My life’s quite boring,’ Jacqueline Fernandez states emphatically, about midway into our interview. I’ve just asked the Bollywood star how she always seems to maintain just the right balance between being tight-lipped and being an out-and-out social media star.
‘I don’t have a social life,’ she continues. ‘I’m an open book, my entire life is public, and the lack of a social life is why there hasn’t been any controversy. I only know my parents and my work and my friends.’ If there’s even a smidgen of truth to her statement, she does do a fantastic job of coming across as anything but uninteresting, both on and off screen.
The 34-year-old definitely didn’t seem boring a while earlier when she’d waltzed into a suite at Palazzo Versace with her trademark peppy energy. In the midst of the flurry of hectic activity with support staff, fashion stylists, hair and make-up artists and media flitting in and out of the room, Jacqueline made a below-the-radar entrance; but it was strong, solid and she owned it.
In a vibrant floral top, skirt and bandana, hair looking so effortless you just know it’s not, the Sri Lankan actress looked every inch the chic heroine and style powerhouse she’s forged her way into being. Having carved out a bold aesthetic for her 32 million Instagram followers, it’s no surprise why her personal style is frequently pored over by her fans worldwide and is featured in magazines regularly.
She’s known for being friendly and gregarious to everyone she interacts with, from media to crew, and our chat bore out that this reputation was quite deserved. She’s polite and patient when her hair stylist goes missing (though she has to complete photoshoots and interviews and catch a flight soon), she’s happy to cater to selfies and insta videos and multiple photo requests, and she doesn’t refuse to answer any question posed by any of the media converged there, however snarky or probing. In fact, there’s an overall buzzy warmth to her approach to media, and she manages a competent, practised mix of engaged and detached. It’s a trademark balancing act I see throughout our interview – she makes you feel like she’s given away quite a lot, without actually not having done so.
She is unhesitating and rapid and it feels as if she’s always on the go, but she carries no mercurial air as she sits down for a chat with Friday, this time visiting the UAE as brand ambassador for high-street retailer Splash. This is by no means her first stint in Dubai. Previously, she has launched Indian cold-pressed juice brand Raw Pressery here, in which she’s an investor, and worked on a beauty accessory collaboration with Huda Kattan.
But much before the entrepreneurial – or the showbiz – side of things, she’s been familiar with the city, visiting with friends and family since she was a teen living in Bahrain. It was this familiarity that, she says, propelled her into joining the likes of Bollywood icons Katrina Kaif and Salman Khan as Splash’s ambassador. ‘Splash was an aspirational brand for me growing up, and now I’m the face of it. Life sure comes full circle…’
Life surely came full circle for the former model and Miss Universe Sri Lanka when she enrolled in acting school last year – a rare, eyebrow-raising move for an actress who’s been in the industry for 10 years and has over 20 movies under her belt, many of them with superstars of the industry. It wasn’t that she’d found herself on the thin end of the wedge at any point, with roles in various franchises, from Murder and Housefull (all three films) to Judwaa and Race (working with co-actor/producer/mentor/friend Salman Khan after Kick; she’s also a part of Kick 2). She has Drive with Sushant Singh Rajput on release-schedule soon, a dance number in the newly-released Prabhas-Shraddha Kapoor action-thriller Saaho [over 36 million views already], and an entry into the digital space.
By all means, she’s old hands. Still, she says, the classes were an important step for her at the time, something she just ‘had to do. I wanted to reflect on some stuff, and acting school was something I also had a huge fear of doing, having been planning it for quite a few years. Last year for the first time I actually had the courage to go back to school.’
The star regards herself less generously than her portfolio would suggest, and doesn’t feign a happy-ever-after, charmed story. ‘I always felt like I was winging it,’ she says, a half-smile playing across her face. ‘I was very fortunate when I first came into the industry as I had a lot of opportunities come my way. But I was never professionally trained, I didn’t know any techniques, or pretty much anything about the craft. It did almost feel like every single day I was on set that I was winging it, just hoping that it would be a good day and keeping my fingers crossed. It somehow worked out for me, but I decided I didn’t want the rest of my life played out that way – I wanted to learn about my craft, I wanted that backing. I feel there’s always room to study, always room to grow so I was really happy I took that decision to go and study about the exact profession I’m in.’
She pauses when I ask if her next project is to revisit the iconic role that Smita Patil essayed in a remake of the 1982 Mahesh Bhatt film Arth. ‘I have been approached and am in discussion. It’s an amazing film and I’m so glad they are remaking it,’ is all she’ll say.
She’s equally tactful when I mention that she’s always seen sharing a great rapport with her male co-stars, from Kartik Aryan to Salman Khan. Is that anything to do with the fact she finds it easier working with men? ‘There’s always been a hero in every film I’ve done,’ she says, ‘but I’ve also worked in various multi-starrers with actresses, starting with the Housefull series, which always has the three of us. And Race and Judwaa too. From Lisa Haydon to Deepika Padukone to Asin to Taapsee Pannu, I feel it’s really amazing to have female energies around you when you’re working. There’s a lot to learn from other actresses, it’s a great way to grow, and a lot of times you end up bonding too without realising it.’
Recently, Jacqueline has kept herself busy with not just films but with investments and partnerships. Along with Raw Pressery, she has launched her own active wear brand Just F. She’s opened a Sri Lankan restaurant in Colombo called Kaema Sutra. Her multitude of endorsements suggest she’s definitely a bankable name with enormous influence. Is she going for a Rihanna/Kylie Jenner style business empire with her brand investments and collaborations, banking as much on a side hustle as her original career? She won’t bite, only simply saying, ‘I’ve always wanted to make use of opportunities that come my way. Everything from the restaurant business to athleisure to the juices, they’re things I’m so passionate about. Sri Lankan food, fitness and health come very naturally to me, and when the opportunity came I was able to take it.’
But just like the brands she backs, her humanitarian efforts cover a lot of ground too – from animal rights to raising funds post the floods in India (she has won the International Humanitarian Award in the UK at the Asian Voice Charity Awards, joining the likes of writer Jeffrey Archer). ‘I feel everyone can do their bit,’ she says. ‘For me it’s also about increasing awareness because we’ve been given such an amazing platform to talk. A lot of times there are issues around the world people aren’t even aware of, and the only ones who can help with that are celebrities or people with platforms. A lot of our followers are kids and teenagers, so I want to spread my message and if kids have good role models, they ultimately get influenced to do the right things. Then that’s part of my job done.’
She’s not sticking with the same old tricks either, as she sinks her talons into the new Netflix film Mrs Serial Killer. It’s an intriguing premise – a man has been accused of murder, and his wife goes about plotting a murder while he’s imprisoned to prove he’s innocent.
What appealed to her? Working with Shirish Kunder and Netflix. What resonated with her? A chance to run against the grain. ‘It’s a really shocking story, and at that time it clicked for me as I wanted to do something out of my comfort zone. I also believe in Shirish, his work is very interesting and he’s quite ahead of his time. He’s very creative and quite a little genius, and I really wanted to work with him. He and Farah [Khan] really did believe I could take on this role – I also wanted to really work with Netflix.’
I ask about the charge that streaming services are killing cinema, and wonder if there’s a bashing on the cards, in the vein of so many heavy hitters in the movie industry. Jacqueline is more nuanced about it: ‘There’s been a huge evolution in the world of entertainment with all these new different platforms all of a sudden – and I don’t think it’s deterred us in any way. It’s given us new avenues to perform and act and do new things. What I especially love about digital is all of a sudden you’re seeing so much talent – talent that wouldn’t have a chance before because it was so constricted and limited. Now they’re coming to people’s attention.’
What doesn’t suffer from a lack of attention – or scrutiny – are her fitness routines. With a figure that suggests she doesn’t skip a single daily hardcore training session, and words like ‘sizzling, ‘agile’, ‘stunner’, ‘sculpted’ and ‘toned’ frequently following her name in articles on her, her Instagram page is filled with fitspo. But surprisingly, she doesn’t advocate full-on gruelling sessions. Refreshingly, she confesses she’s quite all over the place with her fitness routines, and believes more in mental prep than physical exertion. ‘Prepping yourself to learn to take care of yourself [is important],’ she says. ‘It’s not about being at the gym or not eating carbs – for me it’s about telling myself that this is my life and I want to be strong or I want to be fit – and today if I just feel like taking a walk around then that’s what I’ve done for myself. Or tomorrow I’m going to go for a jog or this month I’m going to really focus on strengthening my muscles. I’m quite all over the place with it but at the end of the day I know that I do my bit every day towards staying fit.’
The Race star is also a fan of vegan eating for staying fit, saying while she’s more vegetarian, she feels a lot ‘lighter’ consuming plant-based foods.
Does keeping up the red-carpet glamour come easily to her then?
‘It’s an extension of what we do as actors,’ she shrugs. ‘I don’t know if it comes naturally – I’ve made my mistakes when it comes to fashion in the past. But we are exposed to so much, with great stylists who keep us informed, a lot of work with magazines, a lot of cover shoots. I feel it’s grown on me.’
There’s a slight crackle of tension in the air when I ask if she feels pigeonholed as a style icon, but her smile doesn’t falter. ‘A lot of times style and acting comes part and parcel. Not that anyone has to prove anything. These are people’s opinions, what they want to think about fashionistas versus actresses – a lot of people are extremely fashionable and extremely good at what they do.’
Apart from Bollywood, she’s also been in a Sri Lankan film recently and even forayed into Hollywood with James Simpson-directed Definition of Fear. What next? ‘Maybe an Arabic film!’ she laughs. ‘But I’ve never done a period film and I’d like to. I’m super intrigued with history, and for actors it’s so interesting to go back to an era and explore it and understand what people at that time were like.’
She’s quick to dispel the romantic notions of a starry life, the near-mythological status of it. She mentions the caveats quite resolutely. At the very outset, ‘you need to ask yourself why you want to be part of the industry. I always ask aspiring actors: are you ready to be judged every single day of your life for the way you look, speak or talk – things you can’t even imagine yourself being judged for? It’s not something that’s easy to keep up with. But if you’re just happy in doing what you’re doing, then those things don’t matter and they won’t bother you. But if you’re doing it for other reasons then it’s going to be a little difficult.’
Would she rather not be on social media?
‘We have to evolve with today’s times. I remember my life pre and post social media and I feel it helps so many people get recognised. I saw this video the other day about an entrepreneur at the age of 12. People are being able to commercialise this. For me I think social media is the future and I feel very excited to be a part of that. I just opened my YouTube channel.’
But in a world of elaborately inventive memes and trolls, how has she gone about juggling people’s opinions, or the notion that celebs’ personal lives are fair game?
She prefers not to be a grudge-bearer. ‘Those are a form of what we’ve dealt with, even pre-social media, such as dealing with people in school. It’s a form of bullying, now it’s online. There will always be the jealous, jobless ones, the haters. You just have to get your passion to override it all.’