“What has she done with herself?!”
The question that was on everybody’s minds was also on my phone’s screen two weeks ago. A panicked Anushka loyalist was texting me from a screening of PK.
Forget the film’s Hindutva backlash, the hullabaloo over posters of a naked Aamir Khan or politicians trying to ban the film, my friend was only interested in what had happened to the wholesome, forever smiling Anushka Sharma she loved. For most fans, Anushka had always been a breath of fresh air, bubbling with niceness, and playing roles everyone could relate to.
This new Anushka, thicker-lipped, hair cut like a boy’s, curves hidden in baggy clothes, wasn’t anything like Shruti Kakkar (Band Baaja Baaraat, 2010) or Akira (Jab Tak Hai Jaan, 2012). She didn’t steal the show in PK, the way she had in her previous films. She wasn’t loud. She wasn’t a Punjabi Delhi kudi. She was nothing we were used to.
This year, she’ll play a jazz singer (in Bombay Velvet), a gutsy wife in a thriller (NH10) and the lead in what’s billed as a mature love story (Ae Dil Hai Mushkil). They’re roles again nowhere close to her previous ones.
The change is all part of the plan for Anushka. “I don’t want to do films that people watch and then forget the next morning,” she says when I point out the stark difference in her screen avatar now. “I have to have something to give to the film. I don’t just want my name in the credits. I want to be able to contribute.
As long as that is happening, I am okay with making choices that might not be tried and tested.” The actress seems to be clear about where her career is headed.
What has she done with herself, indeed? How has this quintessential Yash Raj girl, four inches too tall for her heroes, one half of India’s most gossiped-about couple, who’s experimented with her looks, bagged film projects that might make even established actresses envious?
A year of living dangerously
In 2015, you won't see the happy, chirpy Anushka. She's piping down and taking a new route instead!
NH10: Anushka’s first home production
Watch out for: A feisty Anushka like you’ve never seen before. She plays a wife whose husband gets into trouble when their Rajasthan road trip goes wrong.
Bombay Velvet: A period film about ’50s Bombay
Watch out for: Anushka as a jazz singer. Whether the enhanced lips add to the role or take away from it remains to be seen in this noir-styled film.
Dil Dhadakne Do: Zoya Akhtar’s rich film about rich people and rich-people problems
Watch out for: Anushka’s performance as she goes head on with a cast of certified pros (Ranveer Singh, Farhan Akhtar and Priyanka Chopra).
The early bird
Like most people who covet stardom, Anushka Sharma started young. Very, very young. “When she was 13, Anushka’s parents came to me and said that she was crazy about modelling,” recalls Bangalore-based fashion designer and ramp choreographer Prasad Bidapa, who was her first mentor in showbiz.
“She was extremely dedicated and started doing shows over the weekends. By the age of 16, she had become a supermodel and by 18, she was walking the ramps all over India. I remember telling her parents, ‘Yeh ladki toh zaroor star banegi’.”
Early fame also meant early sacrifices and Anushka was more than willing to make them. “I knew that my friends weren’t doing the same things as I was doing. They were bunking school and college to just hang out at some coffee shop, and if I bunked classes, it could only be for fittings for a show. I didn’t have the luxury of just hanging out.”
Anushka already had a plan in mind, and says she was ambitious from a very young age. “In fact, if I hadn’t achieved something by the time I turned 18, I would have felt disappointed in myself,” she confesses, while admitting that she wanted to be famous even without knowing what field she wanted to excel in. For someone famous at 16, there was no scope for a routine life.
“When I was modelling in Bangalore, I was very sure that I didn’t want to do just another regular show, or be part of an ad where there are so many people that you get lost,” she says. “It was quick money so people did it, but it didn’t feel right to me.”
The urgency to achieve fame grew stronger by the day, and at 17, Anushka was at Bollywood’s doorstep. But her basic dilemma remained: she knew what not to do, but hadn’t a clue about where to go, whom to talk to or what to do.
Granted, her struggle was, in her own words, “nothing compared to what others go through”. As an army kid with ready accommodation in Mumbai’s army quarters, family support in the form of her mother, and relative fame, she was hardly at the bottom of the strugglers’ heap. But there were still challenges.
Bollywood is hard even for a Bangalore model to break into. After a series of auditions and turning down some film roles, Anushka ended up auditioning for a Yash Raj film, and actually bagging not just the role, but a contract for two more films with the banner. Her dream run seemed to have begun.
“When I was auditioning for Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, I didn’t know that Aditya Chopra would be the director and I definitely didn’t know that Shah Rukh Khan would star in it,” says Anushka candidly. She didn’t even know who Aditya Chopra was!
“Coming from a non-filmi background, and from Bangalore, where, while growing up, we didn’t watch many Hindi films, I belonged to that ignorant group of people who would not be interested in knowing who the director was. I had watched DDLJ, but as far as I was concerned, it was an SRK-Kajol film,” she says between bouts of laughter.
Three-film deal, two link-ups, one plan
To be fair, Anushka didn’t really steal the show in Rab Ne… (how could any newcomer, in a film with two SRKs?) “The assistant directors on the film used to say that she was an ‘extremely fair girl’. That’s all they had to say,” recalls movie critic Bhawna Somaya.
“I was baffled! How could a girl’s complexion alone be her claim to fame? When I saw the film, though, even I felt that she did not look namkeen enough.” But she showed tremendous promise. “There was immense confidence, and she held her own in front of a legend like SRK. She wasn’t trying to imitate anybody,” adds Somaya.
And then, Band Baaja Baaraat happened. “I wasn’t really interested in her as an actor until BBB.
That is when I sat up and took notice,” says movie critic Anupama Chopra. The film, her second in the three-film deal with YRF, not only proved to be a sleeper hit, but also shone the spotlight on her and Ranveer Singh as the next best things.
“Anushka taught me that I should connect with my co-actor and speak to them instead of speaking at them,” says Ranveer Singh, remembering how technically sound she had become within a span of a couple of years.
“She said that I should say the lines as if I’m actually speaking to her and not just delivering dialogue.”
The three-film deal led to more box-office successes like Ladies V/S Ricky Bahl (2011) and Jab Tak Hai Jaan, and soon Anushka realised she was even more confused than she had been before debuting.
“I got thrust into stardom, and suddenly I was lost,” she says about the period between Band Baaja Baaraat and Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola (2012). “At such times, a lot of people tell you a lot of things – there are a lot of Dos and Don’ts,” she says, referring to the standard advice given to most Bollywood heroines: Do two movies a year, do mass films. “But whatever I was hearing wasn’t really resonating with me; I wasn’t convinced about it.”
Just like before, she knew what she didn’t want arm-candy appearances where a director was just “presenting” her instead of making use of her. But this time around, she put her head to it, and decided to change the rules herself. “After Band Baaja Baaraat, I made a list of 10 directors that I specifically wanted to work with, and that became my plan.”
Anushka’s plan was perfect, and she soon got her wish, too. She signed films with Yash Chopra, Vishal Bhardwaj and Anurag Kashyap – all directors from that list – but faced an unexpected roadblock.
Other actresses were busy making headlines with their breakthrough roles. While 2012 was Priyanka’s year with Barfi!, 2013 marked Deepika’s Rs 500cr films and 2014 belonged to Kangana and Queen. But Anushka remained absent from the silver screen for two years through a stroke of bad luck (PK and Bombay Velvet were delayed back to back).
Her absence from films, however, sent the paparazzi snooping around for gossip. She remained in the news for all the wrong reasons and she reacted to them then with as much fire as she does now.
Some reports called her malnourished (“Those articles calling me anorexic really irritated me, they used the term so loosely”). Some spoke only of her relationship with cricketer Virat Kohli and how she was distracting him from his game (“When you blame me for someone else’s performance, it’s ridiculous, but our country loves cricket so much that they think whatever they say is fine”).
Some said she wasn’t getting along with Priyanka Chopra on the sets of the upcoming Dil Dhadakne Do (“Why does this question of ‘getting along’ arise only with female co-stars? Reducing someone to a bitch-fight is disgusting!”).
A lot of eyebrows raised when she turned producer (“I’m turning producer because I want to, not because I have no films to sign. Why does the question of sustainability come up only when actresses turn producers?”).
And finally, there was the infamous incident in which she appeared on an episode of Koffee With Karan in early February 2014, with lips so full, that it was all people seemed to talk about. In true Anushka style, she sportingly owned up to using lip plumpers (“If I were ashamed of it, I wouldn’t have spoken about it so openly. I spoke out because I don’t like getting bullied!”).
Ranveer Singh believes that her unflappable quality is what keeps her afloat in Bollywood. “She’s very clear about the things she wants to focus on in her life,” he says. “She doesn’t get perturbed by negativity and tabloid reports. It’s wonderful to see someone who only concerns herself with the stuff that really matters.”
PK hit the theatres in December 2014, two years after her previous film (Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola), and even then, the controversies didn’t stop. Right-wing political parties were up in arms about its depiction of Hinduism, even as the movie minted money at the box office. “What has been said [in the film] is what exists. And if people want to ignore that, then it’s for them to deal with,” says Anushka.
On the day of our interview, gunmen had just stormed into the offices of Paris satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, killing 12. Anushka felt as strongly about it as she did about the PK controversy. “I feel like we’re just so intolerant! We’ve all been given a choice, means to lead our lives and it’s in our control. It’s completely fine if you choose to do something differently than I do, as long as you’re not harming anybody.”
Rising to the top
For now, Anushka Sharma is the heroine of Bollywood’s biggest grossing film of all time (Rs 626Cr and counting for PK). Her 2015 line-up: Anurag Kashyap’s Bombay Velvet, KJo’s Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, Zoya Akhtar’s Dil Dhadakne Do and her own home production, NH10, will keep her in the news practically all year.
And yet, there isn’t a quality so distinctive that sets Anushka apart. Anupama Chopra believes that her ability to fit in is actually what makes the actress stand out. “Anushka is Everywoman. She is the girl next door without being banal or boring. She’s accessible,” Chopra says.
“Perhaps it’s because she’s not staggeringly beautiful like Deepika or Katrina. She seems like someone you would be able to speak with; you could know her in real life.You aren’t in awe of Anushka, and that works in her favour, because she’s very attractive in an accessible way.”
And that’s perhaps what Anushka has realised too. She says having a reality check is the most important thing. “I want the appreciation, but I don’t want people to define me,” she says. “You can’t take yourself so seriously. There’s a limit to how long this [stardom] will go on, and after that you’re going to have a regular life. At that time, you don’t want to be the person who is deprived of attention and is feeling worthless.”
She has the same attitude towards her upcoming films. “I feel nice when people say that it’s going to be my year, but I want more from life than just having one year which goes well,” she says. “I’m not a baniya. I don’t want to say, ‘Arre iss saal mera turnover achcha ho gaya’.”
Instead, she wants to keep working harder. That list that she’d made after BBB? It’s much longer. She’s already getting into her second home production. She might not be known as the hottest actress, or one with the best track record, or the best item song, but she’s certainly the most dogged.
And while people think levelheadedness and accessibility are her gig, she simply says it’s patience. “I want to be able to do things on my own terms, and I have the resilience to sustain such a desire,” she says, smiling.