As I speak to Deepika Padukone, one of India’s highest paid actresses over the phone, I imagine her sitting atop of a throne covered in jewels wearing a ruby-colored gown adorned with gold and scarlet thread. Partly because I just watched her trailer for Padmaavat where she plays a queen during medieval times, but it is also because Padukone speaks with a regalness that could only belong to an heiress of sorts or someone who has lived their entire life in the spotlight. The words flow out of her mouth like silk or honey; smoothly, sweetly, fluidly. She speaks with an alluring poise and wisdom, and she isn’t afraid to tell me when I’ve asked her something she doesn’t like. But as our conversation continues, she confides in me she hasn’t always been the self-assured woman she is today. Growing up Padukone was shy, awkward even, and there was a time when she suffered from severe depression. Being the recent recipient of Bollywood’s 2018 Hollywood Hall Of Fame Female Entertainer of the Year Award, and starring in over 30 American and Hindi films, Padukone may not have been born an aristocrat, but she takes the crown in my book. As she sits inside the walls of the castle, I like to imagine she lives in and I sit inside my lover’s cozy Culver City apartment, we discuss past lives, her journey to coming into her own, and the most significant lesson this life has taught her thus far.
Can you tell me what it was like being on your own and trying to dive into this industry at such a young age? I read you moved from Bangalore to Mumbai at age 17 to pursue modeling, is that correct?
Yes. I started travelling a lot for modelling and soon after I moved to Mumbai because this is where all the movies were happening. When you’re young, you think it’s cool to leave home and start living on your own. Independence from your parents sounds fantastic, liberating. It isn’t until now that I realize the value of having your family around you. I wish I had my family around to talk to or just share my day with. I don’t regret the position I took to get here but leaving my family has indeed been the biggest sacrifice I’ve made for my career
Would you ever move back home or have your family move in with you?
I have to be here for my career, and it would be extremely selfish of me to ask my family to uproot their lives to come be with me. That’s not even something to joke about. I’m aware of their value in my life so I definitely make an effort to visit them as often as I can.
What inspired you to get into the film industry? Did you always know you wanted to be an actress?
I wasn’t one of those kids who practiced acting in front of the mirror or anything like that. In fact, I was extremely shy and self-conscious growing up, but for some reason whenever I went to the theatre with my parents, I kind of sensed that’s where I would be, on the screen. I never fantasized about how I was going to land there or how successful I was going to be. Film just always felt familiar to me. I would just think, “I belong here.”
Wow, perhaps you were an actress in a past life, and that’s why it feels “familiar.”
Mmm, interesting. I’ve never thought of that. Maybe so, because I can’t say I was surprised when I ended up in this industry. Don’t get me wrong. My success did not come overnight. It took immense hard work, sacrifice, and determination.
Has there ever been a moment in your career, specifically in the beginning, when you felt defeated and wanted to give up completely? If so, how did you overcome that feeling?
I’ve never wanted to give up. I think that’s the athlete in me. I was a professional athlete before I became a model or an actor when you compete you learn not to give up. Of course, I dealt with my own set of challenges. As I said, I was an extremely shy and awkward person in social settings, so it took me a while to understand what it meant to feel free in front of the camera.
Was there a specific film you worked on or character you played that has deeply affected you as an actress or as a person?
There was a stereotype in my own mind of what an actress should be, what she should look like, dress like, etc. Cocktail is a film that changed a lot of things for me because I think that movie came to me at a point in my life when I was coming into my own. I was having a breakthrough with myself and the role I played in that film sort of enhanced that entire experience for me. The character I played (Veronica) was completely different than who I am personally, and I felt like playing her completely opened me up. I felt like a different, more authentic person after that film and I’ve felt this way ever since.
Can you explain how Bollywood works or the Bollywood lifestyle for those of our readers who are unfamiliar? How is Hollywood different from Bollywood? How is it similar?
For me Cinema is cinema, the language is the only difference for me. I define cinema the same way I define love. Love is a universal language, in whichever part of the world you express love people get it, they understand it. Love goes beyond boundaries, beyond borders, beyond language, it’s beyond the color of your skin, it doesn’t matter. For me, cinema is the same. If you make powerful cinema it has the power to touch and influence people’s lives.
How do you feel the roles you’ve played in your career prepared you for your role in Padmaavat?
As I said, everything changed in me after Cocktail. It taught me so many things in so many different ways, most films I’ve done have been successful. Some more than others, but it’s the onset experience and everything that had to do with the film that sort of led me to be able to portray Padmavati with such dignity and grace and poise.She was a warrior without being a warrior. I had to be able to emote power because she is, you know, a queen at the end of the day, that comes with certain mannerisms and certain body language. I think it’s all my previous experiences before that actually gave me that power that came from a completely different place.
How is Padmavati’s character similar to you?
I think we’re similar in spirit. Someone who will never give up, someone who will fight for what is right. We are similar in that we have the same qualities of a warrior, the qualities of leadership, of dignity, strength, power, and courage. And not just me, I think these are qualities most women possess, I found that most women found Padmavati’s character extremely relatable. Except the fact that she’s a queen, but other than that I think she’s very relatable to a lot of women. Especially when you think about women in the last couple of years and how women have found their voice.
Are you familiar with the Time’s Up, Me Too, and The Future Is Female movements?
Yes. There’s so much of female empowerment going on right now not just in America but everywhere in the world.
I think it’s really important to have those female characters like the one you played Padmavati to serve as a representation of the power and the strength women possess.
Absolutely. And I’ve been very fortunate, if I may say, to have played a lot of these extraordinarily powerful, female characters who are still so feminine. I think it’s important to show women you don’t have to puff your chest and scream from the rooftops to portray power.
In America we have this saying “the one that got away”, do you have anything similar in India?
Hmm, I’ve never heard of that before but I think everyone experiences heartbreak in their lives, and if you haven’t I hope you never do. I think heartbreak is interesting if you handle it the right way it can teach you a lot.
What is the most important lesson heartbreak has taught you, or what lessons have life in general exposed you to?
If there’s a lesson I have learned in life and especially in the last couple of years is that there’s nothing more important than peace of mind. Nothing in life makes sense if you don’t have piece of mind.
What besides acting are you passionate about?
Cleaning. I love cleaning, stapling, filing and organizing, I find it extremely therapeutic it’s something I’ve always loved doing. Even as a child, I get so excited when friends of my parents would call me over and then I discovered I was called over only because they knew if I found my friend’s bedroom messy I would clean it up for them. So I’ve always been obsessed with cleaning, even now you know if I’ve had a stressful day if want to unwind, I start cleaning.
That’s amazing. Let’s talk about your other passion, your Live Laugh Love Foundation. When did you decide mental health isn’t just something you needed to acknowledge, but it’s something that everyone needed to discuss collectively?
I suffered from depression in 2014 [which] took a couple of months out of my life [before] I bounced back. In 2015 it was just very clear to me, it’s not like I discussed with people whether or not this was something I should consider, if this is something I should talk about or not, it was just a thought that came to me that was so clear. I knew I had to act on it. I knew I had to think about my experience and share it with others. People called it brave but for me, it was just about being honest about an experience I went through, and that impacted me in a very powerful way. I think it was important for me to share because I understood the kind of stigma/misinformation that’s associated with mental illness. It was important for me to share my story in order to probably save a couple of lives.
That’s so honorable of you to want to share your experience in order to help someone else. My mom personally has suffered from depression, and I know exactly what you’re talking about. Her laying in bed from morning to night not wanting to move, not wanting to eat, and not even being able to really pinpoint why she feels that way she did.
I know that feeling.
How did you come out of your depressive state? Can you pinpoint the moment it began to happen or why?
I don’t think I can say why because sometimes the trigger is more than one thing. What happened for me is one morning I woke up with a strange feeling in my stomach. I didn’t feel like myself and it’s like you described with your mother, when you’re feeling like that for a long period of time and you don’t know why you’re feeling like that, you feel defeated. A large part of the work we do through my foundation is to create that awareness. Because I feel like once you talk about it, and you’re aware of what you’re feeling, (you can begin to heal.) When I didn’t know why I was feeling that way, those were the worst days of my life. But the minute I was diagnosed with clinical depression, I automatically started feeling better because at least I knew what I was experiencing and I felt like that was half the battle
Aside from your passion project, The Live Laugh Love Foundation, what is on the horizon for you? What’s next? What projects /films are you excited to work on?
There’s a film that I will begin working on soon, it doesn’t have a title yet but it’s based on a true story from one of the mafia queens. It’s actually a chapter from a book called “The Mafia Queens of Mumbai” there is no title yet but there are references of a woman who I would say was extremely brave in doing what she did, and I just thought it was a very very expiring story and a story that needed to be shared. In the future, I’d love to work on American films. I really enjoy exchanging energies with new actors and working in a language I don’t usually work in. I found all of that to be very very exciting.