It isn’t uncommon for film actors to use their skills to enthral audiences and build a legion of fans that give them currency in the form of brand value. But few actors, in the initial part of their careers, learn the ropes of the trade, including how a film is distributed and marketed as a consumer product, and seek to build a business based on such knowledge. Yet that is exactly what Anushka Sharma, 30, has sought to do, as she juggles her acting career, brand endorsements, production house, and fashion label.

Sharma, who completes a decade in the Hindi film industry in 2018, calls herself an “accidental actor”. The star of blockbuster films like PK and Sultan says she had never planned to become an actor, let alone start producing films. But she has not only made a mark as a top actress, but also carved a niche for herself as a producer of films with offbeat stories, in a short span of time

With three films from her production house, Clean Slate Films, clocking impressive returns and a popular apparel line under her belt, Sharma makes her debut in Fortune India’s Most Powerful Women in business list for 2018 at rank 26. Sharma has already tasted success as an actress; some media reports peg her annual income at over ₹26 crore and her net worth at over ₹220 crore. Fortune India couldn’t independently verify these figures. But it is her focus on bringing to life stories that are far from being run-of-the mill that sets her apart in Bollywood.

“As an actor, you always look for different and challenging roles. But you don’t get the roles you desire to do. It really just started from there,” she says, talking about the genesis of the production company she started in 2014 with her brother, Karnesh Sharma. “I would ask my writer and director friends ‘Why aren’t we making such films?’ Then I thought why am I not going ahead and making it happen?”

At the age of 25, when actresses are considered in their prime, Sharma took a leap of faith despite being cautioned by several people. She was told actresses begin venturing into other areas like production only later on in their careers when roles start drying up. “That made no business sense to me. Shouldn’t I make the most of the period when the audience actually wants to watch me?” she asks.

Sharma goes on to say that with her brother and herself coming from a non-film background (her father was in the Indian Army), their perspective towards films was untouched by pre-conceived notions of what works and what doesn’t. And that was key in driving the company to pick up scripts that were not the usual formulaic potboilers.

Sharma, who is married to Indian cricket captain Virat Kohli, thinks it is this focus on telling stories that are different that has helped Clean Slate Films taste success. The company’s first film was NH10, which was released in 2015. A harrowing tale of sexism and patriarchy in India, it cost ₹15 crore to make and ended up earning ₹44 crore in global box office collections, or a return on investment (RoI) of over 193%. NH10 also ranked 5th in Bollywood news and data website Koimoi’s list of profit - able films for that year. Then came Phillauri, starring Punjabi music sensation Diljit Dosanjh alongside Sharma. The film’s global box office collections stood at ₹52 crore, an RoI of 189%.

Similarly, Pari (2018), an offbeat horror film starring Sharma, managed to earn ₹41 crore worldwide, an RoI of 141%. “I think audiences today are open to such stories… Thanks to the Internet, there is content everywhere. Exposure is high and awareness is high too,” she says.

Despite impressive RoIs, a lot of the small and medium budget films like Clean Slate’s projects aren’t spoken of too much since they do not feature in the coveted ₹100 crore or above (by box office collections) club. But Sharma says the RoI is more important than joining any such club. She maintains that it is important to keep one’s expectations from such films realistic and ensure that the investment is safe by sealing deals for satellite and digital rights beforehand. “All these deals are laid out on the table before the release, so we can ensure that we break even,” she says.

Film critic and analyst Taran Adarsh believes her bet on offbeat scripts is a commendable move. “She has been brave enough to make films that are different. She could have played safe with the scripts, but she went ahead with choices that she believes in. That’s gutsy,” he says.

Sharma’s entrepreneurial endeavours are not limited to Clean Slate. In October 2017, she launched her own apparel line under the brand name Nush, derived from her first name. Launched in partnership with Suditi Industries, Nush’s clothing line was made available in Shoppers Stop stores, on Myntra, and in various shop-in-shop outlets across India. “Launching a clothing line felt like a natural progression for me and an extension of my brand,” she says, adding that she actually wanted to foray into the space around three to four years before it actually happened, but had to wait for the right partner.

The reason why Sharma—who endorses several brands including Standard Chartered Bank, Nivea, Colgate, Pepsi and Polaroid—was so particular about finding a partner for Nush was that she didn’t want a deal where she merely lent her face and persona to the brand; she wanted to own it. Sharma says as the proprietor of the brand, she is more committed to it and is fully involved in all its aspects. She also says she uses the knowledge on distribution that she had amassed from her experience as an actor and producer and applies that to Nush as well. “I was focussed on ensuring a robust distribution network; I used my under - standing of distribution when it came to films and applied the same to Nush. Especially in terms of reaching tier II towns. After all, it is a consumer product,” she adds.

Sharma is also involved in the ideation process of the designs; the move to include the popular Tinkle comics character Suppandi in some of Nush’s designs was her idea. “We got a great response for the Suppandi line. People came up to me and asked me if we were going to launch Suppandi-themed clothes for men as well,” she says, and adds Nush may well look at that.

Though Sharma didn’t divulge any financial information pertaining to Nush, apparel from the brand made available for sale on its launch day on online fashion portal Myntra was completely sold out on that day itself. But experts believe the brand is yet to realise its full potential. “Starting a clothing line is not really something unique when it comes to film stars. As a brand, Nush still has to realise its full potential. There is a lot more that can be done with it, but that will require strategic thinking,” says N. Chandramouli, chief executive officer of TRA Research, a brand consulting firm.

Sharma is already chalking out future plans for Clean Slate Films and Nush. She plans to expand Nush into accessories and interior design in the future; and Clean Slate Films is looking to diversify into digital content, a space that has exploded in India with the advent of platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hotstar.

The mind space that Sharma commands owing to her performance in films. Apoorva Mehta, chief executive officer of Dharma Productions—which is promoted by Bollywood director and producer Karan Johar—says that Sharma has carved her career well. “She has worked with all the big filmmakers in the early part of her career, and to be chased and wooed by the biggest producers is the mark of a good actor,” Mehta says. “Irrespective of whether a film does well or not, you will hardly find any criticism of Sharma’s performance in it. It is this consistency that lends to her brand image and value.”

The story was originally published in the Oct-Dec special issue of the magazine.

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