Being the richest Bollywood woman actor for three consecutive years, with several hits and recent entry into matrimony could have made Deepika Padukone cautious. But she has chosen to be conscientious and, no matter which side of India’s growing political divide perceives her, controversial.
She went unannounced to the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU)’s campus, in turmoil after unprecedented violence, one wintry evening. Dressed in black, she stood tall, literally (1.74 m) and otherwise. Her hands folded, she expressed solidarity with agitating students and teachers, some of them injured and in bandage.
She did not speak a word. Her presence was electrifying, going by the media reports next day. That was just the beginning.
For someone outspoken but not known for political leanings, she went to “ground zero”, well beyond candle lights and solidarity speeches at Mumbai’s Gateway of India and New Delhi’s India Gate. She stood out even over those few from Bollywood and those of other filmmaking hubs who have chosen to speak up.
Unsurprisingly, bouquets and brickbats came, perhaps, in equal measure. Wasn’t she doing this to promote her latest movie Chhapaak (Splash), her critics demanded to know. Their call went out: boycott her and the movie.
Deepika may well be the most-trolled person. Her critics include women, despite the movie being about acid attack on a girl who rejects overtures from a much-older suitor. It is based on a real-life story – indeed many stories – as it highlights a common issue across South Asia.
In visiting the JNU, she had exercised her “personal choice”, the film’s director Meghna Gulzar said. It is interpreted as the director distancing herself for fear of the movie losing at the box office. But Kangana Ranaut, another outspoken Bollywoodian, perceived as Deepika’s rival, has said the same thing. Ditto, Union minister Prakash Javdekar. Asked if his government endorsed the boycott call, of the film or the actor for going to the JNU, he said this was her democratic right.
Post the JNU visit, the film’s viewership rating on IMDb suffered. The website was flooded with single stars awarded by viewers, causing suspicion of foul play. Whatever the truth, Chhapaak has ‘crashed’ at the box office, trade reports say, despite heaps of praise in film reviews. Did she fritter away the empathy the movie’s theme and her sterling performance have generated?
Being candid and courting controversies are not new to Deepika. When the set of her film Padmavat was attacked and director Sanjay Leela Bhansali was slapped two years ago, she spoke out, unlike the male actors, including Ranveer Singh whom she later married.
She and Ranveer who began dating in 2013 were very discreet about their relationship. But Deepika has never hidden her past relationships, either with actor Ranbir Kapoor or with industrialist Siddharth Mallya whom she briefly dated.
Sometime in 2014 when her career was swinging up, she was diagnosed with depression. For her to speak openly about it, despite being a huge star, was remarkable. She not only battled it but has championed the cause by setting up a foundation to help others. She spoke about it at Davos, Switzerland, this week.
Protesting a caption to her photo, she challenged the country’s biggest media house: “Yes, I have breasts… and a cleavage… any problems?” It caused uproar. There were attempts to defend it as freedom of expression and argue that movie actors were “public property” and must bear such comments sportingly. She did not yield ground and earned a veiled apology.
Stardom comes at a price. But she has been lucky, too, being ranked the first-ever woman among the top five richest celebrities in India. She was placed fourth in the Forbes India Celebrity 100 list in 2018 with her earnings assessed at Rs 112.80 crore.
Deepika’s journey in Bollywood (and as much in public life) has been a mix of self-belief and some luck. Before her entry into Bollywood, she played badminton like her champion father Prakash Padukone. Debuting on the ramp in 2005, she was among India’s top models. All models are tall and slender, but she is remembered for her 100-watt smile. Her 2006 Kingfisher Calendar pictures remain a benchmark. She also did the Liril, Limca and Close Up ads during that period.
Thanks to these early successes, Bollywood director Farah Khan gave Deepika, then one Kannada language film old, her Bollywood break in 2007, casting her opposite Shah Rukh Khan in Om Shanti Om. Her career slumped soon after, with just a dance number with SRK in Billu. Unafraid of soiling her star image, she sat among the SRK fans in a reality show and asked when he would again work with her.
From badminton to Bollywood to Hollywood, working with Vin Diesel, she has trudged on. My own favourite is Piku. In a power-packed performance, she excels as a head-strong architect living with her ageing hypochondriac father, played by Amitabh Bachchan. She matched another seasoned actor, Irfan. With Piku, the woman of substance had arrived. A small film, Piku made three times the money invested. The Bengali character this southern lass played got then President Pranab Mukherjee to host the film’s show at the Rashtrapti Bhavan.
For now, we will not know if Deepika is in trouble, or out of it. Media reports have darkly suggested that she could lose some brands she endorses. It is probably a warning to her and her likes in the world of entertainment. Perhaps, that is the price to pay for political activism, especially when the protests she associated with are continuing, now into second month and are spreading to smaller towns.
At Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh and Jamia Millia Islamia campus, the other “ground zero”, thousands, including women with babies, braving biting cold, are protesting against the Modi Government’s controversial citizenship law. Their collective determination is mind-boggling. But how long will this sustain?
Media reports are not uniform – they cannot be. The PM himself complains that the ‘maadhyam’ (media) is one-sided and alleges that rallies supporting that law are being “blacked out.” He asked partymen to “reach out.” Counter-protests are now becoming frequent, some even violent. No let-up.
Some of Mr Modi’s allies are nervous over the citizenship row. Asked to stick by, Punjab’s Akali Dal, an alliance partner, has boycotted elections to Delhi Assembly. Legislatures of some opposition-ruled states have passed resolutions opposing the law. In this no-holds-barred confrontation in India’s winter of discontent, we have to watch if Deepika will remain just an event or there will be more Deepikas coming forward.