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Screen + Sound + Stage
April 13, 2017

Vidya’s Voice – Fierce and Fearless

Text by Shraddha Jahagirdar-Saxena. Vidya Balan's photograph by Rohan Shrestha

Vidya Balan talks to us about playing her part in the period drama ‘Begum Jaan’ and what continues to creatively challenge her

She’s played the feisty sister of a murder victim (No One Killed Jessica), the mother of a boy suffering from progeria (Paa), a sultry star known for her ‘body talk’ (The Dirty Picture), a woman in search of her husband in an unknown city (Kahaani) – and many more defining roles, collecting awards and accolades along the way. Actor Vidya Balan, a versatile performer known to give her individual take to any role she takes on, chats with us on the eve of the release of her film Begum Jaan

What drew you to Begum Jaan, the movie?
“The story is very unique. It is the story of 11 brave women who happen to be sex workers. What fascinated me was that you are seeing Partition through the eyes of the most marginalised, probably the weakest section of society; and that it was written by a man who had such a deep understanding of women. And finally and most importantly it was Begum Jaan herself – I’ve never come across a woman with this kind of an attitude, nonchalance and audacity. I absolutely loved her. She grabbed me – and I felt compelled. I found her – and therefore the film – irresistible.”

What is the USP of the titular character?
“Begum Jaan believes in herself. Life hasn’t given her a chance to believe in anyone else. No one becomes a prostitute by choice. So, that one act destroys your ability to have faith in anyone other than yourself. She is the most consummate and complete character I have played. She really is like the pillar that can weather any storm, she is unfazed; she will not bend to accommodate. On the contrary, it is her attitude that makes others bend.
What sets her apart from every woman I have known personally or played on screen is the fact that she is not only strong, but powerful too. And she is comfortable and unapologetic about it. She stands on her own two feet and is not scared of standing alone or getting into and seeing through a fight. She lives life on her own terms, and that makes Begum Jaan truly unique to me.”

You have spoken about being able to vent your anger and pent up feelings in the movie. How cathartic was the experience?
“Every character of mine frees a part of me. For a long time, there had been this muffled voice within me, like there would be in most girls and women. Socially, there is a conditioning that forces you to suppress your anger. At home I am expressive, but when I step out, I’m cautious. There was a lot of pent up anger in me which found a voice in Begum Jaan – not about any one thing, but just about being able to express it.”

In that context, in real life, do you let yourself go?
“I have always let myself go at home but outside, if you let yourself go, in terms of your anger, you are scared of being judged. There is a certain perception or conditioning that women should not be seen as angry animals. Most of the time, we find it difficult to talk about things that we are justifiably angry about. But I think I reached a stage where I became more accepting of even my angry side, which is when I felt ready to face that part of me and lend that side of me to the screen  – and that is why Begum Jaan came to me.”

How was the look of the character created?
“Srijit Mukherji told me that since I have experimented with my looks in my films, he wanted to give me a distinctive look. He wanted something with a certain fierceness or ferocity and so they decided to try coloured lenses and gave me a uni-brow. The costumes are true to the period and the place where the story is set. A conscious effort has been made to give me strong colours, those that are an extension of the character’s personality.”

You are known for the strong women you portray — The Dirty Picture and Kahaani being two examples. What aspect of their nature do you identify most with?
“With every character you have a different point of identification. None of us are uni-dimensional. You connect with a character only when it speaks to some part of you. The Dirty Picture probably spoke to the part of me that was body shamed and that felt judged as a girl. It probably spoke to the part which is uninhibited, sexually.
In terms of Kahaani, I am very interested in characters or people whom I cannot really understand, those who are not always what they seem. The part of me that responded to Vidya Bagchi is the one that enjoys the space of the unknown.”

Your inner strength is…
“It lies within me. It comes from a great sense of values instilled by my parents in both my sister and me. It is a certain fearlessness; it comes from believing that love is unconditional. When you feel like you have those few people in your life who accept you for the way you are, it gives you a great amount of strength.”

How would you describe your journey so far?
“It has been very fulfilling. There have been ups and downs and both have taught me a lot. I am grateful for the fact that I am living my dream every single day. It gives me the greatest joy and I am happiest when on a set. I feel very humbled by all the love I have received and I think it has been wonderful journey.”

Creatively, what continues to challenge and drive you?
“Anything that I have not done before – I am constantly looking to play new characters, inhabit new worlds and tell new stories. It is a new fight, a new struggle that I am seeking to resolve through my films, which is why I say my work is an extension of my beliefs, it is my current state of mind.”

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