When we meet Vidya Balan at her seaside Juhu bungalow, the actress is dressed casually in a cotton chikankari kurta with the evening sun doubling up as her halo. There is not a speck of makeup on her face. Yet she looks more gorgeous than ever.
It’s brave of Balan to agree to do a photoshoot without makeup. The actress, known to swing between spectacular highs and near-rockbottom lows in her career, has been a victim of body-shaming ever since she arrived in Bollywood, with vicious gossip about her shape and silhouette, and even worse tittle-tattle about her dress sense.
Yet, in the same candid manner in which she deals with her work, her fans, colleagues and the media, Balan is willing to bare her face, pores and all, to close-up scrutiny. It’s an incredible thing for a person working in the glamour industry to do – even Shah Rukh Khan, for all his down-to-earthness, would be apprehensive – and it says a lot about the woman behind the actress.
It also says a lot about how hero-driven Bollywood has changed from the time heroines traditionally played the role of decorative items. In the last decade, the scales have started to tilt towards women, so much so that today women-centric films are bringing in equal money at the box office, if not more.
Much of this has been credited to Balan and the strong, bold characters she essayed in films like Paa, Ishqiya, No One Killed Jessica, The Dirty Picture and Kahaani.
In every one of those films, the audience drooled over her subtle, often raw sensuality, and the critics lauded her power-packed performances. But off screen, Balan is perhaps the most bodyshamed heroine in Bollywood.
“There was a time I used to take these negative criticisms very seriously. I was killing myself over losing weight. I would work out like crazy, starve myself and go on all kinds of weird diets,” she says. “Yes, I would lose some weight but all that starving would leave me feeling very unhappy and drained. Worse, eventually I would regain that weight and that would make me more miserable. It had become a vicious cycle. Slowly, I realised that there is a body structure that I can’t fight, and I better embrace it. I began to feel comfortable in my weight. Today I do not consider it a ‘weight problem’. I think fitness is more important. Who decides what is desirable? We have begun to pigeonhole beauty, sexuality and desirability.”
Before this pragmatism arrived, Balan did a movie for which she had to gain 12kgs – The Dirty Picture. For a woman struggling with weight issues it was a courageous, if risky, decision. “I can go to any length to tell a story. That’s my thrill,” she says. But the first step is always the hardest and in her case it involved squeezing herself, plus her 12 kg excess baggage, in a pair of hot pants. The fact that she had never worn short clothes before didn’t help.
“A few years back I was supposed to do a very big film. When I went for the costume trial this famous designer gave me some very skimpy clothes. I refused to come out of the dressing room and I couldn’t do the film. I was so awkward. But here I knew I was Silk and not Vidya. When I saw those pants, they looked too short. I had never worn such short clothes. But when I wore it, I felt like Silk.”
But she didn’t expect people to find her hot in the movie. “The Dirty Picture liberated me. At that time I was at my biggest, and yet people found me sexy. The reactions I got broke many norms for me. My lifelong struggle with my weight came to an end.”
Today, Balan religiously hits the gym every day – but the aim is to stay fit. “I love to work out but I am not trying to defy my body structure anymore. I can’t change my body type. But I can change the way I feel about my body. And most days I feel absolutely sexy… of course, if I am not having a bad hair day!”
Given how she’s glowing despite the lack of makeup, Balan is clearly not having a bad hair day today. Perhaps it’s because of her return to Bollywood. Kahaani 2, releasing in November, is being touted as her comeback movie. But the actress is startled at the very mention of it.
“Where did I go to make a comeback?” she asks, before clarifying that although after Hamari Adhuri Kahani, which released last year, she had taken a few months off, it is a myth that she had taken a sabbatical to enjoy quality time with her husband.
“As with most workaholics, I was neglecting a few niggling health issues, which got worse over time and I had to pay attention to them,” she says. “Also, I have always done roles that I have found challenging. At that point, the scripts I was finding interesting were in various stages of development. So, I thought this would be the best time to recuperate. And now I have three films on the floors – Sujoy Ghosh’s Kahaani 2, Srijit Mukherji’s Begum Jaan, which I have finished shooting, and a bilingual biopic of poet Kamala Das.”
Still, she does admit that with four back-to-back flops in Ghanchakkar, Shaadi Ke Side Effects, Bobby Jasoos, and Hamari Adhuri Kahani, all made after her marriage to Siddharth Roy Kapur, CEO of Disney India and UTV Motion Pictures, in 2012, it did cross her mind that perhaps her marital status had had an impact on the box office.
“But then I looked around and saw so many married actresses doing so well and I realised it had nothing to do with my marital status. It had to do with the films,” she says. “Look at Kareena (Kapoor). She is a good actress and although she is married, her movies are doing well. Even if you look at women whose calling card is not acting, but sheer glamour, marriage hardly dents their appeal. Look at Malaika (Arora Khan). She has a kid but has that changed anything? She looks as sexy as she did in Chaiyya chaiyya. I think people look at you the way you look at yourself. I think the problem is that once we get married, we stop taking care of ourselves.”
Even in the industry itself, Balan faced no change in attitude since she married. “Maybe that’s because there was no change in my mind,” she muses. “I became an actor before I attained puberty. And acting has been a part of my life longer than anything else. I didn’t think I would put my career on the backseat after getting married, and I didn’t.”
With the marriage issue now settled, Balan believes that Bollywood actresses have never had it so good. “Our lives are not stopping when we get married or have children. Our lives are not being defined by any rite of passage. I think all this is bound to find representation onscreen,” she says. “Today, actresses of all ages can find work. You are not considered undesirable the moment you turn thirty. As long as you are interested in yourself, I think people will remain interested in you. And that is a shift. Women are investing themselves in keeping fit, feeling good, having meaningful careers.”
Given that she has in fact grown up in front of the camera, Balan’s arguments about women in the entertainment industry might well be true. She was just 16 when she made her acting debut with the popular TV show Hum Paanch. “I had no training or experience in acting. I didn’t know where and how to look into the camera and most importantly, what to do with my hands… I was just a very awkward teenager,” laughs Balan who played Radhika, the half-deaf, frizzy-haired, frumpily-dressed, bespectacled bumbling nerd. “But I was happy just to be part of such a huge production. As for my look in the serial, we had to pick our day’s costume from a clothing rack. Being the youngest in the team, I didn’t have any say in anything. Also, I was too scared to speak!”
By the time she was 18, Balan had graduated from playing the older sister to playing the wife of a soldier and a mother of an eight-year-old boy, albeit for an ad film. But it was not just the clothes or the characters that made her look older than her years. Balan admits that at that point, even in real life, she was boring and uptight.
“I never really lived the life of a teenager,” she says. “I was too serious for my age and too focused on making a career in films. My mother would often make fun of me saying that I carry the weight of the world on my shoulders. But with time, I have loosened up, and today when I say ‘you are as old as you feel’ I feel I am in my teens! I think I am actually reverse ageing!” she laughs.
It was her Bollywood debut Parineeta that saw this girl-next-door become the nation’s collective dream. “As you grow up, you get in touch with your own sensuality and get comfortable with your body. Then it doesn’t matter even if you are wearing a tent! If you feel a certain way about yourself, that shows in your body language. You can be fully clothed and exude extreme sensuality and you can wear the skimpiest of clothes and arouse nothing,” she smiles.
But her own style sense has often come under the scanner. Balan, mostly seen in exquisite sarees and temple jewellery, has been slammed for being too old-school, and even regressive. But the actress says she found out the hard way that western wear doesn’t really suit her body type.
“My wardrobe in Heyy Babyy and Kismat Konnection had earned me the ‘worst dressed’ heroine tag and I was wondering when all this would end. Then I discovered the charm of the saree. I know I am often called conservative. But I absolutely love myself in a saree.”
Balan got the most flak for her Cannes look in 2013 and that was the last straw. “After that I stopped paying attention to the snide remarks because I was done with it. I’ve stopped reading entertainment magazines and tabloids. I am not thick-skinned. I like to preserve my sanity. I don’t read anything written about me even today. If there are good pictures, I might flip through those,” she says. Then she adds mischievously: “Well... sometimes I do make exceptions.”
Perhaps there is hope then!
Your makeup essentials...
A kajal and gloss, and of course some moisturiser with sufficient amount of SPF.
One thing that makes you snap...
If I sense that someone is taking me for granted, I get damn irritated. I never take people or their time for granted either.
One quirky habit of yours that your husband hates...
It’s my habit of putting things back in place. Sometimes I abruptly get up mid-conversation to put a magazine in the shelf. I have to do it right then, it can’t wait!
One thing that your husband finds really funny about you...
Has to be my love for Kolkata. My husband thinks I will end up buying a house there!
One thing you are most likely caught doing when home alone...
Rearranging things, putting books in stacks and throwing out unwanted stuff.
How many times in a week are you likely to skip your exercise routine...
Ideally I don’t, but on Sundays I take a break.
One song you can’t stop humming...
Currently it is: Dj wale babu mera gana chala do...
From the reporter’s diary
For the longest time I thought Vidya Balan was really a Bengali, and being a Bong myself, felt a sense of pride on her achievements. She was one of our own. And it broke my heart when I learnt otherwise. With time, I have made peace with reality. But on meeting her this week, I realised it was not her ‘Bongness’, but her inherent charm that makes even a stranger feel at home around her. The day we meet, with our near-identical Lucknow chikan kurtas, silver jhumkas and messy hair, we are almost twinning! She welcomes me with a warm smile and there is an instant connect. As we start chatting, the conversation quickly veers from movies, to being a socially awkward teenager, to weight issues, and to missing Kolkata; and it increasingly starts to feel as if I am talking to a doppelganger. A soul sister moment with Bidya madam was the last thing I had expected when I went for this high-profile interview.
- Ananya Ghosh
Follow @ananya1281 on Twitter
From HT Brunch, August 28, 2016
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