From Parineeta to Shakuntala Devi, Vidya Balan is always convincing, always entertaining
Vidya Balan will soon be seen in the role of the math genius Shakuntala Devi. The actor has a superpower too - she is always convincing, always entertaining.
“Jab amazing ho sakti hoon, toh normal kyun banoo,” Vidya Balan, playing math genius Shakuntala Devi, asks in the trailer of her upcoming film. She could be speaking of her own pioneering career.
In June, the actor celebrated 15 years in the Hindi film industry. Her last film, Mission Mangal, grossed over ₹200 crore. She has 44 credits on IMDb and, even when the films were clunkers (Hamari Adhuri Kahani or Begum Jaan), it was hard to find fault with her performance. Vidya’s normal has always been amazing.
As I watched her gleefully rattling off numbers as Shakuntala Devi, my mind went back to The Dirty Picture (2011), a film loosely based on the life of the ’80s soft-porn star Silk Smitha.
Vidya played the lead role and it was the first time I saw a Hindi film heroine aim to look unattractive on screen — folds of belly fat were on display, as a sign of Silk’s downward spiral. Silk was both master and victim of her sexuality.
The role, which required Vidya to fake an orgasm onscreen, was a courageous leap of faith. I can’t recall another A-list heroine in Hindi cinema attempting anything like it. But Vidya was so persuasive that the film became a monster hit and she won a National Award.
Vidya’s superpower is that she makes us care for her characters, whoever they are. She takes you into the inner lives of these women, their struggles and desires, but she doesn’t forget to deliver, as Silk so memorably put it, “entertainment, entertainment, entertainment”. Whether the person is a porn star, a housewife-turned-RJ (Tumhari Sulu; 2017) or a scientist, Vidya humanises the character and gives her dignity.
Vidya has never depended on the staples of the traditional Hindi film heroine — beauty and glamour. In fact, her characters are often determinedly dowdy. Not Shakuntala Devi, though (in an interview, Vidya told me she so rarely gets to dress up that when it was announced the film would go straight to streaming, her hair and make-up team called to commiserate because they had worked so hard on her look).
Vidya combines a keen intelligence with joie de vivre. She has an effervescence that connects with audiences. Her ability to be the Everywoman also makes her a disruptor; she has consistently proven that female-led narratives are equally worthy. The success of The Dirty Picture, in fact, forged the path for many female-led Hindi films.
In 2013, Vidya was invited to serve on the prestigious competition jury at the Cannes Film Festival. In 2017, the festival celebrated its 70th edition. Critics from all over the world were invited to contribute a chapter on a year that was significant to them, for a book that would be published to commemorate the occasion.
I chose to write about 2013, when the festival celebrated the 100th anniversary of Indian cinema (Amitabh Bachchan was invited, along with his Great Gatsby co- star Leonardo DiCaprio, to declare the festival open).
I interviewed Vidya about her experience at the festival that year. She spoke frankly about feeling ignored by the foreign press; her fallout with Sabyasachi, who styled her (the traditional outfits were criticised); the challenges of the routine — watching several films each day and also being red-carpet ready. She said that when her husband Siddharth Roy Kapur joined her toward the end of the two weeks, she saw him and burst into tears.
Vidya also spoke of how enriching the deliberations had been (co-jurors included Ang Lee and Nicole Kidman), how that process opened her mind to new ways of seeing films, and how, when she introduced Siddharth to jury president Steven Spielberg, he said, “Your wife is very frank and forthright.” That honesty is what comes through in her work.
I think Vidya Balan constitutes her own genre. I hope she continues to conquer.
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