IT MAY have been a smooth transition from winning prestigious beauty pageants Miss India and Miss World to becoming an actress, fashion icon and humanitari – an, but Manushi Chhillar didn’t plan anything.
By combining hard work with following her instincts, the 26-year-old has made a big impact in a relatively short space of time and become an in-demand celebrity. She will follow up her first two films Samrat Prithviraj and The Great Indian Family with high profile Bollywood blockbusters that will establish her further as a force.
At a time when Hindi cinema is crying out for young leading ladies, she has made herself one to watch and represents the future.
Eastern Eye caught up with the rapidly rising star after she walked the ramp at London Fashion Week to discuss her amazing journey. She also spoke about the social causes closest to her heart, inspirations and future hopes.
Was acting always a part of the plan?
Not really. I grew up far away from the industry. We were very much brought up to know that we had to study, either choose medicine, engineering, or law, go to college, pursue a professional degree and get a job. I grew up in that world.
So, acting was always considered a hobby and not a profession to pursue later on.
How did things change?
After I won Miss World, opportunities changed. I got a lot of protected exposure into the (film) industry. So that’s when I decided to pursue it. Also, my life changed. I was no longer a normal girl, who could go back to college and finish her studies. So, it was a very, circumstantial shift for me.
With your first two films, you look like such an experienced natural. What is the root of that?
The fact that I feel really happy being in front of the camera. I love it. Around eight to nine months before I started shooting for my first film, I had time to prep and enjoyed it. I was an introvert growing up. My mother put me into dance classes and theatre because she realised that I enjoyed performing. As much as I didn’t like interacting and socialising, I’d always come alive on stage or in front of the camera.
Is it a coincidence that your projects, including forthcoming films, are so different to each other or a conscious decision?
I’m very new to the industry. For me, it’s important to work with different directors, in diverse genres because I’m trying to learn. You do learn on the job, no matter how prepared you are.
My first film was a period film. My second is a family entertainer. I do try to pick different characters, but it’s not always possible to get something completely new. But yes, as a performer, I want to diversify and not get typecast. But for me, it’s exciting and a learning process with each film.
You are a newcomer who is getting a lot of attention. How are you handling that?
I felt a little pressure when I won Miss World because it was very new from being someone completely anonymous.
You come across as ice cool?
(Laughs) OK, I guess I do a good job of hiding it. But internally, during Miss World, I did feel pressure because I realised that I had to seem perfect, say the right things, do the right poses and look perfect. But it’s not possible and with time, you realise that we’re all human and it’s all ok. You become comfortable with making mistakes in front of the world and sometimes not being your best.
You have quickly become a fashion icon and always turn heads. How much input do you have personally on the styling?
Fashion is something I’ve always enjoyed since I was a kid. I’d never had the opportunity to dress the way I do today. Simply because life was very different. But I truly love doing it. I feel it’s a form of expression. I get very excited to put a look together. I’m very fortunate that I have the right stylist by my side, Sheefa (Gilani). We pretty much started our journeys together. Because I’ve been with Sheefa from the very beginning, she understands me.
Tell us about that understanding?
A good stylist is not someone who can get you all the right brands and make you look a certain way. A good stylist understands what you stand for, how you want to look and kind of personalises it for you. Sheefa does that really well for me.
What was the experience of walking the ramp for London Fashion Week?
Well, it was my first time walking for a major fashion week. I was very nervous to close the show because I’m not a ramp model. But it was fun and a great experience. I’m so happy that I got to work with (fashion designer) Rocky Star, who’s also someone I really love and was very much involved in my styling during the Miss World competition. And it’s a different experience.
Europe has been the centre of fashion for centuries. And it’s nice to see Indian designers and faces participate in these fashion weeks. I kept asking Rocky, what kind of a walk do you want me to do. He said, ‘just be yourself. Be calm, cool and just walk’. And that’s what I did.
Do you have a dream role?
I’ve been doing a lot of action movies of late and action was a dream role. That’s pretty much done. I really want to do a fun rom-com now, like a very feel good movie.
What about working in Hollywood?
The world is a global village and we’ve seen so many Indian actors do films outside, so I would love to. I don’t have any master plan in place and am going with the flow. I’m taking each day and opportunity as it comes. But yes, I would love to explore it, why not? This is my profession and I want to kind of see how far I can go.
What inspires you?
Life. Every day and the fact there’s so much opportunity inspires me. Life can seem very short, but every minute has 60 seconds and every second has 1000 milliseconds. There’s so much in life to do. I’ve been very fortunate to have had that journey where I kind of realised there is inspiration in every little thing. There’s so much of potential in just life in general.
You do amazing work for social causes and made a positive impact. Which cause is the closest to your heart?
If I were to talk about the cause closest to my heart, it is my project on menstrual hygiene. That is something I started when I was in college because I felt that there was a need for awareness. That project evolved as my journey progressed. We started with awareness, then we went into something more brick and mortar. We worked with Walmart and created women entrepreneurs to kind of solve the problem of accessibility and affordability of sanitary products for which I got my ‘beauty with the purpose’ award at Miss World.
Could you tell us more about how this project has evolved?
We realised that there was a lot of plastic waste. We worked with people to kind of create India’s first 100 per cent compostable sanitary products. It’s very close to my heart because I’ve had such a long journey with it, from much before I was doing any of this. So even today, we’re constantly thinking about what else we can do. The project has travelled to South Africa and Kenya, so we’re not just in India.
Could you tell me what other causes are important to you?
I’m a girl who didn’t finish my medicine (degree), but I do still call myself someone who has come from education because it defines your mind and the way I look at life. Education has played a big role in whatever that I do today. So, I always feel very strongly about female empowerment and education. Being from a background of pursuing to become a doctor, I always feel very strongly about healthcare.
You use your platform admirably…
I do have a platform, where whatever I say resonates with the world. I think all of us actors are influencers and should be putting our influence, towards the right causes. So, it just becomes much easier to send the message across.
What do you enjoy watching from the audience perspective?
It pretty much depends on my mood. But I am a very big fan of these largely mounted big entertainers, which have been doing really well. We recently had Jawan, which I really enjoyed. It was an amazing experience watching it in the theatre, with an audience whistling and hooting the minute an actor or an actress appeared on screen.
Why do you love cinema?
Because cinema is such an integral part of us growing up in India. Movies have always been a window towards another world, whether it’s through Shah Rukh Khan’s love stories or Salman Khan’s action. We’ve all grown up escaping into this world of cinema, which has so much of expression and art. It is the biggest community experience and entertainment we have in our country. I have great memories of going to the theatre with my parents and being part of this different world. Cinema has given a lot of love to people and brought them together. And at the same time, many movies are a great form of education and have great messages for society.