After studying law I vectored towards journalism by accident and it's the only job I've done since. It's a job that has taken me on a private jet to Jaisalmer - where I wrote India's first feature on fractional ownership of business jets - to the badlands of west UP where India's sugar economy is inextricably now tied to politics. I'm a big fan of new business models and crafty entrepreneurs. Fortunately for me, there are plenty of those in Asia at the moment.
Anushka Sharma is unafraid. Not of bold choices or of speaking her mind, both in her professional and personal spheres. Take this year alone, and two instances stand out. One, her public dismissal of the frustrated ire that India had lost the cricket World Cup semifinal to Australia because she was a ‘distraction’ to her boyfriend Virat Kohli. Two, her decision to turn producer with an unconventional movie—the critically acclaimed NH10, a crime-thriller.
Just on the basis of these, you would be hard-pressed to associate Sharma, 27, with the stereotype of a mainstream leading lady. And after a couple of hours spent with her at her Versova home in Mumbai, the notion becomes even stronger.
It’s Saturday evening and she has no plans to get out of home. Sharma has just flown back from London where she was filming the Ranbir Kapoor-starrer Ae Dil Hai Mushkil; while here, she’ll spend some time with her production company and then return to London to shoot once again. She is discomfited by a back ache too, courtesy the non-stop travel. But neither the pain nor the exhaustion showed through in the two-hour long interview with Forbes India.
For the most part though, she wore her new-found producer’s hat and spoke with passion and conviction about what scripts work best for which audiences, how to market a film and why she turned producer (along with her brother) at 25, when she formed the company.
Sharma, who stands at rank 19 in the 2015 Forbes India Celebrity 100 List (from 42 last year), articulates her points cogently, with the confidence of a successful woman who knows what she wants.
It wasn’t always so. The maturing of Sharma hasn’t been a smooth ride. Rewind to 2008 when her career took a while to fire up and audiences only really warmed up to her in film number 3.
Sharma, a well-known model had unsuccessfully auditioned for two films, Zoya Akhtar’s Luck By Chance and Raju Hirani’s 3 Idiots (“I didn’t know it was 3 Idiots then!”). Disheartened she almost skipped the audition for Yash Raj Films (YRF) when her manager sternly told her to stop closing doors. After a couple of rounds, she was chosen by Aditya Chopra: The 20-year-old model had scored a three-film deal with YRF (though the films and co-stars were not yet decided). For the Bengaluru girl, this was the first indication that her Bollywood career would take off soon.
Things were to get even better. Sharma learned that she would star opposite Shah Rukh Khan in Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi (2008), to be directed by Aditya Chopra. For Sharma, the film offered a real possibility of her making it, right off the bat, into the big league. But even though the movie was well-received, “Rab Ne… didn’t turn me into an overnight star. You obviously hope for the best for yourself but when it didn’t happen it came as a bit of a surprise,” she says. The star that was supposed to be born wasn’t and Sharma admits she was disappointed. Her next project with YRF, Badmaash Company, released in 2010, met with mixed reviews.
Two films down, that too with a mega production house, but she was yet to register her presence in Bollywood. Inevitably, there were moments of self doubt. After all, Sharma wasn’t an insider nor was she trained to be in this profession—she had never taken a single acting class and wasn’t accustomed to doing things the way the industry did.
What if she just wasn’t good enough?
That was to change in 2010, when Sharma teamed up with Ranveer Singh for Band Baaja Baraat. Audiences loved her portrayal of the effervescent and gutsy Shruti Kakkar, who overcame her family’s objections and became a successful wedding planner.
Maneesh Sharma, who directed Band Baaja Baraat under the YRF banner, says he knew the then 22-year-old had the potential to go places. “She is well read and has the courage to back her convictions. This makes her not only a versatile actor but also a good producer,” he says referring to the risk she took in acting and producing NH10.
Mention Band Baaja Baraat, and her face lights up. “It’s not just that audiences accepted me. They accepted two new actors and a debutant director. That is what made the success of the film so special,” she says. Sharma talks about how she prepared for the role. Both she and Singh had to have the quintessential Delhi accent. For that, Sharma spent time with cousins in Delhi observing their mannerisms and speech. “For example, business was pronounced bijness,” she smiles.
The success of Band Baaja Baraat gave her self-belief and allowed her to pick the roles she wanted to play. Sharma has been selective so far, doing just 11 films, which include major hits like PK (2014), the average Dil Dhadakne Do (2015) and flops like Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola (2013) and Bombay Velvet (2014), which is fewer than what actresses who started their careers after her have done.
She hesitates signing on films that may or may not see the light of day, says Sharma. She also admits making some mistakes while taking on projects. For instance, with Vishal Bhardwaj’s Matru Ki Bijlee…, the script seemed perfect but failed to click with audiences. Anurag Kashyap’s Bombay Velvet had stellar performances and impressive sets but it was let down by a poor script. “It is impossible to tell in advance what clicks with audiences. That’s what makes this business so interesting,” says Sharma.
Her caution also played out with her production debut, NH10, which she also co-starred in. The movie was pitched to her two years before she accepted it.
After her initial rejection, in 2013, the script went to several actresses. They read it and realised they would be taking a huge risk in many ways. First, it was an adult film, which meant that half the potential audience for a normal film wouldn’t be able to see it. Next, it had none of the usual song and dance sequences. “Third, it was the actress who would have to carry the film on her own weight,” she says. “This, in Bollywood, is considered a massive risk.” And lastly, although Sharma doesn’t mention this, the film had a strong social message and could be the subject of heavy censorship or a ban if a particular section of society was vocal enough in their protests.
“But this was a film that just could not not have been made” says Sharma. “There is a need to show to audiences what happens in certain parts of the country. There is a need to sensitise them.”
This was also the time when Karnesh, her elder brother, was toying with the idea of working in Bollywood. He’d been in the merchant navy and, as he puts it, “In the merchant navy, all you do is watch films on DVDs.” The duo teamed up to form their production company Clean Slate Films. And NH10 would be their first project, in collaboration with Eros International.
Sharma knew that for the film to be financially successful, it would have to be made on a shoestring budget. They allocated Rs 8 crore for it. “The crew stayed on the set [in Haryana] for weeks,” she says, instead of flying back home to Mumbai for the weekends.
Her decision to turn producer elicited a wide range of reactions from the film fraternity. She talks of people calling her up and saying, ‘Why are you taking this risk at a young age. After all, you are still in the prime of your career and it makes more sense to concentrate on your acting career for the time being’.
But Sharma wasn’t wavering. Her aim is to create a company that makes films differently. However, she’s clear that she doesn’t want to do independent films. She wants box office successes but her movies have to be outside the usual Bollywood song-and-dance staple. “I could do a Rs 100 crore film but only if the script supports it. No inserting songs and sequences where they are not needed,” she says.
For now, they have their hands full reading scripts. “I know in the first 20 percent of a script if it is going to work,” says Karnesh. His sister echoes that thought and says they are almost always on the same wavelength when it comes to selecting scripts. What Sharma is also clear about is that Clean Slate Films has to work like a startup. “No high-cost production facilities and contracts that will make the film unviable from day 1,” she says. (Sharma says they made money on NH10 though industry insiders are not sure whether Eros profited from it.)
While NH10 was a bold move for her as a producer, Sharma also helped break the stereotype that female actresses can’t hold films together on the strength of their performances. This has lead her to increasingly question why male actors have to be paid more (in some cases, up to four times more) for the same role in the same film than their female co-stars. What particularly riles her is that the industry, including the women, has been silent and accepting of this.
Her argument is straightforward: Stars should be paid for what they bring to a film. If the three Khans can command a Rs 50 crore box office opening, then of course they should be paid disproportionately higher. But for every male star to be paid more than his female counterpart is an unfair practice, she says, one that even Hollywood’s leading actresses have started protesting. “It’s valuing people for what they bring to the table,” says Sharma. She points to films in the recent past—Queen (2013), NH10, Tanu Weds Manu Returns (2015)—that have been successful largely due to the female lead.
Her frank views on this subject have made her both friends and enemies in the industry. Sharma, for her part, sees it as a simple case of equity and fairness. She talks about the disparity not just in terms of money but also in terms of treatment. “There are not enough parts being written where the actress is kept in mind. She is often placed as a side-show and that has to change,” she says.
The lack of baggage, as someone who doesn’t have a film background, has helped shape her independent views. That also makes her the perennial outsider, even in social situations. For instance, when they play antakshari at Karan Johar’s house, no one wants her in their team as she can barely come up with quick responses, she laughs. But she admits that she hasn’t watched too much of old Hindi cinema and even a contemporary film like Court, India’s entry to the Oscars, has not yet made it to her watch list.
Despite this, she’s slipped into the demands of stardom pretty easily. When people approach her for a selfie, she willingly obliges. “If I can do something to make them happier I will. In me, they see a bit of themselves,” she says.
Still, she misses some of the anonymity that she could have otherwise had. So, when abroad, she makes it a point to talk to everyday people. “I don’t want to lose touch with reality,” she says. When in India, she sometimes slips on a hoodie and takes a walk with her father near her apartment. “Being able to do these simple things is more important to me,” she says. The glamour is saved for her reel life.