All grown up—Ananya Panday on her last four years in Bollywood

Bazaar India cover girl opens up about the lessons she has learnt over the years and a lot more...

Harper's Bazaar India

The last cover that actor Ananya Panday shot with Bazaar India was exactly two years ago—fresh faced, three releases to her name, and the wonder of a young girl finding her footing in the world of dazzling lights, paparazzi flashbulbs, and the equally dark side of online hate. Ananya has come a long way since then. And the shift is palpable—in her energy, confidence, and Ananya’s perspectives on life, work, fame, and more... “I’m a lot clearer about the direction I want to go in, the kind of people I want to work with, and the type of movies I want to be a part of,” the 24-year-old tells us with an endearing sense of wisdom. “I’ll complete four years in the industry next year, but I think I’ve had my fair share of ups and downs already. And I’ve learned a lot from them... I don’t think anything teaches you better than experience,” she adds.

And so, with this cover of Bazaar India, say hello to a new Ananya Panday, who has grown up from the insecurities and refined her vision, but held onto the sweetness and sincerity that makes her stand out from the rest. Read on to discover what’s inspiring the young star, and why she’s so well pitched for grander heights...

image: Azia 95 Sandals and Bonny Clutch, both Jimmy Choo. Massima Trench Coat, de WAR. Bralette, Bloni.

Nandini Bhalla: The last time we spoke, a few months ago, you were telling me how you wanted to take a break to recharge your batteries. How are you feeling now?

Ananya Panday: The best way to describe my current state is that I feel most like myself, in a very long time. Over the past two and a half years, I’ve been feeling more comfortable and at peace with my personality and the pace of my life. And when I’m in this peaceful state, I’m a lot more giving to the people around me... My parents and friends can really tell when I’m not feeling confident or content, because I just go into a shell. I’m transparent as a person—I’m terrible at hiding my feelings, which, hopefully, is a good thing as an actor because then your emotions show up on screen more authentically. I’m also a big when I’m at peace, I overthink a lot less and am more nurturing towards others, because I not stressed out.

NB: We’ve discussed confidence in the past as you think that with many more films under your belt, you feel more confident today, as compared to a year or two ago?

AP: I think the word I’d use now is ‘comfortable’, rather than ‘confident’, because confidence is a by-product of being comfortable. I think I’m finding my footing now...I’m a lot clearer about the direction I want to go in, the kind of people I want to work with, and the type of movies I want to be a part of. I’ll complete four years in the industry next year, but I’ve had my fair share of ups and downs already. And I’ve learned a lot from them...nothing teaches you better than experience.

image: Azia 95 Sandals, Jimmy Choo. Dress, Amit Aggarwal.

NB: Do you view fame any differently now from how you viewed it earlier?

AP: Yes, because when I started out, I would get very excited seeing myself on the big screen or stepping out on the red carpet as a movie star, attending events, or being on Billboards. But now, fame has become about realising the impact I have on people, however cheesy that might sound. I want to use my influence in the right way because I’ve begun to realise how my work affects people... Questions like how I conduct myself in interviews, or what work do I take on besides just acting in movies are what I have been thinking about now. For me, fame is much more than being glamorous now.

NB: And what do you want to use your influence for?

AP: Definitely doing good, speaking up on topics I truly believe in, and giving back as much as possible. I think I have developed a more holistic approach towards living. There are causes I strongly believe in, like women’s empowerment and the safety of women in our country. I’ve wanted to actively work towards these goals, ever since I was really young. When I was in school, we had to associate with certain charities and at 15, all of us came up with what we called ‘The She-ro project’, which is basically a portmanteau of ‘she’ and ‘hero’. We created video diaries about empowerment and safety... This is something I want to fight for, and I’m trying to figure out the right ways to do it.

image: Azia 95 Sandals, Jimmy Choo. CrysMesh Trikini with CrysMesh Wrap Skirt, Shivan & Narresh. Black Blazer, Huemn.

NB: You even launched the ‘So Positive’ campaign in 2019, which was against online bullying. How is that faring now?

AP: When I launched ‘So Positive’, cyber-bullying, online hate, and trolling were rampant. And back then, no-one was talking about them. But in the past three years, the conversation has really come to the forefront, and it’s so great to see people addressing it. 

Now, I’m trying to focus on an overall sense of kindness. I want to make more of an impact. ‘So Positive’ will always be at the core of it and what I do next will stem from it. I’m thinking about how I can take things to the next level, how I channel action to the conversation...

NB: Tell me about the kind of films that you really hope to work in next.

AP: First and foremost, I really want to prove myself as an actor. And the more films I’m doing, the more I’m falling in love with the craft, the process that goes on behind the scenes, and discovering the characters. There’s nothing more fun than prep time on a film...the workshops, the Eureka moments when you discover a nuance of your character, a certain walk or dialogue’s very hard to put that into words, it’s a feeling, an emotion, almost. 

I think I have a more balanced approach to cinema now...I want to do films where I can learn from the people around me, but then, I’ve also grown up watching these fun, entertaining, masala films... I’ve learned to go with my first instinct is like a guardian angel, a guiding light of sorts. And it’s strange how my intuition has never been wrong.

image: Bon Bon Bag and Black Acrylic Cuff, both Jimmy Choo. Panelled Mesh Cover Dress, Dhruv Kapoor.

NB: How did you learn to trust your gut?

AP: I don’t think anything teaches you better than failure and making mistakes. You won’t learn unless you experience situations yourself. So I think I’ve just learned the hard way...

NB: What shift has taken place within you over the past few years, according to you?

AP: I don’t think I’ve changed at the core, and I still own up to the mistakes I make. But I’m a lot less careless about things...I weigh my words. Now I understand that while I might mean to say something, if I don’t frame my words correctly, the meaning won’t be clear. So while my intentions are still the same, I’m putting them across as carefully as I can. I’m thinking before speaking, and I’m trying to increase the lag between my thoughts and words.

NB: It’s generally believed that the film industry makes one grow up much faster... Do you sometimes feel that you’re a bit more mature than your friends who aren’t from Bollywood?

AP: Oh, definitely! I remember when I returned after shooting Student of the Year 2 (2019), my friends were completing their first year at college. And when we met, they were talking about the college life, partying, exams, and such, and suddenly, I couldn’t relate to anything they were saying. And I remember being petrified, thinking I won’t have any friends left, because we just weren’t on the same page and my life had become so different. And I thought to myself, ‘God, do I have to make new friends? Can I only be friends with actors now?’ But the more I work, the more I’m being able to separate my work from my private life. Of course, I still crave those moments with my friends who aren’t a part of the industry and I look forward to switching off and talking about everyday stuff...

NB: And do you trust people as much as you did earlier?

AP: I think I’ll always be that person who wears her heart on her sleeve... I’m an open book—very friendly and social. It’s important for me to make others feel comfortable; that’s something I actively do. But I’ve learned now not to open up so fast. I used to feel the need to talk about myself or tell a secret in order for others to like me, which I think is a very warped sense of the self or belonging... I recognised that as a short-term approach, and discovered that revealing so much can get you hurt because not everyone has the same heart as you do. For instance, I might guard other people’s secrets very closely, but I can’t expect everyone to be that way. And you only learn these things through experience. My mom has told me this a hundred times, but unless I experience something myself, I’m never going to listen. So I realise now that you don’t have to trust everyone; not everyone will have a similar thought processes, or feel the same way you feel about them.

image: Love 85 Pumps and Bon Bon Bag, both Jimmy Choo. Silk Tulle Beaded Top, Shahab Durazi. Taffeta Cargo Pants, Dhruv Kapoor.

NB: How does your mom view your “heart”?

AP: My mom thinks I’m too nice. She thinks that my heart is forever ready to jump onto anyone who’s willing to catch it. And, as a corollary, that I need to protect my heart a little, and not give as much as I do.

NB: Do you think women can truly have female friends in the industry?

AP: I think so. Speaking from experience, I have quite a few female friends in this industry. Tara (Sutaria) and I started out together and we share such a close bond...and even with Sara (Ali Khan) and Janhvi (Kapoor), whenever a trailer or song comes out, we’re always the first to call and congratulate each other, and even give feedback. I feel very secure, motivated, and inspired by all these women—I can turn to Alia (Bhatt) or Kareena (Kapoor Khan), at any point, and ask about their journeys or how they would handle a situation, and they’re always there to give me advice. They’re such strong personalities, and are so warm... 

I truly believe that there exists a camaraderie in the industry. And I think it’s always been like this...the media just preferred to pit female colleagues against each other. I mean, they rarely say the same things about men. But I’ve always seen great respect and friendship between women. Even with Alia and Kareena, I’ve seen them work out together at the gym, and I was like, ‘Wow, these hugely successful actresses are actually friends!’. It was so cool to see that. And I think that inspired me to keep that vibe going with all the girls I work with.

NB: What is the coming future looking like for you?

AP: My movie Kho Gaye Hum Kahan will be releasing soon, and I’m very proud of it and extremely excited too... It’s been made with a lot of love and had the best vibe on the set. I can’t wait for people to watch it.
Then there’s Dream Girl 2 next year, which I’ve been shooting for, and I have two more projects starting early next year. I’m really trying to work on as many different projects as possible, and challenge myself. I want people to see me in a completely new light. My focus is on bettering myself as an actor, honing my skills as much as possible, meeting a tonne of new people, discovering new scripts, and expanding my horizon.
Personally, I’m really learning to enjoy the moment and not fret too much about the future. The past few years have taught us that life is very, very unpredictable. You just have to not be so hard on yourself, and also have a personal life while working hard. I believe it’s important for me to also prioritise my mental health, personal life, and relationships.

image: Bonny clutch, Jimmy Choo. Massima Trench Coat, de WAR.

NB: Do you tend to be a bit “hard on yourself”?

AP: Yes, I think I am pretty hard on myself. I’m constantly feeling guilty about not doing enough, about not working as much as I can. There’s so much insecurity, so much competition, so much talent out there. And there are so many movies being made. So there’s a lot going on constantly. And now with social media, we’re consuming much more information than before, and everyone and everything is in your face, all the time... I’m taking small steps to distance myself from that to keep my sanity.

NB: When you’re overthinking, what are you thinking about?

AP: I tend to build stories in my own head. Like someone could say one word and I’ll think about every possible meaning behind it, or I’ll replay every event in my life... I’m a huge overthinker and I’m trying to change that. Now I’ve started taking things at face value...there’s no point imagining what others think of me because that’s not in my control. Now I look a problem in the face, and simply address it. I’ve stopped bottling up issues... I’ve started addressing them.

NB: While you have only been in the industry for less than four years, when you look back, how have you grown? And what are you most proud of?

AP: My mindset has changed completely, from when I started out—I think differently, I feel differently. And my goals are different. At the core of it, I’m still the same person, but I’m a lot stronger now. And I’m much more comfortable in myself. I’m not in a rush anymore either...I’m happy to learn and grow in time. 
I’m proud of the fact that I have been strong, and how I have grown from my mistakes. And that I’ve taken all the feedback and advice as constructively as possible. I hope that it all works out...

Photographs by: Taras Taraporvala. Styling by: Zunaili Malik. 
Fashion Assistant: Jaishree Chhabra. Fashion Interns: Ishita Mahajan and Neha Khubchandani.