Is it because The Dirty Picture has stormed the box office? Is it because she’s so good in the film? Or is it because she has flouted every rule in the Bollywood book and emerged a winner on her own terms?
I think I’ve cracked it. For two weeks now everyone I know and possibly most of urban India has been going crazy about Vidya Balan. Nearly everywhere you go she is the subject of discussion and the conversations are nearly always flattering.
The obvious point of reference is The Dirty Picture. For two months before the movie released, Vidya was everywhere. Never before in the history of Indian cinema has a star done so much publicity for a film. And The Dirty Picture was not even a big budget special effects extravaganza like say Ra.One. But Vidya appeared on every television show you could think of (and many that you would never have thought of) and in every print publication.
Talking to her for this interview (and for my Star World show) I asked her what had involved more hard work: the promotion or the actual filming? She took a while to answer and even then she wasn’t really sure. My guess is that the promotion took much more effort.
So perhaps India is going crazy over Vidya Balan because she is so ubiquitous today, more omnipresent than even Anna Hazare. Or could it be that everyone loved The Dirty Picture? The box office figures suggest that it will be a massive hit not just relative to its (somewhat modest) budget but compared to most other films released this year. Obviously, this is a picture that everyone has seen and liked.
Or it could be that they all think that Vidya is terrific in the movie (which she is)? Few actresses could have carried off that role with so much aplomb and managed to hold their own against an actor of the calibre of Naseeruddin Shah who gives one of his best ever performances. But if you ask me it’s none of these things.
My view is that India has fallen in love with Vidya Balan all over again (and we’ve been here before after the release of Parineeta and once again after Lage Raho Munnabhai though it’s never been quite so intense) not because of her current ubiquity or because of any individual film but because we have finally come to terms with who she is.
In an industry full of size zero figures, dancing bimbettes and self-consciously trendy bejeaned muppets, Vidya comes off as a breath of fresh air.
Basically, it’s this simple: she is a real person.
Everything about her is real: the curves, the little roll of fat that she makes no attempt to hide, the clothes that she chooses herself, the roles that she agonises over before finally selecting one that suits her, the hard work she puts into each performance and then into the promotion, and most of all, the guts she demonstrates in finding her own path against the advice of nearly everybody in Bollywood.
We talk of Vidya’s courage only in terms of her willingness to play a southern sex symbol in The Dirty Picture. But compared to the other things she’s done in her life, this is no big deal.
In fact, her whole story is one of courage in the face of impossible odds.
Born and brought up in Bombay to a middle class south Indian family, Vidya had a dream: to become an actress. But while other girls with that dream would want to be glamorous heroines, Vidya focused on the acting itself.
Each evening she would stare at the mirror and re-enact Shabana Azmi’s dialogues from Arth. A particular favourite was the bit where Shabana tells Smita Patil to leave her man alone.
“I kept trying to cry because that was what the scene required,” she remembers. “But I didn’t know about glycerine in those days and I wasn’t sure how to make the tears come. All the same, I kept trying.”
Good middle class south Indian families do not react with delight when their daughters tell them that they want to join Bollywood. So Vidya’s parents insisted that she went to St Xavier’s College and studied. She did her BA and then an MA in Sociology.
“My father said that I could always become an actress,” she recalls. “But I couldn’t go back to college later in life. So I had to first finish my education and then I could do what I wanted. At the time I was not pleased but now, I can’t thank him enough. My parents were absolutely right.”
The education explains why Vidya started off late. But nothing explains why things kept going wrong for so long.
She was eventually signed up for a Malayalam film and though it wasn’t the Bollywood career she dreamt of, at least it was a beginning. Moreover, she was starring with Mohanlal, a legendary figure in Malayalam cinema and one of her idols.
But Mohanlal had a problem with the film’s makers. And so, halfway through, the movie was abandoned, never to be completed.
Because Mohanlal is such a big deal in the south, it was unusual for one of his movies to remain incomplete. And the film industry, ever quick to blame a newcomer, decided it was because Vidya Balan brought bad luck to the project.
She could have survived this debacle but a second film also ended in disaster. Four days into the shooting she was replaced. The makers decided that they did not want the Balan jinx.
What followed was heartbreaking. In the initial flush of excitement after she had been cast as Mohanlal’s heroine, she had signed a dozen Malayalam films. She was sacked from every single one of them.
She tried Tamil cinema and found a role. There too, things went wrong. The producer also decided that she was a jinx and she was replaced. She signed a second Tamil film, got to the sets and discovered that it was a sex comedy. She had been signed up under false pretences. Naturally she walked out. And as naturally, she was replaced once again.
Desperate to find some work at least, she agreed to act in a Euphoria music video directed by Pradeep Sarkar. This time she was not replaced and the video was completed but there was a fight between labels and the release of the video was stalled.
So, after three years in the film industry, Vidya Balan had been replaced in twelve Malayalam movies, two Tamil films and had made one music video which had been caught up in a legal quagmire and not released.
You tell me: wouldn’t you give up at this stage? Anybody else would.
But Vidya wouldn’t. And she didn’t.
I asked her about her state of mind during that phase. She says that it took every ounce of will power to keep from giving up.
She went everywhere for roles: on one occasion she walked from Nariman Point to Bandra, a considerable distance. At other times, she sat for hours at the Saibaba temple praying with tears running down her cheeks. (“I am a person with a lot of faith and I have conversations all the time but I am not so religious in the conventional, organised sense,” she says).
Then, slowly, her luck began to change. She was cast in a Bengali film and discovered that she was a Bengali at heart and learnt to speak the language fluently. (She even sings Bengali songs, one of which she sang on camera for me when I seemed somewhat dubious about her linguistic abilities).
Pradeep Sarkar who had kept casting her in ad films and other music videos never lost faith. He had planned to make Parineeta for producer Vidhu Vinod Chopra and insisted that Vidya would make a perfect heroine.
Naturally, Chopra was leery of investing money in a first-time director and a virtual newcomer as an actress. He insisted on auditioning Vidya and she says she has lost count of the number of auditions she did over a period of several months.
Finally, Chopra gave in. He agreed with Sarkar that she was the perfect choice for the role and agreed to sign her.
By all rights, Vidya should have been a nervous wreck. Her career had stalled in two different film industries (Malayalam and Tamil) and her reputation for bringing bad luck to projects had spread far and wide. This was really a make or break situation for her.
But oddly enough, she says, she was never nervous. She knew what was at stake. She knew it was her last chance. And she knew that the camera was her best friend. (“The camera is my confidante,” she says. “I speak directly to it.”).
So she gave it everything she had. And the rest is history.
It hasn’t exactly been an uphill struggle since the massive success of Parineeta. Lage Raho Munnabhai gave her the stamp of commercial acceptability and it would have been easy enough for her to have joined the Bollywood rat race since success seemed to come so easily and naturally to her.
But after some strange films like Heyy Babyy and Kismet Konnection in which she tried to pretend to be what she is not a Bollywood bimbette Vidya decided that this was not part of her original dream.
“At some stage my sister and brother-in-law sat me down and asked me why I had become an actress,” she remembers.
“I said it was because I wanted to be different people, to play different characters. And they pointed out what should have been obvious to me. If I was going to do these typical Bollywood films, then I wasn’t really playing different characters. It wasn’t why I had become an actress at all.”
Ask yourself this, if you had only one dream, if that dream had been dashed on the rocks by fate through rejection and replacement and if you finally had found some partial fulfillment of that dream, some measure of success at last, would you really risk it all?
The reason I like Vidya Balan – and I guess the reason all of India loves her so much is because she was ready to start from scratch again. She was willing to walk away from one kind of success. She was ready to take risks that seemed like commercial suicide.
All because she still believed in that original dream, not in the commercial fantasy that it had morphed into.
The films that have come in the latest phase of Vidya Balan’s career are not those that a commercially savvy actress would have signed. She agonised for three months before agreeing to do Paa even though it offered her a chance to act with Amitabh Bachchan, an early idol since his Yaarana days. (She even liked that silly outfit with the lightbulbs that was stolen from The Electric Horseman).
It wasn’t that she minded playing Amitabh’s mother. It was just that she was terrified of screwing up.
As it turned out, she was brilliant. She was terrific as a deglamourised Sabrina Lal in No One Killed Jessica. And she was even better in Ishqiya where she played the kind of character she developed further in The Dirty Picture: a woman who is willing to use her sexuality in the advancement of her own interests.
Even so, The Dirty Picture represented a huge risk. Hindi cinema no longer requires its heroines to be virginal angels of innocence. But I can’t think of a single other film where a heroine is shown as seducing a man simply to advance her career and is still treated as a sympathetic character.
And then there was the terrible visual deterioration that her character suffered at the end of the movie. Which heroine would agree to do all this without wondering about the effect on her stardom?
But Vidya took the risk. She liked the role, she said. It offered her a chance to take a character that society looked down on and to invest that person with dignity and depth. Her character didn’t have to be somebody you felt sorry for. You just had to accept that she was an independent woman making her own choices in her own interests.
“‘Treat her with respect,’ was my motto,” she says.
Now that the risk has paid off and the film is such a stupendous success, it is easy to say that Vidya was right to take the role. But had it gone wrong, it could well have been career suicide.
Except I don’t think that Vidya cares too much about that any longer. She doesn’t care about image or about body issues. She’s happy to be a star. But she’d much rather be an actress.
At some level, I think all of us recognise that in Vidya we are dealing with a real person who is making real choices and not with some machine-made, image-manipulated Bollywood star. We respect her risks. We admire her resilience. And we know that even if we didn’t do all of this, even if we didn’t go to see her movies, it would not make that much difference to her.
Because after those years of disappointment, rejection and experimentation, Vidya Balan has found her destiny.
And her destiny is simply this to be her own person. To be Vidya Balan.