COVER STORY — THE QUEEN OF BOLLYWOOD DEEPIKA PADUKONE: “I am not charmed by Hollywood, I am charmed by creativity.”

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The gorgeous Deepika Padukone talks to Sumita Chakraborty about life, work, Bollywood, Hollywood, Vin Diesel and much more… and yes, why she deserves everything she has achieved so far. Read on…

Way back I had met Deepika Padukone for a cover interview for our sister publication SAVVY. At that point she was just 19, already a supermodel and was on the brink of signing Farah Khan’s film Happy New Year with the Badshah Shah Rukh Khan. The venue she picked was her acting school – Anupam Kher’s Film Academy. And we plonked ourselves happily on the steps and did the interview. 19-year-old Deepika even then was very cool, composed and extremely grounded. Happy New Year was put on the backburner and Farah started Om Shanti Om with Deepika opposite Shah Rukh Khan.

Several months later, Om Shanti Om released, and Bollywood hailed the birth of a new sensation. From then on, there was no turning back, Deepika moved from strength to strength. And over the years, the 19-year-old I had met further evolved into one of Bollywood’s finest actresses.

After that, there was no stopping her. From becoming the undisputed number one amongst the actresses in Bollywood to foraying into the glitzy global world of Hollywood, Deepika achieved many extraordinary milestones.

It wasn’t only Bollywood, Hollywood too heralded Deepika Paduokone for her style, screen presence and acting prowess. And the icing on the cake was Forbes magazine listing her amongst The World’s Highest Paid Actresses. Today, this gorgeous actress is being wooed by Hollywood’s finest and toasted to by the crème-de-la-crème there.

And though the crown sits pretty on this beautiful damsel’s head, Deepika even today is extremely cool, composed and grounded. Her self-respect, dignity and self-belief makes her stand out not only as a fine actress but also a good human being.  Read on…

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You’ve gone from strength to strength, conquered all kinds of adversities and challenges with a lot of dignity and principles, and have reached the top. When you look at your journey, how do you feel?

Honestly, I am actually not the kind of person who looks behind and clings to the past. I don’t do post-mortems on what I have done or got. I think being an athlete has taught me to always look ahead.

Yes, of course, I do think back at times but only in a positive way. You learn from all the good things you’ve done and see how you can do things better. And if one has made any mistakes along the way, you also try and rectify them or reflect on them. But then again, I don’t dwell on the past too much – whether it’s the good or the bad. It’s actually a conscious decision that I’ve made to always stay in the present and not think too much about the future – maybe the immediate future, yes, but not into the horizon. I’m someone who is learning too. I wouldn’t say I do it in the best way yet. But I do try!

But I always live in the moment and in the present. Although I do feel it is necessary to look back and appreciate what I’ve achieved. So once in a while, I do look back, and pat myself on the back. I think one should cut oneself some slack, So, I guess I am doing that as well.

Fabulous, Deepika, you’ve conquered Bollywood – you’re the topmost actress at the moment. You’ve also stepped into Hollywood, and now been heralded as one of the world’s highest paid actresses. Everything you touch is turning into gold. What’s the secret?

(Laughs) Honestly, I don’t think there is any secret. If there is any so-called mantra that I always follow or live by is what my father always told me as a young girl. He said, ‘Just focus on enjoying what you do and do what you’re enjoying. And everything else will follow’. And honestly, I think what drives me is my passion for my work, my passion to excel in everything I do. For me, being mediocre is not okay. When I take on something, I like to give it my best and I think being driven by creativity and challenges, works for me! And speaking of Hollywood, let me say, I am not charmed by Hollywood, I am charmed by creativity.

Some people think success has been served on a silver platter to you. You were a supermodel, once you stepped into stardom, you became a super actress, your journey seems too easy… What do you have to say about that?

Well, I would beg to differ. I’d say only the people who are on that journey will understand what my journey is about. This is actually something new that I’ve heard. I think people are aware of the fact that it hasn’t been easy. I think everyone has their struggles and everyone has to work hard in different ways, different aspects, and avenues to achieve what they want to achieve. In my case, my journey is very different from what somebody else’s path or journey has been. I’ve had my set of challenges or shortcomings that I’ve had to work on and overcome. …And maybe some challenges… I am still working on.

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You’ve been working on back-to-back films with Sanjay Leela Bhansali. How is it working with him on the professional and personal level?

Ironic that you ask me that question… I’m actually driving to his sets right now. But to answer your question, it’s extremely challenging and liberating at the same time. He is someone who makes you feel so uncertain. It’s actually polars opposite in so many ways. He challenges you, makes you feel uneasy. And on the other hand, he makes you feel like only you can achieve what he has envisaged or what he expects. So he gives you that unsettling feeling but also on the same time, gives you the feeling of ‘I know you can do it or I know only you can do it’!

And he means it… as you are doing so many films with him.

As a creative person, there are no boundaries whatsoever.  He makes me feel special as if only I could do this! And he validated that a couple of days ago, when he told another actor, ‘You know with this girl. I don’t even have to talk to her. She walks on to the set,  goes and stands on her mark and does her thing. That’s it!’

And it is such a lovely feeling to know that it’s something I always felt but maybe never voiced it. And to see him validate that, to me, it was an incredible feeling!. And that’s a very devout place to reach with a director, more so with a director like him. …Because he is definitely not very easy to please (that said, in a good way). I admire that he doesn’t settle for anything mediocre. He just takes out the best from me. Unless it’s perfection, it’s not okay for him. I think everyone who has worked with him, agrees to work with him knowing that all you’re going to get is perfection. And as an artiste, you learn so much. I’d say forget the fate of the films – it may be a hit or a super hit – but at the end of the day, as an artiste, for me, it has been enriching working under him.

You’ve become a global star after xXx: Return Of Xander Cage. But there has been a constant comparison with Priyanka Chopra. Does it bother you?

No, not at all! I find it silly sometimes to even address the question. The fact is that there never were comparisons so why should there be now?

You’ve been listed as the one of world’s richest actress by Forbes. How do you feel about that?

(Laughs) Let me put it this way. I do feel a sense of… I’d say gratification or a sense of accomplishment. But at the same time, I am also happy that it is not a result of something that I focused my energies towards. If that was my ambition, then I’d be like, ‘Okay, that’s what I focused my energies towards and the result is this!’ And I think that I just went about doing what I believe in or what I enjoy doing the most – and something like (being listed by Forbes) was not even on my radar. But it’s important this sort of financial validation happens. When I say validation, it’s because it is so necessary especially at a time when equal pay or equal wage is something that is so spoken about, so this kind of validation is extremely important to me. I am not going to brush it aside, or not acknowledge it. Of course, I am going to own it and acknowledge it. But I appreciate the fact that it has happened as a result of my work and not as a result of focusing only on that.

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Vin Diesel is supposedly very fond of you. Do you consider him to be your Godfather in Hollywood? Would you like to work with him in the Fast and Furious 9?

I think it makes for an extremely entertaining copy when people take interviews out of context or headlines are made out of an interview which was meant to be fun and light-hearted. But honestly, for me, I think it’s so petty. For me, the fact that I have had a first-hand experience with a man like him, who is so gentle, and so pure, so real and so rare, …so large hearted and genuine. I value that friendship and I value that relationship. I value the fact that he has come into my life so beautifully. He is such an amazing person and is an important part of my life today and that’s it!

But on the other hand, I don’t understand these terms ‘mentor’ or ‘Godfather’ because I’ve never had that in my life. And I always value, appreciate and recognize the fact that just like Farah (Khan) and Shah Rukh had immense faith in me during Om Shaanti Om –  Farah will tell you herself that I never had to audition, I never had to give a screen test – and that’s the sort of leap of faith they took as far as I am concerned,  It is the same over here – I didn’t have to audition for it, they just knew I was right for the part. And to bag the female lead in a mainstream Hollywood franchise is absolutely unheard of. Of course, I will give credit to myself for this. …Maybe I was deserving of it or maybe I had worked hard enough to achieve that. But I also give credit to my entire team to recognize that, and to have the faith that I could pull it off.

Who is the next Hollywood star you’d want to work with? Is there any particular genre that you enjoy doing?

There are a lot of people I would like to work with but again, it becomes a different sort of headline unfortunately. Eventually, it isn’t about who I am working with. It is about X person being right for the part. It is not just Hollywood or in India. It is important creatively for people to be right for that part. Who would have thought that Irrfan Khan and I would be perfect for a film like Piku. People at that time were like, ‘Why are you doing a film with Irrfan Khan?’. When people heard that I was working with Shoojit Sircar, Amit Ji and Irrfan Khan, they thought it sounded very different. But when you watch the film, it makes sense. I believe that eventually that is what casting is about, and as long as that makes sense for the film, everything is correct. So I think I am always driven by creative opportunities and there are a lot people in Hollywood whose work I appreciate and admire, and hopefully, I’ll get to work with them at some point.

As a celeb, you keep saying that headlines are taken out of context…. You are constantly under the public glare. How do you cope with it?

I don’t, I choose for it not to be a part of my universe. It doesn’t even exist in my world.

You support Live Love Laugh Foundation. How do you aim to bring about a change through it?

It’s important to talk about mental health just the way we talk about physical health. And unless we start creating awareness, there will always be a stigma attached to it. It needs to become mainstream, it needs to become a part of our everyday conversation, a conversation that we don’t shy away from. We also need to recognize the people around us that might be dealing with a mental illness and be supportive of their moods and needs.

Do you see any change regarding mental health over the years?

And yes, gradually, I see the change. I see mental health coming to the fore in the last one or two years. This year,  the theme for World Health Organization is also depression. And you see our Prime Minister talking about it in Mann Ki Baat. So these are all very positive steps. I also see the media talking about it a lot more. So we are definitely heading in the right direction. But of course, there’s lots more we can do and with the help of the government, more work is needed to be done in the field of mental health. But there has been tremendous progress in the last couple of years I would say.

Lastly Deepika, if not an actor, what would you be?

Umm…I don’t know. I’d probably enjoy being a homemaker. Because that’s what I enjoy doing… being at home, doing things.  So I guess if I wasn’t an actor I would probably focus my energies towards that.