Published: Verve Magazine, Cover Story, February 2010
Photographs by: Atul Kasbekar
She is undeniably sexy. While it is not a raw in-your-face sexuality, it is a deep passionate sensuality that emanates from her captivating smile and smouldering eyes. Vidya Balan is as much of this time as anyone else, but you get the feeling she may have been better suited to the era of the Romantics or the cinema of the ’70s. Worthy of being a muse, the man who gets her, will totally get her. Sitanshi Talati-Parikh woos the audaciously role-playing star of Parineeta and the just-released Ishqiya into talking about romance, men, career lows and what turns her on
I’ve seen you somewhere,” she says looking directly at me. We trace the connection back to our common alma mater, St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai. (She admits wanting to study there simply because Shabana Azmi is an alumnus.) I can’t deny I am surprised by Vidya Balan’s refreshing directness and razor-sharp memory retrieving faces seen more than a decade ago. Her smile reaches up to her eyes, rare in someone from the industry of make-believe. You don’t want to tell her that her eyes are in fact (as she suspects) looking weary, because you are afraid the captivating smile will disappear. You can’t exactly blame this diminutive powerhouse of talent for the fatigue factor – she’s run the marathon for Nanhi Kali, besides working round-the-clock promoting her latest film Ishqiya (2010), where she essays an author-backed role of a femme fatale, Krishna, opposite two thieves (Naseeruddin Shah and Arshad Warsi).
“I always felt that I could be a temptress and a seductress, but people didn’t really want to see me like that.” Balan launches into Krishna’s character with gusto. “Here’s a woman who’s unapologetic about her sexuality. She will not take things lying down…no pun intended,” she laughs a gusty, full-throated laugh. “She’s leading two men on, getting drunk and violent. She’s everything that, on a superficial level, I am not.” She actually thanked director Abhishek Chaubey for considering her to play a role for which she would not have been the natural choice. “People don’t want to take a risk casting against type. I have done some challenging roles, but they have been pretty much in one zone. As a character I relate to the fact that she lives life on her terms. But beyond that, the way she deals with situations is very different. I was doing everything that I had never done. This was exciting!”
The spirited eyes, the full smile and the expressive face all suggest a latent sensuality. “What you feel is what you exude. I enjoy being a woman! After all, I came in with Parineeta (2005). I revel in everything that is feminine, beautiful and sensual. When working on a weight loss regime, I told my trainer, ‘I want to lose the excess not the essentials.’ I love a woman’s curves! I find that ‘flat thing’ very asexual. Ethnic clothing from any part of the world is a lot more feminine. I like clothes that make me feel like a woman.”
Standing in a burgundy georgette-and-net gown-kurta while the camera takes position, her fingers unconsciously pinch the sides, and lost in thought, she gracefully twirls back and forth, looking like a wistful young girl waiting to be taken to the prom. When the camera is on, she slides her hand up to her slim waist, leans forward, a suggestive hint of cleavage visible, hair billowing, transforming into a Victorian temptress who can turn a good man into a sinner. “A man is a man is a man in every situation. A woman, however, transforms according to the role that is demanded of her at that point in time. You will find Krishna (in Ishqiya) playing the tanpura like Meera in one scene and in the next having a passionate affair with a man without any emotional involvement. She is in complete control of her life and truly the progressive woman of today.” She confesses that like Krishna, her feelings are fervent. “I am a very passionate person…I have come to accept that now. There is no midway for me. I love ardently. I don’t hate – one goes through anger; prayer gives me the strength not to hate anyone – but yes, that person ceases to matter for me.”
From the gentle lovemaking in Parineeta to the unabashed sex in Ishqiya, the 31-year-old actress hasn’t held back from giving roles her best. “Initially I felt very conscious, especially in Parineeta, my first film. But I had faith in Dada (director, Pradeep Sarkar) that the scenes would be done beautifully, that they wouldn’t look sleazy. I knew I would be well taken care of. The first thing that crosses your mind when you think of your lover with someone else is the physical aspect: it was important to the story in Parineeta. It is not a comfortable situation, but if it is justified and if I have faith in the people I work with, I am not going to be a prude.”
And being a perfectionist means going that extra mile. When playing a character afflicted with multiple sclerosis, in Mani Ratnam’s Guru (2007), she underwent rigorous training to understand the mental state of the character. Meeting patients, watching films on the subject and even roaming around her building at night on a wheelchair…all of it took a psychological toll on her. To the extent that one night, when trying to get out of bed to get a glass of water, she found herself unable to do so – having lost motor control in her limbs. “It scared the life out of me! At that point Mani sir suggested that I should stop – having prepared enough for the role. But despite that, when you do that kind of work – which challenges you, requires you to push the envelope, push yourself beyond your limits – it is deeply fulfilling.”
She looks exuberant when she talks about cinema and acting. About yearning to have been born in the time of a Jai Jai Shiv Shankar, wearing saris that marked individual style and holding forte with actresses like Shabana Azmi, Mumtaz, Sharmila Tagore, Rekha, Jaya Bachchan and Hema Malini. She knew she wanted to be an actor since she was 11 years old. “If I hadn’t become a movie star I would have perished! Being an actor defines me. I think I am a schizophrenic and want to be another person every day.”
Without having a filmi crutch, she has fumbled and only recently, through perseverance, faith and hard work, found sure footing. While opportunities came her way, many a door was rudely banged in her face. She landed her first TV show when just a few months into college. Balan got her pictures clicked at a local photo studio, with her sister in charge of hair, make-up and a winning bio data. At the time, barely over 15 years of age, she made the cut from 900 applicants. “I owe my sister my career,” she chuckles.
After eight months of filming, the show was shelved because the channel went bust. The producers sent the actors to Ekta Kapoor, who was making her first daily soap. Eyes filled with mirth, she remembers how taken-aback Kapoor was with Balan’s placid response, when offered the role of Radhika for the popular show Hum Paanch. “The cocky thing that I was, I turned back to Ekta and said, ‘I always take everything with a pinch of salt.’” Kapoor has to this date never let her forget it.
After a year on the show, when it began affecting her attendance at college, her parents insisted that she quit working. “I come from a traditional South Indian family, where education and academics take precedence over everything else. I was terribly upset…I grudged them that for a while, but today, I am so grateful to them.” Balan continued to do ad films on the side, going on to do 90-odd commercials. “It was perfect! I could enjoy college life, while pursuing my passion and making money. That’s how it really started….”
While in the South shooting for an ad film, the actress – who can speak five Indian languages – was approached by a model coordinator to star in a Malayalam film. The cockiness resurfaced with a question, ‘Who’s in it?’ When informed that it was her favourite star Mohanlal, she tested and was signed on immediately. While doing her Masters (in Sociology) from Mumbai University, Balan began shooting for the film. Halfway through, the director and Mohanlal had a fall out, and the film was shelved. But by then, there was a positive buzz about a Malayali actress from Mumbai, and Balan had already gone on to sign six films, while in talks for 12.
What she didn’t realise was that in the midst of the problems between the director and Mohanlal, she had been labelled ‘jinxed’, and was rapidly being replaced in all the films she had just signed. They didn’t even bother to inform her – her mother would get the Malayalam papers and discover that the film her daughter was supposed to be a part of had already started without her. Balan was unceremoniously thrown out of a Tamil film as well, after being told that she couldn’t act or dance and didn’t look good. “I didn’t know what it was that I was doing wrong. It was extremely painful. They made me feel really worthless. It had dented my confidence to the extent that I had stopped looking into the mirror for a while. When you are badly hit, you begin to believe what people are saying. In those moments of self-doubt though, I think somewhere my faith in myself and in God got strengthened more than ever. I was relentless.”
At a point of particularly low self-esteem, while working on an ad film, her path crossed that of Pradeep Sarkar’s, who wasn’t very impressed with what he saw. When he was casting for a music video, Euphoria, he was reluctant to call Balan in for the screen test. She relates, “It was at this stage that I had begun to pray…and begun to pull myself out of this negativity.” She got selected, and after shooting for the video all night, was rewarded with Sarkar’s words, ‘Ay ladki, tere saath main film banaonga. (Hey girl, I will make a film with you.)’ While not sure how to react – the bitterness of past experiences still fresh in her mind – she found Sarkar to be as good as his word. “Without sounding dramatic, if I am sitting here today, it is because of that man’s faith in me.”
She went on to do more videos and ad films with him, even assisting him. “That is why people began to talk rubbish about him and me. It was literally like a mentor-student, a guru-shishya relationship…where I wasn’t living in his gurukul, but I was spending a lot of time there. He would show me movies and performances and we would discuss them in great depth. He was constantly teaching me, honing me.” And then, Parineeta happened. “All the things that didn’t work, didn’t work because I was meant to do a Parineeta. That fire wouldn’t have been there….” Balan has been known to share great onscreen chemistry with her co-stars. “I wasn’t nervous even though it was my first film and I was facing Saif Ali Khan and Sanjay Dutt. It could have been George Clooney or a tree for that matter. I would have made love to the tree if I had to, because I was driven by the passion to prove a point. I had to prove it to myself…for every moment that I had considered giving up on my dreams. Something gave me the strength to go on…I wasn’t going to get intimidated by anything or anyone.”
The passion was there for all to see, and that drove the media to a feeding frenzy. “I thought it would never happen to me, but I was shocked to find myself linked with everyone, starting with Pradeep Sarkar. I didn’t know why I was being linked, and people would say that ‘there’s no smoke without a fire’.” Could it have been a publicity stunt to promote the films? “You can dance around naked if you have to, but if your film is not good, it won’t work. I am very proud of the fact that Paa (2009) and Ishqiya are the kind of films that don’t need this kind of publicity – they haven’t had to resort to such things. Story is king and enough to garner interest in it.”
Two movies that lacked the Vidya Balan energy and drive were the ones to not do justice to the audience’s expectations – Heyy Babyy (2007) and Kismat Konnection (2008). “Those were the only films that I did without scripts. I wanted to work with Aziz Mirza (director, Kismat…). Whatever the criticism might be, I am proud of all my work and happy with each experience. The film didn’t turn out the way it was meant to. As human beings we are not consistent, in fact, that kind of consistency almost takes away from creativity! Having said that, I lacked passion in these films…I’m very transparent.” Why would someone so driven not give it her best shot? “I thought I could go through those films without much effort and I was mistaken. I admire those actors who do the regular roles so beautifully. After Kismat… my eyes opened to the fact that what we look upon as regular may actually be a lot more challenging. There are very few times that I have fallen prey to being indifferent towards my work…and both those times it showed. Today, even if I do less work, I want to do work that I believe in.” It is evident that this belief has worked for her. Balan’s mother, who is normally not the “weepy sort”, found her eyes welling up after seeing her daughter’s portrayal of a strong single mom of a progeria-afflicted 13-year-old in Paa, and her father – deeply impressed with her performance – spontaneously gifted her a Mercedes, something she had been eyeing for a while, with a note ‘From Paa for Paa’.
Vidya Balan writes a diary every day, however late it may be. Music pulses through her veins – eclectic, more instrumental than vocal – think Sufi, Asian Underground, Nirvana, Buddha Bar, and that of RD Burman and Gulzar from the ’70s and ’80s. She can talk on the phone endlessly with someone she’s interested in. Even after seven days of no sleep. But you can’t talk to her when she has just woken up. And an undercurrent of silence really gets her buzzing. “There is nothing more romantic than standing in a room full of people and there is silent communication taking place between the two of you. You can be in two different corners of the room, but it feels like you are right next to each other. I’ve experienced it…wanting those 100 people to disappear and somewhere in your head they have actually disappeared.”
While she wants to get there someday, she is not ready for marriage and kids yet. “You are constantly role-playing when you act. I don’t know who I am going to fall in love with. There are no limitations, about loving someone from within the industry or outside it. I know I can still be genuine, but it takes a lot. But, if I can help it, I wouldn’t want to be with an actor – two people constantly fighting for the mirror is just bad news!” She laughs, obliterating the opportunity to probe further.
There is a faraway expression in her eyes as she rattles off qualities in a man that turn her on. “Long and unruly hair can be so sexy! A man’s voice – it has to have a certain base to it. Not a baritone, but a certain lingering quality; and of course interesting conversations. Being self-assured, I find that extremely attractive. A little bit of arrogance for a while can be fun. Definitely someone who likes me the way I am. I don’t have a vision of a man I’d get attracted to…it’s never about the looks for me, it’s always about personality. I have never been able to tell my type – having fallen for radically different, even unusual men.” Anybody I know? I counter. And no, I’m not buying that George Clooney line. She lets out a peal of mischievous laughter. “We shall talk about that later.”
Men she may choose to postpone; success she can’t. Paa has already begun garnering wins for her, and Ishqiya promises to take her to a new high. “Success is something that is personal. Its definition changes every day, if not every moment. When you accomplish what you want to do, that’s success. You know that if people are accepting you, then you need to continue doing what you are doing. It gives you the courage to be who you are, more than ever.”