When it comes to portraying women-centric hard hitting roles in Bollywood there’s only one name that crosses every director’s mind and that is Vidya Balan. Right from her first film PARINEETA to ISHQIYA, then DIRTY PICTURE and now BEGUM JAAN that is touted to be her most powerful character so far, Vidya has indeed redefined women centric subjects in Bollywood with every film of hers. She is the first actress among the contemporary lot, who emerged as the real hero in this male-dominated industry, and the testimony to this fact is when filmmaker of Mahesh Bhatt’s stature, introduces his heroine Vidya by saying, “Aisa Hero dekha hai aapne??”
In a candid interview Vidya Balan talks about what all thought process went behind taking up this role of badass Begum Jaan who is unapologetically powerful, the prevalent nepotism in Bollywood, why it doesn’t take much to intimidate men, comfortably abusing on screen, Indian women making it to the mainstream scene of Hollywood, her wish-list of doing a biopic on Indira Gandhi and much more.
So, Vidya with BEGUM JAAN are you ‘back with a bang’?
I never went anywhere. I have been doing films regularly. I don’t understand why people want to say that. In fact, I don’t understand the concept of comeback. Comeback is when you had break of few years or a decade. It’s just that my past few films haven’t worked but I have been very much around. So I don’t call it as comeback
But somewhere the ‘Vidyagiri’ or that zing was missing, which BEGUM JAAN seems to bring it back?
My films may have not worked but I have worked with as much zest, passion and commitment. If you feel BEGUM JAAN has that zing, then I really hope it does well.
After playing copious women-centric characters from the time you have been in the industry, was BEGUM JAAN a cakewalk?
No not all. Every role is different. You and I are different. We may all be strong people but we have different life experiences. Every time our strength gets displayed in different ways. We may have same traits but those traits may get defined and expressed in different ways. So I don’t think it’s easy. I actually get very nervous before I start a film. I have enjoyed BEGUM JAAN because she is so powerful. This is the most powerful woman I have played.
While you have portrayed umpteen shades of women – wife, mother, sister et al on-screen, how was it to get into the skin of Begum Jaan’s character, a madam of brothel, a very unusual one from our lives?
I haven’t even met any madam of a brothel, so in that sense I couldn’t draw from any experience. But of course I have read about it a lot, watched lot of films. So you borrow and reference your character from myriad sources. It could be personal experiences, something that you have watched, something that you have read, something that you have heard about. I really used all of that to reference BEGUM JAAN. Bust most importantly what I had to really wrap my head around is how comfortable is BEGUM JAAN with her own power. She is powerful, she exudes, she revels in it so that’s very unique because we don’t see unapologetically powerful women on screen (like Begum Jaan) and off screen also women are generally little uncomfortable exuding power, so that was probably a challenge. But I have enjoyed to the core playing this character, and I had to use lot of imagination for it.
Very few, in fact rarely actresses have played madam of a brothel. Last time we saw Shabana Azmi playing one in MANDI. So in what way BEGUM JAAN is different from Shabana Azmi’s character in MANDI?
Yes that’s true we have seen very few such characters on screen so far. They are both madams of brothels but they are very different people. I think Shabana Azmi’s character was manipulated but she was also maternal in MANDI. But here you see BEGUM JAAN being badass. There may be flicker of softer slightly vulnerable moments. But those are just flickers.
'BEGUM JAAN is unapologetically powerful & badass '
Your body language in BEGUM JAAN, I mean the first poster, was heroic and daunting. Tell us about it a bit?
When you see the difference between men and women, the body language of women is more withdrawn and body language of men is more open. When someone gets comfortable with their own power they occupy more space, so which is why you see BEGUM JAAN the way she is. In fact I enjoyed and loved showing a care-a-damn attitude.
Even in this film you are looking completely different – the unibrow, dusky complexion and little bulked up body…?
Srijit told me that you have already experimented so much with the looks so I want to make you look very different in this film, from the way you have appeared so far. So he made me look slightly beastier animal-like. He even suggested our costume designer and asked why you don’t try for unibrows? and that looked lovely. They gave me light lenses as well, giving me a feline quality.
Begum Jaan is commanding, hell-bent and make men go weak in their knees, how about you in real life? Are you like Begum Jaan?
No I am not like Begum Jaan. The reason I was ready to play the character because I am also becoming more accepting of my own power, which is why I got drawn to the character. I am becoming more comfortable being in commanding position also.
Do men get intimidated to approach you, going with your strong persona and image on-screen?
It doesn’t take much to intimidate men. I think self-assured men do not get intimidated. But I think there are men and women alike, who would feel intimidated, especially when you meet someone who is successful, confident and outspoken I think it intimidates people. So these qualities can intimidate anyone. I have experienced that sometimes.
How was your equation with other girls? And was it easy getting along with other women – ‘ek miyaan mai itni talwaarein’?
Not maternal as such but I naturally get along with people because I like people. So it was that kind of atmosphere. We all got along like house on fire. I am fond of each one of them. Ila ji was senior most but she was the biggest child on the sets. It was actually very comfortable. I am aware of some clashes between the girls but nothing major. Sometimes you are spending time in so much close proximity that people tend to have issues with each other and that’s bound to happen. But I don’t think anyone took back home any bad feeling.
THE DIRTY PICTURE was about Entertainment Entertainment Entertainment, what BEGUM JAAN stands for?
It’s about power, power and more power (smiles).
BEGUM JAAN is your most powerful film & role so far, in fact way powerful than THE DIRTY PICTURE?
Wow…BEGUM JAAN is definitely more powerful, aggressive than Silk. But I don’t think it’s right to compare the two. Silk was the boldest character that I had played until then this character came my way. Begum Jaan defines power yaar
THE DIRTY PICTURE, ISHQIYA and now BEGUM JAAN is your third film with Naseeruddin Shah. All your powerful films have been with him. How does it feel to be working with him all over again?
I can’t even believe that I have reached a stage where you are even taking my name in the same breath with a fine actor like Naseer sahab because I have admired him hugely. It’s just three films with him and it feels elated that people take my name with him. He is a fabulous actor and I can’t quantify what I have learnt from him.
You are known to voice your opinions. What do you have to say about cuts given by CBFC. How strong/weak is the CBFC argument that foul language is not that necessary for actors playing prostitutes on screen?
I really don’t know from where this has come from. This is some kind of misinformation. We have actually got ‘A’ certificate without cuts. There were some words we were asked to tweak and not even beep it. My director had the solution of not compromising the essence by tweaking it a bit. But this we had long back in January. I don’t know why the reports are surfacing around now.
They (CBFC) were actually very understanding, there are words which are not normally permissible but still they allowed in this film. I think there is some mischief monger who is putting some rubbish story.
What was your reaction and thoughts when you got to know that you have to abuse on screen?
I used to just think of my lines in the film. I am not someone who abuses but it’s not that I haven’t abused in my life ever. I abuse a lot in my head a lot of times. Now it’s out there (Giggles).
What’s your take on women exploitation and empowerment in Bollywood and in general?
'I abuse a lot in my head a lot of times'
I do think there is exploitation all over the world and therefore in our country and therefore in our industry as well. But what changes we see is now women are speaking up. At least many women are speaking now in open which did not happen months, and years ago. So it’s a positive trend.
You were also offered Bengali version, why didn’t you take up?
Actually Srijit was making Bengali and Hindi film. He wanted to do BEGUM JAAN as bilingual and he wanted me to do Hindi version. But at that time I didn’t want to do because I was taking 6-8 months break because of health. But as he came back to me, I was game for it
Do you think nepotism is prevalent in Bollywood?
I have not experienced it. But just because I haven’t experienced it I can’t say it doesn’t exist and just because someone has experienced it, it doesn’t mean that’s the only way it works.
More number of actresses are drawn to Hollywood and seem obsessed with it. What’s your take on Indian actresses going West and also when do we see Vidya heading to the West?
I think that’s great, it’s wonderful we have actresses going west and doing mainstream work in Hollywood now. It’s such an encouraging trend. We have seen people from different parts of the world working in Hollywood and many foreign actresses working in Indian film industry too. I believe the world is becoming a smaller place now. That is bound to happen. As far as I am concerned, I am greedy for good role and work.
From the current lot of actors who is inspiring?
I think Alia Bhatt is a fabulous actor.
After portraying different shades of women, which kind of women you wish to play now?
People often ask me this. I really want to do a biopic on Indira Gandhi and play that character or a biopic on Meena Kumari, biopic on M S Subbulakshmi, in fact I came close to it and so many interesting women. I am just waiting for the writers to get inspired and come to me with those exciting scripts
Actors are turning singers now, how about you?
Honestly I am not at all a good singer I go offkey also. I have trained in classical music but it’s been long time.