As 1.4 billion Indians could tell you, Deepika Padukone is the queen of Bollywood. Her dedication to mental health and wellness stands out in an industry that, like its Western cousin, has traditionally traded primarily on looks.
BY: Dianna Mazzone
PHOTOGRAPHED BY: Rid Burman
When Deepika Padukone was a toddler, she had a ”very, very naughty” habit of climbing on sofas and tables. She grew out of it when she was about five. (“The minute my sister was born, I calmed down and I became protective and maternal.”) But metaphorically, you might say Padukone’s feet still haven’t touched the ground.
As the reigning queen of the Indian film industry — also known as Bollywood — Padukone has been put on a pedestal. When I send a message to a WhatsApp group of my India-dwelling, soon-to-be in-laws and ask for their impressions of her, they speak of Padukone in the same sort of glowing terms you or I (assuming you, too, are more familiar with Hollywood actors) might use when describing Jennifer Lawrence or Lupita Nyong’o. Of course, they represent just a teeny, tiny fraction of the some 1.4 billion people living in India, but considering the sheer number of followers Padukone has on Instagram (64.4 million and counting), it’s safe to say they are drops in a very large ocean.
Before Padukone ascended to her Bollywood throne, she ruled over another court: badminton. What began for her as an after-school hobby quickly turned into competition at the national level. Padukone’s skills run in the family: Her father, Prakash, was a professional player, ranked number one in the world in 1980. (Six years later, Padukone was born in Copenhagen, where her father and her mother, Ujjala, had moved in pursuit of the game.)
“A lot of the life I live today is based on sport,” says Padukone, “that routine and discipline.” As a kid growing up in Bangalore, she recalls waking up at four-thirty in the morning on school days for training, then racing to school, after which she’d stop home for just enough time to grab a snack before heading out for another practice session. “When my friends caught up on weekends or had sleepovers, I didn’t really do much of that,” Padukone says. “You make certain sacrifices.”
Somewhere between competitions, she started modeling at the behest of a friend’s mother, who ran an agency. When Padukone finally took a break from badminton at age 16 — if you can call pausing to take your board exams (the equivalent of the SATs) a break — she had the realization that she preferred modeling to athletics.
“I sat [my parents] down and had this conversation with them and they were supportive. My father remembered his parents allowing him to just follow his heart, so they did the same [for me],” says Padukone. “The only thing they wanted me to do was finish my education… which I didn’t end up doing because when I started modeling, things got so busy.”
Supriya Lele bodysuit and trousers. Massimo Dutti earring. Misho ear cuff. Photographed by Rid Burman. Fashion stylist: Priyanka Kapadia. Hair: Yianni Tsapatori. Makeup: Daniel Bauer. Manicure: Pooja K and Sunita P. Set design: Sandesh Kambli. Production: Khatri Productions. To create a similar makeup look: 5 Couleurs Couture in 079 Black Bow, Diorshow 24H Stylo in 091 Matte Black, Backstage Glow Face Palette in 002 Glitz, and Rouge Dior Forever Liquid in 100 Forever Nude by Dior.
“Busy” is a rather humble way to characterize Padukone’s quick ascent. In a matter of months, she landed major campaigns that included TV commercials and print ads that caught the attention of Bollywood casting directors. She received several movie offers, but “I wasn’t ready for them,” she says. “I don’t know where I found the wisdom and the courage and the strength to say no, but I said it.”
I ask her if she’s a big believer in the timing of the universe. “Sometimes I just know [things] deep down inside. I don’t have to vocalize it. I don’t have to say it to anyone. I just know.” She offers the example of knowing, even as she was pursuing modeling, that she would eventually be an actor. “We’d sit in a [movie] theater and I’d see some of these actresses onscreen. I don’t know what it was. I just looked at them and felt like, This is where I’m going to be,” she says. “And, honestly, I did nothing to consciously work toward that, which I find so strange.”
When the timing was right, she did, however, pursue one of those film roles. “A very prominent director noticed me in one of these [modeling] campaigns. She was casting for a movie opposite India’s biggest superstar,” says Padukone. “He was then and he continues to be.”
That star was Shah Rukh Khan, and that film turned out to be Om Shanti Om which, if you ask anyone in that family WhatsApp chat, is one of the greatest — if not the greatest — Bollywood movies of all time.
After passing muster with a choreographer (Bollywood films are known for their elaborate dance sequences) and meeting Khan at his home (“I remember just sitting at the edge of the sofa, being so nervous, and almost in a daze. I couldn’t even process what was happening”), Padukone found herself on a film set for the very first time. “They never auditioned me. Even today, I look at [the director, Farah Khan,] and I’m like, ‘What were you guys thinking?’”
Following the film’s premiere in 2007, Padukone’s life changed overnight. But at the same time that offers started pouring in, Padukone says she began “feeling lost” in the industry: “My first experience was almost served to me on a platter. I was so well presented and so well taken care of that I thought that’s just the way it’s going to be; that the director would always make sure that I act well, and that my diction is on point and I’m looking amazing.” She continues, “It took me many, many films to realize that’s not always the case. There’s parts of it that the director will bring, but there’s a lot of it that I need to bring to the table [myself].”
Padukone considers the 2012 movie Cocktail, in which she plays a spunky London nightclub-goer, a turning point in her career. “Just in terms of the character, the movie itself, the music in the film, the way I was being styled, I knew that this was that moment I could really change things for myself if I wanted to,” she recalls. “I was able to let go of my inhibitions.”
In the years since, she has taken on roles as varied as a star-crossed lover based on Shakespeare’s Juliet (in RamLeela, opposite her now-husband, Ranveer Singh); a strong-willed architect (in the comedy Piku); and an acid-attack survivor (in Chhapaak, which tells the real-life story of Laxmi Agarwal).
Chhapaak was the first film undertaken by Ka Productions, a company formed by Padukone in 2018. Serving as a producer puts her in the driver’s seat for creative and operational decisions. “I think it really gives me an opportunity to change a lot of things that I’ve seen go amiss as an actor. Things are just brushed under the carpet,” she says. “I’m that person who will always question why things are being done a certain way, even if they’d been done the same way for many, many years.”
Those things, says Padukone, can range from making sure there are nutritious food options on set to establishing equitable working conditions. “I think it’s important for the crew to be compensated for [overtime]. And if you do go over, you have to ensure that everyone gets at least a 12-hour turnaround. You can’t finish at midnight and then expect everyone to be back on set at seven in the morning,” she says.
As one of a small but growing number of female producers in Bollywood, Padukone is committed to prioritizing diversity in all its forms when casting. “I think we’ve moved on from Indians just being the doctor or the taxi driver in the movie,” she says. “[But] I think we have a long way to go.”
Padukone didn’t always share her opinions so freely. “Speaking out about my experience with mental illness and standing up for what I believe in, I think all of that happened around the same time,” she says. She’s referencing the decision she made in 2015 to share her struggle with depression with the world. The year prior, “I remember just waking up feeling completely unmotivated, directionless…I didn’t want to face the world,” she says. “Life just felt meaningless.”
Padukone recounts breaking down in front of her mother in the same room inside her Mumbai home where she’s speaking to me from now. The walls are covered in pastel floral wallpaper and I think to myself that it does not look like a room in which anything bad could possibly happen. But, of course, there’s always more to something — or someone — than what meets the eye. “I had this blockbuster year and everything was going perfectly well. I was in this relationship [with the person] who I’m married to now. And everything was perfect. Like, how could life be any better?” she says. “I think that’s probably how it seemed to everyone around me, including myself.”
Padukone’s mother was the first to recognize that her daughter needed professional help. She connected her with a family friend and counselor, who worked in tandem with a psychiatrist to diagnose Padukone with clinical depression. The actor was immediately prescribed medication, but resisted it “for a very long time.” Today, she sees being open about mental health as an equally important step in her own healing.
“I struggled and I suffered for many months because I didn’t know anyone who had been through something like this,” she says. “I felt like if I shared my experience and even just one person was like, ‘I identify with these symptoms,’ then my purpose would be served.”
The Attico top and skirt. Swarovski earrings. Anushka Jain Jewellery and Zevar King rings. To create a similar makeup look: Terracotta Light in Natural Warm, Precious Light Rejuvenating Effect Illuminator in Light Golden, and KissKiss Bee Glow in Honey Glow
Padukone’s story inspired not just one person, but likely millions. Data published by the World Health Organization shows that approximately 15 percent of Indian adults “need active intervention for one or more mental health issues.” It’s possible the real number is even higher, since Padukone reports that in India there’s still considerable stigma around discussing mental health.
She established the LiveLoveLaugh Foundation to keep the conversation going and to provide resources for those who are suffering. Since the ratio of psychiatrists to the general population in India is just 0.75 (so, not even one whole psychiatrist) to every 100,000 people, one of the foundation’s most important undertakings was creating a certification program to help general physicians learn to identify, manage, and treat common mental health disorders.
And that’s just the start of what Padukone hopes to accomplish. “I think that focusing on the importance of mental health is what my calling is,” she says. “It’s work that I will continue to do. And hopefully the foundation will survive even beyond me.”
Padukone, though just 36, has been thinking about her legacy a lot lately. “You reach a stage in your life where you wake up thinking, What is it that I want to be remembered for? And what is it that I want to leave behind?” she says. The answer — in addition, of course, to the foundation and her acting oeuvre — is an as-yet-unnamed lifestyle brand centered on self-care and ritual.
With that in mind, it’s fitting that beauty — specifically, skin care — will launch first. The debut products include cleanser, toner, moisturizer, eye cream, and SPF, all of which will “marry what we call a global ingredient with an Indian ingredient and bring the best of both together,” says Padukone.
“I wanted the products to reflect my journey and my experience. I’ve led this life of being — how do I say this? — extremely rooted, but at the same time I’ve also had a lot of exposure to the rest of the world,” she explains. “I think the line and the collection is an extension of that. For example, I’m not someone who wakes up and wears a sari every morning, but neither am I someone who wakes up and wears a suit every morning. I think that’s where the modern Indian woman is today. She can embrace the best of both worlds.”
I ask her how, coming from an industry hyper-focused on box office numbers, she plans to measure the brand’s success: “I think if we are able to shift the needle [when it comes to] the kind of lifestyles people have and help them prioritize their mental health along with their physical health, that for me will define the success of this brand.”
Giving people the tools to create an “uncomplicated” yet efficacious skin-care ritual is just the first means by which Padukone plans to do so. She also envisions launching candles, athleisure, and home decor in the years ahead. “I’ve always been fascinated by spaces, interiors, and that sort of thing,” she says. I smile, thinking about how Padukone went from scaling couch cushions to now, perhaps, creating them. And so begins another climb.
Photographed by: Rid Burman
Fashion stylist: Priyanka Kapadia
Hair: Yianni Tsapatori
Makeup: Daniel Bauer
Manicure: Pooja K and Sunita P
Set design: Sandesh Kambli
Production: Khatri Productions