Deepika Padukone film breakthrough and career struggles (2006–2011)
Padukone announced in 2006 that she would make her film debut with Aishwarya, a Kannada film directed by Indrajit Lankesh. The romantic comedy was a remake of the Telugu film Manmadhudu, and she was cast in the title role opposite the actor Upendra. The film proved to be a commercial success. RG Vijayasarathy of Rediff.com was appreciative of Padukone’s screen presence but added that “she needs to work on her emotional scenes.” By the end of 2006, Farah Khan’s Happy New Year was shelved, and Khan had instead cast Padukone for the melodrama Om Shanti Om (2007). Set against the backdrop of the Hindi film industry, the film tells the story of a struggling actor in the 1970s who dies soon after witnessing the murder of the woman he loved and is reincarnated to avenge her death. Shah Rukh Khan starred as the protagonist, and Padukone featured in dual roles of a leading actress of the 1970s, and later, an aspiring actress. In preparation for her role, Padukone watched several films of actresses Helen and Hema Malini to study their body language. Her voice was dubbed by the voice artist Mona Ghosh Shetty. For one of the songs in the film, “Dhoom Taana,” Padukone drew upon Indian classical dance, and according to Dorling Kindersley, “mesmeriz(ed) audiences” by using hasta mudras (hand gestures). Om Shanti Om was a commercial success, and emerged as the highest-grossing film of the year, with a global revenue of ₹1.49 billion (US$21 million). Taran Adarsh of the entertainment portal Bollywood Hungama opined that she had “all it takes to be a top star”, and she was awarded with the Filmfare Best Female Debut Award and received her first Filmfare Award for Best Actress nomination. Bollywood Hungama reported that the success of Om Shanti Om proved a breakthrough for her.
Padukone next played the role of one of star Ranbir Kapoor’s love interests in Yash Raj Films’ romantic comedy Bachna Ae Haseeno (2008). The film was a financial success, but Namrata Joshi of Outlook wrote that Padukone’s performance was disappointing; “She is mannequin-like and utterly lacks fire and zing.” Her first release of 2009 came alongside Akshay Kumar in Nikhil Advani’s kung fu comedy Chandni Chowk To China, in which she portrayed dual roles of Indian-Chinese twin sisters. Produced by Warner Bros., it had one of the widest international releases given to an Indian film. Padukone learned jujutsu and performed her own stunts. Despite the hype, Chandni Chowk To China was a financial failure, failing to recoup its ₹800 million (US$11 million) budget. Bollywood Hungama reported that the success of Om Shanti Om proved a breakthrough for Padukone. Following an item number (for a song called “Love Mera Hit Hit”) in the drama Billu, she appeared alongside Saif Ali Khan in the romantic drama Love Aaj Kal from the writer-director Imtiaz Ali. The film documented the changing value of relationships among the youth and had Padukone play the part of Meera Pandit, a head-strong career woman. With a worldwide gross of ₹1.2 billion (US$17 million), Love Aaj Kal proved to be the third highest-grossing film of 2009. Aniruddha Guha of Daily News and Analysis said that Padukone “delivers the best of her four performances so far”. At the 55th Filmfare Awards Padukone received a nomination for Best Actress.
Padukone had five film releases in 2010. Her first role was in the psychological thriller Karthik Calling Karthik, where Padukone was cast as the supportive girlfriend of a depressed man (played by Farhan Akhtar). Derek Elley of Variety found the film to be “thinly plotted” but considered “the uncomplicated ingenuousness of Padukone” to be the film’s highlight. Commercially, the film performed poorly. Her most financially profitable film that year was Sajid Khan’s ₹1.15 billion (US$16 million)-grossing comedy film Housefull in which she featured alongside an ensemble cast headlined by Akshay Kumar. Raja Sen described the film as a “festival of bad acting” and attributed Padukone’s poor performance to her “plasticky expressions.”
Pradeep Sarkar’s drama Lafangey Parindey (2010) starred Padukone as a blind girl determined to win a skating competition. In preparation, she observed the interactions of blind people and rehearsed scenes while blindfolded. Writing for The Hindu, Sudhish Kamath was particularly impressed by the “considerable restraint” with which she played her part. Her next role was opposite Imran Khan in the romantic comedy Break Ke Baad. CNN-IBN’s Rajeev Masand found the film to be “watchable largely for the performance of its leading lady.” Padukone’s final release of 2010 was Ashutosh Gowarikar’s period film Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey opposite Abhishek Bachchan. Based on the book Do and Die, the film is a retelling of the 1930 Chittagong armoury raid. Bachchan featured as the revolutionary leader Surya Sen and Padukone played Kalpana Dutta, his confidante. Padukone said that she was unable to research her role as there was very little information on Dutta and relied on Gowarikar’s direction. It did not perform well commercially.
Padukone began 2011 with an item number in Rohan Sippy’s Dum Maaro Dum. She referred to it as “the wildest song any actress has done;” the song’s sexual content attracted controversy including a court case for indecency. Her next film was Prakash Jha’s socio-political drama Aarakshan, which dealt with caste-based reservations in India. Trade journalists had high expectations for the film which ultimately flopped at the box office. Critical reaction was largely negative, though Pratim D. Gupta mentioned Padukone as the most “refreshing thing” about it. Her final appearance that year was in Rohit Dhawan’s comedy-drama Desi Boyz alongside Akshay Kumar, John Abraham and Chitrangada Singh, a role that failed to propel her career forward. The series of poorly received films led critics to perceive that Padukone had “lost… her sparkle.”