Interview By: Ankita R. Kanabar

Dressed in a white saree, nose ring and a bright red lipstick, looking stunning as always, Vidya Balan walks into her vanity van after a long day of promotions for her latest film, ‘Begun Jaan’. And no, she’s not yet done. Soon, I’m called in, and we settle down for a chat. She’s herself, unabashedly, and that’s what makes the lady stand apart. She opens up about her latest release and much more. Excerpts:

“I do think that somewhere, deep down, my choices are a reflection of my state of mind unconsciously”

‘Begum Jaan’ gave the ‘bold and powerful’ vibe to people from the trailer itself. What drew you to it?
Shreejit came to me with the Bengali version and I couldn’t do it at that time. I was on a bit of a break for 6-8 months in 2014 I think. So he went ahead and made the film. Then later, Bhatt Saab and Mukeshji came along with Sreejit and offered me the Hindi version. So Sreejit said I don’t have the script but you can watch the Bengali version and take a call. I saw the Bengali version and was completely bowled over by what I saw. It’s powerful and yet it’s very moving. So, I said I’ll do it. That’s how I guess I was meant to do ‘Begum Jaan’. What really drew me to ‘Begum Jaan’ is the fact that she doesn’t care about what you think about her or what the society has to say, she lives her life like a queen, she is the queen of her kingdom. In that sense, I’d say she’s a lioness or a tigress. I can’t decide between the two but she’s one of the two. I got drawn to the fact that she’s so comfortable being powerful. Set against the backdrop of a brothel in partition times brings a bigger drama but actually if you go to see, it could be a story which is playing out today about women getting evicted from a house and putting up a fight. But I think that partition saga lends drama to it. I enjoyed the power she exudes. I just completely enjoyed every moment of it – she’s fierce, ferocious, there’s an animal quality to her so even in the eyes, the lenses and unibrow add to the fierceness, I loved that. Those are the kind of reactions I got through the trailer also. People are using the word ‘goosebumps’ a lot. I’ve got so many messages and they’re commenting on my voice. People have thrown up different words. They’ve used fierce and ferocious, which were some new words.

But despite so much experience, do you still need to prepare if it’s a film like this which takes you to another era?
I read a book called ‘The other side of Silence’, by Urvashi Butalia, which is one of the few books which dealt with women during partition. That gave me a sense of what women must have gone through, how they must have felt being uprooted because partition has most often been dealt with from a political point of view not from a humanistic standpoint. Not so much from the point of view of women. Then of course the script had everything, I just had to read it and really that was half the job done. And rest of it, Sreejit had really researched, about the period. He had read out a lot so I would constantly ask him questions. Also because, I didn’t have much preparation time for this film. I came out of ‘Kahaani 2’, and within three weeks, I had to start shooting for this, so I didn’t have much to really read and prepare. But partition is also a part of our collective consciousness, even if we’ve not really been there. And as women I think, we also have a sense of how it must be for prostitutes. I think there’s an instinctive sense as an actor, or maybe that’s there as an actor because I always wanted to play a prostitute. Here unfortunately you don’t see me playing a prostitute, I’m the madam of the brothel.

And you went to this, right after ‘Kahaani 2’?
Yes, I told Sreejit, you can’t do this to me, you need to give me more time. But because of the rains, he couldn’t push the film further. By the time, we reached halfway it was already raining, so it was a different story. But ideally I would like to have a two-month gap between two films, because you need time to unwind, especially for a film like ‘Kahaani 2’. But there was no time to unwind, I directly jumped on to this.

What’s with you and powerful, fierce parts? They seem to go hand-in-hand.
I don’t know if I choose these roles or it’s these roles which choose me or whether it’s a two-way street. I think it’s a two-way street because there’s a part of me that’s constantly seeking freedom. Different parts of me are seeking something, freedom from fear. Now a certain part of me has got rid of a certain fear and I feel like I’m okay with it, and then a new film shows up to liberate me from another fear because actually I do think that somewhere, deep down, my choices are a reflection of my state of mind unconsciously.

So at what point did you feel like you’ve shed your inhibitions, or were you always like that ?
I think it was during ‘Ishqiya’ that I got really comfortable with the camera. Previously, I used to be conscious of the presence of the camera. I was aware of the camera. Now I don’t think I’m conscious of that anymore. I just do what I have to. So, I’m not performing for the camera.

“I think I was at the right place at the right time. In movies at the right time when people were writing those stories and they came to me”

In many ways, you weren’t the quintessential Hindi cinema heroine. You sort of carved your own niche and brought about this change. How do you feel about that?

It feels wonderful because you didn’t really set out to do that and suddenly you feel, what did I do? Why is everyone complimenting me? But I’m hungry for compliments, so I’m like, keep them coming (laughs)! I was just always following my instinct. I keep saying, I didn’t choose to do women-centric films but I’m the centre of my universe and I happen to be a woman so I choose stories also that reflect that. And I think I was at the right place at the right time. In movies at the right time when people were writing those stories and they came to me. They could have gone to anyone else. Actually ‘Ishqiya’ did go to a few other actors before it came to me and I’m glad they didn’t do it (laughs).

Was there an attempt ever to fit in? Doesn’t seem like though.
I did try to fit in; during films like ‘Hey Baby’ or ‘KismatKonnection’, but I stuck out like a sore thumb, so I just gave up. I thought let me just be myself, I’ll be happy atleast. Nobody seems to be happy, nor anyone around me because everyone was criticizing me. So, I thought the least I can do is be true to myself. I didn’t happen overnight, and still it’s not easy. The pressures to adhere are very strong. But I’m very dheet. I wouldn’t call it a struggle but, I’ve not had a hit in a while, so I’d like a hit, I’d really want a hit.

Do you think it’s really important to have a hit or get in those box-office numbers?
At every point it’s important to have a hit, but when it doesn’t happen, in my case, I cry, I vent, and I get over it, I move on. So, which is why, I’m able to re-invest completely in whatever I’m doing. When I’m on a film set, I don’t care about whether the previous film has worked or not. Or whether that film is going to work or not. I just immerse myself into what I like doing the most. When ‘Kahaani 2’ didn’t work the way we would have liked it to, it didn’t affect me that much. I learnt to look at the larger picture that maybe a film about child sexual abuse, a couple of years ago wouldn’t have done even so much. It’s a step ahead, so it’s okay. That’s the only thing, it’s not a struggle. Thankfully, I’m still getting extremely exciting roles. There’s no dearth of that. Year and year, the amount of interesting scripts is only increasing so that’s a great sign for me and for other female actors.

You’re creatively inclined, you also read a lot…do you also pen down ideas or think you’d like to write something?
I don’t know what reading is anymore. In between when I got a couple of months off, I didn’t feel like reading. Sometimes your mind is so cluttered with so many things so I didn’t feel like reading and so it’s okay. But I don’t have that kind of discipline and if I had to put pen to paper, the words wouldn’t come to my mind. I can’t even tweet nicely, because of that reason. So, I don’t know what to do. My sister writes beautifully but that’s obviously not hereditary (laughs).

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