It was not very long ago that a 25-year-old well-educated Keralite woman decided that she wanted to be an actress. This was 2005, and dame-fame smiled on her, temporarily. She was cast opposite Mohanlal, the reigning deity of Malayalam cinema. Alas, the film was shelved. She then signed a Tamil film, Run only to be unceremoniously dropped. Bengali cinema was the next stop. Her role in Bhalo Theko got her appreciation but no more roles. A lesser woman would have drowned herself in sorrow or tears. But not this child of a Malayali father and a Tamil mother, as she plunged headlong into modelling, advertising commercial, music videos many of which were directed by ad film maker, Pradeep Sarkar.
So when in 2005 producer Vidhu Vinod Chopra hired Sarkar to direct Saratchandra’s Bengali classic, Parineeta in Hindi, he insisted on casting Vidya Balan in the lead. The film earned her the Filmfare Best Debut Female Actor Award. But the first major breakthrough came in the banner’s very next film, Lage Raho Munna Bhai where she played a radio jockey. And she had seemingly arrived, but not really so because all her five 2007-8 starrers: Guru (suffering from multiple sclerosis), Salaam-Ishq (suffering from memory loss syndrome), Ekklavya, Heyy Baby (deceived single mother), and Bhool Bulaiya essaying the role of a woman suffering from dissociative identity disorder (Filmfare Best Actress nomination for the last). All tough, out of the box roles demanding considerable introspection; Halla Bol (insignificant role in the male-dominated society, Kismet Konnection crashed at the box office, though she matched Shahid Kapoor in display of histrionics. Reflecting on those hard times, she confessed: “I faced a long period of rejection. My initial years were the true test of my prayers, which is why, very early in my life I realised the true meaning of surrender. At one time I was even scared to look at the mirror because that reminded me of all the ugly words people used to say about me.”
But all that now seems to have changed for the good, better and best. The National Best Actress Award for her robust performance as ‘entertainment, entertainment, entertainment, Aur mein entertainment hoon’ coming in quick succession after some fine performances in Paa (09) a gynecologist by profession playing single mother to a 12-year-old progeria syndrome, in Ishqiya (10) that of a sexually manipulative abandoned wife earned her more Filmfare trophies for popular and critics’ choice di01ficult and diametrically opposite. Looking back, that indeed has been Vidya, the vivacious’ strong point the variety of roles she has performed with rare finesse that no other Bollywood actress has done in recent times. Her performance prompted Anupama Chopra: “Balan’s smoldering looks scorch the screen even as her eyes hint at tragedy. She proves that she is streets ahead of the cookie cutter Barbie dolls that clutter Bollywood and that sensuality has very little to do with showing skin.”
The same words can be applied to her subsequent performances in the biopic No One Killed Jessica displaying angst, vulnerability, strength, determination at the same time. Her portrayal of a B-grade actress in the other biopic that has won her National Award as well in The Dirty Picture (11) made the generally hard-to-please critic-turned-film maker-turned scribe again, Khalid Mohammed state: “She’s extraordinary: gutsy, consistently in character and unafraid of exposing her darker side. Here’s the kind of complex performance which you haven’t evidenced in years and years. This award-winning act presented by her contrasting portrayal in No One Killed Jessica reaffirms her as the finest artiste on the scene today.”
Literally on cloud nine, in the wake of another mesmerising performance in the just-released thriller Kahani, where she plays a pregnant woman in search of her lost husband, she stated matter-of-factly with the confidence of someone who knows she is now at the very top, “its appeal comes from its gripping plot which has been very well captured. People want to know what happens to her search. There is a story within a story.”And a twist at the end that makes the viewer gape in the darkness of an auditorium, the truth dawning after he sees the sunlight outside. Replying to another question whether through her diverse performances she has ‘fought against homogenisation of Hindi film heroine, her reply was: “The problem started when film makers started seeing every female character as a girl. Traditionally, in our films substantial roles have been written for actresses who played women. Madhuri Dixit and Sridevi have been examples. Now we have rediscovered that it is cool to be a woman.” Kahani, where she is interestingly named Vidya Venkatesan Bagchi, again has her playing resilient though vulnerable software engineer lost in an unfamiliar terrain, an alien metropolis, Kolkata. Reviewing the film, Anuj Kumar said about Balan’s performance: “Her eyes speak a lot more than the lines given to her and her smile fills the blank spaces in the script.”
Though not very young, and all of thirty-four (born on January 1, 1978) she hasn’t have had an extended run at the box office (unlike many of her illustrious contemporaries), just 16 films in nearly a decade-long career in cinema during which she has worked in two Malayalam films, the language in which she got her first breakthrough, and 14 in a span of six years in Hindi. Posting comments on his website after a prolonged interview with the actor in his television show, Vir Sanghvi said: “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… is making real choices and not with some machine-made, image-manipulated Bollywood star.”
In a changed Bollywood scenario where young film-makers are trying to make insightful cinema, daring to explore feminine psyche it is, perhaps, not really late for a performer of Vidya’s caliber, range, and reach, considering many of her contemporaries are already facing eclipse, her attempt in daring to be different, and her resilience are admirable. “The camera is my confidante,”she says. “I speak directly to it.”She is conscious of the changing film-making environment, and is ready to cease every opportunity. She further adds: “I believe that change doesn’t happen overnight, it takes time. I am lucky that today when we are feeling the change, it is a coincidence that I have become a face of this change.”
Let’s hope she does not get carried away with the new-found success, and sign films in a hurry that do not exploit her potential both as an actor, and a woman.
By Suresh Kohli