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November 2018 cover star Anushka Sharma: "I didn't grow up dreaming to be an actor"

The actor has completed a decade in Bollywood

It’s practically impossible to get Anushka Sharma’s attention today. Us two-legged folk are nowhere on her radar on the set of this photo shoot, where she appears entirely preoccupied with the two rescued strays that have been brought in to be photographed with her. One is a barely month-old pup, and he seems to like the taste of whatever cosmetics she’s slapped on this morning — he won’t stop licking her face. (She doesn’t seem to mind). The other is a bigger guy and he just looks like he wants to be fed, photo shoot be damned.

It isn’t until the changes are done — and the dogs have been packed off, actually — that Anushka is ready to return to the land of us mere humans. She is warm and friendly, but never too friendly. Unlike many of her peers, there is no all-consuming desire to be liked. There is no pandering. She’s refreshingly straightforward; it’s been her most marked characteristic since she became an actor.

Oftentimes it’s mistaken for abruptness, but those that know her will tell you she’s anything but rude. “She’s sorted. I can’t think of a better word that describes her,” says Karan Johar who directed her in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil two years ago. “She has a strong sense of right and wrong, and she follows her gut. She’s one of those very few actors who has complete clarity about why she’s doing this, what she wants from it, and how much or how little she’s willing to give up for it,” he adds. “She’s not trying to impress anyone.” I first met Anushka a little after the release of Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi in 2008. The film was a big hit, but the debutante opposite Shah Rukh Khan was evoking mixed responses. It wasn’t until her third film, Band Baaja Baaraat, which came out two years later, that she seemed to have found her feet. “It was a turning point,” she accepts. And the first of a string of solid performances she’s turned in since. Ensconced comfortably in her vanity van after she’s changed into a simple white top, jeans, and keds, Anushka settles in to talk to me about the decade she’s completed in the public eye (and what she’s learnt), why marrying the most famous Indian sportsman at the peak of her career was no statement, why the #MeToo movement is important but it’s not just a Bollywood problem, and, of course, about her abiding love for animals. Here are some excerpts from our conversation:

Rajeev Masand: Anushka, you’ve been an actor for 10 years now. What, for you, symbolises growth?

Anushka Sharma: I think I can do things on my own terms; I’m making choices that aren’t conventional. You can only do that when you feel like you’re in a successful place, when you know you are backed by people.

RM: When did you first become interested in acting? Was there a defining moment?

AS: See, I didn’t grow up dreaming to become an actor. It seemed extremely improbable that I would make a mark here, because I was growing up in Bangalore. In a way, people there were a little snooty towards Hindi films, and my friends and I were too. But I’d gone to meet my father; he was posted in Rajasthan and Jab We Met had released at that time. I went to see it in a rickety theatre. The sound was so bad, but I remember watching the film and being amazed by Kareena [Kapoor Khan]. I was inspired because I saw a female character so well defined on screen. That was the first time I felt like I wanted to be an actor.

RM: You became a producer because you wanted to make movies that you wanted to watch that no one was making. You’ve had one hit (NH10) and two flops (Phillauri and Pari). Your record has been hit and miss. Has that made you change your strategy?

AS: It has helped us [her brother Karnesh is a partner] learn. We understand the places we faltered The strategy doesn’t change, but now you want to widen the audience. I’ll be really honest with you Rajeev, we’re not trying to judge ourselves in the moment because we’re not from this industry. We have no preconceived notions about things. We have done everything on our own. We’re in it for the long haul.

RM: You have diversified beyond entertainment. You’ve got your own clothing brand, Nush. How did that happen?

AS: I wanted to create a business that was a natural extension of myself. My sense of style is fairly doable. It’s a reflection of my personality.

RM: Did you always have such an entrepreneurial spirit?

AS: When I was a kid, I started a beauty parlour in my colony. I was 11, and I convinced my friend to do it with me. We started off in a balcony, where we set up chairs and stuff. People came! Actual adults. Some of them just let us moisturise their hands, but they came! Even apart from that, I used to organise events in my colony. I used to tell the children, “You bring two chairs from your house”, “You bring popcorn”, “You bring Coke”. And we’d make a stage and have like a show and dance. I was the leader and people would pay two or three rupees to enter that place. Then I started a library in my friend’s garage. I was a very driven child. I had a lot of energy, and it had to be channelised.

RM: On your birthday this year, you spoke about starting an animal shelter for retired professional animals. Why is that important to you?

AS: It’s important because I got to know that a lot of animals, especially horses, donkeys and dogs, are put down when they are no longer required. It makes me so emotional. Where do they go? Especially for bigger animals like horses, it’s very difficult to get that kind of an establishment. I’ve always wanted to do something in animal welfare. So, I bought a piece of land, in Vasind, on the Nashik highway. I want to utilise it as an animal shelter. I want to help out existing shelters, because sometimes, they have too many animals. I want to do it slowly. You can have the money to run it but you might not have the staff, which actually takes care of them. I want to build up the shelter and make it an oasis, and I want kids to come there for field trips. I want to create compassion in children. It’s something that makes me happy.

RM: What was your earliest pet?

AS: I had a dog called Tuffy—we named him that after watching Hum Aapke Hain Koun. He was brown and he used to jump so high. After he died, it was very painful for us. I remember that for 10 days I didn’t sleep. I would sleep in my brother’s bed because I was so scared. After that, my parents said, we weren’t going to keep a pet. Then Dude happened, when we were adults. When we moved to Mumbai, I begged my parents for a pet. Dude is a Labrador, and he was gifted to us. He was named after [Jeff Bridges’s character] The Dude in The Big Lebowski. I raised him myself—when he was a baby I’d make Cerelac every two hours and feed him. So, it was a totally different connection.

RM: As a woman working in the film business, what do you think of the #MeToo movement?

AS: It’s about time; it’s an entire social revolution. There is now fear in people’s minds, that they can’t just get away with anything. It has empowered women to tell their stories; it has empowered them to not feel shame anymore. Your workplace should be your second safe space, after your home. When there’s no respect from your colleagues, it’s just so sad. When I read about a few incidents, I saw that a lot of the first reactions were laughter. And as a woman, I get it. It’s a defence mechanism. When something like that happens, you feel confused and you don’t know how to react. You can’t normalise it, but you’re also scared of making them feel uncomfortable. ‘What if it gets worse?’ you think. No woman can say that she hasn’t experienced some kind of perverted behaviour from a man. Right from school, when we were coming back home, there would be guys flashing us. A friend and I beat up a guy with our water bottles because he was saying s**t to us. My father would always tell me if you are in a crowded place, make a scene; if you are alone, quietly try to get away from there. I asked a lot of my guy friends, “Have you ever looked behind to see if you were being followed?” Women have to live with a lot of awareness.

RM: It makes Bollywood look especially bad.

AS: Look, I am a part of this industry, and I am a good person. I know a lot of men who are a part of this industry who are good people…who stand up for women. Also, let’s not say it happens only in Bollywood. It happens everywhere. As far as Bollywood having a bad reputation is concerned…you know, one has heard some of these stories. You distance yourself from these people because you don’t get a good vibe from them. When I get that vibe from someone or if someone is trying to be over friendly, I have been rude. But I understand that sometimes you can’t—you’re in a situation where you can’t, for whatever reason, so you just get out of there.

RM: Do you believe that there will be a concrete change in the industry?

AS: It definitely is going to make people be more careful. I do think this is going to have an impact. I hope this movement is not misused in any way. That could cripple its positive effects.

RM: Both you and your husband Virat Kohli, captain of the Indian cricket team, have set a great example in shattering clichés. You got married at the peak of your respective careers…

AS: But that implies that getting married has somehow, something to do with your profession. And to me, that’s bizarre! My personal life has never had a bearing on my professional life. Can I be honest? It has not affected my life one bit. See, my sense of security in my profession has always been there. My success totally depends on my films. It’s as simple as that. We unnecessarily complicate our lives in this industry. When you complicate people’s lives, you can manipulate people. I have stayed so far from this manipulation that if I’m going to marry the man I love, then I’m going to marry him. For me, it’s a natural progression. And marriage doesn’t feel different. We have been working around the clock, we hardly spend time together, we both have very hectic lives. So, we are living in a house and we have spent barely any time in it. For us, home is, like, wow! It’s a vacation. We try to create a balance. Everything is unconventional about me—my
career, my choices, even the way I look. But it’s normal to get married when you love somebody, and that has no bearing on your career.

RM: With such demanding careers, how do you unwind?

AS: We’re great at cancelling plans. We were supposed to go out for dinner tonight. We both asked each other, “You want to go?” Then we agreed to cancel it. We don’t really like going out. We like being at home. We chill in pyjamas, watch shows, eat food. Right now, we’re watching a Spanish show called Elite on Netflix. Just chilling together. We lead very simple lives, contrary to what people may think. It’s as normal as it gets. 

Excerpted from ELLE's November cover story. Subscribe to the print edition here or download the digital edition here.

Check out Anushka Sharma's stunning shoot for ELLE's November issue:

Photograph: Prasad Naik

Styling: Rahul Vijay

Art direction: Mrudul Pathak Kundu

Hair: Yianni Tsapatori/Faze Management

Make-up: Puneet Saini 

Assisted by: Akshita Singh, Divya Gursahani and Kavisha Khandelwal (Styling)