Rakul started a modelling career while in college, during which she also made her acting debut in the Kannada film Gilli (2009). In 2011, she participated in the Femina Miss India pageant in which she was placed fifth and won five pageant titles, including ‘Miss India People’s Choice’. She subsequently opted to become a full-time actress, making her Telugu debut in Keratam the same year and her Tamil debut in Thadaiyara Thaakka, the following year. In 2014 she also made her Bollywood debut in Yaariyan in which her performance was better received.
Rakul, who said that she had always dreamt of being an actress, began her career in modelling at age 18 while she was still in college. In 2009 she made her acting debut in the Kannada film, Gilli, a remake of Selvaraghavan‘s 7G Rainbow Colony. She stated that she signed up the film “with the aim to earn a little extra pocket money” and that she was unaware “how big south Indian films were”. She won critical acclaim for her role in the film before returning to complete her degree and compete in the 2011 Femina Miss India pageant. Apart from the Miss India Poll, Rakul won four subtitles at the pageant including Pantaloons Femina Miss Fresh Face, Femina Miss Talented, Femina Miss Beautiful Smile and Femina Miss Beautiful Eyes.
She returned to films in 2011, featuring opposite debutant Siddharth Rajkumar in Keratam, though critics noted that she “got very little screen time”. The film was also made in Tamil simultaneously with the same cast but a different director as Yuvan, though the film is yet to release. In 2012, she appeared in a supporting role in the Tamil film Thadaiyara Thaakka. 2013 she was seen in two films, Puthagam in Tamil and Venkatadri Express in Telugu, the latter becoming a commercial success and earning her a Best Actress nomination at the 61st Filmfare Awards South.
In 2014, Rakul debuted in a starring role in Bollywood with Divya Kumar’s directorial debut Yaariyan, after which her third Tamil film Yennamo Yedho released. By mid-2014, she was working on four Telugu films simultaneous which were directed by Sriwaas, G. Nageswara Reddy, Srinivas Reddy and Gopichand Malineni, respectively. Sriwaas’ Loukyam and G. Nageswara Reddy’s Current Theega were her next releases. She received positive reviews for her performances in both films,[ with 123telugu.com going on to claim that she was “slowly becoming a star actress”. Her next released film was Pandaga Chesko.
Public recognition and widespread success (2015–present)
In January 2016 she signed a film under the direction of Boyapati Srinu opposite Bellamkonda Sreenivas for which she charged ₹1.5 crore (US$220,000). In February 2016 she signed Surender Reddy’s Dhruva opposite Ram Charan. In early March 2016 she signed Gopichand Malineni’s untitled film opposite Sai Dharam Tej.