I can’t pretend to be a 19-year-old: Vidya Balan – Vidya Balan on her career choices, why they won’t ever change despite the hits and misses, and on taking up roles other contemporary actors would shy away from
People who know Vidya Balan personally would understand that the actress has put a lot of her own personality in Sulu — the character she plays in her next Tumhari Sulu. Her last few films might not have fared well at the box office but Vidya is raring to go sans any regrets. “It’s wrong to not stand by your film, just because it didn’t work,” she says. Vidya is known to pick character-driven films. Ask her if she would choose a small-budget film with an impactful role over a `200 crore mega blockbuster with little to do, and she instantly replies it would be the former. We sit down for a chat over her favourite masala chai, at her plush Juhu apartment, discussing her choices in film and why her approach to picking movies will never change, no matter whether they hit or miss the target. Over to her…
Your last few films didn’t work, didn’t that make you want to change your approach to picking projects or altering your choices?
I keep questioning myself — what is that I am doing differently? How is it that five films of mine, back-to-back, worked the way they did? Whether you talk about critical acclaim, commercial success, everything. Those films had given me the tags that people started referring to me with. People called me the female hero and all that. And then, suddenly, what happened when these films were not working? I went through a lot of introspection. I kept talking to Siddharth (Roy Kapur) because he can give an insider’s perspective and yet because he’s not an actor, it’s a wider one. I would talk to him constantly and try to figure out what just went wrong. He would just tell me, ‘Some films work, some films don’t. That’s the unfortunate truth and there’s no math to it.’ I know that myself but when you are going through a phase like that, you just want quick answers but they don’t come quickly. Having said that, I am also glad I went through that phase because firstly, nothing is permanent. Secondly, I still feel as passionately about the choices I made. I don’t regret any of the films that didn’t work. Yes, you question but then, you move on.
The way you are steering your career is nothing like industry norms. Have you stopped trying to fit in?
Ten years ago! (Laughs) It was around the time when I was doing Paa and Ishqiya. I was like goli maaro yaar, this is how I am. I don’t know how else to be. I love people and I will be my natural self. No walls, nothing. I cannot be the heroine stereotype doing 20 things just for show. I like being who I am and I wear my individuality proudly wherever I go. So yes, I don’t even think about fitting into these boxes anymore. I would love to be free, just like I’m right now.
What do you think went wrong with Begum Jaan?
It’s not one thing. People felt it was too intense. They probably didn’t want to watch something of that intensity in a theatre. That word-of-mouth spreads and later on Twitter, I kept getting congratulatory messages about my performance. I’m very grateful for that. But you cannot put a finger and say, ‘Iss wajah se film nahi chali’. We can draw up a list of reasons but it might not be any of them and be something else completely. Or maybe, it’s a combination of a few things. Even when a film works, you really don’t know why it does. There’s no math.
What mindset were you in when Tumhari Sulu was offered to you?
Tumhari Sulu came to me in 2015. Because Suresh Triveni and my brother-in-law Kedar had done some ad films together. I trust Kedar’s creative instinct. He told me that there’s this ad filmmaker who has a great idea and wants to pitch it to you. So, I said, ‘Okay I’ll meet him’. This is the first time ever that Kedar has suggested someone. I met and loved our meeting because of the way he kept talking about the films, performances and also the way he narrated the idea to me. I asked him to develop the script and he brought it to me after a few months but he said that he wasn’t too happy with the way it was turning out. He then told me that he had another idea which he wanted to share with me. He told me about Tumhari Sulu, that’s about a homemaker who lands a job as a late night RJ. Imagine her saying, “Hello, aapki raaton ko…” I felt that’s quite funny and in just another three-four months, he came with a fabulous first draft. I heard the narration and I wrote on his script’s hard copy — ‘This is one of the best scripts I’ve read. Let’s move forward.’ Then, Atul (Kasbekar) was setting up their company and they had produced Neerja. I had loved what they did with the film, so I asked Suresh to meet him and his team to just see if the director and producers vibe with each other. It took a while, but it all fell into place.
Which character trait of Sulu totally resonates with you?
The fact that she says, ‘Main kar sakti hai’. There’s nothing she won’t try, nothing she won’t do. She isn’t shy or inhibited. Woh bindaas hai. She’s an enthu cutlet. So even if you ask her to go mining, woh chalegi. She has that josh to even perform at FIFA World Cup.
You played a housewife in Ghanchakkar too. Which one are you closer to and why?
I think I’ll say I’m closer to Sulu because I’m someone who smiles and laughs a lot. I look for reasons to smile, laugh and be happy. So Sulu is that way more me. But when I played Neetu in Ghanchakkar, I loved her too. She was on a different sur, but Sulu is closer in person to me.
There was a huge debate over the homemaker versus working women issue. What’s your take on this?
I personally feel that homemakers do a lot of work. I have a problem calling them housewives. It’s a debate that’s been going on because the work of a homemaker is literally invisible. Because you are not paying for her work, there’s no value for it. That’s extremely unfortunate because if other members of the house are able to function smoothly, it’s because of all the work that the homemaker puts in. I think it’s your choice and it’s fantastic. As long as you are happy being a homemaker, a working woman or both, it’s great.
Unlike most of your contemporaries, you are playing a mother on screen, time and again…
Honestly, I don’t really think about what anyone else is doing. It’s about me and what challenges me and the story I’m getting to tell. I don’t think about breaking norms or setting standards or making a point. I’m just here to tell stories. At 38, I’m more than happy with the kind of work that I’m doing. It’s an exciting time, so I don’t mind my age. There are 38-year-old women who are mothers. Why should I not play a mother just because I’m not one in real yet? Or maybe because there’s a certain perception about actresses taking up mother’s roles and their careers being over? Come on, I’m 38! I can’t pretend to be like a 19-year-old. But there’s again so much great work for a 38-year-old as well.
Are you happy given that it’s not a slapstick comedy?
This is my kind of comedy. It’s very subtle, it’s not slapstick or over-the-top. It’s her personality that makes it funny. The way she says, ‘Mujhe pressure cooker nahi, TV mil sakta hai kya?’ That’s relatable because you know people like that. And that’s why I used to love Hrishikesh Mukherjee films because it had that kind of comedy. No one was falling over a banana peel, for the lack of a better example, to make you laugh. I’m so glad that I got this and it couldn’t be better timed because I had been doing some serious stuff for sometime now. Mentally, it’s just refreshing and relieving to do something like this.
Do you feel strong comic roles aren’t written for women?
I don’t think they are. It’s unfortunate. There is just a handful of them here and there. Yes, there is a Tanu Weds Manu Returns and now, there’s Tumhari Sulu. These are the only films that I can think of. Where are any other comedy roles written for actresses?
Kangana recently said that after Sridevi, she’s the only heroine doing comedy. Agree?
I think she said it because she got to do it in Tanu Weds Manu Returns and a bit of it in Queen, too. Personally, I don’t think it’s about agreeing to what she said but there aren’t any comedy scripts for female actors. Out of which she has done one and she’s done it beautifully. There’s no contesting that at all.
A-list male actors stay away from films where the central character is that of a woman. Does it stem from ego or insecurity?
Let me make it very clear. I absolutely have no issues with men because now-a-days the moment you talk about women upliftment and the position of women in the society, people start thinking that you’re probably anti-men. I don’t think men are used to taking second place, in personal or professional spheres, which is why all these clashes have happened because women are asserting themselves and wanting to hold on to their space. They are coming into their own and living their life the way they want to. So men, that way, do have ego issues where they cannot be secondary to a woman. Whereas we have historically done that over the years. Ninety per cent of the films have women playing roles which are sometimes inconsequential, and even when it’s consequential, they are always a step below. The heroines are hardly at par with the heroes in most of our films. Whereas, they are not okay with doing that in our films. Yes, he is no Shah Rukh Khan but Manav Kaul is a fabulous actor, too. He is brilliant in the film and no one but he could have done the role this way. I have watched the film so what he’s done to the role is extraordinary. We naturally trusted each other because both of us were secure as actors, therefore there was no one-upmanship.
Are you averse to a commercial masala entertainer completely?
I won’t say I’m averse but those films offer me nothing. I am very happy doing the kind of films I’m doing right now. For me, an actor really means someone who lives different people’s lives with every film. That’s what is challenging or fulfilling. Sometimes, films work and sometimes, they don’t. But I’m happy I’m getting to play such varied characters in a span of 12 months. There was Kahaani 2, Begum Jaan and now this, so I’m very happy as an actor.