It’s an overcast afternoon, but the air is clear, with a whiff of a late monsoon following a short shower over Mehrauli, New Delhi. Down a flight of stairs and into the Bentchair Studio, a posse of camerapersons, stylists and makeup artists are focused on the last shot of the day, with former Miss World and current Bollywood beauty Manushi Chhillar, poised gracefully atop a cabinet, the colours of her outfit creating a contrast with the wallpaper.
In a few minutes, after a change of clothes, the willowy, auburn-haired actor is sitting opposite me, her large eyes framed by long lashes. “Here, let me hold that for you,” she says, as she takes my iPhone with the recorder on.
“People think I’m a small-town girl, but I’m pretty much a city girl. I grew up in Delhi. My parents were both doctors (her father was in the Ministry of Defence), and until I was seven, we lived in Bangalore.” Manushi had an idyllic childhood in the comfort of a nuclear family, with two siblings.
“My parents were my best friends,” she smiles. “We were a housefull, the five of us. My sister was more of a second mom to me, and my parents taught us everything from riding a bike to dribbling a basketball and even playing badminton.”
An excellent student, the young Manushi was more interested in participating in school dances or plays, and then painting in the art room. She was encouraged to take up dance classes — street jazz with Ashley Lobo (all the rage back then) and then Kuchipudi with Raja and Radha Shetty.
A ‘strategist’ when it came to her studies, Manushi says she learnt to crack the exam system and got into medical college in Sonepat. But in her second year, Miss India came calling.
“Every girl thinks of Miss India. I first saw it live on TV when I was in middle school. I thought I’d finish my MBBS and compete before my internship.”
But life had other plans, and she won the Miss India crown at 20 while still in medical school, unable to return to her studies later, as earlier planned, following her rapid rise in popularity. Things had changed, and it wasn’t something she was prepared for.
“One works so hard to get into medical college. I was surrounded by doctors; my friends wanted to be doctors. It was the coolest thing to do,” she recalls. “I didn’t think I’d end up winning, but after that, I could not go back to my studies. When you’re popular, life isn’t the same anymore.”
For Manushi, the battle was half won just by a belief — that she could. She was stacked against a competitor from the Malayalam film industry and other pageant winners, young women who knew how to work the camera and present themselves on stage.
“I didn’t know anything about grooming or how to do my own makeup when competing for Miss India. I was that nerd in her pyjamas, with glasses and retainers, reading a book,” she says. “But at Miss India, they look at you as a person. They want substance. That was my biggest learning.”
After she won, Manushi had two-and-a-half months to prepare for Miss World. And this time, she was ready. She recalls being tense during the final rehearsal, when competitors’ gowns were getting tangled, and realised that this was it.
“We had been having fun for a month in Sanya, China, but it was a competition,” she says, recalling how she wondered whether she had given it her best. “You’re competing with the best from every country. You need to stand out. Your physicality, how you speak… It all comes into play.”
A fellow contestant, a Latina, had told her, via her translator, that she had dreamt Manushi had won the title. “I wasn’t nervous when I finally went on stage. I already felt like a winner. It was the best I had felt in my life, this experience.” And after being in the top five — she won Miss World 2017, 17 years after Priyanka Chopra was crowned, becoming the sixth Indian woman to win the title — she had a premonition herself.
“And I won! It catapulted me into another sphere, something I couldn’t even imagine!”
Brought up far away from the glitz of Mumbai’s world of showbiz, Manushi had never sought to actively pursue a career in film, until her Miss World win.
“I was shooting my first ad campaign, which Dharma was producing,” she says. “I was too nervous to look at the monitor. I was sharing screen space with Kareena Kapoor Khan. Everyone was happy with the shots, and my manager convinced me to check out the monitor. Once I saw myself, I was hooked!”
In hindsight, Manushi is glad she waited to become an actor because her first film, Samrat Prithviraj (2022) directed by Dr Chandraprakash Dwivedi, fell into place at the same time there was talk about other movies and roles.
“Ever since the Miss India pageant, there was talk of movies… Even after I won Miss World, I took a while to think it over because I knew these opportunities would never come again.”
Acting was a skill she would get better at, over time. No one expected her to wow her directors and producers with her first film, but the fact that it was a historical portrayal of a real-life princess meant that Manushi had to prepare for the role.
“I didn’t know how to act, but Adi sir (Aditya Chopra) was clear. He told me, ‘The audition is not to see how well you can act right now, but to gauge your potential. The rest, with the right guidance and training, one can extract.’”
“I lived with this character for a year. Film is a director’s medium. Some focus on the dramatic aspect, whereas others highlight the larger-than-life part of it. Doctor sahab’s (Dwivedi’s) vision was realism. When I wondered whether I looked like a princess in costume, he said it’s all in one’s mannerisms and nothing to do with a getup. He always wanted it to be real. In fact, I hardly had any makeup on.”
Manushi’s first foray as an actor brought a lot of learnings from her established co-stars, too. And it wasn’t just Akshay Kumar. She was surrounded by senior actors like Sanjay Dutt, Sonu Sood, Ashutosh Rana, Sakshi Tanwar and Manav Vij.
“Akshay sir comes with a lot of experience. His professionalism and punctuality really matter. He enjoys his work. And he says that if he stressed too much, he’d burn out soon. That’s the secret to his longevity in cinema — 30 years! And for me, this is valuable advice.”
“Being with people more experienced helps you observe and learn. I was never nervous around anyone because after sitting for an exam like NEET and competing for Miss World, there’s a bit of confidence that settles in.”
Manushi’s next is Tehran with John Abraham, releasing next year. She’s just shared a quick teaser on Instagram, where she’s wearing an all-black combo of pants, boots and a jacket, an assault rifle propped against the wall.
“Oh, I just loved the guns,” says Manushi of this action-packed feature. “I’m not violent, but boy was it cathartic!
There’s another yet untitled film in the works, also slated for release next year, with Manushi’s career taking off, one can only imagine the movies and roles that await her.
“Each of my three directors have taught me so much,” she says. “One hears of actors who’ve worked with Sanjay Leela Bhansali, and how he’s able to wrest the best performance out of them. I’d love to work with him!” She’s also game to do a mass action film à la Rohit Shetty an Ali Abbas Zafar, or even a Sidharth Anand.
“Anand L Rai is another director I want to work with,” she gushes. “I’m also a big fan of SS Rajamouli sir. I’ve watched his films, including Magadheera, the two Baahubalis and RRR. They were huge because this fantasy-fiction genre is so popular. I grew up reading Amar Chitra Katha, and working on a film in this genre would be very exciting to do.”
Manushi, who lives in Mumbai, likes to take off every once in a while — lately to Istanbul, London and Scotland. Her Instagram is peppered with beautiful photos of her in couture gowns, or just everyday, Parisian-chic outfits. “Scotland has such a vintage vibe. I loved their national parks and greenery. It feels like Lord of the Rings terrain,” she says, adding that Istanbul is “where Europe meets Asia”.
“There’s so much history, culture and great food. The local designers are worth exploring.” Manushi seems to get her fashion just right, which is not always easy, especially when you’re in the public eye and are seen and photographed often. She says she has always loved the idea of having a sense of style and exploring fashion.
“Style is an expression of who you are and what you want to show the world,” she says. “I enjoy it. To me, fashion is about minimalism. I’m still discovering my personal style, which depends on what mood I find myself in.”
Stylists, editors and her followers had a mini meltdown when she posted on her Instagram a series of looks in black-and-white Dior, head-to-toe, chequered and preppy, like an Indian Blair Waldorf.
“I enjoyed that Gossip Girl, Blair Waldorf vibe, a show I used to watch growing up!” she says. “But it’s the essence of Christian Dior, who brought feminine silhouettes and fine tailoring to the world. He highlighted the hourglass figure so that women could accentuate their curves— something I love.”
Of her shoot with HELLO!, Manushi much enjoyed her outfits, dubbing them interesting with lots of colour and silhouettes.
“The clothes are new and experimental and looked great put together,” she says. “I haven’t done anything like this before and would love to explore more of it.”
On the red carpet, Manushi believes a classic Hollywood look can’t be beat, though she remains obsessed with sarees.
“I wore my first saree when I was 11,” she says. “It was for a school dance. I would watch my mother wear sarees to work, and it would fascinate me. Every woman looks her best in one. If I could wear one every day of my life, I would!”
While the secret to her unblemished skin is Estée Lauder’s Advanced Night Repair Serum, sleep is her number one beauty aid.
“Between working out and sleep, I choose sleep!” she says. “Of course, physical activity is a must. And because I’m always travelling, I prefer home-cooked, north-Indian food.”
Today, this once self-avowed nerd still likes to curl up with a book when she gets the time. (“I love fiction. It transports you into another world!”) And as a parting note, she leaves us with the pearls of wisdom she picked up from her current read, The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown.
“I’ve always been a perfectionist and put so much pressure on myself. I wanted to be perfect at everything, whatever be my idea of perfection. But in reality, one can never be perfect; there’s always someone in some sphere of life who’s doing better or doing worse than you. You can never be the best at everything. This book is much required in today’s world!” Take some notes, fellow Gen-Zers.
Photos: Ashish Chawla; Creative Direction & Styling: Amber Tikari; Hair: Suhas Mohite; Makeup: Bianca Louzado; Location Courtesy: Bentchair Studio, Mehrauli, New Delhi
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