At one point in Om Shanti Om (2007), Shah Rukh Khan grabs Deepika Padukone by the arms and says, while shaking her, “I know you’re not an actress and you can’t act, but you can at least try!” Although the scene is between the characters Om Kapoor, the hero of the film, and Sandy, a debutante who’s been selected for her looks, that particular line felt distinctly meta. Om Shanti Om was Padukone’s first Hindi film and while she looked gorgeous, emoting was a challenge for the model-turned-actor. Over the next six years, Padukone would establish herself as one of Hindi’s cinema’s most beautiful women and most stilted actors. Whether she was playing the London-based career-driven Meera (Love Aaj Kal, 2009) or a blind roller-skating dancer from a Mumbai slum (Lafangey Parindey, 2010), little changed in the way Padukone presented herself. Irrespective of the role, her smile lit up the screen while her attempts at acting had the opposite effect. The first hint that there may be more to Padukone than her looks was in Cocktail (2012). Padukone brought out the defiance and vulnerability in the vice-ridden Veronica in a way that made audiences root for the ‘party chick’ over the film’s sanskari heroine.
Then came 2013. Padukone had four films that year — Race 2, Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, Chennai Express and RamLeela. Not only were all four massive hits, in each film, the actor transformed herself. From her make-up to body language, everything changed to adapt her striking looks to match the distinct requirements of each role. She held her own alongside co-stars who were known for their acting; she stood out in ensembles even when the script sidelined her character. With films that spanned action to melodrama, Padukone established herself as a commercially bankable star who also excelled as an actor in a range of genres. Gone was the awkward newcomer of the early years. In 2013, Padukone arrived as a born-again actor.
Since then, she has gone from strength to strength. In the last decade, Padukone has been forgettable in only two films — Race 2, in which she (and everyone else) was overshadowed by the car that escaped an exploding plane thanks to four red parachutes tied to its headlights and tail lights; and 83 (2021), where her appearance as Romi Dev was essentially an extended cameo. Barring Happy New Year (2014), which was a sad attempt at comedy, and a forgettable Hollywood debut in XXX: The Return of Xander Cage (2017), there have been only a few disappointments from the actor. Here are Padukone’s 10 best performances from the past 10 years.
Of the three films that Padukone has done with director Sanjay Leela Bhansali, this one was the most controversial and saw the actor delivering one of the most listless performances of her career. She looked spectacular and pulling off the choreography of “Ghoomar” is genuinely a feat of muscular strength disguised as dancing, but Padukone couldn’t make Padmavati much more than a beautiful mannequin. Practically entombed in the elaborate costumes — the nose ring covered more than half of her face — her performance was bland and it didn’t help that she had no chemistry with co-star Shahid Kapoor. The worst part of Padmaavat was Bhansali’s decision to glorify and romanticise the regressive practice of jauhar (historically, women set themselves ablaze when there was fear of being raped by the rival army). It’s profoundly ironic that Padukone’s look during the jauhar sequence inspired that year’s wedding trend of ‘maharani bride’.
Mastani has the kind of entry that is usually reserved for heroes. Bajirao (Ranveer Singh) is strategising in his camp with his trusted aide when an unknown warrior storms the peshwa’s tent. Guards rush in, but can’t match the invader’s sword-wielding skills. It takes a kick to the chest, from the peshwa, to finally able to stop the stranger, whose helmet comes off to reveal a cloud of brown hair. Mastani, exuding strength and femininity, tells Bajirao that the king of Bundelkhand has requested aid. “If he has fighters like you, he doesn’t need my help,” Bajirao replies. It’s a fantastic introduction, but the best parts are when Mastani is a faceless soldier in helmet and chainmail. Once she reveals herself, Mastani feels strangely bland. Despite being given a well-written role and the chemistry she shared with Singh, Padukone only shone in the action sequences. Bajirao Mastani is one of the rare films of this decade in which Padukone was overshadowed by her co-actors.
Ayan Mukerji’s coming-of-age romantic drama about four friends was a breakout film for Padukone. She was saddled with a role that felt clichéd in parts, but Padukone’s performance was endearing enough to make you overlook eye-roll-inducing ‘twists’, like how the nerd is transformed into a desirable beauty when she ditches her glasses. In the hands of a lesser actor, Naina in Yeh Jawaani… could easily have felt annoyingly passive. Instead, we rooted for Naina because Padukone made her a charming combination of silly and self-aware. As a college student, Naina falls for a man who prefers to be called Bunny, but she doesn’t let him know her feelings because she realises he’s dreaming of a life very different from what she wants for herself. So begins a long-time crush and even when the stars do align to bring Naina and Bunny together, heartbreak follows. Padukone made Naina feel relatable even though the name “Bunny” should be a red flag and few of us can hope to look as amazing as she does in everything from tiny shorts to saris wrapped as tight as crepe bandage. For the first time, Padukone’s performance felt natural and she matched strong actors like Kalki Koechlin and Ranbir Kapoor beat for beat.
No one could have imagined that in a Rohit Shetty action spectacle that has Shah Rukh Khan in the lead, it would be Deepika Padukone who would be the scene stealer. Meenamma, with her bokwas accent, was imagined as a caricature whose only function in the Chennai Express universe was to give Khan opportunities to woo audiences as a Shettified 40-year-old virgin. Instead, Meenamma came across as a firecracker whom you wanted to see more of when the script dismissed her to the sidelines in order to let Rahul take the spotlight. Padukone aced the over-the-top comedy, salvaging what could have been a grating mess of boring tropes and mispronounced syllables. Her Meenamma is feisty, fun and doesn’t look like she needs any protecting, despite being surrounded by men who insist on doing as much. Prior to the release of Chennai Express, Khan pledged to run the names of the heroines of his films before his own as a show of respect. Padukone’s excellent performance ensured that her name appearing before Khan’s in the credits wasn’t simply a patronising gesture. Her performance deserved that prominence.
Imtiaz Ali’s film about a troubled young man who, to quote Freddie Mercury, wants to break free and is grappling with mental illness didn’t really have much space for anyone other than the hero. Tamasha is all about Ved (Ranbir Kapoor), and his love interest Tara is a frustratingly underwritten role that Padukone nevertheless managed to redeem with her performance. Padukone had to lend depth and make credible a half-baked character who finds bad pick-up lines charming, tolerates being yelled at and goes from giggly to weepy to clingy to Japan without any cogent explanation. She did so with her performance and with little help from the script. As Tara struggles to make good her relationship with Ved, she makes you think about the questions at the heart of Ali’s film — does one fall in love with a person or with the idea of love? Do we want love in our lives because it promises a redemption of some sort and what does one do when love doesn’t fulfil that promise? Can a relationship born during the heady, out-of-time experience of a holiday survive the banalities of everyday life? Despite the plot losing sight of Tara repeatedly in order to glorify Ved, our eyes were always on her, thanks to Padukone’s acting.
When Padukone decided to turn producer, she chose as her director Meghna Gulzar and together, they set out to make a film inspired by the life of acid attack survivor Laxmi Agarwal. Just for that, Padukone deserves applause. Additionally, she chose to star in a film that not only sent out a powerful message, but did so by obscuring the one thing she was most famous for: Her beauty. It was as though Padukone was exploiting her looks to make the public pay attention to a subject that most choose to ignore. The contrast between Padukone as Malti and the actress as herself during the film’s promotional events was painfully stark and with each public appearance, Padukone seemed to remind us of the extent to which an acid attack can transform a face and a life. Admittedly, the disfiguration was artfully done in the film, making sure you could glimpse Padukone’s striking features through the scarring, but Chhapaak packed a punch. The scene in which Malti is attacked with acid hits hard, but later scenes, like the one in which Malti struggles to wear an earring, hit harder. The film has some great dialogues that show Malti’s refusal to be treated like a victim even while the rest of the world seems determined to victimise her.
Padukone reunited with Cocktail director Homi Adajania for a very different film. Leaving the gloss and excess of commercial Bollywood aside, Adajania retreated to Goa, to tell a gentle, comic love story filled with delightfully eccentric characters, including the “Casanova of the Konkan”. Finding Fanny had fantastic performances by Dimple, Naseeruddin Shah and Pankaj Kapur — and Padukone shone as bright as her legendary colleagues. She played Angie, who is our guide through the ways and whimsies of the fictional village of Pocolim. Without any of the glamorous trappings that she was known for, Padukone was pitch-perfect and luminous in this role. Angie was widowed soon after her wedding and since then, her life is set in simple routines and melancholia. Padukone brought out the boredom and restlessness of Angie’s life with grace and restraint. Also, Finding Fanny required its cast to deliver dialogues in English, which tends to be a waterloo for Padukone’s generation (just listen to how awkward Farhan Akhtar sounds in his Ms. Marvel cameo). Padukone spoke her lines with breezy fluency and natural ease, even when she has to talk about choking on wedding cake, lies about chicken rolls and cost-cutting by using plastic figurines instead of marzipan — all in a sensual whisper.
Shakun Batra’s film about urban angst and infidelity often feels self-indulgent and contrived, but its best part is Padukone’s portrayal of Alisha. She plays a woman who feels trapped in memories of her parents’ unhappy marriage and who chafes restlessly at the restraints placed by her own marriage in the present. When Alisha’s paths cross with her cousin’s fiancé, Zain (Siddhant Chaturvedi), there’s a spark of desire between them. Alisha picks passion over monotony and denial over confrontation. The worlds she inhabits — uncramped apartments, yachts, yoga studios full of buttery light — may be the stuff of fantasies, but her emotions feel real and Padukone makes you root for Alisha as escapes her reality to run into Zain’s arms. Alisha’s discontent with her husband, the way she’s constricted by secrets and sadness, her feeling of being stretched in too many directions and her need to feel seen, are all depicted with grace. Admittedly, it’s an author-backed role and the writing in Gehraiyaan is very conscious of being a streaming feature with an A-lister in its cast, but to Padukone’s credit, she earns the audience’s attention and empathy as Alisha.
Padukone always looks beautiful, but even by the impossibly high standards set by her perfect features, Leela is something special. RamLeela was Bhansali’s take on William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and he was the first director to properly realise how Padukone’s beauty could be used to make a cinematic impact. Her stature, the strength of her athletic figure and her limpid gaze are all used to fabulous effect in this tragic love story set against the backdrop of feuding families. Bhansali’s Juliet had none of the demure docility of the teenager from Verona. Leela is older and a woman who is confident, smouldering and ferocious. Padukone had never looked this stunning on screen before, but neither had any director given her as expansive a canvas to play with as Bhansali did. She filled every frame she appeared in with charismatic energy and intensity. Plus, the central love story was a scorcher thanks to the adrenaline rush of her scenes with Ranveer Singh. If one miracle of RamLeela was how Singh’s dhoti, tied impossibly low, defied gravity to stay in the vicinity of his hips, the other was the revelation that was Padukone’s gun-toting Leela.
Everything about this film took us by surprise when it came out. Parent-child relationships tend to be depicted with sappy sweetness in Bollywood, and usually act as a setup for a romantic relationship that will leave a woman torn between her family and her love interest. Piku ignored all those conventions and proceeded to tell a story that felt rooted and real. The film is about a curmudgeonly hypochondriac, played brilliantly by Amitabh Bachchan, and his daughter, Piku who is as crotchety as she is charming. When he insists on a road trip to Kolkata (from Delhi) after a health scare, a disgruntled Piku agrees. Driving them is Rana (Irrfan), who runs a taxi business and whose drivers regularly end up in crashes because Piku was quarrelling with them. Juhi Chaturvedi’s script unfolds like a love letter to Bengali eccentricity. It was elevated to greatness by Shoojit Sircar’s direction and the cast, led not by Bachchan and Irrfan — both of whom were in fine form — but Padukone. For once, we saw on screen a grown woman who loses her temper, takes joy in sparring and feels all the more lovable for her imperfections. Filled with laughter, tenderness and a lot of discussion of poop, Piku remains one of the best portraits of contemporary Indian womanhood we’ve seen in Hindi cinema.