Sometimes, surprise sneaks in like a thief lurking in the night. Deepika Padukone’s totally unexpected tryst with the students of JNU, two days after masked goons brutally beat up dissenters, was a stealth bomb that later exploded over a deeply divided country, to the admiration of liberals and hasty, unfounded condemnation by the hyper nationalists. Padukone and her cohorts in Bollywood proved hardened cynics wrong. The cynics have long given up on Bollywood taking a stand on issues of the day, afraid of controversy’s power to affect not just the sacrosanct box office but to invite the unwelcome attention of the Income Tax and ED officials obeying the miffed government’s orders.

We have never lived in more polarised times. Protests, mostly peaceful and led by students and women, have continued to sweep across Indian metros and small towns in the wake of passing the contentious Citizenship Amendment Act. Even a pliant media could not ignore these spontaneous protests and infectious irreverence of the youth on the march. The air is clamorous with contending ideologies: shrill condemnation by those who have appropriated nationalism and an effervescent youth’s discovery of the romance of rebellion and the secular nature of our constitution. Into this cacophony walks a poised diva, always impeccably behaved, stunning the nation. She risked her image and the potential repercussions on a film she acted in and also produced, not by making flaming speeches or incendiary interviews. She stood with quiet grace by Aishe Ghosh, the new youth icon whose bleeding face had shocked us. Ghosh, now featured in a New York Times article, represents the voice of protest in the bastion of dissent and free speech. Expectedly, a savage troll army unleashed toxic vituperative attacks, from a call to boycott Chhapaak, her film on a victim of acid attack to threats of throwing acid on her chiselled face. Her nonplussed critics dubbed it a desperate publicity stunt. They even went to the extent of accusing the movie of doctored facts: that it showed the real life attacker of Laxmi Agarwal a Hindu instead of a Muslim family friend. Once the film was released, they slinked away with egg on their face since Meghna Gulzar stuck to the truth in a script that fictionalised parts of the narrative to make the story engaging and compress events of over seven years into two hours.

Searching the recent past — beyond the glamour and her marriage to the irrepressible Ranveer Singh and their loved up images — Padukone comes across as a woman of steadfast courage and innate honesty, rare in showbiz where image building is everything. The stunning visual of a severely dressed Deepika — hair in a neat chignon, nary a stray wisp escaping confinement, clad in sober black — greeting Aishe Ghosh with folded hands made a powerful statement. The superstar, the highest-paid female actor, stood in solidarity with the JNUSU and its president. Many other actors, filmmakers and lyricists made their stand loud and clear in the massive protest meeting at August Kranti Maidan and later on Carter Road promenade. But as the cliché goes, a picture speaks more than a thousand words.

Did the new decade bring in Bollywood’s Jane Fonda moment? A top star, with a slew of hits in her kitty, made her silent political statement with unruffled grace. She has refused to explain or comment on her decision in the face of a savage troll attack let loose by a rattled establishment. Jane Fonda was reviled for her anti-American stand on Vietnam and was branded Hanoi Jane. Those were the presocial media days and the avalanche of criticism, virulent no doubt, was lesser in comparison to what a vicious troll army and retweets can do today. It seems Padukone was prepared for it. She remains calm, exhibiting all the qualities of a glamorous yogini, beyond adversity or disappointment — qualities described as sthitahprajna lakshana — “satisfied in the self, alone by the self, then he or she is said to be one of steady wisdom.” If this sounds like fangirling, just think back to her stance during the Padmavat controversy. People wanted to chop off her patrician nose, in a bid to equate her with Surpanakha. It was a long and anxious battle for all who were involved in the film that turned out to be a top heavy, ponderous extravaganza like most of Bhansali’s operatic excesses. Padukone delivered what was required: feisty and passionate as befits an Indian Juliet with gypsy fire in her veins in Goliyon Ki Raas Leela: Ram-leela; languid and lovely in tasteful pastels in Bajirao Mastani that belonged entirely to Ranveer Singh and in part to Priyanka Chopra; steely determination and royal deportment in Padmavat that was all spectacle where the villain was more interesting than the pallid lead pair. All of them were conformist, to fit the larger than life (hollow at heart) vision of a film-maker with an insatiable appetite for grandiose excess.

So where does Padukone’s courage come from? She has been mostly correct, poised and predictable in her public appearances to promote her films and interviews. But when she spoke out, it was a slap in a velvet glove. We saw it the first time when she took on Times of India’s snide comment on her cleavage in a revealing photograph: I am a woman and I have breasts. Is that a problem? The online edition was left red-faced. She was a confident woman secure in her femininity and saw no need to apologise to judgemental puritans who are voyeurs. Mental illness is not something that is part of the larger conversation in our society. Not many acknowledge they have it, or it exists in the family, let alone seek professional help and therapy. An A-lister, a celebrated beauty with successful films and endorsements, coming out with her depression showed raw honesty and a need to create awareness. Just as this is being written, comes the news of Padukone receiving the Crystal award at Davos for her work in combating the stigma associated with mental illness through the Live, Love Laugh Foundation she started five years ago. She spoke openly about her love-hate struggle with depression. It is not all about speaking on a prestigious international forum. NDTV had made a documentary on Deepika visiting small towns of Karnataka with an unobtrusive team and interacting with mainly women, talking honestly about mental illness in halting Kannada. You could see the connect. Something hidden away by a person, even from herself, comes out in the open and treated like any other illness — with patience and hope.

Now to the non-formulaic roles she was offered and chose to play with a degree of conviction that makes audiences understand and sometimes, identify with. Chhapaak is no splash in the pan. Yes, the subject of a brave acid attack victim’s long and tortuous struggle to get a law passed against the sale of acid is not everyone’s idea of entertainment. Director Meghna Gulzar, Deepika Padukone and the largely unknown cast except for Vikrant Massey (who has emerged as an actor who can deliver a nuanced performance) tread the delicate line between engaging drama and melodrama inherent to the subject. Malti’s journey is a narrative of quiet dignity and gradual self-assertion. It is an inspirational story of persistence triumphing over unspeakable agony — physical and emotional. The biggest sacrifice an actor as beautiful as Padukone makes is her vanity.

Cocktail and Piku are again departures from formula. In Cocktail, Veronica is the heroine who doesn’t get the guy. She is the eternal party girl, has one night stands and casual live-in relationships with no compunctions. Veronica is vivacious and generous, picking up strays (Gautam, new to London, and Meera, a desi girl abandoned by her husband) and houses them in her London pad. ‘I am a rich bitch,’ she announces, without the self-pity of the poor little rich girl left to her own devices by her parents. What could have been a ménage a trois with the playboy lover falling in love with her best friend turns the romantic triangle on its head. Veronica is willing to abase herself and turn into a good Indian wife but finally accepts that love and marriage are not for her. She brings together the truly-in-love couple. This Imtiaz Ali screenplay subverts expectations of the party girl turning virtuous-tobe, acceptable, bahu material, and endows her with a true generosity of spirit. Veronica is a blithe spirit who bears disappointment lightly. Life doesn’t depend on getting the man she loves. Not the kind of role a mainstream Indian actress would choose and bring it off with flair.

As for Piku, Juhi Chaturvedi’s break with mainstream formula is revolutionary. A cantankerous constipated old man and his relationship with daughter Piku (Padukone), is mostly acerbic, often exasperating, sometimes tolerantly affectionate in the deadly familiarity of exacerbating routine: the daily monitoring of his bowel movements. Such an adventurous career is not something anyone foresaw for a debutant who came with a modelling background in Om Shanti Om. She was slotted into playing the pretty heroine in romantic comedies. But Padukone belied the model stereotype, of glamour and a vapid expressionless face. The hidden strengths have erupted, not with seismic force, but a steady stream of well-timed surprises. Decorous, demure and dedicated — a deadly combination.