The wonderful idea behind Vidya

Updated: Aug 28, 2019, 08:43 IST | Mayank Shekhar | Mumbai

Can't expect an entertainment industry, until one plays up the commercial success of female-lead films

Vidya Balan in a still from the movie Mission Mangal
Vidya Balan in a still from the movie Mission Mangal

Mayank ShekharAround the time her film Ghanchakkar (2013) was about to release, Vidya Balan tells me, she bumped into actor Govinda on a flight. Govinda asked her about the film's release date. When told it was June 28, he did some mental math and warned her against it (one helluva superstitious guy).

Balan obviously didn't pay heed. Pretty sure she doesn't blame that on the Emraan Hashmi starrer bombing in theatres. But what Ghanchakkar really did for Balan was put a sudden stop to a stupendous spell at the movies, that had no rivals for a female star then.

Just glance through her dream-run — Paa (2009), Ishqiya (2010), No One Killed Jessica (2011), The Dirty Picture (2011), Kahaani (2012). These weren't simply money-spinners, although that counts for a lot too. They earned her a series of National/Filmfare Awards in a row, besides enough critical acclaim to earn her a spot in the main jury at Cannes. She pretty much reopened a parallel category of Bollywood films that could rely on the female lead to get the ticket-stub rolling.

This is a stunning feat for a middle-class girl, with a home around Ambedkar Garden in Chembur, who graduated in sociology from the elite St Xavier's College in Mumbai, and worked her way up in her acting career, from a role in a popular TV show (Hum Paanch). In fact, no other Bollywood star's rise, I can think of, so strongly mirrors Shah Rukh Khan's — the other Indian middle-class icon.

Her choice of scripts though seems closer to Aamir Khan's, in the sense of picking strong characters that allow the actor to transform herself for a story that is remarkably different from her last, and seemingly engaging enough to draw audiences into theatres first.

For a top leading lady, she hasn't worked with any of the three major Khans though. She, of course, debuted in Bollywood opposite Saif in the lovely Parineeta (2005) that instantly established her as both star-material, and a naturally effervescent, charming actor.

So what happened with/after Ghanchakkar? Take a look — Shaadi Ke Side Effects (2014), Bobby Jasoos (2014), Humari Adhuri Kahaani (2015), Teen (2016), Kahaani 2 (2017), Begum Jaan (2017). These were movies more or less centered on Balan as the lead. Half of them are even reasonably good films. That, of course, doesn't matter in the short-run for a film industry/investor, primarily concerned not so much with the quality of movies, as with how many tickets it sold.

From that point of view, we're looking at a minimum five, back-to-back commercial misfires, right after five, back-to-back hits, that had catapulted Balan to the top. This is sufficient to shake anyone's confidence/instinct. How do you explain it? You can't.

Why do you think Govinda is superstitious?

Nobody would know this better than Balan herself. Her first major role was in a Malayalam movie, opposite Mohanlal. That film, after a few days' shoot, got shelved, I guess, because of issues between the director and producer. There were a few other movies down South that Balan either shot or signed up for, that didn't make it to theatres — 12, in all! A lot of them she got kicked out because her presence was considered jinxed for movie projects. I mean what kinda Mohanlal movie in Malayalam ever gets shelved?

She finally debuted in Bengali with the film Bhalo Theko (2003). Haven't seen, but presuming it would've helped her land the musical Parineeta, based on Sarat ChandraChattopadhyay's novel, and directed by ad-man Pradeep Sarkar. Although Balan is ancestrally a Tamilian from Kerala, I'm told, she speaks quite bhalo-kore Bangla.

A few years ago, after the success of India's Mars-orbit mission, Mangalyaan, director Suresh Triveni had approached her for a film on the said ISRO project. Balan tells me he couldn't quite crack a script though. There weren't too many conflicts to explore over a feature-length film. Around the same time, she read another script on Mangalyaan, with leads who were 55, and 22. Balan, 40, couldn't fit into either. And then there was yet another Mangalyaan script movie, that didn't go anywhere.

Triveni eventually made Tumhari Sulu (2017) with Balan. That packed halls instantly. The Mangalyaan movie she finally signed up for, upon R Balki's narration, Mission Mangal, opened last week. It's her hugest commercial success ever — inching rather close to Rs 200 crore at the box-office.

Sure, it also stars Akshay Kumar. But the film is wholly centered on Balan's character. She's any way the only one in the ensemble cast who even looks like a scientist — if you go by that post-Mangalyaan picture of female ISRO employees that went viral in 2014.

If her career really goes up and down like a swing, gotta look forward to her next five films, for sure. Coming up: a biopic on math-whiz Shakuntala Devi, who was known for her sense of humour. And a biopic series on Indira Gandhi, directed by India's finest film export, Ritesh Batra. Can't wait!

Mayank Shekhar attempts to make sense of mass culture. He tweets @mayankw14
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