In an interview with Maureen Dowd of The New York Times, filmmaker Mike Nichols had this to say about the iconic Marilyn Monroe: “She wasn’t particularly a great beauty, that is to say, Hedy Lamarr or Ava Gardner would knock the hell out of her in a contest, but she was almost superhumanly sexual.” It described Marilyn Monroe to the T. Today, it seems entirely appropriate to borrow Nichols’ words to describe Vidya Balan. Consider the sexuality of The Dirty Picture’s star. It has set her apart from the ‘perfect heroine’ crowd, made her the envy of a bevy of sex symbols, and, by the look of it, given her the courage to try anything and everything a woman can do in show biz. And if that’s not enough, her sexuality has endeared her to a nation of prudes. Now, if that isn’t superhuman, what is?
We all remember the time we had written her off. So what if she’d acquired critical acclaim for Parineeta or mass popularity with Lage Raho Munna Bhai? She was fat, frumpy and reminded us of an elder sister—no thanks to her role as the almost-deaf sister in Zee’s teleserial Hum Panch. She simply wasn’t leading lady material. Why did she even bother to try? When she agreed to play mother to an ageing Amitabh Bachchan in Paa, it signalled the end of that ambition. Or so we thought. From a mother, she transformed herself into a manipulative seductress in Ishqiya. But even this role was no hint of what she had in store. Before the year 2011 was out, she had stormed theatres with The Dirty Picture, playing Silk Smitha in a role that made the most of her ample figure and took sexual exuberance to a new high. Well, a role is a role, the actress seemed to shrug. And with Kahaani earlier this year, she came full circle. It was clear—this woman was going to play by her own rules.
Since then, Vidya Balan has been credited with the return of curvaceous sexiness, hailed as ‘the toast of our times’, and even upheld as the industry’s ‘fourth Khan’ for her box office appeal. She also has a National Award under her belt. And she isn’t about to turn conformist anytime soon. “She made an effort to fit in, but that didn’t work,” says film critic Rajeev Masand, “She had the courage to self-reflect and knew she was never going to be a Kareena or Katrina. She decided not to be delusional like the other girls. She was being forced to make difficult choices, and she did.” What has worked for her, in his view, is an ability to assess herself with brave accuracy. “She isn’t someone like Preity Zinta, who is still trying to be the gorgeous heroine a young man falls in love with in her next movie,” says Masand, “The Dirty Picture showed just how far she could go. ” The film not only raised the realism bar—it featured an orgasmic moan executed with such elan that Hindi cinema seemed to lose its eternal adolescence overnight—it also gave us a tragic heroine whose poignant story has the makings of a cult classic.
At Vidya Balan’s home in Khar, Mumbai, she has just returned from the salon. Dressed in a black Patiala salwar and green kurta, she looks sleepy but younger than she does on screen. She has lost weight too, though she retains her curves, thankfully.
Asked if she feels she has changed the film industry, she smiles a that’s-for-you-to-say smile. And then says, “I am happy I am seen as the face of change, but change doesn’t happen overnight. I am very fortunate that I am working at a time when change is being seen, felt and expressed. This change is organic. It’s effecting itself.”
She speaks with the confidence of someone who has her own reading of the audience pulse. But, as she says, confidence was a trait she acquired growing up. “I was brought up in such an environment that my sex or gender was never seen as a disadvantage,” she says, “I never saw any limits to what I could do. I was loved unconditionally. The judgement of people never mattered, and hence I was not quick to judge others as well. I never even knew that a certain body type was an issue.”
At that, she pauses. A soft grin appears on her face, as if recalling a time she shed her self-assurance to become what Bollywood wanted her to be. “After Parineeta, I knew I was getting to do what I wanted. But I got complacent and started getting affected by criticism. I re-invented my person instead of roles, and that too through things like clothes.” She laughs now, and says, “I don’t like talking about that time. It feels like I am over-intellectualising it. I was scared it would all go away. Fame really seduces you. I heard Mahesh Bhatt say something recently and I totally believe it. ‘Fame is the bitch princess.’ It continues to tempt you, even when things are going well…”
That, I say, sounds so much like Don Draper’s words in the last season of Mad Men: “Happiness is a moment before you need more happiness.”
“Yes, that’s true,” she says, leaning forward to ask, “Is season five out on DVD? I haven’t seen it yet.”
I insensitively suggest she download it. “I can’t do that,” she responds, “It’s piracy. Okay, tell me, does he get married to that secretary? Oh, don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.” And then she snaps it all into context: “It would explain why a self-assured person like me did what I did. In a bid to hold on to what I had, I was becoming something I was not.”
That brings us back to Marilyn Monroe, who once said, “Wanting to be someone else is a waste of the person you are.” Vidya learnt that lesson the hard way. Newsprint and airwaves were full of “look at what the cat dragged in” pictures of her. The industry was slowly pushing her out. “I got tempted, and tried to be someone else. Then I felt victimised. I was suffering from a persecution complex. Then my family decided to have conversations with me. My brother-in-law asked me, ‘What are you here for?’ I said, ‘To act.’ He told me to then just do that. Sabyasachi said, ‘Why are you washing it all away?’”
It was also the time she met director R Balki, who told her that her Indianness was ‘unique’ and ought to be her ‘calling card’. “Vidya has changed the industry by being herself and suddenly surprising people by doing things not expected of her,” says Balki, director of Paa, “She is committed to the role she has chosen one hundred per cent.”
But Vidya wouldn’t erase her past for anything, if only because the clarity one experiences on emerging from the dark is priceless. “I would have continued to do work that was good but not great. I decided to let work become an extension of me. I began to validate myself. I wanted to play certain kinds of roles, and they started coming to me. It’s like whatever [Rhonda Byrne’s] The Secret says is true. Positive reinforcement works.”
It was also the time she stopped trying to fit into the industry’s mould of sexiness. Vidya got out of unseemly outfits and into elegant Sabyasachi saris, and soon found herself on ‘best dressed’ lists. “I discovered the sari again,” she says, “I hadn’t worn one for so long. I was born a woman who was trying to be a girl. I could only be a woman. And that changed things. Now heroines can be women. I am at a stage where I am free of any kind of pressure.”
It’s a freedom few sex symbols have. But then, The Dirty Picture didn’t give the country just another sex symbol. It gave India a sex symbol that wasn’t for audiences to sculpt, modify or even judge. ‘I am a real woman and this is a real woman’s sexy body,’ her character seemed to convey, ‘Deal with it.’
It’s an attitude she clearly revels in. “Men come up and thank me,” she says, “They are happy seeing a real woman. Women come and tell me that they are not embarrassed of their breasts anymore, but celebrate them. Sexiness is all about how you feel. You can either use your hands to cover or caress yourself. I love my body.”
In that love of herself and her body, professed so unabashedly, Vidya Balan has helped millions of Indians love themselves just the way they are. As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, ‘To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.’ It takes a radical departure from every force that seems to be bearing down on you. In Hindi cinema, it takes superhuman willpower as well.