A decade-and-a-half after her silver-screen debut, the actress remains at the top of her game. And acting is not all she’s doing well.
Under a condenser microphone is, what we assume, a script – a stack of spiral-bound sheets. The title is illegible and out of focus. There’s a white coffee mug on the far left, the caps of two highlighter pens providing neon color pops in an otherwise grayscale frame. #WIP #pathaan is all that the caption reveals. Deepika Padukone’s Instagram post from late September tells us what we already know, but we bite anyway. The last time we checked, 259,517 people had liked her post, the comments a series of fire-hot emojis. Perhaps it’s the sudden reminder that movie stars do mundane things like reading stacks of A4 sheets while dosing on caffeine that tugs at our heartstrings.
Now, Padukone and I are speaking on Zoom on a Friday night, her profile image a photograph of white orchids against a sunny blue sky. When prodded to reveal a little more about the upcoming January 2023 release that stars Shah Rukh Khan and John Abraham alongside her, she says, “Magnum opus. I think Siddharth Anand is fantastic at doing that – making really cool, slick, good looking movies. Pathaan is the kind of movie you want to go back to the cinema hall for, with your popcorn, and with your family.”
It’s been 15 years since Padukone made her Bollywood debut with the Farah Khan-directed Om Shanti Om, the distance from actordom to stardom traversed in the 162-minute-long running time of a film dedicated to Bollywood, in which she played a movie star as well as an actress hired to impersonate the aforementioned movie star. Since then, Padukone has played cab driver, assassin, party girl, acid-attack survivor, queen, runaway bride, and yoga instructor, among other roles, and worked with the most acclaimed directors of the Hindi film industry, from Sanjay Leela Bhansali (Goliyon Ki Rasleela Ram-Leela, Bajirao Mastani, Padmaavat) to Shoojit Sircar (Piku), Homi Adajania (Cocktail, Finding Fanny), and Rohit Shetty (Chennai Express). She was last seen on screen in Gehraiyaan (2022), which revolved around a love affair running into murky waters.
The genres of her films, which span grand historical sagas staged in crystal-and mirror-drenched sets to road trips with family and few outfit changes, have showcased the range of the actress’s talent; whether she’s playing Mastani with her fierce luminescence or Piku dealing with her aging father with both annoyance and equanimity. “I feel I value the journey a lot more today than I probably would have if, say, you had spoken to me 10 years ago,” says Padukone. “I can see the obstacles and moments where I could have faltered –and it’s not to say I haven’t faltered or made mistakes – but I was able to go through this like a horse with blinkers on and not let anything pull me down. It’s a little bit like what I would tell my younger self… I feel it’s been a pretty incredible journey.”
The year 2022, with its airport paparazzi and Insta Reels and hookstep challenges, is different from the milieu in which Padukone entered the film industry. Om Shanti Om (2007) came after a spell of modeling, with Farah Khan reportedly casting her after spotting her in a Himesh Reshammiya music video. Before modeling, Padukone, the daughter of Indian badminton legend Prakash Padukone, was a national-level badminton player. “For a young girl growing up in this country 15 or 20 years ago, when there was no social media, you were so colored by everything you were fed,” she reminisces. “The way a heroine is supposed to be, the way she is supposed to conduct herself, the way she should enter the industry, the kind of movies she should do… You come into this world thinking that if you want to be a successful actor, you have to be all of these things. And then you discover along the way that you can also do it your way.”
One of the most remarkable waves to have swept the Indian film industry in recent years has been the rise of the “pan-India film” – typically, made-for-the-big-screen blockbusters with ensemble casts and grandiose themes, often dubbed simultaneously in many languages, exemplified by the likes of Baahubali, KGF, and RRR and their mega success. So far, the films have mostly come from the Telugu and Kannada film industries, and Bollywood is seeking to emulate it. What does Padukone, who hails from Karnataka, think of the phenomenon? “I think I’m on the side that says it was high time. I’ve always wondered why we worked in clusters. When you work as a collective, it becomes such a powerful narrative. It’s nice to see how everyone is coming together and making films for a much larger audience, not just for the 1.5 billion people in our country but also for the world.”
Like many of us, Padukone spent the Covid-19 lockdown alternating between despair, ennui, and gratitude. “It was a bittersweet time. In the second wave the whole family went through it together. My father was in the hospital. You’re being a caregiver while also recovering from it yourself… But in the first wave, like with everyone else, there was a lot of confusion, trying to find calm within all this and trying to take care of those around you,” she recalls. The lockdown also happened a little over a year after her wedding with actor Ranveer Singh. “We’d just married, and soon after that we got back into work, so this [the lockdown] was really when we got uninterrupted time with each other.” In her own life, she says, downtime and self-care are indispensable. “Making time for myself is a very important part of my self-care, whether it’s a digital detox or working only certain hours a day or certain days a week. And I think that my experience with mental illness has brought me to this space today. I prioritize my mind and my body over everything else. Did it take an illness to bring me to that level of awareness? Yes. But I guess that’s what it is. Sometimes you need to go through those experiences to really come out of something having learned something,” she says. Padukone made headlines in 2015, when, in an interview with news channel NDTV, she spoke out about being diagnosed with depression a year prior – a rare (and powerful) revelation coming from an Indian celebrity. The Live Love Laugh Foundation that she set up in 2015 has been working towards making mental-health counseling accessible to all. There are programs for schools, doctors, and villages, as well as a counseling assist helpline.
Padukone has been in the global spotlight of late. One of the actress’s most talked-about public appearances in recent months was as a jury member at the Cannes Film Festival this year alongside the likes of Asghar Farhadi, Noomi Rapace, and Rebecca Hall, among others. The occasion, as expected, brought with it a range of stellar fashion choices. An ochre-and-black sequin-plastered Sabyasachi sari inspired by the Bengal tiger. An ivory-hued Abu Jani Sandeep Khosla bubble-hem sari with a pearl collar, which saw her looking every bit the sea goddess on the French riviera. A floral Richard Quinn and a flaming Ashi Studio sculptural gown from the Saudi label was lauded by her 69 million followers – and many custom Louis Vuitton looks, thanks to her being appointed ambassador of the French maison, the first Indian celebrity in the role. As this collaboration was announced, fans rejoiced and underlined online the importance of representation, and of having a south Asian star as the face of the heritage European brand. The actress describes Nicolas Ghesquière, Louis Vuitton’s creative director, as “gentle, sensitive, and generous.” On the year-old association withthe brand, she comments, “[For] the way they’ve welcomed me into the Louis Vuitton family and proudly flaunted me across the world, I just feel grateful at the moment.” Meanwhile, her “off-duty” wardrobe was equally streamlined – athleisure co-ords, loads of denim and oversized shirts, and pristine sneakers. “At the core of it, so much of [fashion] is what I’ve seen and learned from my mother – classic and elegant. But over the years, having been a model and an actress and being able to engage with some of the best creative minds in the world and playing different characters, your style evolves. I think I’ve now found that place where I’m able to have fun with fashion,” she says, having also just been announced as an official Friend of the maison Cartier.
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The weekend is coming up. Padukone has recently started watching the HBO satire The White Lotus. Like many, the actress sometimes enjoys time on the couch in front of her TV. “How do I explain this…? Right from Emily in Paris to Succession, I’ve watched everything,” she reveals. “My life before I became an actress and a model was so rigid and disciplined because I was an athlete. I didn’t watch television; I didn’t grow up watching many movies. Today I feel I can actually sit and understand and enjoy something, whether it’s a movie or a show… It’s also an escape, right?” Padukone is also a “music junkie”; her current earworm is the AP Dhillon number ‘Summer High’. Her husband, she says, finds her taste in music both “good” and “commercial.” She enjoys working out and is also obsessed with organizing. “My husband and people around me don’t know why I keep cleaning all the time, but I find that therapeutic,” she laughs. There’s also her recent love for cross-stitch, which she picked up during a bout of Covid. “Yes, don’t even ask… The list is endless.” In Dubai recently for this shoot with Vogue Arabia, Padukone wishes she visited the Emirates more often and, for once, not for work. She was last in the region in December, for the world premiere of 83 at the Red Sea Film Festival in Jeddah. Where would she go first? “I know this is highly inappropriate, but I’m going to say…the mall. I’ve been here so often. I’ve shot films here, I’ve shot ads here, and I’ve not had the opportunity to visit Dubai, or anywhere in the UAE, on just a holiday. But whenever I have visited, it has always been familiar and comforting.” The timer on our interview is about to go off. We say our goodbyes. The white orchids disappear. Padukone will probably go back to watching The White Lotus. It’s hard to compete with Jennifer Coolidge.
Originally published in the October 2022 issue of Vogue Arabia
Style: Amine Jreissati
Hair: Dani Hiswani
Makeup: Gianluca Casu
Photography assistant: Héloïse Dombreval
Digitech: Ali Jerome
Junior fashion editor: Mohammad Hazem Rezq
Style assistant: Vaidehi Pal
Producer: Sam Allison