On the precipice of stardom, Diana Penty went off the radar


On the precipice of stardom, Diana Penty went off the radar

Fame demands a fair bit of homework. You have to invest in a trusted lip-shade monitor, develop a radar for sly we-fies and you can never be too prepared for its dark side—interviews. Stumbling into the limelight without a warm-up can be awkward and overwhelming.

Which is pretty much exactly how it happened for Diana Penty. First, her startlingly good looks were noticed by family friend and renowned photographer Farrokh Chothia, who insisted she face the camera. He promptly sent the pictures to the Elite model agency and then, after she’d quickly exhausted modelling options in the country and walked for two seasons of New York Fashion Week, her manager motioned at the incoming pile of film scripts. Penty ended up an actor. 

Which means that now, she has to let strangers into her house and talk at length about her favourite holiday destination. Or why she picked that particular shade of red for her beauty kit. And on this sweaty summer evening, she must dig deep and tell me if she actually enjoys taking holidays with her mother. (She does.) And if she finds interviews tiresome. “I’m beginning to enjoy them now,” she says, after setting down a tray full of various snack options in her Byculla home. “Some people have the gift of the gab; I don’t. I’d rather be sitting quietly in a corner. I used to think a hundred times before I said anything, so I’d end up saying something really diplomatic that wouldn’t get me in trouble.”

Penty had never imagined that she’d be famous one day. In school, she was a reed-thin nerd, angry with her 5’9” height for making her a backbencher. As a teenager, she had an obstinate stoop and a strong allegiance to floaters. And even at the release of her debut film alongside two Bollywood heavyweights—Deepika Padukone and Saif Ali Khan—and directed by Homi Adajania, she says, “I honestly didn’t think I would do so well from Cocktail,” says Penty. “I had assumed that it was really Saif and Deepika’s film. When I look back now, I was so silly.” 

When Cocktail released four years ago, to commercial success and damp reviews, Penty’s talent was unquestioned. For many critics, she eclipsed a feeble script with a steady hold on quiet, instantly likeable Meera, and it won her a spot in every Best Debut category at film awards that year. No real glitches, save one. For an introvert who’s never fancied celebrity, a Bollywood break can be overwhelming. 

Almost overnight, Penty grew a sizeable fan base. And she could hear them discuss her at the next table. “Suddenly, I couldn’t just walk down the road and hail a cab any more. I was not prepared for [the attention]; I would get so self-conscious and shy that I’d just want to get out of there,” she says. She didn’t, of course. She devised more practical escape routes like using her hair as a veil, developing a fondness for floor-gazing, and when all else failed, bringing out the foolproof “Sorry, I’m not Diana. I’m Diya.” If you run into Penty now, though, she won’t be using an alias. “I regret being the way I was back then. It wasn’t a nice thing to do to someone who’d taken the effort to come up to you. They’re only asking for an autograph or a picture.”

Her peers in the batch of 2012 were first-timers Alia Bhatt (Student Of The Year) and Ileana D’cruz (Barfi!). Bhatt’s seventh release is out this month, D’Cruz managed five. Penty decided to sit it out. While others locked in on their crucial second films, she was soaking in the anonymity of the Amalfi Coast. She’d successfully unlocked a new career without even being sure she wanted to. One way to slow down and come to terms with this new life was to hide out for a while. “I think subconsciously I was avoiding [another movie]. I took off on holidays and because I wasn’t here, I couldn’t do too many meetings,” she says. “Although, to be honest, a lot of the scripts that came my 
way were not films I wanted to do.”  

Penty’s sophomore feature is finally on its way, Mudassar Aziz’s comedy Happy Bhaag Jayegi, slated to release later this year, in which she plays a runaway bride alongside Abhay Deol. This time, she’s buckled in and looking forward to the ride. “As time goes by, you get more comfortable. I’m still reserved in a lot of ways, but I’m not as self-conscious as I once was. And now I want the momentum to keep going. I definitely don’t want another break.” She chose the character Happy for being shades apart from both Meera and herself. “I wanted to prove to myself that I could do something different. [Happy] isn’t scared of anybody and is ready to take on the world. I liked the idea of this small-town girl whose mundane life gets completely turned around one day.”

Personally, the 30-year-old actor has avoided sharp turns. She continues to live in her childhood home, a former maternity hospital that leaks family history; her social circle looks exactly as it did 10 years ago and her on-screen hiatus didn’t dramatically halt red-carpet appearances or brand endorsements either. As she explains the origin of the paintings in her sitting room, where all the furniture is at floor-level, Penty’s presence is courtly; like she’s never suffered a clumsy fall. She promises a tour of the newly made-over first storey, a pet project that took her eight months—“It became an obsession. First thing in the morning, with one eye open, I’d go straight to Pinterest for new ideas”—and brought her closer home. “I was chucking old things and I came across a trunk that had all this art just rolled up in it. I’m talking 100 years old. They were made by my great-grandmother and her sister, both artists.” The sombre sketches of middle-aged sitters and earthy oil paintings blended into her rustic moodboard, which she sums up as “not at all modern”.  

That’s a fair description for Penty, too. She functions with old-world restraint—I don’t imagine she’s ever slipped into hysterical fits of rage or despair. Her last cry, extremely rare, she says, came from watching killer whales in captivity in the documentary Blackfish. She detests selfies, and has never submitted to one (except for the ELLE Breast Cancer Awareness campaign) and isn’t entirely sure what Snapchat is. “What’s the point of it?” she asks, at the end of my tutorial. Not condescending, just genuinely clueless about the appeal of oversharing. It must drive her manager nuts. 

New-age celebrities aren’t distant. They’ll invite you to sweaty workouts, put up good-night snaps in their PJs and share disastrous accidents in slow-mo. At a time when building an off-screen intimacy is almost as crucial and competitive as box office success, does Penty feel the pressure to behave out of character? “I don’t try very hard, to be honest. Maybe I should, but that’s something I can’t do. I’m very… normal, I think.” She says the word tentatively, like being cornered into using a slur, which is exactly what it feels like. Normal is a word you only want to see on health reports, not fastened to your personality. It’s faint and colourless against the new, more socially acceptable spectrum of weird. But while the rest of us wrestle with unflattering filters and lilac lipstick, Penty isn’t frightened by the ordinary. And that might be the bravest thing about her. 

Photographs: Jatin Kampani. Styling: Nidhi Jacob. Make-Up And Hair: Daniel Bauer. Art Direction: Reshma Rajiwdekar. Location Courtesy: ‘The Residence’ Four Seasons Private Residences, Mumbai. Production: Parul Menezes. Assisted By: Veronna Parikh, Divya Gursahani

Diana in best of fashion and folklore:

[ResponsiveYoutubeIframe Link="elC6ZejNim8&spfreload=5" AspectRatio="embed-responsive-16by9" Autoplay="0"]

Fame demands a fair bit of homework. You have to invest in a trusted lip-shade monitor, develop a radar for sly we-fies and you can never be too prepared for its dark side—interviews. Stumbling into the limelight without a warm-up can be awkward and overwhelming.

Which is pretty much exactly how it happened for Diana Penty. First, her startlingly good looks were noticed by family friend and renowned photographer Farrokh Chothia, who insisted she face the camera. He promptly sent the pictures to the Elite model agency and then, after she’d quickly exhausted modelling options in the country and walked for two seasons of New York Fashion Week, her manager motioned at the incoming pile of film scripts. Penty ended up an actor. 

Which means that now, she has to let strangers into her house and talk at length about her favourite holiday destination. Or why she picked that particular shade of red for her beauty kit. And on this sweaty summer evening, she must dig deep and tell me if she actually enjoys taking holidays with her mother. (She does.) And if she finds interviews tiresome. “I’m beginning to enjoy them now,” she says, after setting down a tray full of various snack options in her Byculla home. “Some people have the gift of the gab; I don’t. I’d rather be sitting quietly in a corner. I used to think a hundred times before I said anything, so I’d end up saying something really diplomatic that wouldn’t get me in trouble.”

Penty had never imagined that she’d be famous one day. In school, she was a reed-thin nerd, angry with her 5’9” height for making her a backbencher. As a teenager, she had an obstinate stoop and a strong allegiance to floaters. And even at the release of her debut film alongside two Bollywood heavyweights—Deepika Padukone and Saif Ali Khan—and directed by Homi Adajania, she says, “I honestly didn’t think I would do so well from Cocktail,” says Penty. “I had assumed that it was really Saif and Deepika’s film. When I look back now, I was so silly.” 

When Cocktail released four years ago, to commercial success and damp reviews, Penty’s talent was unquestioned. For many critics, she eclipsed a feeble script with a steady hold on quiet, instantly likeable Meera, and it won her a spot in every Best Debut category at film awards that year. No real glitches, save one. For an introvert who’s never fancied celebrity, a Bollywood break can be overwhelming. 

Almost overnight, Penty grew a sizeable fan base. And she could hear them discuss her at the next table. “Suddenly, I couldn’t just walk down the road and hail a cab any more. I was not prepared for [the attention]; I would get so self-conscious and shy that I’d just want to get out of there,” she says. She didn’t, of course. She devised more practical escape routes like using her hair as a veil, developing a fondness for floor-gazing, and when all else failed, bringing out the foolproof “Sorry, I’m not Diana. I’m Diya.” If you run into Penty now, though, she won’t be using an alias. “I regret being the way I was back then. It wasn’t a nice thing to do to someone who’d taken the effort to come up to you. They’re only asking for an autograph or a picture.”

Her peers in the batch of 2012 were first-timers Alia Bhatt (Student Of The Year) and Ileana D’cruz (Barfi!). Bhatt’s seventh release is out this month, D’Cruz managed five. Penty decided to sit it out. While others locked in on their crucial second films, she was soaking in the anonymity of the Amalfi Coast. She’d successfully unlocked a new career without even being sure she wanted to. One way to slow down and come to terms with this new life was to hide out for a while. “I think subconsciously I was avoiding [another movie]. I took off on holidays and because I wasn’t here, I couldn’t do too many meetings,” she says. “Although, to be honest, a lot of the scripts that came my 
way were not films I wanted to do.”  

Penty’s sophomore feature is finally on its way, Mudassar Aziz’s comedy Happy Bhaag Jayegi, slated to release later this year, in which she plays a runaway bride alongside Abhay Deol. This time, she’s buckled in and looking forward to the ride. “As time goes by, you get more comfortable. I’m still reserved in a lot of ways, but I’m not as self-conscious as I once was. And now I want the momentum to keep going. I definitely don’t want another break.” She chose the character Happy for being shades apart from both Meera and herself. “I wanted to prove to myself that I could do something different. [Happy] isn’t scared of anybody and is ready to take on the world. I liked the idea of this small-town girl whose mundane life gets completely turned around one day.”

Personally, the 30-year-old actor has avoided sharp turns. She continues to live in her childhood home, a former maternity hospital that leaks family history; her social circle looks exactly as it did 10 years ago and her on-screen hiatus didn’t dramatically halt red-carpet appearances or brand endorsements either. As she explains the origin of the paintings in her sitting room, where all the furniture is at floor-level, Penty’s presence is courtly; like she’s never suffered a clumsy fall. She promises a tour of the newly made-over first storey, a pet project that took her eight months—“It became an obsession. First thing in the morning, with one eye open, I’d go straight to Pinterest for new ideas”—and brought her closer home. “I was chucking old things and I came across a trunk that had all this art just rolled up in it. I’m talking 100 years old. They were made by my great-grandmother and her sister, both artists.” The sombre sketches of middle-aged sitters and earthy oil paintings blended into her rustic moodboard, which she sums up as “not at all modern”.  

That’s a fair description for Penty, too. She functions with old-world restraint—I don’t imagine she’s ever slipped into hysterical fits of rage or despair. Her last cry, extremely rare, she says, came from watching killer whales in captivity in the documentary Blackfish. She detests selfies, and has never submitted to one (except for the ELLE Breast Cancer Awareness campaign) and isn’t entirely sure what Snapchat is. “What’s the point of it?” she asks, at the end of my tutorial. Not condescending, just genuinely clueless about the appeal of oversharing. It must drive her manager nuts. 

New-age celebrities aren’t distant. They’ll invite you to sweaty workouts, put up good-night snaps in their PJs and share disastrous accidents in slow-mo. At a time when building an off-screen intimacy is almost as crucial and competitive as box office success, does Penty feel the pressure to behave out of character? “I don’t try very hard, to be honest. Maybe I should, but that’s something I can’t do. I’m very… normal, I think.” She says the word tentatively, like being cornered into using a slur, which is exactly what it feels like. Normal is a word you only want to see on health reports, not fastened to your personality. It’s faint and colourless against the new, more socially acceptable spectrum of weird. But while the rest of us wrestle with unflattering filters and lilac lipstick, Penty isn’t frightened by the ordinary. And that might be the bravest thing about her. 

Photographs: Jatin Kampani. Styling: Nidhi Jacob. Make-Up And Hair: Daniel Bauer. Art Direction: Reshma Rajiwdekar. Location Courtesy: ‘The Residence’ Four Seasons Private Residences, Mumbai. Production: Parul Menezes. Assisted By: Veronna Parikh, Divya Gursahani

Diana in best of fashion and folklore:

[ResponsiveYoutubeIframe Link="elC6ZejNim8&spfreload=5" AspectRatio="embed-responsive-16by9" Autoplay="0"]