India's premier luxury lifestyle women's magazine
Cover Story
September 21, 2016

Vidya Balan: “I am the centre of my universe!”

Text by Shraddha Jahagirdar-Saxena. Photographed by Rohan Shrestha. Styling by Shweta Navandar. Assisted by Anuradha Gandhi. Make-Up and Hair by Subhash Vagal. Location Courtesy: ITC Maratha, Mumbai

The down-to-earth actor speaks to us about being an exception to the rule, following her heart and living life on her own terms

A little over a decade ago, without much brouhaha, she made a quiet debut on the Hindi film firmament, draped in simple saris, her forehead sporting a huge bindi. With overwhelming self-confidence, gentle grace and a very Indian vibe, the newbie film actor — who had earlier been seen in music videos and television commercials — took one’s breath away. And Pradeep Sarkar’s Parineeta effortlessly wooed the silver screen, and she swept the debut awards for the year. Vidya Balan was here to stay.

Her versatility — that seems to come so naturally to her — makes her a plum favourite with thinking directors, those who want their heroine to do something different. Balan can morph herself into almost any character. In her most recent release Te3n, a thriller, she gives an able turn under the directorial baton of Ribhu Dasgupta. The film is co-produced by Sujoy Ghosh, under whose aegis she had earlier impressed in the award-winning Kahaani.

As an actor, Balan admits that she unabashedly seeks new and meaty roles. Just before she travels to Jharkhand for her Begum Jaan schedule — the Hindi remake of a Bengal partition tale where she plays a brothel madam — she keeps a date with Verve at a suburban five-star hotel. Arriving on the dot of the appointed hour, she sits serenely, facing the huge window, as if she is watching the world go by.

Later, as we chat, ensconced in sofas in the suite — her portion of idli-sambar and chutney polished off — referring to the brave choices she has made, she emphasises, “I am a greedy actor and that greed is what drives me to do different kinds of roles. So when I am offered a film that may not be conventional, I just follow my instincts and do the work I want to” — even if it is a cameo in Ekk Albela where she was seen as the legendary actor Geeta Bali.

The ‘Begum Jaan’ rules the roost —in her own way and on her own terms.

Excerpts from a freewheeling conversation — that spans years, her roles and moments from reality….

“It was not easy for people to accept my way of thinking.”
My personality gets reflected in everything I do. I am the centre of my universe. This attitude did not come overnight; I have arrived at it over time. As girls and women, we unknowingly put everyone else before us — we are conditioned to think like that. When I became a film actor, I realised that I cannot do things just to make people happy. I had to do things for myself. I have to do films that I believe in, because I want to do them, and not just because it is conventionally correct. And soon, in every area of my life, that formula began to work for me.

Surprisingly when I was trying to toe the line, sometimes I would get praised, at other times I would get beaten down. Today, people respect the fact that I am doing what I want to do. Initially, there were some naysayers for various decisions — like for some films that I did. People said, ‘Oh my god, are you sure you want to do a film like Ishqiya, opposite Naseer Sir (Naseeruddin Shah) who is older than you, you are really narrowing down your chances as an actor —female actors have a very short-lived career.’ But I stood my guns — since I loved the role and the script, and Naseer Sir is a great actor. And that is only one example of my brave choices.

“I have dared to be myself.”
I haven’t dared to be different. It was not a conscious strategy or a choice. In school and college, all of us face peer pressure. But even after I became an actor, there was a lot of pressure to adhere to a certain image. I tried doing that, but very unsuccessfully. I think I have spent a lifetime attempting to make everyone happy and I was miserable at it, because I wasn’t absolutely happy about being a certain way or doing certain things. I was not doing things to the best of my abilities, nor was I being the best version of me.

After much deliberation and a lot of trial and error, I realised that it’s not worth spending a lifetime trying to be what other people want you to be. I decided to ensure that at least one person was happy with me — and that one person was me!

“My parents gave me the freedom to be and believe.”
My beliefs are my own, some shaped by my upbringing, some by what I have been exposed to. My sister Priya and I were given the space to do what we wanted. I won’t say that my mom was absolutely happy with the idea of me joining the big bad world of films. But my parents had confidence in their upbringing, so they gave us the freedom to be. And when you have so much freedom, you do not feel like abusing it.

Growing up, there was no coercion to follow set rules or rituals. So, for me, prayer is very private and personal. Though I am a Hindu, and I have learnt my prayers and shlokas, I am irreligious in a way. I do not subscribe to any particular religion. I pray to one super power; I believe that the universe conspires to make things happen for you. I pray in the morning and at night. That is the first thing I do when I get up, and the last thing I do before I go to sleep.

I am not a superstitious person at all. There is no place for superstition in my life; there never has been because I always thought it was a cop-out for people, for escapists.

“When I got married, my conditioning suddenly came into play.”
As a daughter — and even later on, after my marriage, as a wife — I did not have to live up to expectations. Growing up, there was no pressure on me to get married. At family functions, the extended family would ask when I was getting married. My parents just wanted me to be with someone because as an actor you do not meet people on a regular basis. The expectation has been that I do my best.

As a wife, luckily for me, Siddharth (Roy Kapur) does not have any kind of expectations either. I must admit though that when I got married, I began to feel the need to be the perfect wife and the perfect daughter-in-law and to continue to be a perfect daughter and a perfect professional. At some point, Siddharth asked me why I was stressing about all this. He told me to take it easy for I am just one human being. And that gave me a sense of perspective. I will always be grateful to him because suddenly I had turned into one of those girls I used to make fun of — who, when they get married, feel they are being constantly judged and have to prove themselves.

“Everything about me is Indian.”
I take great pride in being an Indian and I get incensed very easily when someone even makes a joke about anything Indian. I am Indian to the core — my face, my body, the way I dress, the fact that I prioritise my family over everything else….

In my personal space, I invariably wear cotton clothes. I believe in comfort dressing and I love cotton as a fabric. Even for my mehndi, I wore a cotton sari. As far as food is concerned, I love simple ghar ka khana and if it is food cooked by my mother, nothing like it. I really relish simple, soothing, home food — dal, rice, roti, sabzi, the South Indian Palakkad Iyer kind of food. When I travel, I do tend to experiment a bit. I like Italian, Chinese, Thai, Japanese, Vietnamese and Ethiopian cuisine, but I do need some kind of spice in my food. And, workwise, I like stories that are rooted in our culture.

“It is a trip for me to be living so many lives.”
I am open to playing every kind of role, but I wouldn’t choose one just to prove a point. Given that, I would wear any kind of clothing or dress in accordance to the character I play. But I have to first believe in the story and my onscreen persona.

I love what I do and I feel blessed because I am living my dream of being an actor. For me an actor is someone who lives another person’s life. To the deepest or to the truest extent possible you have to inhabit that person’s world. I don’t really worry about what comes after — whether people like my performance or what their expectations from me are. Even when I perform, I perform for myself.

I have played many roles and enjoyed the challenge of being different people. It would be difficult to pick a character that has been close to my own skin. For invariably, you discover some elements from your own persona in every role. One character very different from me and difficult to play was Silk Smitha, even though deep down I knew that I could play her well. I had no inhibitions. But the way she thought and the way I think are very different. I would find it beneath me to use my body to get ahead in life and that’s exactly what she did. There was a value clash and the fun starts when there is a clash like that to overcome and that is what drives me.

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