In the age of entertainment television, this could hardly have escaped national attention: actress Vidya Balan has not had a good press in a long time. But criticism hasn’t gotten anyway near her. She is only going strength to strength, with Aziz Mirza’s Kismet Konnection (2008) due out soon.
A badly dressed movie star can be mince-meat for film journalists, who have — in Balan’s case — nearly taken to rude fashion-policing; criticising the actress for her choice of attire at the Filmfare awards.
Moreover, she had been “caught dead” in outfits that did not suit her on-screen. And then, Balan topped a much-feared poll — one for the worst-dressed actress. Balan offers an expected apology. “I am equally responsible. I am sorry. I had the mirror in front of me. It could not have been only the designer’s fault,” she says, without elaborating on the dress that sparked it all.
In spite of all this, this masters in sociology is on a roll. She has Bollywood’s best directors/producers signing her on; is brand ambassador for Toshiba and has a steady stream of Airtel ads on air.
Asked to explain this paradox of negative publicity and success, Balan answers with a touching naivety: “God’s grace,” she says, “and honest work. It’s very reassuring that producers and directors still have the faith to cast me. Seasoned film-makers look through and recognise the hard work.”
“I totally detach myself from things not positive,” Balan says, sounding at peace in her Mumbai home after a whirlwind tour of Delhi and Ajmer.
Then, there’s still some time for second-guesses on exactly why bad publicity never came in the way: “Probably there’s not a reason behind everything to happen. One can tell praise from flattery and constructive criticism from criticism that comes from the lack of anything worthwhile to write about.”
Frank feedback is not alien to her. Some honest criticism has come from family members and friends, like brother-in-law Kedar Teny and sister Priya Teny. “They are my second set of parents,” she says. Soon after watching her in Parineeta, Kedar had told her that she went “overboard with her eye movements”. But that is Balan’s forte. She is extremely expressive on screen, an actress, who fans think, spins a yarn with her eyes.
For someone who was first inspired to take up acting when she saw iconic Bollywood star Madhuri Dixit in Tezaab (1988), breakthrough came later than expected with Parineeta, an unabashed period romance, adapted from the novel by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay. In real life too, Balan closely matches her eponymous character Parineeta: the girl next door.
“She is extremely personable. Brands like Airtel would gravitate towards people like her for this; but definitely not ad brands like Chanel,” says Swapan Seth, co-CEO, Equus Advertising.
In any case, clothes is not what Balan will be remembered for, he says, but for her acting. Seth likens her to Waheeda Rehman, somebody very different from many of the present generation’s Bollywood actresses. Like Elizabeth (Pride and Prejudice), she has a “cheerful, steady sense that can catch the fancy”, but can be intolerable to those who do not like her.
In a very short career span, she has played a gamut of roles. Take, for instance, Bhool Bhulaiyya (2007), the quasi-horror film about demonic possession and exorcism. The New York Times says the vengeful female spirit put to rest (by Balan) is “angrier than Linda Blair’s Regan MacNeil, but not foul-mouthed; there’s not a drop of pea soup in sight”.
Balan’s benchmarks are strict. She denies being a conservative but says: “I am not comfortable with skin show.” She agreed to lock lips with co-star Madhavan in Guru — Mani Ratnam’s blockbuster on polyester power play in the Licence Raj-era — because that kiss “breathes life into my character, whose days are numbered”.
Despite some very powerful roles and achievements, Balan remains an unusual heroine — different in her choices and demeanour, and one who knows how to get her way around bad press.