Anushka Sharma plays muse to Sabyasachi Mukherjee

The actress is changing what’s possible for Bollywood’s leading ladies

Growing up is delicate business and when you have to do it in the headlines, you’d best have on good quality shin guards. Anushka Sharma is a woman now. The girl I met five years ago, chattering at top speeds, mouthy and indignant, frenetic with ambition, is gone. In her place is a serious, measured woman, consumed by her work and passionately building a dream.Where did the road diverge? “I used to be very anxious,” Sharma says. She’s over the phone with me from Amsterdam, where she’s shooting for Imtiaz Ali’s new film (tentatively titled The Ring) with Shah Rukh Khan. “I started modelling when I was 15, and I was acting by 19. It’s a very raw time to be subjected to rejection and people’s opinions about everything you do. This, while you’re trying to wrap your mind around this new work, this new world that you know nothing about. Once I began to understand what was making me anxious, I wasn’t anxious anymore.” It helps that the 28-year-old is mad about her job. She’s finished shooting three films—Sultan, Karan Johar’s star-spangled Ae Dil Hai Mushkil and her second home production, Phillauri—this year alone. Her schedule for The Ring, will take care of the rest of 2016. And while her brother, Karnesh Sharma, pretty much runs their production house Clean Slate Films, Sharma’s is the creative vision and the brand muscle. Her role involves attending meetings, taking the time to develop ideas with new talent and putting together the right creative teams for the projects. “My involvement with cinema is on another level right now. We’re creating content we believe in, pitching it to studios and waiting for multiple projects to be sanctioned. It’s such a rush.” Turning producer two years ago was her way of flushing the system with the stories that excited her. “We have so much diversity [in India], that is where the stories are, that’s our strength, and we need to play to it.” Phillauri in which Sharma stars alongside Diljit Dosanjh (Udta Punjab) and Suraj Sharma (The Life of Pi) is an “unusual rom-com” set in a village in Jalandhar in which she rumouredly plays a witch. 

Sharma believes it isn’t enough to point out what’s wrong; you need to find a way to be part of the solution. She’s a baller at the former, of course. In an interview with the film critic Anupama Chopra in December last year, when asked what she would change about the industry, she said she remembered telling a friend, “We’re all so lucky we live in India because the taste is so mediocre that we’re all stars!” I think I fell a little in love with her just then. “The kind of riches, fame and adulation we [celebrities] get can make you feel like you’re the shit,” she tells me. “But losing perspective is the worst thing that can happen to a creative person.” The other way Sharma is being the change is through her day job as an actor. “I have always wanted to play characters that speak to the reality of how women are today,” she says.

Because she is a card carrying mainstream star—she’s been through all the initiation rites of one, including the Yash Raj Films launch, romancing all the Khans and enduring the boom and bust of a public relationship with cricketer Virat Kohli—the careful deliberation and judiciousness with which she picks her roles can sometimes escape you. But amid all the outcry about the shallow representation of women in films, Sharma’s quietly been peopling her oeuvre with characters that, even if they don’t always succeed, at least scratch beneath the surface: A spitfire wedding planner in Band Baaja Baaraat, NH10’s eyegouging Delhi wife crazed with vengeance, the troubled jazz singer in Bombay Velvet, a disillusioned wrestler in Sultan. “I was reading Meryl Streep’s biography and there’s a part where she says the reason women make better actors is because all their lives, they've had to act to make people listen to them,” she says. “We’ve all got to find our way to take part in the conversation. I do it by choosing strong roles.” Equal proof of just how serious she is about offering a counternarrative is in the roles she chooses not to do. She has said in previous interviews, for instance, that it was watching Ali’s Jab We Met at 19 that first piqued her interest in acting. Her current stint working with the award-winning director, then, might seem like the dream of a lifetime and the outcome of careful professional manoeuvring. Yet the first time he approached her, Sharma turned him down. The role, in his 2015 film Tamasha, didn’t work for her. The story pivoted around the male character, and she thought the female lead felt like an accessory. (The part eventually went to Deepika Padukone who received critical acclaim for it.)

The decision doesn’t appear to have strained relations between her and the director, contrary to all we’ve heard about Bollywood’s fragile egos. Sharma rails against this stereotype, actually. “Film people are portrayed as very petty and stupid, but it’s not true,” she says. “I will never say yes to a script because I’m scared to hurt someone or afraid they’ll get back at me for my refusal. But I say no honestly, I don’t lie about [my reasons]. You have to respect the person enough to do that and usually they’ll understand.” Where does this courage come from? From knowing how unbelievably fortunate she is, she says, and what a waste it would be to squander it to fear. “We [her brother and her] come from nowhere. Ours is a middleclass background; we rarely even went to the theatre. So we feel like we need to make the best of this huge opportunity that’s been given to us, to make a difference.” Besides, outsider cred can be good for business. “We have no set ideas of how we’re supposed to be and what we’re supposed to do,” she says. “I don’t subscribe to these notions of ‘I’m an actress and I only have a few good years to work’ or that I can be only one thing. This is a strength.” She admits that being a woman with a voice—not just in Bollywood, but in any professional setting—gets you stares. “It’s like being in a room where the adults are talking. And if you speak your mind, everybody turns to look at you in surprise.” 

Her liberal upbringing helps her stand her ground. “I’ve not had this where I come from. Nobody in my house has ever looked surprised when I voiced a thought. We were encouraged to reason and form our own opinions and to fight for what we believed was right.” With films crowding every available date on her calendar, there must be a secret besides good upbringing to how Sharma keeps from spinning right off her axis.

Her personal life and relationship with Kohli are no longer on the table for discussion—“I won’t hide [the relationship] behind dark car windows or use the back entrance, but I won’t talk about it because it eclipses everything else I do or say.” She will talk about the other man her life, though, her labrador Dude. If you’re not careful, she’ll only talk about Dude, she warns— “I’m exactly the kind of pet parent who’s just looking for an excuse to show you pictures of my dog”. Dude, she says, has changed her irrevocably. “Animals are innocent and pure and they help you find strength in this world. I’ve turned vegetarian and I’m trying to buy some land to start my own shelter. And it’s because of him.” Sharma now regularly lends her voice in support of animal rights and stricter laws against cruelty. “We are on top of the food chain not for any other reason but because we have the ability to take care of those who don’t have a voice. If I can do something for animal welfare, I’ll consider myself very successful.” Sharma manages to be a high voltage star without being a cookie cutter celebrity, which is to say she avoids speaking in bumper stickers and non-sequiturs for fear of being misconstrued. When I ask her if there is one thing she knows for sure, she says, “You have no control." Not exactly retweet material, but a belief that has helped her deal with her own anxiety constructively. She explains, “We have this idea that we’re supposed to be happy constantly. Anything less than that makes us anxious. But it’s just not possible. The river cannot flow if it’s not moving. You have to accept how you’re feeling and know that it’s normal.” She finds her stability and joy in doing the work she loves; success is a wonderful perk. “You have to work hard, of course, but that’s no guarantee [of success]. I’ve had times when I was trying really hard, and nothing happened. And times when I was doing nothing at all, things happened for me.” This is really good advice, especially for the legions of girls who worship her. They cannot have enough role models encouraging them to be opinionated, unapologetically career-minded, brave, emotional wrecks and all the other contradictions that come with being a young woman today. Sharma shrinks from the title. “I don’t want to be a role model. I tell my young fans, you should never have just one role model. We are all flawed and we all make mistakes. If you are privileged enough to be able to influence people, I think your responsibility is to be as real as possible.” No-make-up selfies, for example, are her jam. Scrubbed skin and big smiles litter her Instagram feed. “And when somebody comments, god you have dark circles, you should be like, fuck yeah, I have dark circles. I work, man."

Photographs: Suresh Natarajan. Styling: Sabyasachi. Fashion director: Malini Banerjee. Assisted by: Devika Wahal and Veronna Parikh (Styling). Art Direction: Reshma Rajiwdekar. Make-Up:Punnet B Saini. Hair: Franco Vallelonga/Inega Model Management. Production: Parul Menezes