Anushka Sharma: Highway to glory

Mumbai(Bollywood): She’s in the middle of a press event for the promotions for Navdeep Singh’s NH10, and pausing mid-sentence, with the mic in hand, actress Anushka Sharma asks co-star Neil Bhoopalam: “Is it ‘out of line’ or ‘out of the line’?” What strikes you about the lanky actress is that she doesn’t take herself seriously.

At nine films old, she seems to be getting better with each passing movie. Her first, a dream YRF debut opposite Shah Rukh Khan in Rab Ne Bada Di Jodi in 2008, saw her play the role of an enamoured housewife. Playing second fiddle to Shah Rukh Khan in your first movie, however, does not leave you with much scope for attention. She followed her big break with an almost-forgettable comedy, Badmaash Company, with Shahid Kapoor.

What proved her acting chops and her bankability was the 2010 sleeper hit Band Baaja Baaraat, where she played a Delhi wedding organiser alongside Ranveer Singh. She followed the gritty Punjabi girl role with an enviable slew of roles: Maneesh Sharma’s Ladies vs Ricky Bahl, Yash Chopra’s Jab Tak Hai Jaan, which fetched her a Filmfare Award, and Vishal Bharadwaj’s Matru Ke Bijli Ka Mandola. Last year, she played the female lead in the Aamir Khan-starrer PK, which has been her most successful role yet. The movie grossed the highest collections in box office records.

Despite proving her mettle, Anushka drew a lot of flak for her appearance on Karan Johar’s show last year, where she seemed to have a fuller upper lip. Critics and columnists wrote reams on why she does not need to give in to unrealistic standards of beauty. Her relationship with cricketer Virat Kohli, too, has attracted its share of attention.

Born in Ayodhya to an army man, Anushka grew up mostly in Bangalore, where she started with odd modelling jobs. Designer Wendell Rodricks, who gave her her first big break, remembers her effervescence. “I bumped into her in a denims shop in Bangalore, and what struck me about her the most was her youthful energy. I instantly asked her to come to Mumbai to be a part of my show,” says Rodricks. He adds that, unlike the other girls he had discovered, Anushka has retained that spunk even now. “The other girls, with age and style, have sort of matured. Anushka is still, somehow, the doe-eyed teenager I met in the mall,” he says.

On her part, Anushka remembers she always wanted to make it big. “I did not know in what field, but I always wanted to be a known face,” she says.

With NH10, Anushka has turned producer, considered a bold move for an actress at the top of her game. Incidentally, when she was first offered the film two years ago, she refused for lack of dates. This time, however, she was invested enough to even produce it. She says that her gut feeling goaded her, but also that she did not lose sight of “the commercial viability” of the project.

Co-producer Vikramaditya Motwane says he was taken by her dedication. “Once she read the script and liked it, she dived into it. She is sensible, intense and dedicated. Also, when an A-lister attaches herself to a project like this, there is more weight,” says Motwane.

A gritty drama that plays out on the outskirts of the capital, early reviews of NH10 have nothing but praises for Anushka, who plays a troubled housewife in the movie. “The space it provided to me as an actor was rich. An actor’s kick is to pull off the mental journey of the character it plays. I thoroughly enjoyed it in NH10,” she says.

For its expletives and violence, NH10, had run-ins with the Censor Board, which demanded that 30 scenes be clipped. The makers settled for nine. Anuskha, however, wasn’t amused. “We make a movie like this because an audience exists for it. The Censor Board needs to let the basic intelligence of the viewer guide him or her. There’s an exit door if they don’t like it.” She also suggests that the Censor Board should introduce a rating system for movies like these. “The fear is that with these restrictions, you’re killing original ideas,” she says, talking like a pro.

Now that she’s comfortable wearing the producer’s pants, will she turn director, too? “No. I might write something, perhaps. Directing is tough business,” she says. “But you never know with me. I take decisions at the drop of a hat,” she adds as an afterthought.

Anushka is shaping up to be that bankable star, who wants to experiment with good roles without letting commercial vehicles go. She will soon be seen in Anurag Kashyap’s ambitious Bombay Velvet, where she plays a jazz singer. She’ll also be seen in Karan Johar’s Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, where she will share screen space with Ranbir Kapoor and Aishwarya Rai-Bachchan.

In the last few days, Anushka has also been quite vocal about the disparity in the pay that actresses command in comparison to their male counterparts. A newcomer actor earns more than an established actress, she has said. “Why should there be any demarcation on the basis of the sexes? If an actor is not as bankable as me, he should not be commanding a bigger pay than me. They’re selling NH10 as a woman-centric movie. Do you sell movies with male leads as a male-centric one?” she asks. “That perception needs to change.”