Finally, it’s happened: the wedding of the century. Ranveer Singh, the eccentric actor who first broke our screens and then our hearts in the 2013 film Lootera, has wed Deepika Padukone, the unassailable queen of Bollywood in the new millennium. It’s an unlikely and surprising match. Queens are known for marrying kings or princes as Deepika’s predecessor Aishwarya Rai did when she tied the knot with Abhishek Bachchan, the son of only the most powerful senior actor in the industry. But Deepika has opted instead for a jester, who not only fails to typify the conventional hero, but is known to the world as her second love after her heartrending breakup with Ranbir Kapoor.
Innocuous as it may be, Deepika’s partnership with Ranveer and now its apex—officiating their long-rumored relationship in a marriage ceremony—is the sign of a new Bollywood, where love isn’t based on power and nepotism but rather personal struggle and the challenge to reinvent oneself and grow. Both individuals in this match are known for their genuine creative talent and willingness to experiment, rather than their pocket or simply how much commercial success they’re interested in gaining—though they have a lot of that as well.
Deepika Padukone first appeared on the big screen in Om Shanti Om, playing two women in just one movie: a Bollywood actress in the ‘70s murdered unjustly in a fire by a misogynistic director, and the reincarnated millennial actress who found her big break not in a proper film, but in impersonating her long-dead predecessor as a way to seek and fulfill revenge. This same duality has followed Deepika’s career since: she has vacillated between ingénue, girl next door and warrior princess. From playing the worried girlfriend in Kartik Calling Kartik to the headstrong daughter in Piku to the gangster princess in Golliyon ka Ras Leela Ram Leela to the independent career woman moonlighting as a taxi driver in Bachna Ae Haseeno, Deepika is our heroine. She is not a heroine whose fate is conditional simply on whether a man will love her or not though she does look for and find love in most of these films just like she did in real life. She is a heroine who has goals of her own, who goes to work and expresses her opinions and isn’t afraid to find what it means to be a woman beyond dependence on a man. In this sense, she is not much different onscreen as she is in real life.
Deepika has inherited the mantle of Aishwarya Rai, a delicate and fair-skinned queen who was once known as the most beautiful woman in the world, and in Deepika’s own words, “put India on the map” through her work in Western films. Aishwarya’s trajectory was not so different from that of Deepika. Both came from the world of modeling, worked in South Indian-language films before climbing the ladder into the industry, and were favored by directors for their beauty as well as their acting acumen, which admittedly developed throughout their time on the big screen rather than being an aggressive inborn talent as it is for the likes of Vidya Balan or Parineeti Chopra.
But unlike Aishwarya with her fair skin and green eyes, Deepika does not embody an unattainable ideal. Instead, she has paved the way for a distinctly South Asian beauty where her brown eyes and dark skin are an asset and not a hindrance. Rather than exotifying herself like Priyanka Chopra successfully did when she cracked Hollywood, Deepika’s beauty is more reminiscent of old Bollywood heroines like Rekha or Shabana Azmi. She is our 21st Century beauty icon, and in becoming an icon, she represents and fulfills the identities of brown girls everywhere.
Deepika’s status as an icon doesn’t just live in her physical appearance, but is reinforced by the characterization she embodies onscreen. Just like Aishwarya, Deepika has had her fair share of rom-coms balanced with epic period romances. But the difference in each actress’ representation of their assigned roles could not be wider. While Aishwarya has represented delicate, fine-boned roles—a young woman who kills herself for love in Mohabbataein, the exquisite queen Jodhaa who struggles to make her interfaith marriage work in Jodhaa Akbar or the elusive Paro in Devdas—Deepika represents a heroine truer to the aims of South Asian women in the modern age. Like many of us Desi women, Deepika’s heroines work, remain strong in their convictions and can no longer afford the luxury of waiting for Shahrukh Khan or someone else to come save us.
In fact, Shahrukh Khan is old enough to be our father. Enter Ranveer Singh. But before we can discuss Ranveer and the unapologetic power of this brilliant man, who says he has “200 characters living inside [his] head” and pushes the bounds of creativity to the point of disrupting the heteropatriarchal and conventional, we need to talk about Deepika’s ex: Ranbir Kapoor.
Deepika met Ranbir on the set of Bachna Ae Haseeno. It was Deepika’s first relationship in the industry and just a year after her Om Shanti Om debut. By all appearances, Ranbir and Deepika were the perfect couple. Both were rising commercial talents of their generation, and they’d met on the set of a rom-com where the hero struggles with commitment and the independent, feisty heroine decides she needs the hero to fulfill her life after all.
Real life should have perhaps worked like it did in the movies. But it did not. While Deepika credited Ranbir with allowing her to open up and stake self-confidence—she who had discussed being awkward as a child growing up—and tattooed his initials on the nape of her neck, the relationship lasted little more than a year. The dream couple broke up in 2009, reportedly because of Ranbir’s less than filmi infidelity, sending Deepika into deep depression, the kind where even the highest-paid actress in Bollywood would “go to my vanity van and cry.”
South Asian women are often socialized to believe our prince will come and whisk us away, a fantasy reinforced not only through a culture that prizes marriage as the foundation of the family, but also the filmic conceits of the same industry in which Deepika works. We dream of a man descending in our life, running with us across fields under blue skies, and giving us the ultimate gift of monogamic commitment.
Therefore, when a woman experiences heartbreak, the movie-dream shatters. And she is the only one who can pick up the pieces of what’s left of her.
Deepika picked up the pieces, but life is not the movies. By the time she met Ranveer Singh on the set of Ram Leela in 2013, she was older, wiser, and stronger than the days of her debut. She was well within reach of the industry tiara. Ranveer was an interesting newcomer, whose inexperience and lack of access only heightened his confidence.
While Ranveer Singh always wanted to be an actor, he did not have the access that makes a career in Bollywood the rite of possibility it remains for industry insiders. In school, he focused on creative writing while taking up a minor in theater. After studying in America, he returned to Mumbai and worked as a copywriter in advertising. He was a man well attuned to the stagnant rozi-roti of a 9 to 5 job. Later, he was more than attuned to the hustle of getting work in an industry that guaranteed no rose-tinted promise of success.
Ranveer subjected himself to the excruciating process of auditioning, and then waiting for callbacks. Initially getting only minor roles, his big break came in the form of an offer from Yash Raj Films of Band Baaja Baaraat. In order to prepare for the role, Ranveer slunk around Delhi University’s campus, introducing himself as Bittoo Sharma, hanging out with students and doing what he calls “loaferbaazi.”
Ranveer’s wicked acting talent raises no question, and neither does his scope to take on roles that don’t fit the conventional hero archetype. Instead, Ranveer typifies the antihero, the city boy, the gangster, and the lootera in the film of the same name, who exploits a family offering him hospitality, but still falls in love with the girl. Ranveer’s representation of South Asian masculinity is steeped in the moral complexity of everyday life, subverting the traditional boy-meets-girl scenario.
Ranveer’s acting trajectory, however, peaked recently when he portrayed Alauddin Khilji, the Muslim villain in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s controversial epic Padmaavat. While the film was rightly criticized for its Islamophobia and nostalgic depiction of Rajput heroism against Muslim invaders, curiously, it isn’t Shahid Kapoor’s righteous Ratan Singh or even Deepika’s valiant Padmaavati who consumes the screen. It’s Ranveer Singh’s half-crazed, narcissistic portrayal of Khilji from which we cannot tear our eyes. Singh moreover embraces his character’s bisexuality onscreen while choosing not to play him in stereotypical effeminate fashion. In a Bollywood where actors turn down roles they feel threaten their masculinity, Ranveer’s portrayal of a bisexual Muslim villain pushes the fold.
“Naseeruddin Shah calls me the fool,” Ranveer told GQ India in 2015. “If life’s a stage, I play the fool.”
But while Ranveer’s role as a jester may seem incidental, it’s actually his biggest strength. Ranveer’s unwillingness to take himself too seriously allows him to experiment with his creativity and express himself beyond the bounds of what a respectable man is supposed to be. And to date, he is the only mainstream Bollywood actor to star in a condom commercial. Neither was he approached by Durex for the ad; it was his own idea: “I wrote the ad myself.”
Ranveer and Deepika’s relationship largely transpired in private, but it’s almost certain the two grew close on the set of Ram Leela. It’s the kind of relationship where both parties claim they are very close to the person who is undoubtedly their soul mate, but don’t reveal any details or name any labels.
In many ways, it’s the relationship we’ve seen in many of our own social circles, where the boy and girl do everything together but never admit they’re together. Their relationship is common knowledge, but they keep it away from Instagram likes and prying eyes. The only difference is that Ranveer and Deepika still appeared on the covers of magazines together, co-starred in blockbuster films, and gave nods of flirtation at celebrity parties and award shows.
But they always said they were just friends, and ‘professional’ with one another. It’s a clever way to stonewall nosy journalists, and a far cry from Deepika’s exhibitionist tattoo of Ranbir. Maybe this too is a lesson from her first heartbreak. Perhaps the best way to let a relationship unfold is in private away from the pressures of family, fame and fortune.
And there’s something satisfying about not being called upon to announce your partnership and letting it blossom into a force of nature. After all, the first person to confirm Deepika and Ranveer’s relationship wasn’t either of the lovebirds themselves, but Vin Diesel, who casually called Ranveer Deepika’s “boyfriend” in an interview in 2017. Can the proclamation of a couple’s relationship status get more fabulous and natural than that?
And just like most pursuits of passion, a relationship is a struggle in creativity and reinvention, not much different from acting. But where acting demands channelling a character, a relationship asks you to be your most complete self with the person you love—a constant exercise in vulnerability and growth. It’s a fact not lost on Ranveer, who called his relationship with Deepika a transformation of his priorities and outlook in life.
Now that Ranveer, the lafunga creative who made it on acting talent alone, and Deepika, the Bollywood queen who survived heartbreak only to become the highest-paid actress in the industry and find true love again, are married, the possibilities are endless.
Where will life and movies take this power couple, and how will they continue to push each other to succeed, reinvent their roles and break the mould? Will they be able to do the same in their relationship as they’ve done in their own lives and careers? Only time will tell, but for now shaadi mubarak to this beautiful couple who struggled to make ends meet, but found it was possible to hold onto the light glimmering at the end of the tunnel.
This article originally appeared in The Friday Times.