If Hollywood actress Nicole Kidman had to smash plates to get over the trauma of playing an abused housewife in the hit television series ‘Big Little Lies’, Bollywood actress Deepika Padukone had to burn things to gain closure after playing an acid attack survivor in ‘Chhapaak’.
“I burnt my prosthetic on the last day of the shoot,” said Padukone in an interview with Gulf News tabloid!.
“I got the team to make me an additional piece, even though every piece of prosthetic is very expensive. But I needed to do that for myself emotionally. I felt it would help me cope and move on. So, while I was able to release some of my pent-up emotions, I don’t think I was able to release all of it entirely,” said Padukone.
The 33-year-old actor’s struggle to let go of the difficult role was evident during the run up to the release of the much-anticipated film directed by Meghna Gulzar.
Padukone, who has discussed her struggle with depression and the importance of mental health through her Live Laugh Love Foundation, cried openly during the trailer and song launch of ‘Chhapaak’. In several instances, Padukone was seen hugging Laxmi Agarwal, the person whom the film is based on.
Agarwal had acid thrown on her face when she was 15, after she rejected the advances of a much older man. She’s now the portrait of a fierce woman who has made it her life’s mission to stop the sale of acid in India through her various campaigns. Her inspiring story of reconciliation and perseverance is now the stuff of Bollywood folklore.
“I don’t think I have recovered from it still,” Padukone said. “That’s probably why you have seen me breaking down. It’s a part of my emotional baggage and I have not been able to let go of it. I have tried… But I don’t think it will happen overnight.”
Wearing her heart on her sleeve didn’t come easy to one of Bollywood’s most bankable faces. Being vulnerable calls for a great amount of strength and reserve, believes Padukone.
“Over the years, I have realised that we have become accustomed to holding back or projecting a certain image or fitting into a mould… I am not saying this because I am in the public eye or I am an actor, it happens anywhere you go. If you walk into an office you are expected to behave a certain way or if you walk into a college you are expected to behave a certain way,” she said.
The actress, who made her acting debut with Shah Rukh Khan in the 2007 re-incarnation blockbuster ‘Om Shanti Om’, wasn’t always comfortable in her own skin.
“I did feel claustrophobic when I first came into the industry. I felt like you have to be a certain way or project a certain image. But as you grow, you evolve and the only way to be is authentic,” said Padukone, who now wears her emotional scars proudly. While she’s disciplined, she places honesty on top of her priorities.
Perhaps, it’s that same honesty that made her reveal that she wasn’t looking for a complex, emotionally-charged role like the one in ‘Chhapaak’ after doing intense period epics such as ‘Padmaavat’ and ‘Goliyon Ki Rasleela — Ram Leela’. While ‘Ram Leela’ narrated the story of star-crossed lovers, on the lines of ‘Romeo and Juliet’, ‘Padmaavat’ saw her play a dignified queen who commits suicide at the end of the film. Ideally, she wanted to do a light, frothy movie next and not one of those “heavy films that put me in a different headspace”.
“Honestly, I was looking forward to doing a role that was nicer and more contemporary. I was on the lookout for that and I was meeting a lot of directors in that space. But when you hear that director Meghna Gulzar wants to meet you, you of course take that meeting… She was aware that I was looking for something else emotionally,” said Padukone, who got married to Bollywood A-lister Ranveer Singh after the release of ‘Padmaavat’.
The actress — and, for the first time in her career, producer — only had to read a couple of pages of the script before she jumped on board as the leading woman.
“Such a moment doesn’t come often in an actor’s life. I remember clearly the last time that happened… it was with ‘Piku’. I remember Shoojit [Sircar, director of ‘Piku’] sir had come to me with ‘Piku’ and I wanted to immediately do it. Even with ‘Chhapaak’, I did not have to sit through an entire narration to decide whether I wanted to do the film or not,” said Padukone.
While her quick decision to star in ‘Chhapaak’ took Gulzar by surprise, this is one of the few films that will see Padukone stripped of her overwhelming beauty and stunning physicality. The movie aims to subvert the conventional definition of beauty standards and norms.
“I looked at ‘Chhapaak’ as a story that needs to be told… I was looking at it only through that filter. At no point had it crossed my mind that I had to let go of my beauty or how my lack of looks will be perceived. The adjectives that are put on my physicality are more about how people perceive me or look at me. That’s not my own perception of myself,” said Padukone.
In this socially-charged film, she had concerns of a different kind.
“I had more technical questions in my head like how are we going to achieve my look as an acid attack survivor… How much do we want to show it, and whether we need somebody from outside to achieve that look on screen,” said Padukone.
Deep discussions between director Gulzar and Padukone revolved around how to shape and sculpt her character Malti as a spirited woman who didn’t life get in her way.
“Do we show Deepika as someone who has had an incident like this or are we trying to make Deepika look like Malti completely or should we find a mid-path. The consensus was to get that right by taking the middle path,” said Padukone, who said that she didn’t know the magnitude of the crime until she played this role.
“It’s such an important movie and its story needs to travel… it’s relevant because of its occurrence — be it at the judicial, medical or legal level.”
While their intentions are noble, how did they ensure that ‘Chhapaak’ wasn’t reduced to an agenda-driven or propaganda film about a holier-than-thou activist?
“You are questioning Meghna’s body of work and my body of work when you ask us if we have done anything to sensationalise the movie … Look at Meghna’s ‘Talvar’, it was so sensitively and beautifully handled … And she was one of the reasons why that story was so impactful,” said Padukone, referring to a procedural thriller that documented the real-life murder of a teenager Arushi Talvar in 2008 that caught the imagination of the Indian public.
Director Gulzar also shot down the same question by claiming that making an agenda-driven film wasn’t her style as a filmmaker.
Padukone sums it up neatly with: “Sometimes, you can have a great story but the director can mess it up or you can have a great director but not a compelling storyline. So it’s important to get the right story and director combination. ‘Chhapaak’ has both these extremely important factors.”
“I won’t entertain bringing gender into this conversation at all … My director of ‘Chhapaak’ being a woman is by the way and not an exception here,” said Padukone, when asked if Meghna Gulzar’s gender played any part in agreeing to a part of this film.
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‘Chhapaak’ releases in the UAE on January 9.