She has always left audiences spellbound with her unexpected, power-packed performances – Vidya Balan talks to Bhakti Mehta about what stardom means to her, what she still aspires to do as an actor despite earning the epitome of success and how she learnt inner comfort over the years
Starting from Parineeta to now, you have chosen some extraordinary roles. How do you see potential in a script?
I think I look for just one thing – that it should appeal to me instinctively. First, I always think of myself as an audience because I feel that if I like it then there is a possibility of more people liking it. I am also a member of the audience who goes to theatres to watch films. I always ask myself whether I would like to watch this and whether I would like to tell this story. And then finally, whether I want to tell this story by being this particular character. That is very important because sometimes you are more interested in another character in the script. And then, there are times when everything comes together but you just do not feel like doing it. It's just so There is no explanation for that. Sometimes, when I am refusing a film, I think it is an interesting story but it might not work for me. And then I do not know what else to do because I just do not feel connected to it. Even though it is a well-written script and everything about it is good – it is just the gut instinct, that one blink moment that takes you one way or the other.
But you do have a knack of taking the simplest of characters like in Paa, Tumhari Sulu or Mission Mangal and making it remarkable. Is there an internalisation process that you follow?
I honestly think that the first step towards that is the way the characters are written. I cannot take credit for that. I, of course, reap the benefits of that. Once it is written beautifully, then comes my part where I personalise it. That is the process which I go through with the director, asking questions and all that. I just try to enmesh my persona with the character and the character's persona with mine. There is a give and take there. Also, every character leaves some traces behind. I do not know how other actors see it but I really feel that every character that has come into my life, every character that I have played, has come to help me discover something about myself, teach me something about myself and to allow me to express an aspect of myself that I have not expressed before.
If we take Mission Mangal, what did you discover about yourself through this film and this character?
As far as my learning is concerned, there are a few takeaways. One is that impossible is nothing. I am an eternal optimist. That is the message that I pick out instantly. But besides that, I am someone who has always been confused about how religion and science can coexist.
There is a mention in the film regarding this too.
Yes, exactly! I have had that confusion and I feel like a lot of people who are thinkers or scientists would find it difficult to believe in God or that force, that entity, that energy. I am not a person with a scientific bent of mind and I believe in God. And in this film, that one line helped me understand and reconcile that confusion forever. There is a power behind science. Science has been able to explain a lot but there is a lot that it has not been able to explain too. How much ever we explain, there will still be some things that we cannot decipher. There is a line about the tsunami in the film which says, "Tsunami ek mahine pehle bata ke nahi aata." It's the same thing. I am sure concerned people have instruments to tell them that a tsunami is expected but you do not know what or how much havoc it is going wreck. So, the fact that the inexplicable can exist alongside science is my biggest takeaway from the film.
Talking about science…
(Cuts in) I did not like science in school also! (Laughs). You know, the thing is that I need stories. ,The problem was that there were no stories to explain science to us. It used to be something that you needed to study and get over with. Now, since our education system is changing, I realise that it is more about application. It is about how you can apply science to your life. It is not just theoretical. I think that makes all the difference. Science can be more relatable. And when I say story, I do not mean stories like in history. There are things that one can use science in. Just a theory has no meaning unless you can apply it. We have not been taught that, at least my generation was not. That's what is interesting today.
Coming back to your expansive filmography, you have always been a trendsetter, haven't you?
It is not like I was attempting to do that or that I desire to break stereotypes. But this is who I am. I know no better. I follow my gut. If something appeals to me then I go ahead and do it. There is no rationale and no math to it really. I just go ahead and do it. And maybe, I feel that I get bored with myself very easily. (Laughs). Maybe that is why I became an actress so that I can live vicariously through the lives of my characters. I can live multiple lives and come back to being me. I think it's just that.
Your first Tamil film (Nerkonda Paarvai) is garnering great response in India and overseas. As an actor, do you feel it is important for us to break cultural barriers?
I feel that there is lots of potential in non-Hindi cinema. In various language cinemas, wonderful stories are waiting to be told. This film, I did out of my absolute love for Sridevi and Boney Kapoor. It is a special appearance but I was happy to do it. And it is a special film because it gives out an important message. That is amazing but my primary reason was my love and regard for Sridevi and Boneyji.
That's very sweet.
Yes. (Smiles). But language shouldn't be a barrier at all. For me, especially because I speak Tamil and I knew I had a few days of work, so it was great. I did a Telugu film last year and a special appearance in a Marathi film.
You even started your career with a Bengali film.
Yes, and a full-fledged Bengali film. I approach it as cinema. If it is giving me the opportunity to tell a good story, then I will do it and then there is a slight challenge when you are speaking another language but I like languages and I like learning languages. And I think all of that comes together while doing non-Hindi films.
Do you think being an actor today is not only about acting since there are so many other elements to look into?
My thing is that I don't deal with all that. (Laughs). Like with the airport looks, for me, airport used to be a place where I would not think about what I was going to wear. But I must admit that I have become more careful. I would not tidy myself when I would get off a flight and then I saw that everyone else's pictures are looking so nice! I believe some actors even take the pain to change before they step off a flight. I don't do any of that but I have now started combing my hair and wearing a little bit of lipstick (laughs). But that's the extent to which I go. Maybe, I am just lazy.
What about social media? Do you have a favourite medium to connect to your fans?
I am on Instagram, mostly. But for that also I go through periods. I do it when I feel like it. I don't read the comments, which I think keeps me sane. So, if I am getting trolled, I don't know. But I don't think I have been trolled so far. Then there are the gym looks. My gym is in the same building where my parents live, so there is no question of that for me!
While we are on the topic of fashion, you were again a trendsetter on the red carpet when you opted for sarees instead of gowns.
Thank you! I did try to fit in and I failed miserably. I got slapped around for that and was criticised heavily. And it was because I stood out like a sore thumb. You have to wear what you like and not subscribe to any ideal concept. And I realised that I am happiest in Indian wear. I am happiest in cotton kurtas and salwars or churidaars or now pants or even a cotton saree. I love all that.
Also, I met the right people at the right time, they helped me make that decision that it is okay to wear sarees. I don't like gowns. It looks great on other people though. I love sarees. There is such a huge variety of it in the country.
Slowly, I just started wearing them and not because I wanted to make a statement but just because I enjoyed wearing them. People used to tell me that I was dressing older than my age and it is not cool and so on and so forth. But then, slowly people started to say that the saree is back and it's sexy and it's different. I just do what I want, yaar! (Laughs).
You are also prepping currently for the Shakuntala Devi biopic. Have you already begun making that character your own?
I have not yet done that. I am in the process. We have a couple of weeks before we start so if you ask me at this point, I don't yet know what I will do. (Smiles).
And, after that, you are playing another stellar lady, Indira Gandhi.
Yes, but that is going to take a while. It is going to take a couple of years, at least. We are hoping to make it into a series and that involves a lot of work.
I am also doing a short film recently for which I have already shot and it will release towards the end of the year.
What prompted you take that up at this point in your career?
Just the story! It really called out to me and it is a very powerful story. It had Ronnie Screwvala as producer and I was amazed by the clarity and conviction of the director considering that it is his first film. And I was free those days so I did it. (Laughs).
As an actor, what is left in your bucket list?
Lots! As many women as there are in the world, those many stories remain.