Her strong Bollywood roles and deep social commitment make this leading lady unique
Having known Vidya Balan for a while, I am forever captivated by her irresistible humility, sincerity and humour. So, recently, I invited her to the Women Economic Forum in Goa, attended by delegates from all over the world. Vidya charmed the audience, speaking about her acting and her social work. "I think she's an Indian goddess," an American lady whispered to me after Vidya had finished. "Yes, indeed," I replied.
It was a decade ago that Vidya,after a long struggle to break into films, made her stunning Bollywood debut with the classic drama Parineeta. Her films, Paa, Kahaani, Ishqiya, The Dirty Picture, No One Killed Jessica, too, are as brave and admirable as they are different, making her a presence to be reckoned with in Indian cinema. Among the few women of her generation capable of carrying a film entirely on her own shoulders-without the 'commercial security' of a hero-this award-winning leading lady (Padma Shri, a National Film Award, five Filmfare Awards, five Screen Awards) has, by portraying powerful women, changed the narrative in Indian cinema and the way Indian screen heroines are depicted.
Balan, 37, an MA in sociology from the University of Mumbai, has also used her celebrity status in support of important humanitarian and charitable causes. In 2011, she endorsed the World Wide Fund for Nature-India's Earth Hour campaign and since 2012, the year she married, Vidya has been the brand ambassador for Chotte Kadam Pragati Ki Aur, an initiative to promote children's education. However, the campaign she is best known for is the government's Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan (NBA, earlier known as Total Sanitation), dedicated to supplying a very basic need-toilets for every rural home by 2017. ("The clean picture," Vidya often quips.) Indeed, her presence in TV and radio advertisements as NBA's brand ambassador has had a massive impact. Inspired by one such ad, where Vidya prompts a young girl, during her wedding ceremony, to ask her prospective in-laws whether or not their house has a toilet, brides across India have been demanding toilets as a pre-condition to marriage. One such bride in Maharashtra said she preferred a toilet to any wedding gift.
A strong advocate of women's issues and gender rights, Vidya speaks candidly of her craft and of how she sees the world.
Let's start with your name. Vidya, meaning knowledge, is a sacred name.
Growing up, I didn't quite like my name. I thought it was very old-fashioned-every second Tam-Bram [Tamil Brahmin] girl was called Vidya. I once did some mischief in class and my principal said, "Vidya, please stand up-do you know what your name means?"
"Yes, knowledge," I told her.
"I see that you are completely devoid of it," she remarked. I wasn't offended. I just felt like giggling. It was much later that I began to appreciate the name after one man, whom I grew to have a crush on, said, "Vidya is such a old-world name and you've an old world charm." Suddenly it became very cool.
You take lead roles in social campaigns as well. What's next-will you continue acting, or will we see a re-invention of Vidya Balan as a change agent?
I am an actor first and acting will always remain my focus. Being an actor also gives me the reach [to spread social messages]. I was in Garhwal, Uttarakhand, on a trek recently and I met a couple. "You're the one from the toilets campaign on TV," they said. I was amazed. They recognized me not from my films, but from that. "We all feel like doing whatever we can," they told me, "we keep any waste paper or trash in our own bags and throw it in a bin."
Clearly, there's a sense of [public] participation and the campaign has been effective. I believe this is going to change mindsets, even if it takes time. I said they recognized me from the ads, but I think I will be able to leverage it if I remain an actor, which is what I actually live for.
How did you get involved in the sanitation campaigns?
I feel very strongly about the issue of sanitation. We all have a certain perception of development and progress. Seeing the roads around us, the buildings, the big cities-we must accept our reality. I go to different villages around Banaras once a year for Chotte Kadam Pragati Ki Aur. About five years ago, on one of my first visits, I was returning to Banaras from a village about two and a half hours away. I needed to use the bathroom on the way, but I was told there was none. There must be a bathroom somewhere, I insisted. They said, "Just go to the field."
I asked again later, and they said, "Nothing until Banaras." It's then that I thought, Okay, I actually have to use the fields. I was worried about contaminating the field, of my privacy being invaded. It was embarrassing, a loss of dignity for me. I was put in the position that millions of women with no access to proper toilets are in. I started thinking about all the women who have to do so daily, even go before sunrise, before anyone else wakes up. So, when Mr Jairam Ramesh [former union minister for rural development] asked me whether I would be the brand ambassador for Total Sanitation, I said yes.
What about the mindset that our society has about women? There's chauvinism and patriarchy and, on the other hand, deification. How can this imbalance be addressed?
More and more women will become aware of the fact that they have the first right to themselves: the right to their bodies, their minds, their choices. We've had centuries of conditioning. It's not just that men have been taught that women are their property; women have also been made to believe they are so. Therefore, intentionally or unintentionally, you give up control over yourself in the hands of men.
It's not just men, but sometimes women perpetuate this. I find it amazing that when a powerful woman wears a slightly plunging neckline, other women snigger, "No wonder she's got to the top." She chooses to wear what she wears but you cannot take away her ability. That is because you are constantly thinking of how men are going to perceive us.
For a lot of women who are confined to the home and financially dependent, the age-old saas-bahu [mum-in-law and daughter-in-law] stories come from a certain need to be relevant to the men in our lives. Such conditioning is going to take forever to breakdown.
Education is bound to have a role.
Not just education but also social media! Today, with the internet, people are becoming aware of a world different from the one they knew, a world in which it will be possible for you to be who you are, to have respect and to lead your life as you want to.
Let's flash back a bit. Tell us about how a girl like you wandered into Bollywood?
I come from a family that had nothing to do with films. Everyone thought of Bollywood as a big bad world where you are devoured by wolves. My parents were obviously worried. I kept telling them that all I wanted to do was one film and I would quit once I did it. But that film remained a dream. I got signed up for a Malayalam film that got shelved midway. Actually there were three incomplete films after this I got involved with, and so got labelled 'jinxed' soon enough. Now my parents began to hope that I'd get that one film completed. I signed up for an ad film and then a music video for the band Euphoria, when I met [writer and director] Pradeep Sarkar, who said, "Hey ladki tere saath film banaunga" [Hey girl, I'll make a movie with you]. The ad film had another four days to go, so I thought he'd just said that for encouragement. But he kept his promise and eventually made Parineeta with me.
While pursuing your dreams, were you ever plagued by self-doubt?
Self-doubt assails you throughout life. I don't think you are ever able to extricate it from your being, which is fine. Knowing that everybody goes through it, gives you some sort of assurance. When I was going through my so-called struggle, I had just completed my BA from St Xavier's College in Mumbai. I wanted to become an actor. I was doing ad films, and director Anurag Basu called me and said he was doing a TV serial. "I have the lead role for you-you have to do it." And I said, "I don't want to do TV, I want to do cinema because cinema is for posterity." He then told me very sweetly, "Everyone can't become Shah Rukh Khan," and I replied, "Yes, but one can try." I was just following my heart.
There are films being made exclusively with women protagonists, thanks to you. Yet there was a phase in which you tried to conform, get the 'right' figure, clothes, tried dancing. Was there confusion? What did you go through?
When I came into the industry I was self-assured, I didn't think that I was lacking in anything. After Parineeta I got a lot of praise and received a whole lot of best-debut awards. The honeymoon continued for a few more films. I thought everyone was going to be in love with me forever, but suddenly everything I did was being criticized.
I was completely confused. I tried out new films, clothes and of course, what I was wearing, and my body size was being torn apart on national TV. I was a fat child but I never looked at myself as anything but beautiful, because that was how my family made me feel. Fortunately, the only thing that people didn't find fault with was my performances.
I have always been very close to my family, and now more than ever, I began to share with them exactly how I was feeling. My sister and brother-in-law, who are strong influences, sat me down and told me, "You can hire stylists, physical trainers, nutritionists, but not talent. No one is questioning your talent, so you're in a very good space. You are here to act, go ahead and do it. Everything else can be taken care of." This made a lot of sense, and after a lot of introspection I started the process of being myself.
Is there a dream role that you have been waiting for that hasn't come your way?
Not really. I have never thought, "Oh my God, I hope I can play a character like this." I have also been surprised, therefore, when someone came to me with an Ishqiya or a Dirty Picture. It is different every time. I think writers have great imagination and they work better than my dreams too, so I am just going to leave it to them and hope they surprise me time and again.
So, what keeps it all together?
My family and my faith. I pray a lot. I get that from my family. Yet, I am not religious, not someone who prays to a particular god. I pray to that supreme power-a Supreme Being or energy. I am an eternal optimist, so I know
that if the sun goes down, it has to come up. I just keep waiting until the sun rises again.
BY HARBEEN ARORA
Harbeen Arora, PhD, is the global chairperson of the All Ladies League and the Women Economic Forum, aimed at promoting leadership and connecting women from across the world, Educated in Delhi, Sorbonne and London, Dr Arora is also chancellor of Rai University, Ahmedabad.