become the character. Vidya Balan is one such actor. She is ‘Parineeta’, she is ‘Sullu’, she is Krishna of ‘Ishqiya’, but she is also Reshma of ‘The Dirty Picture‘ and Shakuntala of ‘Shakuntala Devi’, and the many other characters she has enacted over the years.
With several awards and accolades to her credit, Vidya admirably still retains her sanity and humility, and more importantly, her delicious, spontaneous burst of laughter, with not a twinge of filmy
nakhras. Perhaps because none of this came to her easily; it took Vidya years and several failed attempts to finally make it to Bollywood. And even after she established her talent, she went through a phase where she was criticized – strangely for her fluctuating weight and for her fashion sense! But all that is in the past now, and a newly confident and very popular Vidya today talks about having discovered her inner self and loving and accepting herself.
Vidya brings a rare energy to the screen. In an exclusive interview with Vinita Dawra Nangia, Editor ETimes, at the annual event held by Indian Merchants Chamber Ladies Wing — IMPACT 2021,Vidya discussed films, her growing up years, pay parity, marriage, and her upcoming projects. Excerpts:
On her versatility and the many characters she has played
Vidya — I have just scratched the surface. Honestly there are as many roles as there are women in the world. I have a long, long way to go. Every woman is unique; just like every individual is unique. I am a greedy actor and I want the opportunity to play different women on screen. Thankfully, so far, I consider myself very fortunate that I have had fabulous opportunities to play varied women, who are individuals in their own right, and are coming of age and breaking shackles. Still there is a long way to go.
On playing relatable characters
With every character that I played, I probably identified myself with the character at that point in time, which is why I was able to take on the role and play it. There is a little bit of me in each of these characters, as much as a bit of these characters in me. We are not unidimensional people, parts of us remain dormant forever. As an actor, I get the opportunity to delve within and explore those dormant parts of me. Sulu is probably closer to me than a lot of the other characters I played because I laugh a lot! That’s the one thing I loved about her and connected with. It was like here is someone who laughs at the drop of a hat like me, I have to play this character. Other than the fact that her journey was very, very interesting to me (laughs).
I think I have been very fortunate. I have worked on characters that are relatable to me. Sometimes you have to play characters that you don’t identify with or identify to a lesser degree. In the case of Sulu, I just relate with her; that’s the joy when someone brings you something like that. It may not necessarily be me, but I have seen women like Sulu around me. It was a joy! A lot of the credit goes to writing and direction.
On living her dream
I was eight-and-a-half years old when I fell in love with Madhuri Dixit in “
Ek Do Teen”. Back then half of the country wanted to be Madhuri Dixit. But I think my parents soon realised that it was not a passing fancy; it was an obsession, some sort of commitment. I hope it’s a lifelong commitment. This is the only thing that I ever wanted to do. I am so grateful that I am living my dream every single day. I never wanted to do anything else.
Besides, of course, becoming a tanpura teacher! While I was in school, I attended many classical music concerts and always thought that one of the most important people there was the tanpura player. Since then, I wanted to be a tanpura player. My mom still laughs about it. But, besides that, I always wanted to be an actor.
On her upbringing
We were just allowed to be us. More importantly, we were never held back from anything because we were girls. And that’s the most precious thing about our upbringing. My sister Priya is four years elder than me. Both of us have done whatever we wanted to do in our lives, be it professionally or personally. Even at times when we feared our parents’ reaction, we were honest with them because they treated us as individuals. Both my parents deserve equal credit but more so my father. He could have ended up being patriarchal, but he did not, and I am very proud of him.
On her family’s support
We have had support; we were never judged. For example, during the screening of ‘The Dirty Picture’, I was worried about how they would react and was waiting outside the screening room during the interval. But when they came out of the screening, my father actually clapped and said, ‘I didn’t see my daughter anywhere in the film’. And my mother cried when the movie ended. Firstly, it was tough for her to see me die on-screen. But most importantly, she said that not for a moment did she feel that I looked cheap, which was a huge compliment coming from her. Because there is a thin line between being sexy and sleazy. But I think, for that, I am grateful to the people I have worked with.
On why ‘Ishqiya’ was special to her
It’s one of my favourite characters. I rediscovered myself as an actor and renewed my vows with acting during the film. Just before ‘Ishqiya’, I was going through a phase wherein I had done some films which I wasn’t excited about; I was very indifferent. The films were doing well but I was criticised a lot. Thankfully, not for my performance, but for everything else. I was wondering what the way forward was when ‘Ishqiya’ was offered to me. During the course of the shoot, I realised why I became an actor in the first place. There is a Krishna in each one of us; there is a Krishna in me. I discovered that part of me– -someone who is sad but not an
abla naari (woman in distress). She has been cheated, betrayed, but she doesn’t see herself as a hapless victim, instead, she uses her sexuality as a powerful tool to seduce men to get them to do what she wants as she knows that’s the only language they understand. It’s a special film that I enjoyed doing.
On how she overcame criticism of her weight and dressing sense
It was important for me to have gone through what I did. It was very public and at that time it was so insurmountable. I come from a non-film family. There was no one to tell me that these phases don’t last. My weight issue had become a national issue. I have always been a fat girl; I wouldn’t say that I am at a stage where my fluctuating weight doesn’t bother me anymore at all. But I have come a long way. I have had hormonal issues all my life. For the longest time, I hated my body. I thought it had betrayed me. On the days I was under the pressure of looking my best, I would bloat up and I would be so angry and frustrated.
What happened is that I began to love and accept myself a little more each day and therefore, I became more acceptable to people. They began to shower me with love and accolades and appreciation and all of that.
On her relationship with her body
Over time, I accepted that my body is the only thing that is keeping me alive because the day my body stops functioning, I am not going to be around. I have a lot of gratitude for my body. It doesn’t matter what I have been through, I am alive because of this body. It’s blood and bones. With each day I have begun to love and accept myself more, but it’s not been easy. You have to fake it till you make it.
The length of your hair, the thickness of your arms, curves, height don’t matter; what matters is who you are as a person. When you appreciate the person that you are, every imperfection looks small; but it doesn’t strike you when you are loathing and hating yourself. It’s a very precious and tough lesson that I have been through. I have realised, it is not people judging you but rather how you judge yourself. We all need to be cautious when we are bringing up children, the colour of the skin, weight, especially with girls.
On how she chooses the characters she plays
Around the time I did ‘Ishqiya’. I realised that the reason I was here was to act; all the other superficial things can be fixed. Your dressing style can be improved with the help of a stylist, weight can be managed with exercise, diet and fitness. Now, I have realised that exercise and diet can help but, in the end, you need to accept your body. Importantly, I was still being offered wonderful parts as an actor, and I had nothing to worry about. All I needed to do was jump into the process, get into the skin of the character, inhabit their world. As I said, sometimes the character is similar to me, and at times it is far removed, but that’s the joy of it, of just travelling through these diverse worlds and miles.
When I’m choosing a part, there is no fear, there is instinct. During ‘The Dirty Picture’, people would tell me, ‘Are you mad? This will be the end of your career.’ That’s when I realised I have to only tune in to the voice within. Ten people will have 20 options and if you listen to them, your opinions also change. If I base my decision on your decision, then I end up as a confused person. So, I follow my instincts; sometimes it has worked commercially, and sometimes it hasn’t. But I don’t regret a single film that I have done.
On helping break the stereotypical image of women in Bollywood
I don’t think it was deliberate at all. The change was underway, and I was offered this part. It was out there, and it wanted to be chosen; I went ahead and did. I feel my work is an extension of my beliefs. I don’t choose parts that mistreat women. What excites me in a role is when women strive to be the best version of themselves, despite whatever they are facing. I want to share something. I have been a little low as my masseuse passed away; she was 72 and a free-spirited woman. She was widowed at a very early age and was literally on the streets with two children and had no place to go. She worked very hard and could afford a four-room house in a nice building in Virar. She was so proud of it.
It’s Women’s Day, and that’s why I bought this up. Heroes are extraordinary but they emerge from the ordinary. Everyone is born unique but you have to look for that uniqueness within. We often look up to celebrities for inspiration but there are heroes to be found all around us.
On comparing male and female actors remuneration
The gap is shortening now; I keep saying that. It would be wrong to compare the remuneration of the female and male actors in the Hindi film industry. Historically, you have only had male-led films, and it was easier to bank on them. That’s why people are ready to invest in them, and the returns have also been more. But female-led films are a relatively new concept. Having said that, if you compare the remuneration that men in male-led films and women in female-led films get, I think it’s on par. – when you compare what we get to the overall budget of the film. As our films get better, people will invest more money. Then the women-led films will cost as much as theirs. There is more parity here then there is in any other industry.
On Marriage and lessons learnt
Marriage involves a lot of work, I agree because you are living with a person you haven’t grown up with. It is so easy for you to take the other person for granted, and that is a terrible thing to happen. And that is when the spark goes away in marriage. But what I have discovered in these eight years is that the work involved is the effort not to take the other person for granted, and therefore it’s been joyous. If you slip up there, it’s not as exciting, just becomes mundane. I love the work that is required to be put in to keep the marriage strong and exciting.
Fortune favours the brave; we are the makers of our destiny. I am someone who prays a lot. God helps those who help themselves.
On what being an actor has taught Vidya
Being an actor has taught me a lot about being a woman. About owning who I am, standing up for myself, using my voice. About celebrating my uniqueness and my individuality. And above all it has helped me discover my individuality. I am grateful to the actor within me. I live with two characters; it’s a crash course in life–being myself and playing a character.
When can we see you on screen next?
‘Shakuntala Devi’ released in July, and now because of the pandemic, I don’t know whether my upcoming film ‘Sherni‘ will release in theatres or on an OTT platform. But after a few months, the film will definitely release.
Vidya Balan signs off graciously with a promise to work on many more characters for us to watch and enjoy. “I am a greedy actor,” she laughs. We are an equally greedy audience, Vinita responds. Both agree that perfection is not just an unachievable, but also an undesirable goal – one must only always strive to be a better version of oneself!