She’s the most famous actress in Bollywood, an international fashion icon, and a dedicated activist on a mission to redefine mental illness in India. For BAZAAR.com’s fall digital cover, meet the woman who became one of the world’s biggest stars while you were sleeping.
Behind a secluded 19th-century country estate in Greenhithe, Kent, a small village on the outskirts of London, a family is out for an afternoon stroll when they clock Deepika Padukone. She’s not exactly inconspicuous, floating down a set of long stone steps ensconced in a voluminous, blood-red Emilia Wickstead gown, but it’s not the opulent fashion that has caught their eye. The family peer in Padukone’s direction and begin to approach tentatively, coolly reaching for their phones, and when they realize that their eyes have not, in fact, deceived them, they drop any pretense of cool. “Deepika!” they start yelling. “Deepika! Deepika!”
Padukone flashes them a warm, conspiratorial smile. At 33, she is arguably the biggest star in Bollywood, and in the past few years, her star wattage has drawn increasing international attention, so much so that to risk a selfie—even here, in a sleepy English hamlet for her HarpersBAZAAR.com cover shoot—is to risk drawing swarms of superfans to the set. She’s the highest-paid actress in India, and one-half of the country’s most famous power couple (with husband and frequent costar, Ranveer Singh). In 2018, she was named one of TIME magazine’s100 Most Influential People, and she’s become a hot-to-the-touch fashion plate serving neon-green Giambattista Valli at Cannes, 3-D-printed bubblegum-pink Zac Posen at the Met Gala, and head-to-toe Dior at Paris Fashion Week. Along the way, she’s deliberately eschewed the notion that the only road to global acclaim is through Hollywood: Padukone is on top of the world, with only one American movie credit to her name so far (the Vin Diesel action movie xXx: Return of Xander Cage).
For those unfamiliar, Bollywood’s ascendance is simple: When the sun sets on Hollywood, the ostensible world capital of show business, it inevitably rises on Bollywood, where India’s film industry is, by some measures, the largest movie-making operation in the world. It trounces Hollywood’s output, producing some 2,000 films a year. It’s projected to soon generate more than $3 billion annually, inching closer to the record $11.9 billion Hollywood generated domestically in 2018. It’s a booming industry that’s also rich in tradition and history, one that services the wildly diverse cravings of India’s 1.3 billion citizens.
And what that massive audience is craving is Padukone. Her every outfit is newsworthy (she’s the only Bollywood star to crack BoF’s list of the 500 most influential people in fashion, and she regularly uses that influence to promote local designers). Meanwhile, every comment she and husband Ranveer Singh leave for each other on Instagram (where she has nearly 40 million followers) is meticulously chronicled by the press. If she has a cold, it can seem like the whole of India knows it. Soon, you will too, because while you were sleeping, Deepika Padukone became one of the most famous women in the world.
Padukone’s first role was the stuff of Bollywood legends. Fifteen years ago, she was a local runway model from Bangalore with acting aspirations whose only onscreen claim to fame was a commercial for the soap brand Liril. Still, she was calculating. She passed on every movie script that came her way, waiting for just the right project.
At the time, Farah Khan was already a distinguished choreographer in India and abroad when she made her directorial debut with a hit “masala movie”—the term for a Bollywood genre-masher that mixes action, comedy, drama, music, and dance—called Main Hoon Na. She quickly used her cachet to develop what she called her “magnum opus,” 2007’s Om Shanti Om, a supernatural pastiche of Old and New Bollywood about an aspiring actor in the 1970s who falls in love with the biggest starlet in India. She cast Shah Rukh Khan (no relation), a Bollywood titan known as King Khan, as the rookie but wanted a fresh face who could play the part of India’s most famous actress without her own public persona getting in the way.
It just so happened that she’d always thought the Liril girl had what it took to one day be a Bollywood heroine, having once met with her for a project that would later be shelved. She called Padukone in for a few meetings and a “look test,” making her over in the style of a 1970s Bollywood star to see how she’d read on-screen. “When she wore that costume and that hairstyle,” says Khan, “she looked stunning.” Padukone famously got the part without so much as an audition. Khan’s backers balked. “Everybody said, ‘What’s wrong with you? Any top actress in the country would give an arm and a leg to do this movie,’” recalls Khan. “I said, ‘No, I want to launch her.’”
Padukone had the part—but now she had to play it. In so many ways, she was still green: Her delivery could be uneven, her South Indian accent a little too strong for how Khan envisioned her leading lady. At moments, Khan could feel herself growing impatient with her ingenue. But Padukone was reliably poised, unflappable in the face of Khan’s notes, and eager to learn. On the first day of filming, she had to shoot a scene in which her character is on the verge of an emotional breakdown, and Khan noticed that Padukone was visibly quivering, even when the cameras weren’t rolling. “For the first time I realized, ‘Oh, my God, she’s nervous,’” says Khan. “Because she always took everything in stride. If she had butterflies in her stomach, it never showed on her face.”
More than a decade later, Padukone still questions what drove a director with so much to lose and a star at the top of his game to bet it all on her. “I should go back and ask them, ‘What were you guys thinking? Why did you not audition me? Why did you risk crores of rupees on me?’”
When I pose the question to Kahn, she says simply, “I just had a gut feeling.”
Om Shanti Om was a massive hit. It was nominated for 12 Filmfare Awards, the top cinematic honor in India, and Padukone won the prize for Best Newcomer. Seemingly overnight, Padukone went from “the Liril girl” to one of Bollywood’s most sought-after young talents.
But the next few years proved challenging. “To be cast in such a mammoth movie with absolutely no film experience, without auditioning, without any of the usual checks that you go through before being cast in a big film, that was surreal,” says Padukone. “It saved me many years of having to prove myself, but it also meant I had to go through a slump, in a way, just to learn the craft, to learn the mechanics. It took me a while to get to where I am now, which is a place of confidence, of comfort, of familiarity.”
At first, Padukone’s record with critics and audiences was spotty. Sometimes, she was the bright spot in a dull movie; other times, she struggled to rise to the material. “I made some wrong choices—none of which I regret. It took some amount of, I’d say, ‘unsuccessful’ experiences to get here,” says Padukone. “But I’m in a place today where I trust my instincts, and I don’t think I would be if I hadn’t been through those experiences.”
Padukone credits the 2012 romantic drama Cocktail with “helping me find myself and letting go of my inhibitions.” Soon, she got the attention of Indian auteur Sanjay Leela Bhansali. He was days away from shooting Goliyon Ki Rasleela Ram-Leela, a Hindi reimagining of Romeo and Juliet, and still looking for a female lead. (He’d already cast an actress who left to pursue another project.) Soon Padukone’s phone was ringing off the hook with requests that she meet with Bhansali.
“He’s the kind of person who, if he calls you, you go to see him. He never comes to you,” says Padukone. “But I was so, so unwell. I was burning with fever. I was bedridden—someone would have had to carry me there.” To her management’s dismay, she said she simply couldn’t leave her house. To her surprise, Bhansali came to her instead.
It was a humid afternoon when Bhansali arrived at Padukone’s doorstep. She was wearing a simple, white cotton shalwar kameez, her hair was messy, her eyes would not stop watering, and her stooped posture gave her, in her words, “a weirdly long neck.” Bhansali thought she looked beautiful. “The next thing I knew,” says Padukone, “I was in his movie.”
When she reflects on the big breaks in her career, Padukone says, “I think a lot of it is destiny, I think a lot of it is luck. But I think a lot of it is also hard work.” Now came the really hard work. Bhansali is a famously demanding director, but in Padukone, he’d found a resilient pupil. “You have to surrender yourself to him, emotionally, mentally, physically,” says Padukone. “Creatively, you’re drained by the end of it. But more importantly, you realize that you’ve learned so much more about the craft and evolved just as a human being.”
Before Ram-Leela even wrapped, Bhansali offered Padukone the lead in his then-upcoming film, the historical epic Bajirao Mastani. In the middle of filming that, he again offered her the lead in his next film, the period romance Padmaavat. Each was a bigger box office hit than the last, and after Ram-Leela, Padukone won her second Filmfare Award—this time for Best Actress.
Somewhere in between, Khan cast Padukone in a heist movie called Happy New Year, a long-gestating film she’d first met Padukone for almost a decade earlier. “It was another person who came to me,” says Khan of Deepika on set. “[In Om Shanti Om,] I was telling her what to do, and now I was scared she was going to tell me what to do. She had just embodied so much knowledge.”
On the set of Ram-Leela, Padukone was first introduced to her costar, an up-and-coming Bollywood heartthrob named Ranveer Singh. Singh would go on to star opposite Padukone in all three of her movies with Bhansali, and the two began dating. They quickly became Bollywood royalty—their fans call them DeepVeer—and last November, the couple got married in a lavish, magenta-saturated wedding in Lake Como, Italy. “[Finding] a place that would feel private was the top priority,” says Padukone. “And we both love the water, so to be surrounded by water was important.”
Though the two had been dating for more than six years, they waited until after the wedding to live together. “There was a lot of temptation to move away from the traditional, especially for the two of us, who are constantly traveling, but it was important to me,” says Padukone. “Ranveer has always been okay with whatever. He’s always said, ‘Whatever makes you happy makes me happy.’ But for me, it’s about wanting to do everything at the right time. It’s how I saw my parents do it, so I didn’t know any other way.”
As their one-year anniversary approaches, Padukone says she made the right call. “If we had started living together earlier, then what would we be discovering later on?” she asks. “That’s what this year has been—living together and discovering each other. I like to say we made the best decision of our lives. I know people are cynical about marriage, but that hasn’t been our experience. We believe in the institution, and we’re enjoying every bit of it.”
At the time of her BAZAAR.com photo shoot, Padukone was in London shooting ’83, a drama about the Indian cricket team’s victory at the 1983 World Cup. Once again, Padukone stars opposite Singh, this time as the wife of star cricket player Kapil Dev. Padukone’s own father was a badminton star whose career took his family on the road (Padukone was born in Copenhagen, Denmark), and her mother worked as a travel agent in addition to raising Padukone and her sister, now a golf player. Shooting ’83 allowed Padukone to reflect on her childhood and to consider how she envisions starting her own family while navigating the rigors of Bollywood.
“Athletes are constantly traveling, and when you see their success, not often do you also see the kinds of sacrifices their family makes. But I’ve seen it so closely, and that’s what drew me to this movie and to this part,” admits Padukone. “My sister and I had two working parents who were still able to give every aspect of their lives, time, and dignity, whether it’s work or being home with us. I really hope that when Ranveer and I start a family, we’re able to do it the way I experienced it as a child with my parents. Just rooted, and wholesome, and secure.”
In 2014, just as Padukone’s success was reaching new highs, she felt personally like she was hitting new lows. During a family visit in Mumbai, as she watched her mother pack for her trip home, Padukone suddenly broke down in tears. “I just couldn’t stop crying,” she reveals. “[My mom] asked, ‘Is it your relationship? Is it your work?’ And I said, “No, no, no, none of those things.’ I just kept saying, ‘No, no, no. I don’t know. I don’t why I feel empty.” Padukone’s mother told her she needed help. “There was no conversation, there was no argument,” remembers Padukone. Five minutes later, she was on the phone with an old family friend, therapist and counselor Anna Chandy.
Chandy and Padukone’s family had been neighbors when Padukone, who Chandy knew as willful and vivacious, was growing up in Bangalore. They lived in the same small complex of around 12 apartments, freely walking into each other’s homes and weaving into each other’s lives. Padukone flew to meet with Chandy and later with psychiatrist Shyam Bhat, who eventually diagnosed her with depression and anxiety. Padukone struggled with understanding the condition as an illness and carried her medication around, unopened, for weeks.
“I wasn’t aware of what mental illness was, and I didn’t realize the importance of mental health,” says Padukone. “When we have a fever, we know what the symptoms are. Why aren’t we taught to recognize the symptoms of mental illness in the same way? It was a lack of awareness on my part, but also on the part of the people around me. What if it wasn’t for my mother? Who else would have helped me?”
The World Health Organization estimates that 57 million people in India are affected by depression, and that one in five will battle it at some point in their lives. It’s been called the most depressed country in the world, yet there remains a strong stigma around mental illness. “Typically, in an Indian family, we like to solve our problems internally,” explains Chandy. The result, she says, is to keep the discourse around mental illness out of the public square and to discourage the pursuit of professional help.
“I had to deal with that stigma on my journey to recovery,” admits Padukone. “Everyone, including me, was keeping it all so hushed. When people asked me how I was feeling, why did I always lie and say I was okay?”
The turning point was when Padukone’s mother, perhaps going against everything she knew from her own traditional upbringing, asked her daughter to seek professional help. “She was able to sense that this was not something that can be solved in a family huddle,” says Chandy.
“I don’t think I’d be here today if it wasn’t for my mother,” says Padukone, who soon began to educate herself on mental wellness. “I realized the importance of self-care, and when I do it, I do it without guilt. I think women especially have a tendency of doing it with a lot of guilt attached.”
On March 21, 2015, Padukone came out publicly about her episode, appearing on the Indian television channel NDTV, alongside her mother, Chandy, and Bhat, to discuss her struggles with journalist Barkha Dutt in a one-hour special. “To me, it was a landmark step in the history of mental health awareness in India,” says Chandy, “for somebody like Deepika to expose her vulnerability on national television.” Behind the scenes, Padukone had already assembled Chandy, Bhat, and a handful of others, and asked them to help her launch an organization to promote mental health awareness and education in India.
Chandy, who still treats Padukone, wasn’t
surprised. She remembers watching Padukone grow up as a consummate
rule-breaker. “She would push boundaries. She was a very naughty child!”
says Chandy, who remembers Padukone regularly encouraging other
children to break curfew. One night, she enlisted Chandy’s eldest
daughter to sneak into her kitchen and dig into a chocolate cake Chandy
had baked for a party the next day. “Whatever her goal was, she had this
ability to enroll the other kids to help achieve what she set out to
achieve.” Now she’d enrolled Chandy and others to be trustees of The Live Love Laugh Foundation.
For the next few years, Padukone found herself once again in a position of having to prove herself. Some Indians saw depression and anxiety as a luxury of those with too much money and too few “real” problems—to them, yet another sign of the country’s wide socioeconomic divide. Others smelled a publicity stunt. Chandy explains the Indian public’s incredulity by drawing a comparison between the United States as an individualistic society and India as a collective society governed by group rules. “We have trans-generational messaging,” she says. “It’s in our DNA, the shame associated with mental illness.”
Much as she plowed through the challenging days of her early acting career, Padukone plowed through the public’s preconceptions. In 2016, the foundation launched a nationwide public health campaign called Dobara Poocho, or “Ask Again,” encouraging Indians to recognize the signs of depression, and “More Than Just Sad,” a campaign to help doctors diagnose mental health issues. The foundation’s “You Are Not Alone” mental health awareness program has been taught in 655 Indian schools, advising more than 17,000 teachers and educating more than 142,000 students.
Since the foundation began its media blitz, the number of articles about mental health in the Indian media has increased by roughly 20 percent each year. The foundation has commissioned studies and organized nationwide events, and this summer, it hosted its first-ever lecture series featuring talks with speakers including Pulitzer Prize-winning author Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee. Padukone has spoken at the World Economic Forum and partnered with the Indian Psychiatric Society. Last week, on the heels of World Mental Health Day, The Live Love Laugh Foundation was awarded the Belgium-based Dr. Guislain Breaking the Chains of Stigma Award, an international honor given to organizations dedicated to mental health.Back home in India, says Padukone, “We’re really seeing the conversation opening up.”
“She’s really contributed,” adds Chandy. “It’s not just about contributing financially—it’s about contributing your physical and emotional time, and she has done that completely.”
Now Padukone is turning her attention back to her acting career with the upcoming release of Chhapaak (opening on January 10 in India), a biopic based on the life of Indian acid-attack survivor Laxmi Agarwal. The film marks Padukone’s first credit as producer. “This is the kind of voice I want to have as an actor and as a producer,” she says. True to form, it’s a bold one: “Chhapaak” is Hindi for the sound of a splash, immediately evoking the horror of the film’s central event and the ripples it sends through the character’s life. “This has been my toughest film to date. Working with Sanjay Leela Bhansali,” she says, “I always felt like it couldn’t get tougher than that. And then Chhapaak happened.”
On set, Padukone climbs back up those stone steps to change into the white tee and roomie Acne jeans she arrived in before driving away to her next appointment—all of it just one microscopic segment of her ongoing, world-circumnavigating march. London for shooting, then Paris for Fashion Week, to New Delhi for her foundation’s lecture series, then, maybe, home to Mumbai, where she can shed her chic street style sheaths for her favorite ensemble: “Pajamas!” she yells gleefully when someone asks her about her go-to outfit. But now, still gliding skyward in her gravity-defying gown, Padukone calls to mind the crafty, indefatigable woman who Khan described back on her very first day on a movie set, a description that seems even more apt today: “She’s like a swan gliding gracefully, but paddling furiously under the water.”
Photography by David Roemer | Styled by Carrie Goldberg | Hair by Earl Simms at Caren | Makeup by Naoko Scintu at The Wall Group | Manicure by Robbie Tomkins at Premier | Florist, Lara Sanjar at Wild Renata Flowers | Prop Styling by Ben Bailey | Chief Visual Content Director, Alix Campbell | Executive Editorial Director, Joyann King | Fashion Director, Kerry Pieri | Writer & Entertainment Director, Nojan Aminosharei | Features Director, Olivia Fleming | Market Director, Aya Kanai | Design Director, Perri Tomkiewicz | Designer, Ingrid Frahm | Motion Design, Hayeon Kim | Supervising Video Producer, Kathryn Rice | Director of Photography, Robert Dumé | Camera Operator, Lauren McCall | AC, Ryan Clutton | Swing, Bruno Downey | Editor & Colorist, Erica Dillman | Senior Visual Editor, Lauren Brown | Local Producers, Phoebe Hall and Ellie Henninger at The Production Factory | Special Thanks to Lord and Lady Hailes and Plain Jane Events.