They wore blessedly tiny white shorts, as if sunbathing. They looked the part, too, bronzed and toned, sculpted from Renaissance-era marble, just, you know, tanned. Gulp. The actress atop them seemed far more reticent than her sensational stems, speaking softly and keeping mostly to herself. Her, I barely met. The legs, on the other hand, screamed Hi from right across the room. And dozens of us waved moronically back, spilling drinks and walking into coffee-tables as we gaped helplessly.
It is this effortlessly distracting aura that Shah Rukh Khan tapped into as Deepika walked by in Om Shanti Om. He clutched at his heart and swooned, theatrically overwhelmed by prettiness. Deepika was seven when Shah Rukh conquered the nation with Baazigar — the second film she’d ever seen — and yet here he was, holding her dupatta like a schoolboy who’d just swallowed his tongue. It was a dream she’d never dreamt.
Daughter to Badminton champion Prakash Padukone, her childhood treasured sport instead. “It was all about the All England [Badminton and Lawn Tennis Championships] and the World Cup,” she says, speaking about how the family got together once in a while to go watch a film, always something big and dreamy and romantic. “Something YashRaj or Dharma.” She admits to a DiCaprio poster alongside tennis pinups, but films were never something that mattered.
Modelling, however, always did. She pored over magazines, followed pageants, and loved to pose. “I think everybody knew about my passion for being in front of the camera, performing, the ‘glamour’ aspect of it,” she vocally air-quotes the word, almost as if flaunting that gorgeousness is a bad thing. “I think I figured it out in school, because I enjoyed being on stage, photo-shoots, fashion shows and all that.” A career she actively worked towards, she feels, unlike her current one. “I knew that modelling was something I definitely wanted to do. Films… I just didn’t expect [that jump] to happen so soon.”
It happened. At 25, Padukone is one of Hindi cinema’s most recognizable faces. Aarakshan, out this August, will be her tenth film as leading lady, in less than five Bollywood years. What she lacks in range, she tries to make up with gams and gumption. She’s played a movie star, a cab driver, a blind roller-skater, a freedom fighter and even a half-Chinese Ninja-type. “I don’t get to choose what comes to me, I choose from what comes to me,” she explains, a suddenly articulate spark. “I’ve been fortunate that my directors think I can do different kinds of films. But I enjoy doing love stories the most. Those are the films I really enjoy watching.”
Being Cyrus director Homi Adajania’s next film is one of those. She calls it “a hardcore love story,” insists the title Cocktail isn’t final, and, while refusing to spill any beans, dubs it her most challenging role. “This year the films are all different. Aarakshan [a Prakash Jha drama where Saif plays a Dalit] is next and then Desi Boys, which is a romantic comedy, going into Cocktail with Saif, going into Race 2, an action-thriller.”
“There is a kind of cinema [the audience] want to see you in, definitely, but I guess for them also it would be nice to see me in different kinds of roles. Shah Rukh is the perfect example. Everyone loves him as Raj, sure, but they also don’t mind seeing him in a Don 2 or an Om Shanti Om, y’know, doing something different.”
Very telltale, the way she looks to a man, the top man even, as her measure, not to any of her female colleagues. Unlike many of them borrowing accents from Manhattan and Melbourne, Deepika — who says ‘Thin-kuh’ for Think and ‘Wooduntte’ for Wouldn’t — appears a plainer girl who pronounces her apostrophes. An occasional Aishwarya giggle pops up hiccupishly, but vanishes as she talks beyond the rehearsed.
I firmly believe stunners view other stunners very differently from us gogglers, and ask Deepika who in Bollywood looks better than she does, in terms of physical attributes.
Yes, go on, be superficial. Who do you think has nicer legs or eyes or a smile?
“Well, I’ve always admired Madhuri’s… expressiveness. Oh, and Priyanka’s confidence.”
Cheating. Confidence isn’t physical at all.
“Okay, okay. Let me think. Kareena’s… light eyes. And Katrina, I guess, for the way her hair is always in place, no matter what.”
Deepika, you’re hedging. Point blank: is there anybody in Bollywood you think has a better body than you?
Automatic, instant, defiant. With the kind of pluck that shows she’s here to stay.
First published ELLE magazine, July 2011.