When Anushka Sharma debuted as producer with NH10 (2015), she was very candid about the fact that it was a film people told her to avoid.
As an actress, she was coming off a string of commercial successes including blockbusters like Jab Tak Hai Jaan (2012) and PK (2014), and NH10 came as a bit of a shocker to the industry. It's not every day that a 25-year-old actress, at the top of her game, decides to stake her reputation and throw her weight behind a film that deals with a heavy subject like honour killing.
Anushka Sharma in the film NH10. Image via Facebook
Five years have elapsed since that film hit theatres and Anushka's Clean Slate Filmz is only getting bigger and bolder. Her latest project as producer, Amazon Prime's nine-episode series Pataal Lok dropped in mid-May to rave reviews. Many have hailed it to be the best show to have ever come out of India. It paints an unapologetic portrait of the society we live in and shines a spotlight over how discriminatory we are as Indians with anyone who's seen as different by the majority - Muslims, Dalits, North-Easterners, the LGBTQ community - it's all there and dealt with. With zero filters.
It takes serious guts to back a show this political and more so during a time when even organising a peaceful protest can land you in prison. We live in times when anything that questions the majoritarian outlook gets labelled as anti-national and in some cases, seditious. It's been no different with Paatal Lok. From hordes of nationalists calling for a ban of the show to politicians filing cases of sedition against Anushka, it's obvious the show has pushed some buttons. And, we couldn't be prouder of her.
In a recent interview to journalist Rajeev Masand, Anushka shared her reasons for wanting to tell this story. She spoke about the normalisation of oppression in today's society where human beings fail humanity at large for selfish reasons of power and personal gain. It's the kind of bold statement that gives you a peek into the kind of person she is, politics be damned.
For those who have followed her career closely, none of this is new.
Anushka Sharma in Phillauri.
Her first production, NH10 made a bold statement about the deeply entrenched patriarchy that exists in North India, khap panchayats and honour killings. A violent and disturbing film with a woman in the lead is hardly commercial fare, and the film did receive its fair share of criticism for ruralising an issue that exists in different shades across every stratum of our society. It did, however, bring to light a bunch of social issues and there's no taking away from that. Ask yourself who else would actually back a project like this. Nobody comes to mind.
Her next two projects might not have dealt with any major political issues but had their fair share of social commentary written in between the lines. Phillauri (2017) was a fantasy-comedy about a ghost living in a tree. When a young man finds that he's manglik (born under an inauspicious star), his family gets him to marry that very tree before he can get married to his long time girlfriend. Except he then finds that he's technically married to the ghost in the tree. It's a humorous take on what most people would call a ridiculous custom in this day and age, but the reality is that this kind of stuff still happens in our country. And isn't that what good filmmaking is all about - challenging our deeply entrenched notions of the world around us? As the ghost's back story gets revealed through the film, you get to know that she was a poet but had to write under a pseudonym, because women couldn't openly do so. Even in what you might think is the most innocuous of comedies, there are hidden layers for those who care to look. And that says a lot about the person backing the content.
Anushka's next production, Pari (2018) was an equally ambitious project in that it drew from fantasy while telling a tale of horror. The film takes mythological elements (djinns, ifrits) usually associated with fairy tales and throws them into a disturbing tale revolving around a satanic cult. Pari breaks away from the usual tropes seen in Indian horror films by hinging its story around an invisible force - the more imaginative one is, the more one enjoys its deeper layers. And leaving so much to the interpretation of an audience is a bold step for any filmmaker. Anushka also plays the lead role in the film, and drops all pretences of 'looking good' for the camera. Covered in blood and grime for most of the film's running time with dirt under her fingernails, she plays a character none of her peers would be seen getting close to, with or without a bargepole.
It's in this context that Anushka's career path has been so different from the other leading ladies of our times. Her filmography as an actor would make anyone envious, but it's her filmography as a producer that sets her apart.
A couple of years back in an interview to me, she spoke about doing things her own way. "Time has just passed so quickly, but I'm glad I can say I've done things on my own terms, have never let anyone push me around, and have found respect amongst the people I work with. I do what I have to do and then I just leave, I'm not attached to it, I don't even look at the comments. I try to be detached because there's no point going mental over it."
It's this detachment from the trappings of being a celebrity that sets Anushka apart. In an industry that's always taken pride in its faÃ§ade of 'perfect poise' over everything else, Anushka has been questioning the status quo in her typical no-nonsense manner from very early in her career. She was one of the first people to talk about the gender inequality in the industry. During that same conversation with me, she opened up about her early days in the industry. "Male and female contemporaries wouldn't be treated equally, and everyone would try and normalise it. It still happens, but now there's pressure because everyone talks about it. I was probably one of the first people to talk about it. Today, it's reached a point where I don't want to speak about it anymore but would rather make things happen."
While the image she projects through social media channels is an apolitical, measured and careful one, every now and then one gets a glimpse of the person inside but only when she talks about her work. And that's the kind of person Anushka seems to be - she'd rather let her work talk for itself.