Manushi Chhillar for HELLO! India© HelloIndia

Beauty Queen’s Bollywood Breakthrough: Manushi Chhillar

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Ananya Shankar

Seven years ago, on November 18, 2017, every Indian was riveted to the screen as history was made — the prestigious Miss World crown returned home after 17 long years. And stepping into the footsteps of the iconic Priyanka Chopra Jonas was none other than Manushi Chhillar, a then 20-year-old pursuing her MBBS degree. And today, this former Miss World is a movie star — all set to extend her reign into the realm of Bollywood.

Debunking the diva stereotype that often accompanies one of her calibre, Manushi is right on time for our shoot. We sit next to her in her vanity room and notice that despite a busy schedule ahead of her film release, the actress shows no signs of fatigue. Born to Dr Mitra Basu Chhillar, a scientist at Defence Research and Development Organisation, and Dr Neelam Chhillar, an associate professor and departmental head of neurochemistry at the Institute of Human Behaviour and Allied Sciences, Manushi stepped into medical school with the same fervour as her parents, aiming to follow in their footsteps. But fate had other plans, and a chance encounter at a college fest would set her on a trajectory that would ultimately redefine her destiny.

Now, ahead of her fourth film release in only two years — an incredible feat in itself — she tells us that Bade Miyan Chote Miyan was in many ways, a dream come true… because in her own words, “Life is more fun if you do things that are not expected of you. There are many doctors in my family but there is no actor.” Well, now there is!

Through Thick And Thin

Manushi speaks of her family, her unwavering pillars of support, with a love that shines through her eyes. Standing by her since the very first pageant, the ‘zonals’ for Miss India, she recalls them being anxious in the beginning. Though funnily enough, they were not as stressed during the Miss India pageant and even quite relaxed during Miss World!

“Since childhood, they’ve given us [her and her siblings] the freedom to choose what we want to do with our lives. They’ve guided us, but not dictated our choices,” she expresses. Jokingly adding, “Though in all fairness, I did get a seat in a good medical college with a good rank. So they couldn’t say no!”

All said and done, unlike many of her co-stars and contemporaries, Manushi is “not someone who’s been born and brought up in this industry” — she’s competed her way through. She accepts that while the ‘nepo baby’ tag does exist and still commands power, she chooses to focus on her craft, letting her work speak volumes rather than succumbing to the noise.

And it is this inherent sense of sincerity that she brings into every friendship she forges along the way. In a world that simply loves to pit women against each other, she’s often spotted spending quality time with her co-stars!

Breaking The Mould

Honest and hardworking as ever, Manushi made her silver screen debut with the historical drama Samrat Prithviraj two years ago. In fact, Akshay Kumar — the OG action hero and her co-star — praised the actress in previous interviews, remarking that “she has such a sharp memory!” Manushi is grateful adding that while shooting “Akshay sir told me, ‘You should’ve seen how we all performed in our first films, it doesn’t look like your first!’”

Now playing an army captain in Bade Miyan Chote Miyan she had been learning some MMA moves which led to many, many cuts and bruises — but that wasn’t all. Her sheer dedication to her art is most evident in the psychological obstacles she had to overcome for the film.

Required to look athletic, she had to gain a significant amount of muscle in a month or two while shooting gruelling action-packed scenes for 12-14 hours in remote areas of Scotland. And so, despite having been a pure vegetarian for 25 years of her life, she decided to start eating animal-based foods for this role. She recollects, “My father practises regeneration medicine and he’s the one who counselled me to try animal protein. But I had to overcome it psychologically before even thinking about how it would work on me physically…”

And this wasn’t the only challenge she’s overcome — and championed — in her acting career thus far! “Operation Valentine was my first time doing a Telugu film; shooting a film in a language I didn’t speak…” she mentions. “But when the film was over, my director said my performance in Telugu was better than in Hindi!”

A Palette Of Passions

“There were two things I always wanted from my job,” Manushi reveals, as we wonder if her chosen career path was everything she dreamed it would be. “To be able to dress up and to travel. And I got both!” Despite working closely with brands and designers, Manushi’s personal style always peeks through. Though her style keeps evolving, at the heart of it all lies a girl who genuinely has fun with fashion. And currently, the fashionista is in her maximalist ‘mob wife’ phase with big, messy hair, smokey eyes and trying all things fresh and new!

But in order to look good, she admits one must feel good first. The actress underlines the importance of a routine in her life. When she’s not shooting she ensures that she sleeps for eight hours, eats on time and exercises regularly. But apart from that, she chooses to surround herself with good people with positive energy.

A jack of all trades and the master of many, Manushi also carves time out in her hectic schedule to read. In fact, we notice a copy of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind on her dressing table as we speak. But a lesser known fact about the actress is that she’s actually an avid painter. She tells us, “When I haven’t painted for more than a week, I crave it like people crave sugar!” Growing up, her father always told her that the sky’s the limit. Though she laughed it off then, she now believes that it’s the one thing she’d like to tell all young girls. “Instead of thinking about the privileges you don’t have, just give it a try. Wholeheartedly focus on what you want your life to be like… It might happen in a different way and not at the pace that you want, but at some point, it will happen.” And remembering the 20-year-old Manushi with her big dreams in tow, she certainly knows what she’s talking about.

Manushi Chill - HELLO! India April 2024 Cover Star©HelloIndia

Photos: Tejas Nerurkar; Creative Direction: Avantikka Kilachand; Styling: Anushree Sardesai; Make-Up: Pooja Rohira Fernandes; Hair: Kinchangthui Bariamtak; Assisted By: Mrunmayee Phanse; Location Courtesy: La Mar, Worli; Wardrobe Courtesy: Awigna

This is an excerpt from an interview published in HELLO! India’s upcoming issue. To get your hands on the latest issue, click here!