Her face can mirror a million stories. Her voice can inspire the romance of rubaiyats. Her sensuality can spark a series of paintings. Just as her talent can rake in the crores at the turnstiles. Right from Parineeta, Vidya Balan has been a woman amongst the girls, her mystique playing hide and seek with the limelight chasing her. Yet, hers has been a not-so-smooth innings. It’s been a nail-biting game. Success and failure both shadowing her alternately till she learnt to volley them both. What emerged unscathed and sculpted through this journey of over a decade, is an actor of incomprehensible range and depth. A female superstar, who has spearheaded unique narratives of strength and sensibility.
The ‘shero’, as trade pundits dubbed her, has fought several personal battles as well. Of not measuring up to unrealistic expectations of a size-phobic world. Of not duplicating the wardrobe of her peers but draping her style her way. Dealing with a nagging hormonal imbalance along with the unsolicited advice by the so-called connoisseurs of vanity, she discovered several truths about herself. That it’s all about loving and accepting yourself first. That only when you embrace yourself, so will others. Her vulnerabilities are her own and so are her strengths. And Vidya Balan celebrates each one of them. Over to the superstar who has the scent of a ‘real’ woman…
The Dirty Picture and Kahaani were the first female-centric films to enter the 100-crore club. That’s no mean achievement…
But I didn’t intend to achieve that. I didn’t say that I want to be the first female actor to do commercially successful women-centric films. It just happened. All I’ve done is follow my heart. Each time, I’ve listened to my instincts, it’s paid off. What did I do to become an actor? I didn’t enrol in any acting class. I didn’t get a photo-shoot done. I didn’t go and drop my pictures at anyone’s office. But work came looking for me. I was doing a lot of ad films. Friends were making their show reels and they wanted me to act in that. I’ve also done a lot of FTII films, voiceovers. I used to emcee for bank programmes. I didn’t let go of those opportunities. But I was always hesitant to ask for work. I didn’t belong to the industry. As we’ve heard there are big bad wolves in the industry. I wanted to protect myself.
Do you feel part of the industry now?
Yes I do more than ever before. All this while I did feel like an outsider. Something changed recently. I came in with Parineeta, which saw huge success and followed it by Munnabhai MBBS. Then I went through a slump. I wondered whether I was really a successful actor or was I fluke. Then after Kismat Konnection came the phase, where
I was criticised a lot. I thought maybe I’m not good enough. Then my films started doing well again. You begin to feel super happy and on top of the world.
Like with the recent success of Tumhari Sulu?
The success of Tumhari Sulu gave me a sense of security, the maturity that there will be hits and flops. And that hits don’t mean you’re going to be here forever and flops don’t mean that the journey is over. When my films weren’t doing well, my family would be upset fearing that my dreams wouldn’t come true. Of course, my parents have been the strongest pillars of strength for me and then my sister and brother-in-law, my second set of parents. They remained optimistic. Also, being married to Siddharth gave me that perspective. He made me realise that nothing is permanent. I’ve read that a successful person is, who goes from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.
Deepika Padukone and Alia Bhatt are now taking this trend of women-oriented films doing 100-crore business forward. Agree?
We’re all taking the narrative forward. There’s Alia, Deepika, Kangana (Ranaut), Sonakshi (Sinha), Taapsee (Pannu)… Time has changed. And we’re faces of this change. But the work has been going on for decades by women who struggled to work, struggled to go back to work after having a child, struggled to do better work, to get better paid. Aishwarya (Rai Bachchan), Rani (Mukerji), Kareena (Kapoor Khan) have done films after motherhood. Neha (Dhupia) too resumed work shortly after the baby without making a big deal about it. Sonam (Kapoor), Anushka (Sharma)… are doing fine work as well. We’re all changing the narrative. It’s not just about one person anymore. The wave just grows stronger and people join in. But there’s a point I’d like to make…
We women have struggled hard but not without the support of the men in our lives. We can’t say that we have done it on our own. There’s a father somewhere, a brother, a son or a husband… Alongside every successful person there are many other people. If you are able to go out to live your dream, it’s because your wife is taking care of your child. Tomorrow there will be a chance for you to do the same for her. The narrative is changing and it’s superb.
Did you have to fight for equal payment as well?
That can’t be resolved overnight. But we’re in a better position today. We’re all working towards that change in our own way. I cannot compare my fees with that of the male actors because I’m doing films where I’m pretty much whole and sole. Other actresses, who work with male superstars, are in better position to comment on that. But are these girls not demanding more? Are they not getting more? Of course, they are. It’s still a while before we get equal pay but you also have to consider other factors. If the man is the central character and is going to bring in the audiences, then obviously he will get paid well because he’s proved his box-office worth. When we women begin to prove ourselves more and more, people won’t be able to deny us our pound of flesh.
N.T.R. Kathanayakudu has won you much applause. But when you started your career down South, you were tagged as ‘bad luck’. How did you deal with that?
It angers you to be told that you’re unlucky. Or that you aren’t good enough. During Begum Jaan, I harnessed all the anger I felt for all these years. I was carrying the anger of rejection, the judgement around my body, the criticism around my dressing. I’ve been called ‘jinxed’ down South. I rejected my body all my life. I worked hard at accepting myself. That acceptance isn’t complete yet. It’s still a long way. People don’t understand that when you grow up a fat girl, it doesn’t leave you.
Please go on…
I’ve had hormonal problems all my life. It’s probably because of the judgement I’ve carried around my body. When I was a teenager, people would tell me, ‘You’ve got such a pretty face, why don’t you lose some weight?’ It’s not a nice thing to say to anyone. Be it a child or a grown-up. So, I’d starve myself, I’d go through crazy exercise regimens and lose weight. Then the hormonal issue would settle for a bit before it reared its head again. I guess it was my body’s way of revolting because in wanting it to be what it was not, I was constantly rejecting it. There’s no machine as smart as your body. It’s the only machine that has emotional intelligence. So even at my thinnest, I’ve always felt fat. Weight loss, weight gain, weight loss, weight gain was my pattern for as long as I can remember. Years ago, I stopped watching my shots on the monitor at shoots because I’d look at the monitor and be thinking, ‘Am I looking fat?’
But you come across as someone who doesn’t give a damn about such things…
Now I don’t. But it’s taken a lot of work to get to accept my body. Ironically, it’s one’s own rejection of the body that also causes hormonal issues. I guess it’s a chicken and egg situation. Who knows what came first? Therefore, if I can convince even one person that it’s okay to be just the way you are – thin or fat – it would be worthwhile. That’s probably why I keep screaming from the rooftops in every interview, at every opportunity to tell people that please accept yourselves the way you are. But having said that, it’s not easy. When people tell me why don’t you start exercising, I want to say f**k you! How do you know I haven’t been exercising? Do you know how hard I exercise? Do you know what challenges I’ve been facing? Do you know that my hormonal problem has made it impossible for me to lose weight for years in between? Not just that, there was a period in between when the more I’d work out, the more I’d put on? People would insinuate that you must be eating unhealthy or that you’re lazy. And these things stick with you. It would anger me no end. I kept wanting people to stop judging me. But over time, I realised that people judge you/your body only if you do. If you seek validation from others, you’ll always fall short. So, the answer lies in loving and accepting yourself. That of course is easier said than done. It’s work in progress and a lifelong endeavour. The process of getting to like yourself the way you are is a painful one. Therefore, today I’m balanced in my approach. No killing myself with exercise. No food deprivation. Only kindness and compassion towards myself. Before the release of Begum Jaan, I had been to Japan for a holiday. I came back feeling great. But during the promotions my body started changing. If you saw my pictures on any two days, I looked completely different. It was frustrating. One day I was one size, the next day I looked double my size. One day my hormones would be in fine balance and I’d feel good physically. I’d be okay to step out and put myself out there. But it was a challenge on the days I wasn’t feeling good.
How did you get out of that phase?
I got through the promotions unhappy and within two weeks from release, I started shooting for Tumhari Sulu feeling bigger and heavier than ever. Honestly, I was conscious initially. But soon I realised that despite my bodily changes, if I was still doing the kind of work that excites me then maybe my weight is a bigger problem in my mind than it is for others. Also, it helped that I was working with people who had my back. I believed they would take care of me. I immersed myself in the film and no wonder Tumhari Sulu turned out well and it did well too. I met someone just after Sulu had released, who said, ‘My God how much weight have you put on!’ I wondered why couldn’t she just congratulate me instead. It then struck me that everyone is fighting their own battle and we see the world through our lens. If that lens is an unhappy one, you won’t be able to appreciate another person’s triumph. Once we know that, we won’t let someone’s reaction make us feel smaller/lesser. Remember I said I stopped watching the monitor years ago because I was scared? Over the years, I discovered it’s liberating not to be bothered by how you look. There are people whose job is to make me look good. I do my job, let them do theirs. Thankfully, I’m in better health and in a much happier place. (Smiles) Again I don’t know what came first. I feel like I’m outgrowing who I have been.
Okay on the lighter side, what are the perks of turning 40?
(Laughs) That you don’t care a damn.
They say a woman turns sexier after 40. Do you agree?
Yeah, naughtier and hotter too after 40. Generally, we’re taught to be a little coy and not enjoy sex. But the reason they say women get better with age is because you care less and less, it’s more about you. It’s joyous. When you don’t care, you have the most amount of fun. A friend, who has encounters of convenience, happened to tell me that the best fun is with women post 35. He explained that since he doesn’t want a relationship, so he can have a scene with women, who don’t want relationships either. He said after 35 women just don’t care. (Laughs) I say after 40 they don’t care even more.
So what are the naughty things that you plan to do now?
I’m actually going reverse. I used to be a serious person but today I’ve learnt to enjoy everything. I’m not carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders anymore.
What have you learnt from each phase of your life?
In my 20s, it was about wanting to live my dream. The 30s was about knowing myself and the 40s is about loving my life.
Regarding your husband, Siddharth, what have you come to accept about him and vice versa?
That he doesn’t express his feelings in words. It takes a lot for him to express himself. While I’m the sort of person, who expresses it all. His behaviour tells me that now. I have begun to understand that. Earlier, I was like why is he not saying the way I want to hear it.
Between both of you, who’s more possessive?
He doesn’t show it, I show it. Actually, we’re equally possessive.
Who makes up after a fight?
Me. No, both of us actually. It’s been eight years since we’ve been together. You appreciate the times the other person makes up. Otherwise, you feel that you’re the only one making up. But both of us are doing it equally.
When will Siddharth and you collaborate for a film?
I don’t think that will happen because then there will be no difference between house and office. We’ve decided not to work together. It’s healthier for our marriage. That’s precious for us.
Three achievements you’d like to tell your grandkids about…
That I lived my dream, that I retained myself and I loved wholeheartedly and passionately.