Crowned Miss India at 19, Manushi Chhillar has gone from being a beauty queen to an actor who is building her repertoire as a force to be reckoned with. No surprise then that Chhillar made her presence felt at the recently-concluded Cannes Film Festival with elan, in partnership with Walkers & Co.
As she made her debut at the festival, we caught up with her for an exclusive interview with Bazaar India, where she spoke of her time at the French Riviera, her sartorial choices, her life goals, aspirations, and much more.
Nandini Bhalla: You debuted at the Cannes Film Festival this year. How was the experience?
Manushi Chhillar: Cannes was as exciting, busy, and chaotic as one would assume... My experience was fun; it was entirely different from the film festivals and red carpet soirées I have attended in India. Although, I have to say, Cannes is an organised chaos—each person has a specified time slot, and everybody is punctual. Everything begins and ends on time...it's well-balanced.
NB: And tell me a bit more about that dress that you wore for your debut...
MC: Well, actually, we didn't take the dress from India. The moment we landed, my stylist and I knew that we would get into fittings... We were running around from one place to the other, meeting up with different designers, going over shortlisted outfits, and nothing seemed to be working. My stylist, Sheefa, began panicking; and that is when I said to her, 'I just need to look presentable...I need to look good. We'll figure it out.' When we came back to our hotel, she pulled out a white dress that had flown in from London and asked me to try it on... I knew I did not want to do a 'big outfit'. I did not want to make it too fancy. I wanted something simple and elegant. When I put it on and saw myself in the mirror, I knew this is it—we had found the outfit.
NB: You mentioned that you are a fairly calm person... Do you tend to approach most situations in life with this calm demeanour?
MC: The nature of our work is chaotic, and with time, you get used to it. I don't think I have ever freaked out in front of people... Even if I am nervous from within, people don't pick up on it. I try to balance out the energy across my team.
NB: And where does this calmness come from?
MC: While I'd like to say meditation (laughs), I actually have no idea... It's just who I have been all my life. If I look back at my childhood, I have always been the quieter one—one who is more involved in herself. Having said that, I have chosen a profession where things are not so quiet...it's a bit of a paradox. Of course, there are times when I'm not so calm, but it takes a lot to get there.
NB: You have collaborated with Johnnie Walker's Walkers & Co. Tell us how this partnership came into being, and your experience.
MC: Walkers & Co. believe in the power of community and collaboration, and these values resonate with me as well. My journey, till date, has been wonderful...a lot of contribution and collaboration has helped me get to where I am today, and I am certain that it will take me further in life. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to collaborate with the right people at the right time.
NB: Tell us about these values...
MC: It stems from recognising the contribution of different people. For instance, Walkers & Co. acknowledge the value that different artists add. The biggest learning that I took away from my first film, Samrat Prithviraj (2022), was about believing in the power of teamwork; a confluence of creative energies to produce one desired result. As an audience, we often only talk about the actors, or perhaps, the director and producer, but it actually takes an army of people—from-pre production to post-production—to achieve an outcome. If I reminisce about my journey, I have received so much support from my friends and family...they add value to my life; in moments of doubt, they give me the courage to go on. All these collaborations, in different capacities, have shaped who I am, and have defined my choices.
NB: What I love about Walkers & Co. is their tagline, 'Keep Walking'... And, you know, life tends to throw a lot of curveballs our way, and the trick is to keep walking. When things get tough, what gives you the courage to keep going?
MC: Fortunately, along the way, I have met people who made me believe that I could achieve anything in life, and have instilled that confidence in me. At the same time, I am grateful about how far I've come... Growing up, I looked up to many people and got inspired, and all of this, coupled with my dreams and aspirations, keeps me going.
NB: What do you think needs to change about the way we raise little girls to give them more courage and confidence?
MC: Children are like blank canvases, and it is extremely important to remind them that this is a world where the sky is the limit, and they can achieve whatever they put their mind to. This confidence-gaining must begin at home—the belief that no matter what I do, my family has my back, and they will love and support me no matter what. Instilling self-worth is very important. In my life, my school had a big role to play. We were asked to cherish and embrace our womanhood... We must teach our girls to be leaders, and to chase their dreams.
NB: There is often a lot of emphasis placed on a woman's appearance... Having won a beauty pageant, did you have a particular vision of beauty, and has it evolved over the years?
MC: Back when I was three or four years old, my family was debating pageantry—in the car, on the way back from a movie featuring Aishwarya Rai Bachchan. At the time, I did not understand beauty, or have any opinion on it. And it was much later in life, perhaps in 2013 or 2014, when I was watching a live forecast of the Miss World show and realised that the pageant goes beyond defining physical beauty. It is about how one can add value, and how one takes ahead their vision and mission of 'beauty with a purpose'. While I did acknowledge that a lot of grooming is involved, I came to realise that each participant is unique, and represents different parts of the world, different races, and so on.
Yes, the way you present yourself has a significant impact when making a first impression, but personally, I find those who are confident and unapologetically themselves the most beautiful. Being comfortable in your own skin, and accepting yourself, is not easy...especially in the digital age, where one is constantly criticised. People who embrace their true selves are attractive—and I carried this belief with me to the pageant.
NB: Do you think destiny has had any role to play in the way life has shaped up for you?
MC: I believe in divine intervention... In life, when I haven't gotten what I wanted, there has always been something better in store for me in the future. This has made me believe in the presence of a larger entity, who is looking down on me to make sure that I am okay. Everybody works hard, and is dedicated towards meeting their personal goals...each person has a different life story. And when it comes to matters of fate, it's about being in the right place at the right time—which isn't under your control.
NB: Tell me about your life goals and aspirations...
MC: I like to break down each of my goals into small milestones—achievable milestones—and work towards them one at a time. And while I have many goals, I wouldn't want to talk about them and jinx it [laughs]. But now that I'm working as an actor in films, one of my goals is to get better at my craft.
NB: And would you call yourself a planner?
MC: Well, I used to be... It's my nature to plan everything in life. That said, I do realise that more often than not, nothing goes according to plan. All you can do is expend your energies and efforts into one goal, and eventually, it will happen for you.
NB: How do you view fame?
MC: I first tasted fame when I arrived in India after winning the Miss World title...and that magnitude of fame is something I had never witnessed before, or even today, as an actor. From a nobody to someone who is being welcomed with great gusto, I was certainly overwhelmed. It wasn't slow fame...the entire country knew me overnight, and it took some getting used to. Today, although I'm still very shy, the magnitude of fame is different as an actor. And yes, I am more comfortable with it; I probably don't even realise it.
NB: Lastly, what brings you true, unbridled joy in life?
MC: Creativity...and spending time with my loved ones. As much as I enjoy my work, I cherish my 'me time'. I enjoy painting, reading, spending time with family, and travelling. Engaging in activities outside of my profession—without a set goal or purpose in mind—brings me true bliss.