Earlier this year, Deepika Padukone starred in Sanjay Leela Bhansali‘s Padmaavat, which went on to become one of the highest-grossing Indian films of all time. She spoke to Film Companion about why it’s important for Time’s Up to be gender neutral, how minimizing the use of social media can be helpful and what marriage means to her. Here is an edited transcript of the conversation:
Anupama Chopra: Deepika, congratulations on Padmaavat. The success of the film positions you as the most powerful woman in Bollywood. There’s no argument with that. But with great power comes great responsibility, so what do you want to do with this power?
Deepika Padukone: To be honest, it’s never been about ‘now what?’. Whatever I feel, I felt even some years ago — whatever you do, do it with some purpose and with the intention to bring about some change, to impact people’s lives with happiness and positivity, maybe some amount of guidance. With what I do, I get to learn a lot. Maybe by speaking about my journey or my experiences or the films that I do, if I’m able to empower people, that would be my intention, it’s always been my intention. The success of the film further amplifies that platform.
AC: But what was ironic was that this film was a big success and will change things for women in the film industry, but it was so vilified for its own gender politics. When something like that happens, do you step back and say, ‘Maybe here’s another way to look at it’? Did it give you any other perspective?
DP: No, it didn’t give me any other perspective. The intention of doing Padmaavat was for people to realise that there was a woman with that sort of spirit and fearlessness. It was a story that needed to be told now. And for me, this was the way. There could be other ways that people look at it, but for me it was this.
AC: You know, there’s this wonderful moment in Sunset Boulevard, which is about a movie star from the silent era. And this man says to her, ‘Oh, Norma Desmond, you used to be big!’ And she says, ‘I am big, it’s the pictures that got small.’ Now as you get bigger and bigger, how do you make sure that the roles have the same bigness — that they have the meat and the heft?
DP: I think they have to be meaningful. Piku was a small film, but it had meaning, it had depth. I need to find that connect. It’s not literally about how big or small the film is.
AC: It’s not budget-related.
DP: It’s most definitely not budget-related. Otherwise I wouldn’t have done Finding Fanny, for example. I don’t think anything changes. In my humble opinion, that’s the mistake a lot of people make — with more success comes more responsibility, and so you have to start changing things in your life. But I look at it the other way, which is that you are where you are because of certain things that you’ve done or believed in. Such as to remember your roots, and to keep reminding yourself of why you are here, and what are those decisions or thoughts or people who have helped you get to where you are. That’s the way I look at it.
AC: There’s no sense of ‘now I can’t do this’?
DP: No. No, why would there be?
AC: I don’t know, number one and all that?
DP: No. No. It’s important for me to always remember, what is it that I did that brought me here? If I had to sum it up in one line, it would be to not forget my roots, and I mean that in so many ways. In my personal life, in my professional life, in so many ways, that line just sums up everything.
AC: Deepika, do you see yourself as an artist or as a brand?
DP: As an artist, I think. And I hope that doesn’t change. While I think people’s perception is changing, or has changed — again, that brings me back to my earlier point. Which is that if people perceive me a certain way or can attribute certain things to me because of the work that I’ve done, it’s because of being an artist. That’s never going to change. And that’s inherently who I am. And that’s the foundation, you don’t forget that.
AC: I know you don’t like to talk about your acting process, but I have to ask. We did this interview with Imtiaz and he was talking about this scene in Tamasha. He spoke with such love about you and Ranbir, and what you brought to that scene, and how you did it. And he said that you were actually shy and you used performance to get over your personal shyness. How do you do that?
DP: I don’t know. He said that I used to be a very shy person, which I still am. Maybe I’m just better equipped today to handle it. But I’m inherently a shy and awkward person. That’s how I describe myself.
AC: That’s your middle name!
DP: Yeah. It’s my first and last name, forget middle name!
AC: So he said that through performance you actually came over that shyness. Can you do that? As you become more mature as an actor, perhaps, you become less shy? At least in front of the camera, maybe?
DP: In front of the camera, yes. I think one of the biggest mistakes that I made was that because I was shy off-screen, I’d bring that on-screen. I carried that consciousness in front of the camera for a very long time. Directors who realised I was shy in front of the camera and understood how to break that, did break it. Such as with Imtiaz Ali in Love Aaj Kal. But on my own, I think I realised it during Cocktail and changed it after that. I was more free in front of the camera, I was able to engage and be a different person, and not be inhibited in front of the camera.
AC: But that doesn’t apply to life.
DP: More than inhibited, I’d say that while I am shy and while I am awkward, I think I’ve become better with it over the years. But I think a lot of it has to do with the way I’ve been brought up. You’ve met my parents. There’s a certain way they speak and a certain way they carry themselves; and that’s the way they’ve brought up my sister and me as well. To say it simply, I don’t know any other way of being.
AC: You know, last year, you completed ten years of being an actor. Have your creative instincts changed at all or is that process of finding a script or a character you love still the same?
DP: Yes, it’s the same. The process is the same, because it’s always been instinct. I think the only difference is that earlier I’d be tempted to do films because they just sounded like the right thing to do.
AC: Like a sexy project.
DP: Yeah, like a big project because certain names are coming together, and ‘we’ll work on the script later, but this is a great announcement’. I have been tempted in the past to do films like that. But I think what comes with success is confidence. And with that confidence, I’m able to tell myself, ‘No, it’s fine.’ The way I’ve approached my work so far is the right way to go about it for myself — it could be different for different people, but this is what works for me. So today if someone’s trying to convince me otherwise, I’m very sure of my instincts.
AC: But can success be paralysing in any way? Is there a fear of taking risks as an artist?
DP: If anything, it’s made me feel a lot more confident, it’s made me feel a lot more free. It’s given me the ability to take risks, the ability to express. It doesn’t feel like a burden or like my wings are clipped. I feel empowered, I feel free.
AC: I saw an interview you did a few years ago. They asked you, if you weren’t an actor what would you be? You said, a homemaker.
DP: Yes, that doesn’t change.
AC: And you said you could very easily just walk away from all of this and live a life of happy domesticity. Somehow, I just can’t see that! Is that right?
DP: A little bit. It’s too much a part of my life for me to say that I can walk away from it. But I think domesticity, home, parents, family, marriage, children, staying connected, roots — all of that is very important for me, I’d feel very unsettled if I didn’t have that. But I think today I can see how I can be a working wife or a working mother, and still do what I love doing, and do it successfully.
AC: Yeah, please. It’s not even an option!
DP: No, it’s not an option. But maybe I felt like that at that point because I was working so much. But I can see myself balancing that now. I think I’d drive myself and people around me crazy if I didn’t work.
AC: That’s what I say. I’d be completely neurotic if I didn’t work, so you have to work! So what is your response, then, to all the reports swirling around some impending marriage? Are you amused by it, or do you just not want to go there at all?
DP: I wouldn’t even say amused, to be honest. I think after a point you just get immune.
AC: Also, wouldn’t Padmaavat have done that, because it was in the news every single day? I imagine at some point you’d have to have an armour, no?
DP: I think more than an armour, I need to breathe. I think an armour is stifling. I’ve been engaged so many times, I’ve been married off many, many times. But you know, it is what it is. I don’t think there’s any point in fighting it. It’s most definitely something that will happen in my life, at some point of time. It is a very important institution for me, in the way that I’ve seen my parents and my uncles and aunts, and in the way that I’ve been brought up. So I’m not going to say, ‘Oh, marriage doesn’t mean anything to me’. At the same time, I know that when it is the right time, I’ll feel it and it’ll happen, when it has to happen.
AC: Deepika, you’ve been such a brave advocate for mental health. You were talking somewhere about how it’s so prevalent and we all need to be far more open about it. And you said that social media can directly lead to depression. But social media is also such a key part now of being an actor in Hindi cinema, it’s almost a requirement! There’s literally three-and-a-half people who are not on social media. How do you tame the beast that the social media world is?
DP: Moderation — how much we consume it. We don’t sit and watch TV every day, all the time. But fortunately or unfortunately we have our phones on us all the time. Earlier, if we were sitting with strangers, there’d maybe be an awkward silence for some time, but then you’d start talking to each other. But now you don’t need to make conversation, because I can pretend to be busy, or actually be busy on my phone! So I think it is about moderation. While there are amazing upsides to social media today, it’s literally brought the world closer — it’s also isolating us, because we’re not engaging with people around us. I think there are moments when you don’t feel great about yourself, because you’re seeing somebody else put up a version of their life — it’s not their whole life! Very very few people will actually put up a post of them crying or a video. It’s not real, you know,
AC: It’s a performance.
DP: It’s a performance. Or I wouldn’t say performance, it’s just a very very minuscule part of somebody’s life. But when that’s the only thing you’re projecting, you sort of start wondering if this happening only to somebody else and ‘why is my life not as amazing?’ It’s tricky.
AC: Are you mindful of how long you’re spending on it?
DP: I’m mindful, yes.
AC: You’re not addicted to Instagram?
AC: Because it’s so easy!
DP: I’m very aware of my thoughts and my feelings, so when I feel I’m going down that route, I will quietly put my phone away and walk away from it, and try and do something more productive, like read or clean in my house.
AC: You’re a big cleaner, no?
AC: That’s right! You know, Deepika, in the West, there are now very powerful women like Meryl Streep, the producer Shonda Rhimes, Reese Witherspoon, who’ve all donated a lot of money to Time’s Up, which is attempting at a systemic level to fight the discrimination against women in the film industry. Do you think there’s a need for something like that here?
DP: Absolutely. I would definitely endorse that, but I would also think it’s important for it to be gender-neutral.
AC: Not just for women.
DP: Yeah. While I do think women in our country need to be protected, I think there are some men that need to be protected as well. I don’t think this should become a battle of male versus female. I think it’s about right versus wrong.
AC: That’s true. And tell me, what now for you? What are the choices you’re going to be making?
DP: Well, there was this film with Vishal that I was doing, which isn’t happening as of now, but I do feel like there are certain energies that I want to spend in a particular direction as far as films are concerned and I think I’m looking for that.
AC: Do you still want to do a nice, romantic film?
DP: Yes. My brief hasn’t changed; I told you this! I still want to do something that’s meaningful. But I can’t tell you the number of people who’ve come up to me and said, ‘Can you do another Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani?’ And I wish it fell in my lap.
AC: Come on, you’re Deepika Padukone, you don’t have romantic scripts to choose from?
DP: People aren’t making many!
DP: Yes, everyone’s doing biopics for some reason. I don’t know why! And sports biopics! Why is everyone trying to make a sports biopic!
AC: You want something that tugs at the heart?
DP: Yeah, a little bit. Like fun, and light. That’s the brief.
AC: Yeah, I imagine. After three films with Sanjay Bhansali, you need fun and light!
DP: Yeah, I have to do fun and light.
AC: And it hasn’t come yet?
AC: Well, note to all the filmmakers: come on, come on! Here she is, waiting for fun and light! And what else? What are you doing right now?
DP: I’m helping my parents complete their home. They’re doing up their house and I’m helping them do that. I’m putting my house in order, which is a never-ending thing and which I love doing. So for me it’s not stressful or a chore; I enjoy doing that. Setting up my office: it was the month-end, so taking care of all of that — closing the accounts, books of account–Paperwork, which I love doing! A little printing, a little stapling, a little filing, a little e-mailing…
AC: The exciting life of Bollywood’s number-one actor!
DP: I cleaned one section of my cupboard, because I need to clean my cupboards every few months, otherwise there’s just so many clothes and so much to do.
AC: That’s a good problem to have…
DP: I cleaned out one section, I still have another section to do: there’s a lot of cleaning to do!
AC: I can’t believe you’re excited about cleaning!
DP: I can’t tell you how much joy it gives me! My perfect day would be wake up in the morning, have my South Indian breakfast, go down to the gym–
AC: You were really happy about Idli Day.
DP: I was so happy! I didn’t know there was a World Idli Day! And it was trending for two days! I was so happy. Although I had dosa on Idli Day — I cheated on idli.
AC: So you’d have the South Indian breakfast, and then what would you do on this perfect day?
DP: Go to the gym. Then come back, then have fruit and vegetable juice. Now I’m telling you proper details. Then do some sort of work, which Ranveer calls ‘phatphat’, because he feels I can never sit in one place.
AC: Phatphat kya hota hai?
DP: ‘Phatphat’ is like phat-phat-phat-phat all the time.I can’t sit in one place and do one thing: I’m doing something all the time, either in the office or in the house. Then I’ll have lunch. Then again I’ll do something-something-something. Then evenings — depends. Maybe a massage, maybe not. Netflix, dinner, talk to my parents. So that’s one kind of day. The other kind of day is go down to the gym, come back, meetings-meetings-meetings, narrations-narrations-narrations, all of that; evening — Netflix, dinner. Yeah. That’s what I’m doing now!
AC: Listen, it’s delightful, but I really need the light film to come up.
DP: And there are a few days when I’ve been going to Bangalore and helping my mother with the interior designers. So there are those days also.
AC: So you’re being a dutiful daughter.
DP: Yeah, have to be.
AC: That’s lovely.
DP: It’s expected, demanded, and I like doing it also.
AC: It’s just lovely! OK, I’m going to end, but since you brought up Ranveer, I have to ask: I remember coming to a party you had thrown in the Four Seasons Hotel, remember that party? What was it for? We were all asked to dress in gold.
DP: Just for fun.
AC: It was for fun, you were coming out of some massive success, a big hit.
DP: It was 2013 and I had four mega-hits, all in one row. I just felt like I’d never ever met everyone together, and it was just a celebration.
AC: I remember, and it was black and gold, right? I remember this so clearly. So I walked in around the same time as Ranveer and he was wearing this — I don’t even know what it was, but it was flashy black and gold. And you just cracked up and you said, ‘You look like a sofa!’
DP: I think I’ve said that to him quite a few times!
AC: I died laughing! Do you ever talk to him about his clothes?
DP: Yeah. He does try very hard to seek my approval, but I think in life it’s very important to be honest, and I’m known to not mince my words usually. So…yeah.
AC: Deepika, thank you!
DP: Thank you!
AC: And I hope Fun and Light Film happens very soon.
DP: I hope so too.
AC: We need you back on screen.
DP: Please send the feeling and message out.
AC: I am. Thank you.
DP: Thank you.