In 2007, thousands of viewers in India flocked to the cinemas on the day of Diwali. The film they were vying to watch? A glossy new release by the name of Om Shanti Om.
Centred on a thrilling plot of rebirth and revenge, packed with energetic dance numbers and starring Shah Rukh Khan—one of India’s most popular movie stars—the film had all the fixings of a mega-blockbuster. But the one unpredicted factor that contributed to Om Shanti Om’s record-breaking success (the film became the highest-grossing Hindi film ever at the time of its release) came in the form of its female lead.
Playing the dual roles of Bollywood starlet Shantipriya and, 30 years later, her doppelganger Sandy, model-turned-actress Deepika Padukone had stepped onto the silver screen for the first time.
Padukone was a vision to behold in both her roles. For the former, her look was modelled after the iconic heroines of the ‘70s, inky black eyeliner carved into sharp wings over her chestnut-coloured doe eyes, jet-black hair slicked over a bouffant and a few face-framing tendrils left loose. At just 21, she had achieved an old-world charm possessed only by the actresses of yesteryear, portraying Shantipriya’s quiet self-assuredness with the subtleties of a thespian far beyond her years.
As Sandy, Padukone showed herself more authentically. Under a cascading mess of brown curls, her dimpled smile was strikingly telegenic—it was difficult to look away. In contrast to Shantipriya’s troubled impenetrability, Padukone brought out a giddy innocence in Sandy that convinced audiences, beyond costuming, that they were completely different people. That award season, she walked away with five different iterations of a ‘best debut’ award.
It has been 16 years since Om Shanti Om hit theatres and Padukone is sitting in front of an open window at home, the sunlight casting a gentle halo around her face. We are chatting over Zoom (a call she had dialled in five minutes early for), and I’ve just asked her how her recent holiday with husband Ranveer Singh had gone.
Padukone beams. Without a speck of make-up on her face, she looks indistinguishable from the 21-year-old newcomer who had sent the box office into a tizzy in 2007.
“We just celebrated our fifth anniversary,” she reveals bashfully. “With social media and the way that content is transcending borders, it’s no longer possible to be absolutely discreet when we travel. But we still managed to find quiet moments. Of course, no one is complaining if we get recognised overseas for our work. It’s always nice.”
“I’m not fascinated by fame in isolation. Everything I do has to be meaningful. Our choices have power”
A lot has happened since Om Shanti Om that would make it difficult for Padukone to go incognito anywhere in the world. In 2022, she was chosen to be one of eight jury members at the Cannes Film Festival. Last year, she appeared on the prestigious list of presenters at the 95th Academy Awards. Now, she stands as a global ambassador for Cartier, a role that she sees as part of a full circle moment. “We’ve come a long way from Indian personalities not being recognised for their value to now being the face of one of the biggest luxury houses in the world. I feel particularly proud because I’ve done it on my own terms while staying true to my culture and heritage,” she says.
As one of Bollywood’s most successful contemporary actors, Padukone has racked up a filmography of over 40 movies in the last 16 years. Most of her work has been in Hindi-language films, aside from her scene-stealing Hollywood debut in the 2017 action-thriller XXX: Return of Xander Cage, in which she kept her natural accent intact.
The roles Padukone has become known for are myriad. In Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s period dramas Bajirao Mastani and Padmaavat, she breathes life into complicated female characters who have shaped Indian mythology and history. In 2015’s Piku, she brings dynamism and levity to the titular character, a headstrong architect who struggles to get along with her nagging, hypochondriac father. This role, a nuanced portrait of a modern woman in India, showcases Padukone at the height of her acting prowess. By that point, I ask, how much had her approach to acting changed since she first started?
With a wry laugh, she replies: “Only completely. The journey of learning acting for me began only when I started acting. I can’t say I was equipped before that. I don’t come from a family where we grew up watching movies together; that wasn’t the culture at home.”
Bollywood has long been an industry that loves its own. Often, young actors who quickly make it big have a film connection somewhere in their family. Padukone had none.
What she did have, however, was a badminton world champion for a father. Prakash Padukone, one of India’s greatest sportsmen, had made history in 1980 when he became the first Indian athlete to win the All England Championships.
As a teenager, Padukone trained as a professional badminton player. She reminisces following a rigorous schedule to prepare for the national-level competitions she played in. “I’d wake up by four-thirty or five in the morning to go for my physical training. I had permission to miss the morning assembly in school, but I had to be present for the first class. Once the bell rang, I’d go home for a quick snack and it’d be back to the badminton courts. That was my life.”
Padukone may not have remained an athlete, but she still plays badminton. Her passion for sports also permeated her acting career. Under her film production company Ka, she produced and played a role in 83, a sports drama about India’s victory at the 1983 Cricket World Cup, starring Ranveer Singh as Indian cricket legend Kapil Dev.
Before 83, Padukone had produced Chhapaak, a powerful social drama in which she played the role of an acid attack survivor. An acid attack is a form of violent assault, which involves throwing a corrosive substance onto someone in an attempt to disfigure or kill them. While acid attacks happen all over the world, statistics from several non-profit organisations show that they are most prevalent in South Asia and often carry gendered motivations.
The film was not a glossy motion picture designed for commercial value, but Padukone put her company—and hard-earned dollars—firmly behind it because she believed in the message.
“Everything that I do has to be meaningful. I have never been excited by fame, money or power. What excites me is intangible energy that allows you to do so much more,” she ruminates. “In my younger days, I couldn’t explain it entirely. But today, I have come to realise that films allow you to achieve a higher purpose.”
“Every day, it takes work to make sure that I don’t have a relapse and slip into depression again”
She pauses thoughtfully, looking upwards, then continues: “I’m not fascinated by fame in isolation. With fame, you can do so much. Our choices have power. You send out subtle messages through the choices that you make, consciously or subconsciously. My choices of movies that I do and roles that I play have always been a way for me to speak to my community.”
Padukone’s work as a mental health advocate is a discernable reflection of this desire to contribute to her community in a meaningful way. Diagnosed with depression in 2014, she has been notably open about her struggle and recovery, especially for a celebrity famously private about her personal life.
“It was the most painful thing I have gone through—not just for me, but also for my caregivers. Every day, it takes work to make sure that I don’t have a relapse and slip into it again,” she shares candidly. “But maybe because I have healed, I am now able to say that I’m grateful for the experience because it made me a better person. I learnt a lot from it and it gave me the ability to impact the lives of millions of other people. It allowed me to find my true calling.”
Indeed, a higher purpose for Padukone has been to normalise and encourage conversations about mental health on a global level. In India and many Asian societies, mental health struggles remain largely invisible—although this is gradually changing, in no small part due to the vocal vulnerability of advocates like Padukone. In 2015, she founded Live Laugh Love, a mental health foundation aimed towards challenging stigma and providing credible resources. More recently, Padukone launched 82°E, a wellness brand rooted in Indian tradition with a clear ethos of meaningful self care.
“I don’t take it for granted that I have been surrounded by people who, even if they didn’t fully understand it, have been empathetic, supportive and patient. But mental health issues still don’t get the same sort of understanding as physical ailments do. Human nature is such that you react only to things that you see. This just means that all of us in the mental health space have to work that much harder for it be seen.”
One of Padukone’s biggest sources of support has been, of course, her husband. I ask how their decade-long relationship has grown and she gets a twinkle in her eye. “It’s been both fascinating and beautiful to see how we’ve become a unit over time. We used to be very different, I was one extreme and Ranveer was another. We’ve picked up each other’s traits, learnt from each other and grown together.”
With clashing filming schedules and relentless travel constraining the hours they have to spend together, she prioritises quality time with Singh and their families over most things. “For my husband and I, having time for ourselves is important, but spending time with our parents and sisters is equally important. We try and divide whatever downtime we get between ourselves and family. The eight of us are a unit.”
Padukone speaks about her parents with great reverence and affection. Her confidence and measured view towards success can, according to her childhood stories, be attributed to how her parents raised her sister and her.
“When I meet the people I have grown up with—my aunts, uncles, family friends—they always mention how I haven’t changed one bit. That says a lot about our upbringing,” she reflects.
“In this industry, it’s easy to get carried away by fame and money. But no one treats me like a celebrity at home. I am a daughter and a sister first. I don’t want that to change. My family keeps me grounded and Ranveer and I hope to inculcate the same values in our children.”
Is becoming a mother something she looks forward to then? Padukone’s cheeks dimple instantly. “Absolutely. Ranveer and I love children. We look forward to the day when we will start our own family.”
Photography James Tolich
Styling Megha Kapoor
Make-up Sandhya Shekhar
Hair Yianni Tsapatori
Bookings editor Savio Gerhart
Fashion associate Manglien Gangte
Fashion assistants Agnes Solhall and Barbara Boucard
Production Kitten Productions
Pre-order your copy of the January/February ‘Intentions’ issue of Vogue Singapore online or pick it up on newsstands from 11 January 2023.