"Sit comfortably, no one's watching," says actress Vidya Balan, as we hop into her car.
She removes her georgette dupatta, tucks her feet up comfortably on one side and looks straight at me. "Usually, this is my alone time but I am only too happy to share it with you. So what are we talking about? I hope it's not about my so-called pregnancy," she winks.
We all remember writing Balan off in the mid '00s. After all, she was fat, frumpy and quickly fading.
The actress who'd had such effortless performances in Parineeta (2005) and Lage Raho Munna Bhai (2006) was then making a fool of herself in films such as Eklavya: The Royal Guard (2007) and Kismat Konnection (2008). And her red carpet disasters and alleged link-ups with almost every co-star made her a sorry figure. "I was just too dowdy to be a leading heroine in Bollywood," she says.
But then in 2009, something happened.
Everything Balan touched turned to gold.
When she decided to do Paa, in which she played mother to Amitabh Bachchan, the film industry imagined she was finally finished. But Paa showed how good Balan was at her job. Soon after, she played a sexy seductress in Ishqiya (2010) and an activist in No One Killed Jessica (2011). And then, in 2011, she did The Dirty Picture. In a country of prudes, Balan's uninhibited portrayal of a character loosely based on actress Silk Smitha, was appreciated. And the dowdy actress became a sex symbol who could also act! In 2012, she sealed the deal with Kahaani.
Balan was finally a superstar. The film industry called her the fourth Khan.
But after Kahaani, everything changed - again. Balan hadn't expected that. For three years, with five hits in a row, she'd been the darling of the film industry, with a National Award displayed on her shelves and both popular and critical acclaim. But in 2013, her movie Ghanchakkar failed - and suddenly so did Vidya Balan. "I still don't know why it didn't work," says Balan. "It had all the trappings of …" She pauses mid-sentence, chewing on the word 'trappings', then asks, "Is that why it didn't work?"
As we drive down the Western Express Highway towards Film City, Balan now understands why I am eating into her alone time. She's been up, down, high and is now low again.
Ghanchakkar, her first flop in three years, was followed by the abysmal Shaadi Ke Side/Effects (2014); she's no longer the fourth Khan.
And once again, her personal life is being discussed for all the wrong reasons. As far as the media is concerned, she's no longer celebrated for her curves, she's just fat again. Though that doesn't bother Balan. "The media has always had issues with my weight. But now they've declared that I'm pregnant. It's funny because going by their timelines, I should've had a baby or two by now," she says, sarcastically.
This was followed by headlines about trouble in her marriage with Siddharth Roy Kapur .
Even as Balan awaits the fate of Bobby Jasoos, her new film, in an interaction with HT Brunch, she declares she's ready for the outcome. Excerpts:
People got the feeling that you thought of yourself as invincible after those successive hits (2009-12).
Well, I wouldn't say invincible, but yes, now that I think of it, I did take my success for granted. But who wouldn't? I had given five commercial hits, which also got a lot of critical acclaim. I became used to the idea of succeeding every single time. I just assumed that once we make and promote a movie, it will work. I had forgotten what it felt like to fail. And I don't mean this in a conceited manner; I genuinely forgot that lows also exist.
But you have failed in the past…
[Laughs] Yes, and quite miserably so. See, I was almost 100 per cent certain that Ghanchakkar would work. I still don't know what went wrong and what we could've done differently, and if that would've made any difference at all. But I believed that it would work. And it didn't. So I fell hard, and on my face. And that fall, I think, was needed because that was a lesson I needed to learn, actually relearn. So when Shaadi Ke Side/Effects didn't work, I wasn't too dejected.
Why is that? Did you not believe in Shaadi Ke Side/Effects?
No. Don't get me wrong here. I believed in Shaadi Ke... as much as a I believed in Ghanchakkar. But Shaadi Ke… released much after Ghanchakkar, and in that time I had done a lot of introspection. By then, I had again tasted failure and I was prepared for the outcome, whatever it might be.
You must be terribly nervous about Bobby Jasoos.
Well, I wouldn't say nervous, but anxious, yes. It is a script that I genuinely believe in not because I have to say such things to promote my film, but because it is the story of a female detective. How many times have we watched something like that on the big screen? How many times do we get to watch a woman be fearless and follow her dreams, whatever they might be, in films? It is almost an extension of my life.
There's been a lot of talk about your personal life these days… your so-called pregnancy and alleged break-up with Siddharth Roy Kapoor.
People speculate. Seven years ago, if something like this had happened to me, I would've been terribly upset. But I've learnt things the hard way in my career and understood that these things happen. As far as my pregnancy is concerned, people must think I have a lot of energy, if you know what I mean [laughs].
V FOR VERSATILITY, V FOR VIDYA
And the alleged break-up?
Oh, that pissed me off. For the first time in many years, after many baseless stories, I was truly upset about this one. In fact, I spent two days feeling really low. But Siddharth is a very calm person. He and my family cheered me up. But I still feel a line has been crossed. He is not an actor and he has not opened himself to this kind of speculation. So I expect people to leave him alone. What bothers me the most is that when people read such stories, they actually believe them. Recently a friend came to visit and after spending some time at home with us, he casually remarked, "Oh, it's so nice to see that everything is fine between the two of you". I was shocked. Because this man is a friend, and even he somehow believed those baseless stories.
You keep talking about what happened to you seven years ago. What was really going on with you then, because at that time, you were not even a shadow of the person you are today?
I think I was just too desperate to fit in. I was 26 years old when I did Parineeta (2005), for which I got critical and commercial acclaim. Suddenly I was the flavour of the season, maybe even a little more. People said mine was the best female debut they had seen in a long time. Things were going really well. But I was also that much more vulnerable because I desperately wanted to hold on to my success. And at that time, people started telling me that if I wanted to succeed in Bollywood, I needed to reinvent myself, which basically meant doing flimsy, fluffy roles. I had to be a girl when I was already a woman.
And you didn't want to do that…
Honestly, I wouldn't say that because I wanted to succeed. So I changed myself superficially - I did films that were never meant for me, wore clothes that didn't suit my body type, and my insecurity started to reflect in everything I did. I was lost and I had no one to guide me. I didn't come from a filmi family, so I didn't understand that these things happen. So I felt victimised. I went through a persecution complex because I felt like I was only being criticised; as though this was the end of the road for me. Honestly, I was really scared of even stepping out of my house then, because I was scared of how people would judge me. It was hell for me.
How did you come out of it?
My family made me realise that I wasn't being criticised for my acting. I was still being offered good movies. People saw the fear in me and they were feeding off it. I needed to stop fearing the future and just act. I had to stop trying to be someone else. So I accepted my body with its flaws and wore clothes that I felt comfortable in. I just stopped caring about what people thought of me because if it was the end of the road for me, I didn't want to go out as someone else. I wanted to leave as an actress who worked on her terms and did things her way. I wanted to leave as Vidya Balan.
So from a scared 'heroine', you suddenly became a gutsy 'actress'.
Well, you could say that. The funny thing is that good roles were always being offered to me, I had just stopped taking them because I was trying so hard to be a 'heroine'. When R Balki offered me Paa, I thought to myself that if this works, great, otherwise this film will be the last nail in the coffin. And it worked. Then I got The Dirty Picture and I have to admit, I was really scared at first. But I guess it's true that luck favours the brave. And success followed.
Everyone wants to be in the good books of a successful person. Suddenly you were no longer fat; you were credited for bringing curves back to the industry. Do you sense any double standards here?
No. The reason I was being slapped around by people was because I was trying to be someone else and was sticking out like a sore thumb. When I accepted my body, people saw the real me and accepted me.
Are you genuinely a changed person now or are you just hardened?
I am grateful that I didn't become a bitter person. Though after what I went through, it would've been easy to feel so. But I think I needed to go through that phase because it taught me a lot. I realised that difference between praise and flattery, concern and criticism. Honestly, I am glad I had my trial by fire because it gave me the strength to be the woman and actress I am today.
You've seen as many highs as lows in your career. How do you cope with it?
I enjoy my highs and submit to my lows. As an actor, our successes and failures are more pronounced because everything unfurls in the public eye. Our highs are an out-of-this-world experience and our lows leave us in the dumps. Seven years ago, I used to evade my lows because I didn't want to accept them. But now, I've learnt to accept them. Especially after the failure of Ghanchakkar, I accepted defeat and that's why I could move on.
Plus, coping comes naturally to me. After all, I come from a simple middle-class family. My father came to Mumbai from Kerala with less than `15 in his pocket. He was reduced to penury because someone had cheated him of his land back home. But I never saw him sulking. In fact, I always saw him smiling through troubled times. And those are the values I grew up with.
People say you have a way of shutting people up with your sense of humour.
[Laughs] I don't want to lie to anyone. But I hate being rude. So if I have to drive home a point, I take the funny way out. I know my career graph has dipped again, just as it did during the Kismat Konnection days. But then, I was too busy feeling bad for myself and people pounced on me because they saw that I was weak. So now I use wit as a shield. You can't get angry with a funny person, can you?
You promote your films actively but after that, you just vanish. Why?
Oh, that's my 'me' time. I stay home in my pyjamas, read a book, watch a film, go for a couple of meetings (if I must) or just watch the waves crashing in. Also, any kind of appearance means spending two-three hours in the vanity van getting dressed and honestly, I don't enjoy that at all. I like being dressed in my rags and I couldn't be bothered to be any other way. So I just don't step out.
How has marriage changed you?
Since meeting Siddharth and especially after we got married, I've started to enjoy life a lot more. He's had the most calming effect on me. My mother says that I am so happy all the time that I am reverse ageing. She says I was born a woman, but now I am like a little girl. And you know the best thing? I sleep a lot better now. I've just become a happier person.
So are you in any mood to conform or will you always be the firebrand actress that you are?
You will hate to see me conform. I am always going to be true to myself. No lies, no sho-sha and no taking the easy way out. In fact, I feel like I don't speak my mind enough. What do you think?
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From HT Brunch, July 6
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