On a particularly hot April afternoon, Vidya Balan is covered under layers of make-up and an elaborate, traditional Indian wear. It's the kind of heavy costume that instantly makes you ask her: How are you doing this, woman? Despite the sweltering heat, Balan, who is hopping from her van to the studio, juggling lunch with interviews, maintains a sense of calm, her face rarely reflecting the complexities of the many tasks at hand.
When we sit down in her van parked at Filmalaya Studios in Andheri, she's still eager to talk, jokingly scolding her assistant for 'making me work' so much. The assistant promises this is the 'last one for the day.' It's not. And she knows the drill. She even likes it. "Over a period of time, you develop a one-to-one connection with journalists,' she says. 'So it isn't taxing for me. It's like chatting up with a friend."
While I don't fall in that category, I quietly slide my recorder on the table and our interview begins:
I quite liked the trailer of Begum Jaan. Although it veers into this heightened melodrama territory, looks like you have sunk your teeth into the character. You're in so much command of that role. You also have an unibrow and light-eyes -- interesting choice of aesthetic.
Thank you. I have a unibrow and I'm wearing lenses because the director wanted a slight animal-like quality to Begum Jaan. Also, this was at a time before women started getting their eyebrows threaded. There is a certain beauty to it.
When we were researching for the movie, I saw two images of women with unibrow. Both (looked) stunning and striking and Srijit (the director of the movie) wanted me to do the unibrow. He said he wanted me to look fierce and different from my previous roles. She's (Begum Jaan) the most unabashedly, unapologetically powerful character I've ever played.
Your character has a very intimidating presence and the aesthetic choice embeds it with a lot of authority.
It's a little bit of everything. The lines are extremely powerful. The character exudes power. Most women still have a problem with displaying power.
Where does this come from? From years and year of systematic oppression and patriarchal conditioning?
Absolutely. Most successful women are still made to feel apologetic about being successful. But these notions are being challenged now. When I got this character I was like Wow! I wanted to know how it feels like; to be sitting there and saying 'Yahan kanoon mera aur usool bhi mere hi chalet hain.'
Basically, she's setting the rules. When you have lines like that, you have to mean them and that gives you a very real sense of power.
Living that kind of power and authority viscerally through cinema is one thing, but off-screen, women are still fighting to assert themselves...
Yeah. Although Begum Jaan is a fictional character, I'm sure that there have been real people like that. But few. The conditioning has been so strong that it is very difficult for us (women) to be completely comfortable with being powerful. But it's great that we're having that dialogue now.
It's the conversation that's dominating the current narrative. And for good reason.
I think now you realize that it's not just one person feeling guilty about being successful or powerful. It's a general trend. Therefore, when someone talks about this openly, the others feel that, 'Okay, I'm not the only one feeling the same way.'
In Bollywood, do you have to go out your way to choose roles that depict your character in a certain way?
When I started out, I did feel that I have to put a tick against all the boxes. There were certain criteria I thought needed to be fulfilled to be accepted, to be successful or to simply have longevity. But thankfully, in 2007 or 2008 , there was a realization where I said to myself that this is not making me happy. So I decided to do things that I felt would make me happy. Because of that feeling, I started attracting scripts that would give me the chance to fulfil the actor in me. Then Isqhqiya, Paa, Jessica, The Dirty Picture happened.
Yes. You started dominating the films you were in. In a lot of our films, we don't see female characters with an independent voice. For you, where did that wakening come from?
I have always been very independent minded. Both my sister and I have been brought up like that. So the credit goes to my parents. We've given the freedom to do whatever we want and we have turned out like that. When I joined the industry, I felt the need to adhere to the conventions. I thought that would keep my place safe in the industry...
Was that because you started out in your late 20s -- a time when most actors are expected to have established themselves?
Yes. I joined at the age of 26 and most actresses come in very early. Alia Bhatt is 23 and she has already been an actress for 5 to 6 years. At this time, most actresses are either getting married and giving up or doing something else on the side. So, I think I was grappling with insecurity that came from the idea that I have to make up for all the lost time.
Then I realized: I don't have any catching up to do. I can be here for life if I wanted to. When I started feeling like that, I started approaching my work differently. I started doing exactly what I wanted to be doing and not being swayed by what people see as commercially viable/not viable. If the actor in me responded to something, I went ahead and did it. That changed my life.
Being an 'outsider' and someone who had no industry connections, was there also a sense of vindication to have made it entirely on your own?
There is a sense of pride and satisfaction about that. I don't know if there's a sense of vindication because I didn't care about anyone else. Maybe I became more focussed on myself, or self-consumed or (jokingly) self-obsessed.
Did you ever get a sense that the industry's nepotistic attitude played a part in slowing down your career?
Never. I have been in a very privileged position because, one, I was born and brought up in Mumbai in a middle-class family where we were happy with what we had. It was a dream to be an actor and I had my family's complete support.
I knew that whatever happens, I have their support. I didn't have to fend for myself so I never went to anyone for work. (That was) not because of ego but out of fear that I might be asked to compromise in some way as we had heard all these horror stories about the industry. Even then, I quickly realised that if you hold on to your own, no one messes with you. That has been my experience.
Yeah, there are camps. But I don't want to belong to any. I don't want to work with the same people over and over again. I did three films at the beginning of my career with Vinod Chopra productions and that's the maximum I have done (for one production house).
You mentioned something about how women are constantly made to feel apologetic for exuding power or being successful. It reminded me of how Kangana (Ranaut) was treated because she stood up for something she believed in. It was so telling of how Bollywood doesn't expect women to have a mind of their own. The minute you challenge the status quo, the reaction is 'why don't you leave?' The message the elder gods are sending seems to be: Exercise caution before you talk.
Yes. But I don't think she should be cautious at all. I think she should be herself, which I think she is. I say it again: More power to her. It takes a lot for a woman to stand up for herself. I'm not here to judge what is right and what is wrong but I love the fact that she is unafraid to say what she feels.
Do you think that the power structure in Bollywood, which like in most industry, largely rests with men is, being shaken a little?
It's being challenged. And it's not just in the industry. The status quo is being shaken a little. And not just men, but even the women find it difficult when the status quo is being challenged.
But why would that be if it works in their favour?
We don't even know if it's working in our favour. Because we are still being told 'Arrey! Thoda success kya dekh liya, Iske toh par nikal aaye hai'.
And it's not just about Kangana. It happens in so many situations in life around us. 'Accha thoda padh likh liya toh humko samjhaogi.' How many times we've heard things like that around us? Because so far we've derived our identities from the men in our lives. Being someone's sister, daughter, wife or mother.
You assert yourself and you feel guilty. It's not as easy as deciding that I'm going to be outspoken (or) I'm going to what I want to do. It brings with it a certain fear of repercussions of being isolated or alienated. Which is why, I feel it's great when women speak their mind.
Why are Bollywood stars so apolitical? We can't compare ourselves to Hollywood where almost every influential actor moonlights as an activist, champions a cause, and calls out the regressive stance of the Trump regime. Here we have a tendency to be safe. Why?
Here, it's to do with repercussions. Today, if I say something, it's going to impact the lives of 200-300 people. God forbid, if I say something which causes some sort of a political combustion, then my film is going to get affected. The release is going to get affected. The efforts of so many people and investment are at stake.
But I personally feel, that's its best artists remain apolitical. When you go in the theatre, you want to see them as the character they portray on screen. You don't want to see a political ideology being sold to you.
You actually think that interferes with an artist's work?
I think so. As actors, your political beliefs and agenda should not be bigger than the story you're telling.
Meaning a person wouldn't react towards your work neutrally just because he doesn't agree with you politically?
I think so. And that is why I never (do it), unless it is really bothering me.
Talk about your marriage with Siddharth Roy Kapur. On a domestic level, is the contribution the same or you somewhere feel that he has to do less?
If at all he does less, it's because I'm more finicky about things. But we both do our bit. When either of us is unavailable at home to take care of day to day chores, thankfully we have people who would take care of everything. I don't feel like I've to do more. When I had just got married, I felt a certain pressure to do more because of the conditioning that I've to be at the top of everything (at home).
Then I said to myself I can't juggle and multitask. When I'm at work I'm just going to be at work. When I'm on shoot, I wouldn't have called home all day. One day, our house help maid came and asked me for money when I was in a meeting. She didn't go and ask Siddharth who was free. I said, 'Why would you do that?'
Where she comes from, you can't go and disturb a man. It's okay if Didi's at work. I said to her not to do this again if Bhaiya is free. But I guess, they think differently. Their backgrounds are different. She's very shy. She says, 'Bhaiya se kaisie poochu mai.' I'm like (chuckling) 'mujhse pooch sakti hai toh bhaiya se kyu nahi?'
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