarding her own privacy. A handful of major Indian actors have criticised Prime Minister Narendra Modi in recent months over what some perceive to be India’s rising air of intolerance since his election last year, but Padukone declines to follow suit. “It’s a little scary, honestly, and I feel stuck sometimes,” she admits. “Sometimes you comment and it becomes an issue. And if you don’t comment, also it’s an issue.”
In her relatively brief career, Padukone has played her fair share of dependable friends and nerdy girl-next-door types, often alongside male leads twice her age. (“I can only choose from what I am being offered,” she says.) Lately, though, her roles have become undeniably more daring, while she continues to largely eschew “item numbers”, the raunchy cameo dance routines that Indian female actors often use to further their careers. Equally, while her private life has not deviated entirely from the young starlet script — those flings with fellow actors or the sons of tycoons — she has left behind the old clichés of women in Bollywood, in which rising female actors tended to enjoy illicit assignations with older, married male stars. Even the “RK” tattoo on her neck seems a sign of empowerment, as if her unwillingness to have it removed shows not only her own independence, but her new dominance over the industry as well.
For all this, Padukone’s future is not exactly assured. India is generally not kind to its female movie stars, offering few substantive roles for those in their thirties, a threshold Padukone, at 29, is soon to cross. She faces tricky career choices, not least how far to push those more controversial, challenging roles. Then there is the vexed question of whether to try to make it outside Bollywood, most obviously in America — she says she is “open” to the idea — a transition almost no Indian film star has managed.
Still, Padukone seems optimistic she can continue to leave behind those Indian heroine stereotypes, helped along by a growing audience of more sophisticated, younger film-goers. “The audience’s appetite for consuming different kinds of films has changed for the better, there’s been a sudden influx of amazing writers, the kind of directors that we get to work with today; all of that has changed.” This has helped bring a far wider shift in roles for women too, one that Padukone’s later career in many ways exemplifies. “That’s what I meant when I said that we’ve all fallen into that trap at some point,” she says. “But a lot has evolved in the last eight years . . . The portrayal of women in films has changed drastically. It’s not a small change.”
‘Bajirao Mastani’ is released in India and the UK on December 18
James Crabtree is the FT’s Mumbai correspondent
Photographs: Eros International; Alamy