Who’s That Girl?
Winding my way through Mumbai’s traffic on a cool wintry morning on my way to meet Ileana D’Cruz, I made a quick call to a friend in Hyderabad to get a heads up on the girl who, despite her Southern superstardom, is still a relatively unknown entity in B-Town.
“Wow,” he yelled, “Wow!”
Wow? When I first set eyes on her, she was sipping green tea in a suburban five-star hotel in jeans and T-shirt. Pretty…yes. Tall…yes. More college co-ed than killer co-star.
A little while later, I discovered myself gaping. As the cameras rolled, Ileana transformed into screen siren. She sashayed, pouted and swayed knowing exactly what worked for her. Now I understood ‘sexy’.
It’s ironic how she, who never wanted to court the limelight ended up right in front of it. It’s also ironic how someone as skinny as her reigns in an industry where an actress’ voluptuousness is usually directly proportional to her popularity. Ileana’s first portfolio was a disaster. The shy backbencher was daydreaming of a career in fashion when acting happened. The Mumbai-born, Goa-raised Ileana confides that she was a ‘Plain Jane’, enjoying comfortable anonymity before she first met event manager and former model Marc Robinson at 15. “He boosted my confidence and greenlighted a few projects. He did tell me though not to just send my photographs around but to meet people in person!”
Noticed in ad commercials, Ileana bagged her first film at 17. “I met YVS Chowdhary, the director and warned him about my inability to act, dance or speak Telugu. Yet, he persisted.” While she did sign the film, the teenager admits she wasn’t serious. She bullied her instructor as well.
The film Devadasu was a hit. The second, Pokiri was an even bigger success and was remade in Hindi as the Salman Khan-starrer, Wanted. Since then, Ileana has done 16 films in Telugu and Tamil cinema, playing diverse roles.
She made being thin, the new in. It’s been five years since she joined the industry and speaking the language still poses a challenge. Her infectious smile possibly helps her sail through the male-dominated industry where the audience still expects their hero to beat up 10 guys at one time and the heroine to be a damsel in distress.
Getting into films at an early age and discovering quick fame changed her attitude. “I found it easy to get carried away and ride on the success wave. My mum threatened to kick me out of the house if I didn’t behave. To her, I was only her daughter, not a star.”
Three years had passed and still, no signs of seriousness. Starting early had its own impediments, especially for a protected child like her. “One doesn’t realise how ruthless people can be when it comes to work.” Sometimes, even being the slimmest actor in Tollywood went against her but she refused to put on weight. “I never thought it was necessary. I don’t look anorexic because I’m not. I’m extremely headstrong and it’s difficult for me to get sidetracked. But there were times during my first film when I’d go out to the studio gate and cry my eyes out. It felt claustrophobic. I wanted to break free and let go of it all.” It was only after her mother persistently reminded her that today she may be No 1 but next Friday, it could be someone else, that Ileana started to analyse her films to see how she could perform better. “She taught me that if I didn’t strive hard enough, people would cut me off at every opportunity they got. Having said that, she never forced me to do anything. In fact, she promised me that if I didn’t enjoy what I was doing, we’d go back after the film.”
But Ileana stayed on, without a plan. “Why set benchmarks when something awesome can happen? I enjoy my work and get a high from it. I have never had a clean cut agenda from day one. I just went with the flow and it worked for me. I said I will never be an actor and look what happened to me. It’s best to make hay while the sun shines. That’s why actors work so hard across crazy schedules because we know our days here are numbered.”
So what’s a Telugu superstar doing in a parallel role with Priyanka Chopra in Barfee? “It’s a challenge. It’s a larger audience watching you on the big 70mm screen. Acting in the Hindi version of Ghajini worked for Asin but I didn’t want to repeat what I had already done. I was waiting for a challenge and that’s what I’ve got in Barfee.” According to her, the movie has three distinct characters, so technically, no one’s a lead player.
For those who have seen Ileana long enough, the metamorphosis is evident. From what she wears, to how she walks or does her hair, to her reaction to things. Over the years, her approach to work has changed but she hasn’t as a person. “Why should I blend into norms? I am the same person I was 10 years ago when I was just a normal girl. I refuse to change. I can’t socialise to get work. If I am talented, work will come to me. Sure, Bollywood has camps, but not everyone belongs to one.”
Today, it’s her family that makes Ileana happy. Back home, this same can’t-do-without-her-vanity-van Ileana goes back to being a carefree Goan girl, who loves lazing around with her family and her 10 cats and dogs or lying in a hammock at a private shack in Candolim Beach. “There is so much happening in the house that I don’t need to step out. Someday if I have to quit everything I have for them, I will.”
Six years ago, movies for Ileana were but a dream. Circa 2012, this Southern superstar is waiting to wow the marquee in Hindi cinema. Is she is the same girl whom sceptics once said should pack her bags and go home?