Joined: 02 February 2015
"I wouldn't want to answer that." Anushka Sharma stonewalls me right off the bat. She's on the phone from Kolkata and I've asked her how she's spending the short vacation her publicist informed me she's on. Now I'm wondering how we will ever move on from this horrible awkwardness. And I strike again."So where are you right now?"
"On a personal visit," she shuts me down again.
The last time I spoke to the 26-year-old actor was in 2011, back when she was still playing out the rambunctious motormouth, laughing large, firing away the quotable quotes and, as she then told me, yet to find love. The Anushka of 2015 couldn't be further from that. This one is seething, skittish and gravely in love. Her relationship with Virat Kohli, star of the Indian cricket team, has, as a matter of fact, eclipsed the consistently quality work she has come to be known for.
We're talking just days after Indian Twitter sunk its talons into her. Again. She's previously been slammed for being too fat, too thin, too unnaturally enhanced. And this time, incredibly, for India's loss at the Cricket World Cup semi-finals in Sydney, after Kohli scored a fateful one run. The brickbats came in hard and fast: "Never liked the ugly anushka sharma. Shes a sign of bad luck and her films should be boycotted," tweeted one patriot. Another condemned her and us all: "I request to public to boycott Anushka Sharma's films. He is real #DESHDROHI whoever will watch her film anymore." Kamaal R Khan, everybody's favourite troll, exhorted people to "go n throw stones at the house of Anushka Sharma who is the main reason for the defeat of India." Emotional members of The Congress and National Student's Union of India (NSUI) set Sharma's effigy on fire in Gwalior. And these were the milder reactions.
On their return from Sydney, the couple was photographed exiting the Mumbai airport, Kohli defiantly holding her hand for the paps to photograph. Later, he issued a rambling, loved-up defense of her at a promotional event for his IPL team. Sharma? Said nothing. She has thrown fits in the past " snapping at TV journalists prodding her about Kohli, calling a BCCI official "primitive" when he branded all girlfriends accompanying cricketers on big tournaments a "distraction". It was the kind of sass you expected of her and were comfortable around. But this icy silence is brand new. I think the hate has finally rattled her.
I explain that I'm asking about what she's up to only because I'm wondering how she's managing time off, now that she has to balance being on sets and producing films. Sharma recently teamed up with her brother Karnesh to start Clean Slate Films, whose maiden vehicle was the slasher-thriller NH10. "It's tough to manage," she agrees, the edge in her voice softening. "But you want to take time off to feel close to yourself, gather your bearings and then go back to work."
This girl should be whooping and preening, you think, not sounding as sombre as she does. NH10 was a success by every measure. It did well at the box office, was a largely good production " and she put the fear of god in us as the victim-turned-vigilante in the blood-soaked drama set in Haryana's heartland. For a young, popular actor deciding to put her muscle behind a story that she chose instinctively, she did good.
Sharma says it was the script that convinced her to do it. "I've always been open to new things. I knew that a project like this would be hard and would take some courage. You're constantly fighting for your ideas, for the director's ideas, and trying to avoid the trappings of commercial cinema " it's an ugly task." Her brother was a huge source of confidence. "It really helps to be in this together. I wouldn't have been able to do this without him," she says. Perhaps it shows incredible foresight on the part of a female actor in Bollywood, who will eventually deal with the harsh realities of having a shelf life. But it doesn't seem like Sharma to be insecure about the future. Or anything. "Everything I do, or have done, comes from strong, clear belief and that's why I don't have any regrets," she says. Her company's next venture with first-time director Akshat Verma is already in the incubator and steadily developing buzz.
Talking about her work is the best way to draw out the Anushka of times past. By this juncture, she's returned to a more recognisable affability " she's excited, she talks fast, almost tumbling over her words, as she describes the "life-changing experience" that Bombay Velvet has been. When Anurag Kashyap approached her to play an aspiring '60s jazz singer in his period gangster film four years ago, she was fresh out of the success of Band Baaja Baaraat. The words "lively" and "feisty" were being used to describe her a lot. "I was like, is he serious? How is he seeing me in this role?" she says, surprised not because she felt the pressure of his expectations, but because someone shared her utter belief in herself. "I knew I could play clearly distinctive characters."
She wasn't prepared for what a creative tipping point the experience would be. "Every day I would walk on to the set and watch them recreate the city of Bombay " I felt like I belonged to that world. You realise that you're capable of doing so much more when you're surrounded by people who are consumed by their work; it's like the whole world is enabling you to perform. The film changed me as an actor."
You won't see her eschewing big-ticket films to be an indie aesthete, though. Sharma has Zoya Akhtar's multi-starrer cruise-family-drama Dil Dhadakne Do to look forward to in June, and is starting work on Karan Johar's film Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, about "unrequited love", alongside Ranbir Kapoor and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, in July. She represents the new Bollywood that knows better than to pigeonhole itself as one thing or the other " they only follow good stories because the payoff is now inarguable.
When I eventually bring up the cyber-bullying, it is most gingerly, completely risking losing her to stony silence once more. Somehow, she's not pissed off; she's more wistful. "It's sad that people aren't evolved enough to deal with two people being in a relationship. It's like high-school teasing. But it doesn't matter to us." Then silence. Does she feel tha""We are discussing something which is quite ridiculous!" she's suddenly livid again. "A bunch of silly people who said a bunch of silly things! Any half-intelligent human being knows that. I know who I am, I know my relationship and I know how professional I am."
Okay okay, she doesn't care and is unaffected, totally fine, no problem, but what gives her such a thick skin? They may helm two of the country's biggest industries, live and work in the public eye, and surf the tide of popular opinion, but Kohli and Sharma are also just two 26-year-olds in mad love, trying to do regular couple things like hanging out, being touchy-feely and cheerleading for each other. Sharma credits her fauji upbringing for all her best qualities: "I don't look for emotional support in other people," she says, quietly. I can tell our conversation is at its end. "I only hold close what's important to me, like my family, friends and my work. Everything else is a murmur " just noise." Oh, how this is going to piss off all the haters.
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