There’s Sahir’s ‘Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaaye toh kya hai’ kinda quality to the last time actor Vidya Balan felt her thoughts on her professional life totally turn around. On the Sunday after the release of her film Hamari Adhuri Kahani (2015), directed by Mohit Suri — who she says she couldn’t “gel with, in an actor-director relationship” — producer Mahesh Bhatt called to say that the film had pretty much tanked in theatres.
This, after a series of back-to-back commercial duds — Bobby Jasoos (2014), the outcome of which had disappointed her the most; Shaadi Ke Side Effects (2014); Ghanchakkar (2013). Unsure of what to do, Balan’s husband, producer Siddharth Roy Kapur — a non-believer himself — simply drove her down to the Sai Baba temple in Chembur. Where she just wailed non-stop, totally out of breath. She knew something needed to change about her life.
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The penny dropped. “I realised I’d begun to focus too much on numbers. That stress had taken the joy away from what I do — that I like, and enjoy so much!” I didn’t ask the exact lane the said Sai Baba temple is in. Which Balan says she used to visit every day of her growing up in Mumbai’s eastern suburb.
Glad she brought up Chembur though. For that’s where I’m chatting with her (on video) from. She’s at her husband’s office in Khar, which is also the neighbourhood her parents moved to, while she lives in Juhu. These are heartwarming coordinates for Bombayites, among whom she remains still the ‘Chembur girl’.
The now popular term ‘outsider’ refers to first-generation professionals in the film industry. And they’re in huge numbers — lead actors aren’t all there is to the movies. Still, there are in fact far fewer ‘insiders’ of Bombay, who are but outsiders to Bollywood, than you’d imagine. Despite the unmatchable geographical/real-estate head-start.
Especially among heroes, if you may. Even Govinda, the ‘Virar ka chokra’, is a producer’s son. Off-hand one mainstream Bollywood hero from Bombay, but with no family connections to films, I can think of, is Balan’s super-hit Bhool Bhulaiyaa (2007) co-star, Akshay Kumar, who grew up in Sion, quite close to Chembur: “Shilpa [Shetty] was three years my senior in school [St Anthony’s], although I didn’t know her personally then,” Balan points out.
“But it’s such a valid observation, I wonder why,” she asks, as an answer. “There are various levels of being an insider-outsider, in any case. This debate has left me confused. It’s different for different people, right? Also family/financial support makes it easier, if you are not operating from a space of survival. Think it’s about how hard you’re willing to work, once you get that break. And even how much you’re willing to wait out for that break!”
Speaking of which, one of the instant inspirations/reasons to invite Balan over for this edition of Sit with Hitlist was in fact music composer Shantanu Moitra, who recently spoke at length on the reality show Times of Music, about how Balan had auditioned 75 times for her debut film Parineeta (2005). It was while she was in the front row of a Bryan Adams concert that producer Vidhu Vinod Chopra finally called to say she was on.
Hearing it from the horse’s mouth, Bryan Adams has turned into Enrique Iglesias. The number 75, Balan feels, is way off the mark. But yes, Iglesias was playing her favourite track Hero. Chopra insisted she step out of the venue to take her call. She heard the sweetest music to her ears, “You’re my Parineeta.” Up until then, Chopra had wanted Aishwarya Rai for the part: “He was putting in a lot of money, I was a newcomer, and the film was called Parineeta [after the female protagonist] for God’s sake!”
She only has to thank, first, the persistence of her ad filmmaker-mentor Pradeep Sarkar (Dada), who had written the role, based on Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s novel, keeping Balan in mind. She’d performed in a series of Sarkar’s ad films, plus music videos, starting with Euphoria’s Kabhi aana tu meri gully.
She had even assisted him on a Fanta commercial, with Rani Mukerji in it, and where she “learnt nothing on the set”. Because the crew, knowing that she was Sarkar’s future leading-lady, was too busy taking care of her instead!
“Before my last test for Parineeta, I went to Dada, and said whatever happens, this is also your first [feature] film —just make it with or without me. His wife was there. He looked at her and said, ‘Tell her something, tu kya keh rahi hai?’ He had more belief in me than I had in myself.” Evidently, beyond talent, you need somebody to appreciate it, and offer you a job, basically —just as it takes a village to make both a film, and a star.
Having not formally trained in acting per se, Balan credits Naseeruddin Shah, for instance, for texting her during the shoot of Milan Luthria’s The Dirty Picture (2011) that she learn to leave behind her character on set, before heading home. The film remains still her most iconic, and that took everything out of her. Kahaani (2012), in comparison, she suggests, was a breeze, because she had all along been part of the writing process as a sounding-board for director Sujoy Ghosh.
The Dirty Picture, inspired by the life of south siren Silk Smitha, is also iconic because of the line, ‘Filmein sirf teen cheezon ki wajah se chalti hain: Entertainment, entertainment, entertainment. Aur main entertainment hoon!” It’s an obvious take on hotelier Conrad Hilton’s famous quote about three things you need to run a successful hotel: Location, location, location!
“Now, it is my introduction at every event I go to. I had no idea it would become so popular. There were other lines that I thought would. It’s all in Rajat Arora’s [dialogue] writing.” The one I love from one of her films the most though, while not her dialogue, is the tag-line, “Tumhara ishq, ishq; aur hamara ishq, sex?”
Apparently actor Shiney Ahuja had responded with these words after being narrated Ishqiya’s script by director Abhishek Chaubey. It stuck. Arshad Warsi finally played the part — vying with uncle (Naseer) for Balan’s attention: “I was just amazed by how Arshad mouths a lot of throwaway lines, like it just came out of his head! That’s the beauty of his delivery.”
Yet, so far as shock value of a film is concerned, towering over The Dirty Picture might well be Paa (2009), with Balan playing Amitabh Bachchan’s mom: “[Before shoot] I kept chewing [director] Balki’s brains to set up a reading with Mr Bachchan. Mother and son have a very physically comfortable relationship. I just can’t hit him on the head, or instinctively pull his cheeks. You normally do that with a child. He is Amitabh Bachchan! We were shooting from Monday. Balki called me to Mr Bachchan’s house for a look-test on Friday — to be [finally] followed by a reading. Abhishek [Bachchan, who plays the husband] and I were ready with our costumes, waiting for Mr Bachchan to emerge from the make-up room. When he came out, I told Balki, I don’t need a reading. I saw a 13-year-old Auro. Something happened. I’m getting that same feeling [recalling the moment]!”
And these are generally the instinctive/immersive moments that Balan has managed to create, movie after movie. The last time we saw her on screen was as the math wiz Shakuntala Devi. The film had to drop online — instead of releasing in theatres — due to the pandemic. Her film before that Mission Mangal (2019), with a female ensemble cast, plus Akshay Kumar, had her headlining the act — surpassing Rs 200 crore, touching Rs 300 crore, at the box-office.
By all accounts, Shakuntala Devi was equally well-received on Amazon Prime, although nobody knows its viewership figure. Personally, what’s the difference that she’s discovered between success online, and in theatres?
She says, “The reactions come staggered — well after the date [the film drops]. With movies in theatres, after the first weekend, all conversations are centred on numbers. Also, unlike with Mission Mangal, where my character was fictionalised, Shakuntala Devi was a real person. And so, people read more and more about her, and kept getting back with responses.”
To pick a few, I cite mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik, who argued in his mid-day column that Shakuntala Devi’s husband actually being gay was conveniently/unfortunately touted as hoax in the film. Balan gently counters, “Shakuntala Devi’s daughter [from whose perspective the film has been written, and who partnered on the project] has been very transparent talking about her mother. Why wouldn’t she do the same with her father?”
Some people who’d actually met Shakuntala Devi had found her to be reserved, even if witty; rather than boisterous as Balan played the part in the picture: “Maybe they met her at a time when she was not very boisterous for whatever reasons. Maybe she was going through something, I don’t know.”
Also, there was a phony element of contestable astrology/numerology mixed with her skill with numbers that the film hardly touched upon — let alone debated — from Shakuntala Devi’s life: “It is a two-hour film. We wanted to definitely focus on the maths, which is what got her worldwide recognition. The politics, astrology and all of that came much later in her life.”
To be fair to Balan, who’s not the film’s writer, but as she puts it, “People will have various opinions, especially because it is a real person that we’re talking about. And I respect that. But then, it would have been a different film. This is the film we chose to make!” Point taken. Possibly applies to a lot of arguments around biopics, actually.
Where Shakuntala Devi does follow a seamless narrative — a natural extension of sorts — is actually in Balan’s own current filmography — if you also consider Tumhari Sulu (2017), right before Mission Mangal. What’s common to these films — besides feminist subjects — are the roles of almost impossibly secure and sweet men by her side. Whether it’s Shakuntala’s husband Paritosh (Jisshu Sengupta), Tara’s Sunil (Sanjay Kapoor) or Sulu’s Ashok (Manav Kaul). There seems to be a feminist film in the Balan mould, developing into a sub-genre of its own. Or too soon to tell? “I think that is my world view. The men in my life have been the same. They have just accepted me and the women around for who they are. I feel that’s where it comes from.”
Really? No jerk boyfriends, ever? “Yeah, well, it’s literally a rite of passage. Unless you go through… I’m trying not to use harsh rude words here. But you know, you have to sift through life to get the real deal!”
Maybe I’m just trying to locate/shame some douches of Chembur she grew up with! Or let’s go back to my current Auro-like obsession: Why aren’t there so many Bombay-born/bred superstars from outside Bollywood families? Could it be that Bambaiya Hindi is no good? Compare, say, Cyrus Broacha to Nawazuddin Siddiqui in a Hindi picture, if you may (no knock; just kidding Cyrus!).
Balan laughs. In her case, because she was clear she wanted to be an actor from a young age, she made sure her Hindi was perfect: “My parents have an accent, I don’t.” Besides, she can speak fluent Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu, Urdu, Bengali, English… What language does she think in? “In English. But on the set, at work, it’s weird — only Hindi. I recently did a Telugu film (the NTR biopic), and I had to keep translating Telugu into Hindi in my head first.”
If it wasn’t for a string of bad luck, which ironically led her thereafter to be considered jinxed — having debuted opposite Mohanlal, and with around multiple Malayalam films signed up, on that account alone, Balan was once all set to kick off her career, between 2000-03, as a South Indian star. The Mohanlal movie, after being extensively shot, got shelved. All other producers backed off.
In the Tamil industry, Balan had been signed up by veteran K Balachander for two films. Subsequently, dropped from both. There were two other films that she got replaced from, after having shot for their first schedules. She also walked out of another, realising on the set, that it was a sex-comedy: “I got sued at 22!”
It reached a point that her parents landed up in Chennai at the office of one of the producers who had fired her. He simply remarked: “Just look at her; does she look like a heroine?” “For six months, I didn’t look into the mirror. Broken, I once walked in the scorching heat from Nariman Point to Bandra, like a [revelatory] scene in a film — just to clear my head.” That’s 18 kilometres straight.
She did travel a much further distance, only few years later though. After Rajkumar Hirani’s Lage Raho Munnabhai (2006), she bumped into the same ‘look at her face’ producer at the airport, who right away offered her a film [opposite Kamal Haasan]. “I said sure, speak to my manager!” Kamal Haasan called later. She couldn’t do the film: “My father felt a great sense of vindication. They’ve brought us up to feel the world’s fair.”
It rarely is. It also depends on how you look at it. Behind all the ‘Miss Congeniality’ exterior, if you observe her 15 years as a movie star, Balan comes across as one of the ballsiest in Bollywood. And yet never making a lamenting event of herself — almost disarmingly turning on its head the simplistic grammar/binary of victim and oppressor.
She’s had a fair share of trolling — mainly body-shaming, style-policing online, and in the mainline press — a reason, I’m told, she rarely reads anything about herself. Whether any of this targeting has to do with groupism/favouritism, it’s essential that this bullying aspect of the profession is being brought to light. As it has been, lately.
That’s one of the reasons an old video-clip of her at a film-award show, being called out by hosts Shah Rukh Khan, Saif Ali Khan, for her tacky costume in the film Heyy Babyy (2007), started doing the rounds online. She looks visibly pissed in that moment. Such shows are typically scripted with celebs in the audience told in advance about what to expect for an impromptu engagement/act. Not the case?
“I’m a sport, and I was fine with it actually. But when I went there, I realised there were a couple of other contenders [for the worst dressed] award as well. They said they couldn’t give it to them, because so-and-so, and the people around them, will get upset. I felt cheated and angry. I thought, now, that is a clear case of — and it didn’t occur to me then, because I don’t look at the world through that prism… I don’t know, what is it called, nepotism?” Balan laughs.