Stocky build, brute strength and Dwayne The Rock Johnson are images that come to mind at the mention of the term wrestler. The delicate beauty of lissom Anushka Sharma is an association as distant as Mars; an antithesis even. Yet, here I am, listening to the Bollywood actress’ spirited voice on the other end of the phone – miles away in Mumbai – animatedly describing the gruelling six-week training she underwent for her role as a female wrestler opposite Salman Khan in the sports drama Sultan where he plays the eponymous wrestler.
‘I told Ali [director Ali Abbas Zafar] not to use a body double even for wide shots because I wanted to do them myself,’ she chatters. ‘I’d learnt the sport well under professional wrestler Jagdish Kaliraman and worked hard on it, looking the part, building a lot of muscle and endurance and learning to speak Haryanvi for this film.’
It’s this almost combative willingness to charge ahead and face every challenge head on – from essaying complex characters to calling out sexism and wage gap in the male-dominated film fraternity during a television interview and branching into production when the opportunity knocked on her door – that makes the 28-year-old a Bollywood heavyweight.
If the colossal success of her recent films like PK (the highest-grossing Hindi film of all time, raking in Rs9.9 billion or about Dh541 million) haven’t cemented Anushka’s place atop Bollywood’s pecking order, then the business-like voice of the PR person who answers my call with the friendly caveat of ‘no personal questions and 10 minutes only’ should. Anushka is hot property, and all in just eight years in Tinseltown.
From a dream debut opposite Shah Rukh Khan in Aditya Chopra’s Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, to holding her own in Rajkumar Hirani’s PK alongside Aamir Khan, Anushka has come a long way.
For starters, besides Kareena Kapoor Khan and Katrina Kaif, Anushka is the only millennial actress to share screen space with all the three Khans – she debuted with Shah Rukh Khan in Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi (2008), raked in the moolah and public adulation with Aamir Khan in PK, and completed the trifecta with this year’s most anticipated release, Sultan.
‘If you’d told me 10 years ago that I’d be working with these three people, I would have thought you mad,’ she quips.
You can’t blame her. It’s not often that a 19-year-old, born in Ayodhya and raised in Bengaluru, with no film connections, about two years of modelling experience and an arts degree from Mount Carmel College bags a dream launch in a big banner production like Yash Raj Films’ Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi where she played the demure Taani and won hearts instantly.
The enormity of the opportunities and the perks of being a Khan’s leading lady isn’t lost on the canny actress even today, as she basks in the success of Sultan. ‘I was very excited to work with Salman,’ she says. ‘He’s been wonderful to me and his spontaneity as an actor helped me so much. Plus, he’s a megastar with a huge, huge fan following and the way people love him, I mean, I can’t even understand that kind of love.
‘I’m glad that because of him my work will reach so many more people.’
Concealed behind her media-friendly mantle of maturity, there’s an inherent simplicity and frankness that break through as her feelings tumble out in fits and bursts during an awed explanation of how surreal the experience of working with her childhood idols is. The exuberance we saw in the chatterbox North Indian characters she essayed in films like Band Baaja Baaraat and Ladies vs Ricky Bahl is still resonant in her voice.
‘Sometimes, I look at them and remember myself as a 15-year-old who grew up watching their films,’ says Anushka. ‘I don’t know... I’m amazed... at the fact that I’m actually working with these guys who’ve stood the test of time for two decades. They teach me so much about work and life.’
Anushka enjoys films that challenge her like Sultan, where she plays a wrestler or Dil Dhadakne Do, in which she’s a dancer.
And just as quickly the walls come back up as she guardedly validates her decision to act in Sultan as a sound professional choice and not a starry-eyed impulsive decision. ‘I was excited to play Aarfa and had a lot of respect for the story and the film,’ she says.
The stereotypes of the bubbly Punjabi girl and arm candy have been some she has consciously been shedding by playing eclectic and meaty characters, such as free-spirited dancer Farah in Zoya Akhtar’s Dil Dhadakne Do, firebrand journalist Jaggu in PK, and vengeful wife Meera in last year’s critical and commercial hit NH10 – a violent thriller that also saw the actress take on the producer’s chair.
It’s why she’s only done 11 films in eight years.
‘I was never really running for the numbers, intending to do these many films in a year or reach a mark of 100 films before I turn 30,’ says Anushka. ‘That’s not something I’m aspiring to do. I just want to do good films, and I’ve done those I felt were different; felt correct to me and I had a conviction about.
‘A lot of films that I refused have gone on to do well. It’s not that the scripts were bad; it’s just that the role was something I’ve done before or I know it’s a part in which I won’t be contributing to the film.’ Her pickiness might have led her to miss the boat in terms of hits like Tamasha and 2 States, but it’s also helped her avoid future box-office disasters like Patiala House and Badmaash Company.
Today, her scales are tipping generously towards success; Anushka is part of the young wave of actresses – along with the likes of Deepika Padukone and Kangana Ranaut – leading the Bollywood female superstar pack, who can single-handedly carry a film on their shoulders without a male protagonist to bank on. Anushka is not ready to sit back and be the pretty wallflower Bollywood heroines once were while the hero steals the thunder. Her turn as a producer has helped her cross this sexist hurdle, she explains, and helm projects that light a spark in her.
‘When I have an idea as an actor, I can’t go and tell film-makers, “Let’s do something about it”, or if someone narrates a script to me, I’m never going to tell them, why don’t you do it this way or that, because I’m not in a position to do so. As a producer, if I have an idea I want to develop, you can jam with writers, discuss things and get creatively involved.
‘That’s important because ultimately, it’s the creative aspect of films that really excites me.’
With her production company Clean Slate Films, which she runs with brother Karnesh Sharma, Anushka has found creative freedom.
There are more creative projects in the offing for the actress whose production house Clean Slate Films – which she runs with brother and former Merchant Navy officer Karnesh Sharma – has a second movie in the pipeline in collaboration with Fox Star Studios. It’s slated for a 2017 release.
‘It has only been two years and we’ve already shot two films,’ she says. ‘NH10 was well received and now we’re doing Phillauri, a romantic comedy with Diljit Dosanjh and me in the lead roles. Karnesh and I are obviously learning along the way and working on more projects, and to me it’s very creatively satisfying that we can create content and tell stories that have not been told before.’
Anushka credits hard work seven days a week for the upward swing in her careergraph. Perhaps taking a leaf out of Mr Perfectionist Aamir’s book, she is known to immerse herself in a role with radical physical transformations and training.
‘For NH10 I used to run a lot so I could have the kind of endurance I needed for the entire film. For Sultan I trained with a male opponent so it would be easier when I was pitted against a girl. So fitness regimens keeps changing based on the film I’m doing.’
One look at Sultan where Anushka, clad in a wrestling singlet, flattens men twice her size in mud pits with technically accurate body slams, and flips and tosses them like pancakes, is all you need to be convinced of her dedication. ‘As a rule, I go all out to make sure that my character looks authentic,’ she says.
So far so good, except for that one time when her use of temporary lip fillers for her role as Sixties’ jazz singer in Bombay Velvet garnered flak from critics, plenty of body shaming and vicious comments online. It prompted her to raise her voice against cyber bullying on Twitter, where she said, ‘I’m trying to keep my Twitter [feed] as positive as I possibly can and so will block people who keep blabbering nonsense with almost no sense of responsibility.’
The 28-year-old actress refuses to comment on her relationship with cricketer Virat Kohli.
It isn’t the only time the actress was at the receiving end of personal slights and heckles on social media. Her relationship with cricketer Virat Kohli was put under the scanner as well when she was blamed for distracting him with her presence during the 2015 Cricket World Cup semi-finals and India’s subsequent loss. The couple split up earlier this year and Anushka has doggedly dodged questions about the break-up – and getting back together, with pictures and news to that effect doing the rounds.
I’m tempted to test her resolve, but our conversation hinges on the pre-condition of no personal questions. The actress remains tight-lipped about the lip job and bats away any questions that remotely skirt the territory of her love life. But the walls come down, and again she falls into the rhythm of conversation, talking nineteen to the dozen about why her journey in cinema hasn’t set into boredom, revealing more of Anushka the girl who takes pride in being self-made and loves the adrenaline rush of performing her own stunts.
‘It’s been a wonderful journey,’ she says. ‘I’m grateful for the kind of growth and recognition I’ve received since Band Baaja Baaraat.’ After all, the film, in which she played wedding planner Shruti Kakkar catapulted her to stardom. ‘It was a film with then-newcomer Ranveer Singh and a new director, so it gives me a lot of satisfaction knowing that [my success] wasn’t riding on someone else’s shoulders.
‘After Band Baaja, I made a list of directors I wanted to work with and I’m blessed that I’ve worked with most of them, starting with Aditya Chopra, who’s like a mentor to me, Rajkumar Hirani, Vishal Bhardwaj and the legendary Yash Chopra [in Jab Tak Hai Jaan]. I feel very special that I could be part of his last film before his death. Actresses would have given an arm and leg to work in a Yash Chopra movie. He could have taken anyone to play Akira, yet he chose me, which is something I’ll always be grateful for.’
It is the only film that has won Anushka a Filmfare Award, for best supporting actress.
Right before I can throw another question her way, she interrupts the conversation apologetically, saying, ‘This is the last question you know... Then they’ll take the phone away from me... Sorry.’ Her voice is laced with what sounds like regret, and I wonder if she’s as in control of our conversation as she is of her career.
Making the last minute of interview count, I ask if she feels let down that despite being nominated several times for the Filmfare Award for best actress, it has so far eluded her.
A pregnant pause follows as she weighs her words. I expect a politically correct spiel, but her frankness and honesty knock me off.
‘Umm, I actually don’t really care,’ she says. ‘The first time I lost out in 2008, I cried like a child. Now, I’m indifferent to awards because of films like NH10 and what it did for me as a producer.
‘It was a movie nobody was willing to make. I backed it and for me, that’s a bigger thing than receiving an award. And I think that [reflects] what motivations you have in life. Mine is to create good cinema. While doing that if I get an award along the way, great PR, if I don’t, then it doesn’t matter.
‘Does that answer your question?’ she counters with a girlish giggle, at complete odds to her grim response.
Bout one goes to Anushka Sharma’s fighting spirit.