Vidya Balan has finally discovered the secret to success: being herself. For years, waifish girls with striking cheekbones were the very definition of a Bollywood heroine. Well, this 30 something Iyer girl has rounded up those stereotypes, stuffed them into a bag and bludgeoned them to death. A confident, content and brilliant Vidya has captured our hearts with her honest and close to real performance of an overweight, desperate movie star in The Dirty Picture. After memorably bursting onto the scene with Parineeta years ago, Vidya Balan is now ready to take on the mantle of a star after being an actor for so long. Her unpredictability ensures that we never take our eyes off her. Vidya even seems to become more attractive with age. In fact she is one of the few in Bollywood who looks naturally beautiful rather than nipped and tucked. With her new found confidence, natural beauty and flair for picking movie roles with tons of personality, Vidya is destined to have a long career in the public eye. I caught Vidya in a candid mood for an interview
What an amazing start to a great year Vidya, you are the hottest star of 2013. It has been fabulous. I couldn’t have asked for a better start than this. The last year too started and ended on beautiful notes. God is kind.
Did you anticipate this kind of uproar for the Dirty Picture? No. Firstly the decision to do the film was big. People advised me against it. They said ‘it doesn’t go with your image. Why do you want to play Silk Smita? You have retained a certain dignity.’ I couldn’t use that as a consideration because I am an actor. It’s my passion to live different people’s lives on screen. If I am getting the opportunity to do something as diametrically different as Silk I should be grabbing the opportunity. So it took me a lot of time. Ultimately I just went with my instinct. And when I did it I gave it my all. But in the recesses of my mind I had that question of how are people going to take it. The reaction to the promos was a bit reassuring. I was hoping that they’d like the entre film and my performance. But this reaction? I don’t think I even dreamed it. It’s really been so overwhelming, heartening… so humbling.
But you went the whole hog sporting not just the look of your character but also the raunchiness of Silk while promoting it. That was quite unprecedented for an actor.
I have done it with my past few films. During Paa I stuck to the wardrobe of the film. During Ishqiya I sported the same sarees as Krishna in the film. During Jessica there was not much I could do so I sported the glasses. But when it came to the Dirty Picture, how could I keep the character in the minds of the people, especially when there is so much information overload? How do you make sure that when they see you they are not just thinking Vidya Balan but Dirty Picture? I wanted that association. When there is a distinct look it helps. So I just went all out. I had a lot at stake. I had given it my all and even more, playing five different people in one film. I was drained and exhausted by the end of it but I was also exhilarated. It was fulfilling. See a good film will always work. But one just wants to make sure that the film reaches the people.
In hindsight, what do you think worked for The Dirty Picture? I think the overall film worked. If there was one thing that worked I am not sure the film would have worked. It’s the coming together of many things.
It could have easily gone down the sleazy route. You are right. To be able to mouth those dialogues, gyrate, show skin and all of that… was unimaginable for me until I was offered the Dirty Picture. Once I accepted it I knew that I would go the whole hog. But it was a slow process of easing myself into it. I surrendered to Milan Luthria knowing that there was no half measure, no short cuts. It’s through his eyes that you see the story and he didn’t look down upon Silk. Therefore I didn’t look down upon her. That really made the difference between it being seen as sleazy or raunchy, risqué.
You are an actor who puts an enormous amount of preparation for your roles. 15 days on the wheel chair for Guru, reading up, meeting people with Progeria and so on. Does this kind of preparation precede all your roles?
Invariably the roles I do, require it. You just want to be well acquainted with the world of the person you are going to inhabit. And you will only be able to inhabit it if it becomes your world. At some point those lines get blurred. For guru I had to get acclimatized to the wheel chair. Without that I wouldn’t be able to focus on the emotion of the character. It adds that nuance to the character and it works for me. Different people work differently. I just do it because I am a slow learner. You can play with so much more if all that is background. Otherwise it becomes foreground. I panic if I have not done my bit of homework before I come to the shoot. I remember the first day of Kismat Connection. I hadn’t read the script enough and I cried before the shoot. I didn’t think I knew it well enough and it showed. I think it’s the least we actors can do.
40 screen tests and 17 make up tests for Parineeta? That must take an enormous amount of perseverance
You need boiling water for the tea to brew in. Without boiling water the colour of the tea will be faint. The numerous tests brought out the best in me.
Your entry into the Hindi film industry was not exactly smooth. You faced a long period of rejection. Your first two Malayalam films tanked and as a result you were thrown out of Tamil films. How did you cope up with all that?
I was made to feel like a jinx, ugly and a whole lot of other things. The kind of things some people spoke is unmentionable. I was distraught and destroyed. I was questioning myself if I was capable of doing this. Questioning if I was ever going to make it. If I should look at another profession.
So what saw you through?
My unshakable faith. It’s the faith that makes me resilient. It’s the faith that gives me the strength to bounce back. By God’s grace I enjoy unconditional love from my family. That gives me the strength to be me. I am someone who prays a lot. I don’t really follow rituals. I have been brought up in an environment of prayer. And I know that when you believe, things happen. I lived my life by that. I have seen it through example in my family. I have gone through all of that rejection.
That was a very low patch when I faced a lot of criticism. I had stopped reading the papers or watching TV. I couldn’t face the backlash anymore. Today the time that it takes for me to bounce back has reduced tremendously. I think that’s the evolution or growth of a person of my faith. Then it seemed like the end of the world and that it wasn’t for me. But I knew things would get better.
You were desperately trying to match up to people’s expectations of you.
Yes absolutely. When I was getting criticized I was trying all the more. I believe in the law of attraction. I was putting that uncertainty of not being sure of myself. That’s what people were reacting to. People had welcomed me, embraced with open arms the way I was and here I was trying to be someone else. People were reacting to that. And I didn’t know what was upsetting them so much. I was going more and more and more away from the person I was. Until I spend a lot of time at home with my parents. I met Balki (Director of Paa) and Sabya (designer Sabyasachi) at that time. These were the people who really helped me reclaim myself. There were times when I felt victimized. I was going through the persecution complex and thought the world was out to get me. I was considering all sorts of conspiracy theories. There are people who feed all of that. Today I know better.
Are you angry?
In retrospect, I am so glad I went through all of those experiences otherwise I wouldn’t have had the clarity I do today. I don’t regret a single moment of that period. Today those days are just a blur. I remember there was a lot of criticism but I don’ remember anything pointedly. Thank God I went through that low, so I value this phase that much more.
So what phase are you in today?
What’s the most exciting part of being an actor?
Of being able to live different people’s lives even as you live your own. That’s why I became an actor. It’s something I always wanted to be. I am very interested in people. So for me it’s a thrill when I get to know the character more and more and more. And I inhabit her world. When her world and my world merge, the lines between us get blurred. That’s the biggest thrill. It’s like an addiction. Once a very senior, established actor after the release of Jessica said, “you have tasted blood now. It’s only going to get more and more addictive for you.”
Any aspect of the industry that you were unprepared for?
Today I take everything in my stride. I love all the attention and adulation. There’s no running away from it. I am not saying I don’t like the invasion of privacy. That’s part of what I signed up for. But having said that, the scrutiny is a bit much sometimes. I just wish people were more sensitive. Everything is a story today. The things that I read sometimes are not even a story. Then don’t make it a story. That’s irritating.
You are in an industry where friends and fortunes change every Friday? Does that bother you?
Life is like that – transient. But I am enjoying what I am experiencing this moment. I am basking in it. I don’t think beyond that. I am an eternal optimist and I hope for the best. I know that every phase has its own charm and beauty. I am not saying it will be this great every day. I do realise that fortunes change every Friday but I am smart with my investments (laughs). And I don’t necessarily mean just financial ones.
What happens when the arch lights fade off?
Firstly I don’t want to think about it. I guess that’s why it’s really important to have a strong support system – family, friends, partner who loves and accepts you unconditionally. Just the way you are and for you to know that there is life beyond. So even though the lights may fade here, there’s sunlight outside.
As an actor do some situations make you uncomfortable? Or do you think an actor should be able to pull off everything? Once I have made up my mind then there’s nothing that would make me uncomfortable. I have never really been uncomfortable or chui mui about the intimate scenes on screen. I have done it only when I have believed in them. To have a kind of comfort and haq over Amitabh Bachchan as my son in Paa was difficult. Or to abuse Naseeruddin Shah in Ishqiya. I don’t use abusive language in real life. I created short forms for those abuses and would use them during rehearsals. I would actually mouth the abuses only during the take. The sucking of the thumb in Ishqiya so difficult. I was giggling throughout as I was nervous. That was nervous laughter. I knew that I had to look at him in a way that he’d just crumble with a certain aggression, dismisivness, and over powering sexuality which just makes him want me so much. I just couldn’t get my head around it. Those were real roadblocks. But now after the Dirty Picture I don’t know how many I will have.
How was the journey from Pareenita to Silk? What have you learnt? It’s interesting to see how people’s attitudes change after a Friday. There are people who derive their identities from their association with you. It’s very interesting. I take that in my stride and say, ‘times change.’ I am enjoying that. This is what I have worked for. But today I get to draw the line. I have learnt that you don’t necessarily change. It’s people’s perception of you that changes. People make a profession out of putting you down. Demeaning you. It’s the story of basking in reflected glory. They put you down and then give you a hand to get up. They know that you will be dependant on them. So I went through some situations like that. But what the hell! Today I know that if I fall I have my own hands and
That’s a new Vidya. What else has changed?
It used to be difficult for me to say ‘no.’ Not any more. I would take my time, beat around the bush and then finally speak the truth. Again that period of waiting has disappeared. I don’t beat around the bush any more. I don’t buy time. If I know I don’t want to do something, I just say it straight up. So I am not keeping anyone hanging, or wasting anyone’s time. It just takes the load off my chest. I’d rather be honest and I am hoping that people appreciate that. In the past people have not completely appreciated my honesty or my forthrightedness. And even if they don’t I go to sleep a peaceful person.
Do you have friends? I am not here to make friends, I am here to work. And there’s no need to be apologetic about that. Today I celebrate my body, I celebrate myself. I think there’s a huge acceptance of self that’s happened over the years that had somewhere disappeared. I was beginning to deny myself because I didn’t know what was it that was wrong with me. Again it’s the unconditional love that really gives me the courage to be me.
Money. How much is enough? I am not a money driven person. Yes it allows me a certain lifestyle. I am a person of very minimal needs. So I am not hankering after it. Yes I come at a price…that’s my professional fees but I don’t have these goals of so many houses or cars or diamonds. I am quite happy with what I have.
Asked along the way…
My idea of fun Spending an entire day with family, taking off to a picnic to Panchgani, going for cycle rides… I love cycling. Going to the market, music concerts, dance performances, Summer holidays as a child Visiting my cousins in Mumbai, cycling the whole day, playing badminton in the evenings, having cold water which was forbidden…
People be surprised to know That I have learnt Carnatic music for eight years
It angers me when I am taken for granted. I despise it When men get patronizing about women. Almost seems like they have allowed us to be successful. My God!
In life I am most proud of Just being able to remain who I am
I am working in some vices Today I know that I am not god. I used to think I have the solution to everyone’s problems. I am very sensitive. That is very exhausting. Actually I think I have reversed age. It may be Capricornian trait. I used to feel a certain responsibility towards the world before. Today I am just responsible for myself. I just live for me.
I need My room to be spic and span even when I go back at 4 in the morning. One thing out of place I pull everything down and redo it. It’s terrible.
I am terrible with Responding to messages. I forget that I have something called a phone.
Thank God Films worked out for me. I knew nothing else!
I want to go to Sicily. Ever since I watched the God Father I have had a yearning for it. I am scared of Death of loved ones…lizards and cats.
This interview was first published in M magazine (of which I was the Sr Associate Editor)
Vidya was photograped by Jatin Kampani
Styling by Niharika Khan
Make Up by Shreyas Mhatre
Hair by Shalaka Bhosle