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Box Office Queen

She had just one release in 2012 – Cocktail – and it did amazing business. In addition, she was praised for her performance by one and all. Then, in 2013, she delivered not one or two but four blockbusters – Race 2, Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, Chennai Express and Goliyon Ki Raasleela - Ram-Leela. Considering her contribution to the box office, the accolades she’s received and the line-up on her slate, it isn’t an exaggeration to say she’s the No 1 actress today. Here’s Blockbuster Actress Deepika Padukone in conversation with team Box Office India

Box Office India (BOI): 2013 was a dream year for you, with Race 2, Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, Chennai Express and Ram-Leela. In your wildest dreams, did you ever think it would be this good?

Deepika Padukone (DP): Sometimes, when things happen and they are this special, you never expect it to be that way. It’s just, like, ho jata hai. All you can do – and I have always said this – is be honest to the time you spend on a film set. You don’t need to prove anything to anyone. You give 100 per cent and you do it for yourself. What you give is what you get back.

I chose my films the way I always do. It was almost impossible trying to accommodate all these films. Like, I was doing Yeh Jawaani…, Chennai Express and it became even more hectic when I was trying to accommodate Ram-Leela along with these two films. The only way I could accommodate Ram-Leela was by doing it in the breaks between Yeh Jawaani… and Chennai Express. As a result, I was working more than 365 days a year by doing double shifts. Also, I had not accounted for endorsement shoots, rehearsals, promotions… But I am not complaining. It was well worth it. People may applaud me for all this but whatever happened was organic.

BOI: Interestingly, each film was very different from the others. Was that your strategy?

DP: Not, at all. It’s great now that the year has ended and people can analyse and say there were two Rs 100-crore films and one Rs 200-crore film. Now we can sit back and discuss the math… how well a film has done, or critically how it has done. But I didn’t plan for all these films to release in the same year. If I could have had my way, I would have preferred them to have been spaced out a little. I wish Chennai Express didn’t eat into the business of Yeh Jawaani… or Ram-Leela didn’t eat into the business of another… To have such big films releasing back to back, I would have preferred… If only Yeh Jawaani… had released, it would have been more than enough for me. And I would have easily had Chennai Express and Ram-Leela releasing much later. But, like I said, you can’t control these things.

BOI: It’s a great combination – winning box-office accolades as well as winning over critics – and you have been managing to do that for your last five films. What is that like?

DP: When I am doing a film, I don’t say ‘With this film, I am now going to prove I can act or prove I can break all the records’. Things like these are beyond your control. Like I said, the only thing I can do is be honest to the roles I play, to the films, give it 100 per cent. I am exhausted at the end of every day. When you do that, everything else will happen.

BOI: Do you think you’re the No 1 actress today?

DP: I still have a long way to go.

BOI: You can be No 1 and still have a long way to go.

DP: No, I mean, to just have four or five successes, back-to-back, in the same year… I don’t know if that’s the definition of being No 1. For me, it’s repeat value. I hope I have been part of films which have repeat value and which will be remembered when you are celebrating 200 years of cinema. I think that is the hallmark of a successful film. People are talking about how I have contributed Rs 600 crore to the box office this year but I think a true sign of success is when you can watch a film over and over again.

BOI: The trade is already comparing you to the likes of Sridevi and Madhuri Dixit. How does that feel?

DP: It feels great. Recently, I read an article about how, after Sridevi and Madhuri Dixit, it’s me, and I was, like, ‘WOW!’ because these are the people I grew up watching. Sridevi in Chandni, Madhuri in Dil, Juhi Chawla in Hum Hain Rahi Pyar Ke… Since they influenced my life when I was growing up, it is a nice feeling to be spoken about in the same way that people did about them.

BOI: Since you have set the benchmark so high, is the pressure on you even more? Is that a concern for you?

DP: I understand that it’s not something that can keep happening all the time, so I am enjoying it as long as it lasts. I enjoy it when people say nice things about me but I also know this is not permanent. I also know when I may not have a great run at the box office. And that’s ok too. What is important is to just keep at it. I had two years in my career when none of my films were doing well. But I survived.

People still offered me some of the biggest films with the biggest producers, the biggest co-stars, biggest directors, over and over again. I believe, if that’s happening, maybe it’s a result of the love people have for me, and maybe it’s beyond my box office success. If people are giving me a chance over and over again when my films aren’t doing well, maybe the audience has liked me for who I am. When my films were not doing well, they were disappointed and now that things are looking good, I feel they have been part of my journey and can celebrate my success.

BOI: Since you don’t have a film background in the industry, do you feel vindicated?

DP: I have never looked at it like that. I have been asked that question very often but it was never really an option. It’s not like I felt dejected because I wasn’t from the industry or that I had to work even harder. It is only now when I am asked these questions that I realise that, yeah, actually I am not from the industry and I had to make it on my own. Yes, I do feel a sense of achievement because I know that wherever I have reached and the people I have known in the industry over the last six years are my own equations. I am proud because I have done it on my own.

BOI: How easy or difficult has your journey been?

DP: It was tough but that’s relative because each one has to struggle in their own way to reach where they get. To move to Mumbai at the age of 18-19, to start on my own, to not know anything about filmmaking, never mind anyone in the industry… It’s taken 10-15 films to get comfortable with myself, with the craft.

I remember walking onto the sets of Om Shanti Om and not knowing so many things, like what a crane was, what a trolley was. From there to now, my learning has been on a film set. So I have had… I won’t say a struggle… but it’s taken me a while to get here.

BOI: What were you thinking when you first walked into a film shoot and what is it like today?

DP: It’s very weird. It still feels surreal. Actually, I haven’t had the time to fully assimilate everything that is happening to me. Everything after school and college is just a blur. I have not had a moment to step out of who I am as a person and look at it objectively. So I am living this life but I don’t really know what it is like to live this life.

BOI: How has your reaction to success changed from the days of Om Shanti Om to now, when someone compliments you on how great your work is in a film?

DP: I feel the same awkwardness. I am very awkward with compliments.

BOI: But at what point did you begin feeling comfortable with the way your career was shaping up? Or are you yet to reach that point?

DP: My debut film Om Shanti Om was the ideal launch because they took good care of me and packaged me well. I played a double role, which had both a Western look and an Indian look. I played various kinds of scenes that gave me the chance to showcase my skill. It was almost like a show reel. Then I started assuming that this was what it was like to be an actress, maybe because as a director, Farah (Khan) paid attention to details like my costume and how my make-up looked.

But it’s not like that. Some directors do not function like that and will not do those things. There are some directors who expect the actress to know what they are doing and maybe that’s why somewhere I felt lost. I was inexperienced and I didn’t know what filmmaking was all about. And so maybe that’s why it took me some time to find myself in this world.

BOI: How much have you evolved as an actor from Om Shanti Om to Ram-Leela?

DP: I think every film teaches you something. You learn a lot from every film, whether it’s your co-stars, directors, the way they function, you learn something. Acting-wise, I don’t know.

BOI: How confident are you today?

DP: I am confident but I still get butterflies in my stomach when I am approached with a difficult role. I don’t think I am afraid to take on a challenging part any more but I’m still scared enough to feel the pressure when it’s time to perform.

BOI: You said earlier that you handled four films together. With Race, Abbas-Mustan are old-school directors; Ayan Mukerji (Yeh Jawaani…) is a new-age filmmaker and also a friend of yours; it was your first time with Rohit Shetty (Chennai Express); and everyone knows that Sanjay Leela Bhansali (Ram-Leela) is a stickler for discipline. How did you juggle all these different people?

DP: The only film I found difficult was Ram-Leela, because I felt I was struggling throughout the film. I also didn’t have any prep time as it happened very suddenly. When you are prepared for a film, you have a grip over your character, and even if the film is broken into many schedules, it’s not tough. Oddly enough, people tell me that it was my best character. Sanjay sir too kept patting me on the back but I couldn’t shake off the feeling that I could have done a lot more.

Yeh Jawaani… was a breeze because I identified most with that character. And Ayan, also as a director, would say, ‘Babu you know, na, what I am talking about now?’ Also, since we are very close, he understood me as a person and it was therefore easier for him to direct me.

Chennai Express was tough only during the first four or five days, when I had to crack the accent and body language. Once I was comfortable with the character, they didn’t really have to do much. I didn’t find Race 2 difficult. It was in an interesting space because I had not done that kind of action-thriller role before. I had to be careful not to cross a fine line, you know, because the audience starts hating you sometimes. There is a very fine line between playing the part and being mean. All the characters in the film were mean but it was the degree that differed.

BOI: From Om Shanti Om to Ram-Leela, a few films didn’t do well but the audience has always had faith in you.

DP: (Cuts in) I thought they did, up until recently, when people started saying I was a good actress since Cocktail. I always thought I was a good actress since Om Shanti Om. People would tell me that despite my first film being opposite Shah Rukh Khan, I did so well. I thought that meant I was good since I did Om Shanti Om. So I guess I was living in a bubble! But as far as accepting me as a person in the film industry is concerned, it was different. I was always accepted and I don’t think there was any problem there.

BOI: You have delivered so many hits in 2013. Will that impact the roles you choose in your forthcoming films?

DP: Watch my next film, Finding Fanny, and you will know. It’s not a short film and it’s a slightly off-choice. I don’t know whether it’s the right or wrong choice but it feels correct because I knew I was going to have a great time on the sets and I knew I wanted to do another film with Homi (Adjania). I don’t know what the fate of the film will be but I knew that one month in Goa was going to be great.

BOI: Why did you turn down an international project?

DP: Because it was a combination of three things. I had just committed to Happy New Year, a large chunk of my dates were in November when I had to promote Ram-Leela, and the third was Finding Fanny, which needed a chunk of dates in October as well, which I had committed to. With actors like Naseer sir, Pankaj Kapur and Dimple Kapadia, you don’t want to be messing with dates.

BOI: No regrets?

DP: It’s a touchy topic. I wouldn’t say I don’t regret it but with that film’s lead hero Paul Walker passing away, I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing.

BOI: When a film does well, actors share the profits. Would you want that too?

DP: I think it’s irrelevant, whether I am talking about profit-sharing or turning producer. People should simply watch a movie, enjoy the film and relate to my characters.

BOI: When you started out, people usually discussed how good or bad the film was. Now, they discuss numbers. Is that good or bad? And does that add to the pressure you feel?

DP: No. I have always said that I would rather the film not be labelled a hit or a flop, because every Rs 100-crore film is not always a hit. Every Rs 100-crore film doesn’t have repeat value. For me, the definition of a successful film is not how much money it makes but whether it has repeat value. For me, a repeat value film is a Rs 100-crore film.

BOI: You obviously have a long way to go in your career but is there any one film that is close to your heart?

DP: It’s been a special year and there was Cocktail, Race 2, Yeh Jawaani…, Chennai Express, Ram-Leela… I can’t choose.

BOI: In a sentence, why is each film special to you?

DP: Race 2 was special because I got to do an action thriller for the first time and to work with Abbas Mustan. Yeh Jawaani… because of the relatability of my character; I completely identified with my character and also because the film was with Ranbir and Ayan. With Chennai Express, Rohit allowed me to discover my comic side and helped me portray this over-the-top character in an endearing way. I thank him for writing such a lovable, endearing role. With Ram-Leela, the experience of working with Sanjay Leela Bhansali and for allowing me to be liberated as an actor.

BOI: When you promote a film, what is the kind of response you get?

DP: It is so overwhelming and, sometimes, I even get emotional. The love and warmth comes from a very genuine place.

BOI: How different was it shooting on the first day of Happy New Year since you hadn’t worked with Shah Rukh Khan and Farah Khan together after your first film Om Shanti Om?

DP: My feelings towards Farah hasn’t changed. I am still scared of her and that she might still say, ‘Baby, what nonsense are you doing?’ That’s how she is! But the way she feels about me has changed. She says that with my first film, she had to direct me with everything. Yahan dekho, phir dialogue bol phir neeche dekho but now she says I am very disciplined.

I feel bad for her because the boys (Shah Rukh Khan, Abhishek Bachchan, Sonu Sood, Boman Irani and Vivan Shah) really trouble her. She deals with not one but five monsters at a time as they are only interested playing with their Playstations. (Laughs)

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