At 5.30pm on a cool December day, barely a few people were milling around the entrance of the brand new four-storey Meena Jewellers’ store in Deira Gold Souq in Dubai. A few paused to peer inside, curious to know why a red carpet had been laid outside and glittering strobe lights and flashy red, green and blue spotlights had been set up to light up the store’s facade.
Fifteen minutes later, a small crowd began developing outside the store. “It seems Bollywood star Jacqueline Fernandez is arriving in a few minutes,” said Javed Khan, a 30-something Pakistani gentleman who, with his wife, was shopping in the area. “We saw her in Kick, with Salman. Hope we’ll be able to see her in real life now.”
As minutes ticked by, the store and its bright lights began attracting more and more people and by 6pm, the road leading into the Gold Souq was packed with eager fans.
Traffic had virtually come to a standstill in the area. “I don’t think I’ll be able to make it in time. I’m stuck in traffic leading to the Gold Souq,” said our photographer Dennis Mallari over the phone.
From the vantage point on the fourth floor of the store, a long line of cars and trucks could be seen snaking all the way from the entrance to the souq right up to the store front. The traffic could barely inch its way through crowds that had now spilled on to the narrow single lane road.
The scheduled time of 6pm passed, the star hadn’t appeared, yet the crowd continued to swell. At 7.30pm there was still no sight of the star. “Really sorry,” apologised the PR person. “She’s going to be here any moment. Apparently her limo is struggling to make it through the traffic.”
Finally, at 8.10pm, a white stretch limousine appeared at the bend of the road, triggering a loud “yaay” from the crowd. Taking around 10 minutes to make its way through the crowds, the car was mobbed the moment it pulled up outside the store.
Stepping out of the car, Jacqueline, dressed in a black short skirt, a deep purple blouse and a smart black jacket, waved out to the crowds as hundreds of mobile phones flickered.
Flashing a toothy smile to her fans, she posed for a few pictures outside before a bunch of heavily biceped men chaperoned her into the store. As quickly as it congregated, the crowd began melting away into the night.
After the customary cutting of the red ribbon, Jacqueline was all smiles as she walked around the store admiring the jewellery. “It’s great to be here, in Dubai, the city of gold,” she grinned, her diamond necklace catching the store’s bright lights.
The 29-year-old star is clearly riding high in Bollywood. Her last two Hindi movies – Race 2 with John Abraham and Saif Ali Khan, and the most recent, Kick, which has Salman Khan in the lead – were phenomenal top grossers.
“Yes, 2014 has been a great year,” admits the 1.7m tall Sri Lankan beauty who was crowned Miss Sri Lanka Universe in 2006, settling down for the interview. “I’ve been quite busy... which is a great thing. I’m enjoying every minute of my life.”
Acting in films was “truly one of my wildest fantasies,” says Jacqueline, who was born and raised in Sri Lanka and later in Bahrain where her family – parents, a sister and two brothers – are still based.
She admits she never expected that one day she would be acting with “some of the top stars in Bollywood.
“I deeply desired it but felt it would only remain a dream. It goes to show that the universe always conspires to give you what your heart really wants,” she says.
Her mother, Kim, a homemaker, perhaps guessed her daughter was destined for stardom “because it was she who named me after Jacqueline Onassis Kennedy,” says the star.
A graduate in mass communication from Sydney University, Australia, Jacqueline began her career as a television news reporter in Sri Lanka in 2005, before she was spotted by an advertising agency in the capital Colombo and offered a modelling assignment.
The next year, she was crowned Miss Sri Lanka Universe, getting a chance to represent the island nation at the Miss Universe pageant in Los Angeles.
“It all happened so quickly that I felt I was living a fairy-tale life,” says Jacqueline. Although she returned from LA empty handed, a few pleasant surprises were in store for her in Sri Lanka: in 2007, she appeared in a commercial music video for the popular local band Bathiya and Santhush.
More modelling assignments came her way, before she was spotted in 2009 by a talent hunter while shooting a commercial in Mumbai, India. She auditioned and although she did not know the language – Hindi – she landed a dream Bollywood debut role – in Aladin – with none other than the biggest star in India’s tinsel town – Amitabh Bachchan. “I think I was just so lucky to get the role. I got it within a month of landing in Mumbai.
“To share a frame with a legend like Amitabh Bachchan was more than I could have ever asked for,” she says.
Although the movie bombed at the box office and Jacqueline’s acting was panned by critics, her good looks got her several column centimetres in tabloids and film journals.
The next year, 2010, wasn’t too different. She landed forgettable roles in forgettable movies – as an alien in search of love in Riteish Deshmukh’s romcom Jaane Kahan Se Aayi Hai (I don’t know where she’s come from) and a cameo in Sajid Khan’s Housefull 2.
“It’s really difficult when your films don’t do well,” says the star. “Everything kind of changes that weekend. And it becomes difficult when you start getting bad reviews, bad press. I guess those were some of the low points of my career.”
So does criticism affect her?
“It affects anyone. But I guess you get used to it and learn how to take it in your stride.” Then she flashes a smile: “In some ways criticism can help you. It helps you to stay grounded. As actors, I feel it is important for us to be able to take criticism and move on in life.”
And move on she did. Starring in Race 2 in 2013 and sharing screen space with a multi-star cast of Saif Ali Khan, John Abraham, Anil Kapoor, Deepika Padukone and Amisha Patel, Jacqueline managed to hold her own. Although critics panned the movie, Race 2 was a box-office hit and Jacqueline managed to gain a toehold on the slippery ladder of Bollywood success.
“But it was Kick that truly changed my life,” says the star. Playing Shaina, a bespectacled student of psychiatry, Jacqueline pitted her talents opposite Salman Khan in the movie that went on to break box-office records.
On its opening day, the movie raked in over Rs260 million (Dh15 million), making it the second-highest non-holiday opening grosser behind Aamir Khan’s Dhoom 3. “It was the best thing that could have happened in my life and career,” says the leggy actor.
Although Salman carried the movie through on his broad shoulders, Jacqueline earned plaudits for being able to match him on screen. “Being with Salman was just amazing. He’s a dream to work with. And the movie did phenomenally well, so we’re all happy,” she smiles. “I’d always dreamed of acting with Salman and then to bag the role opposite him was just unbelievable.”
She still remembers the first day’s shoot: “I was nervous and scared, to be honest. The moment he walked on to the set, the entire energy there changed. There was a certain positive buzz around him.
“He is so calm and helpful during the shoot… it was a pleasure working with him. I have to thank my lucky stars to have had this star in my life.”
The pretty actor soon had more reasons to be happy. Immediately after Kick hit the screens, Salman tweeted about the film mentioning Jacqueline by name “and almost overnight the number of followers I had on Twitter zoomed to over a million,” she says, still excited. Her effortless acting in the high-energy action sequences in the movie also earned her a lot of applause, particularly from frontbenchers. “I work hard staying fit and that came in useful during the shoot,” she says.
In 2013, Jacqueline was named by Times of India as one of the ‘50 most desirable women’.
How does she feel to be on the list?
“I really don’t know,” she giggles. “Honestly I don’t know what to say. As actors and being part of this profession it’s important to be glamorous. It’s part of the industry. It’s good if people see it that way because we do work really hard being fashionable and stylish.”
Jacqueline, who was in a relationship with film-maker Sajid Khan until a couple of years ago, is now single.
Does she have any plans for marriage?
The chirpy actor gives a throaty laugh. “Not right now,” she says.
“To get married you need to have a boyfriend first, right? And I don’t have one now. I’m planning to concentrate on my career.”
So what kind of a person would be her Mr Right?
“I’m looking for someone who is even remotely like my dad, Elroy Fernandez – gentle, kind, loving, and who has good, positive energy. I know it can be very difficult because such people are really hard to find,” she says.
The actor has just completed a Hollywood thriller titled Definition Of Fear directed by documentary film-maker James Simpson, who has worked with stars such as Al Pacino and Penelope Cruz.
“Post-production work is over and the film will be released this year ,” she says.
She also has a clutch of Hindi films. In Roy, starring Ranbir Kapoor and Arjun Rampal, Jacqueline does a double role. “Work is almost over and it’s going to be out in February,” she says.
There were also rumours about a multilingual budget movie with Amitabh Bachchan and Jackie Chan.
How far has that progressed?
“Umm, I’m not allowed to speak on that right now,” she says.
In addition, she’s been listed in a comedy, Bangistan, opposite Riteish Deshmukh and in Brothers, opposite Akshay Kumar.
“Honestly, I’m quite busy right now and cannot think of marriage... not now,” says Jacqueline, who enjoys cooking or curling up on the sofa with a book during “the little free time I get”.
So what does she think are the ingredients of success in Bollywood?
“Patience,” she says. “You have to be determined to stick in there and never give up. Next would be hard work. And good PR skills.”
Jacqueline certainly has oodles of the last as she patiently and cheerfully poses for pictures with more than two dozen fans who have been waiting for her in the store. “Later tonight, I’m going to buy some gold earrings,” she says, when I ask her what her plans for the evening are. “I just love earrings.”