Vidya Balan: I am here for a lifetime...
Vidya Balan busting the myths around girl bonding in Bollywood, the shelf life of actresses and why her career isn't a chore for her
We meet Vidya Balan on the last day of Mission Mangal promotions. Dressed in finery after swiftly wrapping up last-minute work, she settles in her sea-facing room at a suburban five-star. "During Kahaani (2012), I made a personal record of 58 interviews in a day. This feels a lot a lighter," she starts off. Feet up, sinking inside a quilt, a visibly exhausted Balan retains her affable smile as we chat about the shifting definition of a female actor, the reason behind her long gaps, the myth of female catfights and the long wait up to her passion project—the Indira Gandhi biopic.
Edited excerpts from the interview.
It's been a year and half since Tumhari Sulu (2017). Why did you take such a long gap?
I did three films back to back [Kahaani 2, Begum Jaan, Tumhari Sulu] and after that I didn't want to jump into another one immediately. I loved Mission Mangal which is why I took it up. I need time to rejuvenate after gruelling work and family time is sacrosanct; I prefer to take things at my own pace. There have been instances in the past when I have gone on set and said, "Pack up kab hai?" That's a red flag for me. My work cannot become a chore. I am not here to churn films, neither am I in any tearing hurry to get anywhere. I am here for a lifetime.
Akshay Kumar, Taapsee Pannu and Vidya Balan during promotions of Mission Mangal. Pic/Sneha Kharabe
But the common assumption is that actors have a shelf life.
Actors don't have a shelf life, stars do. Being in the public eye and living under constant scrutiny can get daunting and draining after a while. By design, that is changing because the fabric of movies and audience is changing. Hence the concentration is on becoming a better actor [with each film], not a star. My 'care-a-damn' attitude works and it is the only way I know [how to survive], which is why I am here [in Bollywood] for as long as I want to.
In a cast full of women, all stars in their own right, how regular were the catfights?
(Laughs) That's a cliché. People believe when female actors work together, tensions and insecurities run high. However, in my experience, that is hogwash. I did Begum Jaan with an ensemble female cast [and there were no catfights]. It's even more creditable here because each of us—Taapsee (Pannu), Nithya (Menen), Sonakshi (Sinha), Kirti (Kulhari)—are stars in our own right. We were secure and it was a joyous experience to work together. High time we made a girls' road trip film in India. The cliché [about catfights] was probably true in the past, but women stand together today.
Being the primary lead in the film, doesn't it bother you that Akshay Kumar's face is more prominent on the poster?
[The emotion is] far from it. If Mission Mangal does well, we will all gain from it. Having his face [on the poster], guarantees more footfall in the theatres; and I have no qualms using his stardom. In the films I headline, I am prominent on the poster. We all have prominent roles, but when there is a star like Akshay Kumar, it makes sense. I know the film I signed up for and I am okay with whatever they do to market it. My experience helps me see things in perspective.
Last November, filmmaker Radha Bharadwaj reached out to mid-day about a legal suit she filed on you for passing her film idea (similar to Mission Mangal) to R Balki.
And we won the case. Although I never met Radha, her script came to me through my agent, Bling [Entertainment]. I was offered four films on the same subject. One script that Atul Kasbekar wanted to produce was still at the ideation stage; and there was nothing for me to do in it. Ronnie Screwvala had a similar script with two character options—a 22-year-old and a 55-year-old—I declined it because I fit neither. Each of the scripts gave me the feeling of something missing. Mission Mangal scripted beautiful personal lives for each scientist, the science was simplified, the mission was detailed and I loved it. I was on board as soon as I finished reading. Having spent 15 years in the business, I respect everyone who comes to me and I pride myself for my integrity. Not once have I shared another person's idea with another filmmaker. I am happy truth prevailed.
Did you feel targeted because you are a star?
We are definitely scrutinised more. I felt it was unfair to me, considering I never announce my own films. It always comes from a director or producer. I was taken aback when it happened and that too on the first day of our shoot. Last one month, the pressure increased because Radha wanted clarity before our film's release. I can empathise with that, especially for someone who has worked on a script for long. The information is on public domain and there is no limit on how many films can be made on the same subject, like the Bhagat Singh biopics that all happened at the same time.
What is next in the pipeline?
I start prep for the Shakuntala Devi biopic soon. The Indira Gandhi biopic [based on author-journalist Sagarika Ghose's book Indira: India's Most Powerful Prime Minister] will take more time to be structurally drafted and Ritesh Batra is working hard on it. The web series is a mammoth amount of work. It is a passion project.
Are you involved in the writing process of the series?
I don't have the talent, bandwidth or discipline for it [writing]. I respond better to what is being written. May be by year-end, once the material is ready, we could start discussions. It may also take another two years, but it's worth the wait. Sometimes, I worry that it's taking too long, but then, I don't have to go anywhere. Good things require patient brewing.
Any plans to venture into production someday?
No. Ronnie offered me the producer credit [for Natkhat] because there is no money in short films. Siddharth [Roy Kapur, husband] is a producer. Honestly, I am living my only dream of being an actor. Producers have plenty to handle, and I am clear, I want to be on the other side, being handled (laughs).
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