TAM-BRAM GIRLS of Vidya Balan’s generation were brought up to be neat but not vain, to be presentable but obsess about work. It is only incidental that Vidya, 31, unlike other girls of bilingual Palakkad descent, is not conquering the world of statistical modelling or dreaming miles of code. It is incidental that her adolescent dreams were not of topping IIT-JEE but of becoming an actor. It is incidental she took her work ethic to Bollywood rather than Infosys. How is Bollywood to know that where Vidya comes from, idiosyncrasies are ignored if you can get the job done. For that you would have to know her provenance — maamis who think nothing of riding motorcycles, buying autos for running errands or going alone after ‘office’ to the December Season.

Here is young Vidya in 2005, standing next to director Pradeep Sarkar after her memorable debut in Parineeta — a classic, self-assured beauty in a heated, period setting. Sarkar is talking enthusiastically about her performance for the excited television cameras. Vidya is unsmiling and silent. It was an astonishing event for the absence of girlish giggles Bollywood heroines develop to distract from their inherent toughness. Vidya seemed destined for big and important things then. But after Parineeta, her career was a bit of a PR disaster, punctuated frequently and almost exclusively by malicious reports of her clothes and weight. Like hounds who had heard an whistle audible only to them, the press suddenly decided that Vidya was both fat and badly dressed. And by dint of sheer repetition, this woman, who is destined to be good-looking even when she is 80, was no longer palatable. It was a great moment of mass hypnosis. And her movies of this period were largely forgettable too.

However, that season seems to have passed. More recently, the public gaze has been retrained towards her elegant Sabyasachi saris and Vidya is called preposterous things like ‘the brand ambassador of the national dress’. And before ‘behenji’ — that deathknell of sexual appeal — could be sneakily catapulted at her for her saris, Vidya shimmered into Abhishek Chaubey’s Ishqiya (2010). As a small-town woman wreaking havoc on a pair of conmen, she played a raucous lover to the younger man, smoky temptation to his uncle. An adult woman with mature motivations — central to the plot and played by a self-assured actor.

It is strange that Vidya was ever considered for the behenji category by the media because she has brought a powerful sexual charge to her roles. Her pairing with Madhavan in a series of Airtel ads in innocuous domestic settings had television viewers rapt with its potential for wild monkey sex (any minute now!) in a way that many big budget movies can only aspire to. The frilly kittens to whom we have become almost immune to seeing on screen lend themselves to harmless ‘sexy’ labels. Perhaps grown-up, erotic power is too close to the skin, easier to experience for viewers than it is to write about for reporters.

In 2011, when we meet in a Delhi hotel on a very frozen, very early morning she is warm, replete with good humour and shorn of make-up. She moves about restlessly on a sofa but still no giggles. Only an occasional deep belly laugh. She tells funny stories about herself, leaving in the perverse, unflattering bits about her childhood in Mumbai or her teenaged career in television. “I was so fat as a child, I would sit on the road and refuse to walk.” Or “I used to be so macho as a teenager, I’d refuse the production company’s car so I could go home at night by myself. When my father came once to Film City to pick me up one night, I felt so violated I didn’t speak to him. Poor thing, all the way from Goregaon to Chembur.” Or “I used to practise all the Ek Do Teen moves with my sister’s skirt tied around my head. But I also wrote to Satyajit Ray after he won the Oscar, asking him to cast me. I was just greedy.


Movie roles took a surprisingly long time to come to Vidya, considering she had been in television and ad films since she was 15. Her indulgent, middle-class parents — father in middle management, mother a homemaker — had thought it was a passing fancy, only pausing when she auditioned for a Malayalam movie. This was the first time they had a real sense of the fire in her belly. She actually did mean to work in the movies. However, Malayalam films were deemed appropriately intelligent and tasteful so they didn’t pause too long. But this first venture was to spiral into a series of disasters. Vidya’s first movie was the ninth collaboration between superstar Mohanlal and filmmaker Kamal. When the movie was shelved midway, the hitherto successful team looked around for someone to blame and there was the pretty young heroine ready to be labelled a jinx. Six other filmmakers in the south ‘unsigned’ her. Back home in Mumbai, Vidya suffered. “My self-esteem was shot to pieces. I’d heard so many things said about the way I looked and my acting.” So when Pradeep Sarkar said to her, “Aye ladki, one day I will make a movie with you,” she was politely sceptical.

Parineeta made her, but for years she suspected that it unmade her. From the beginning the very vain, very conservative world of Bollywood found Vidya a bit of an oddball. Her unusual debut and her own personality had fused together in public perception. “People would keep saying: ‘you are so different, you are like a breath of fresh air’ and I would only hear: ‘you are so different’.” She was unable to decide whether this was a description or a warning, given the rain of other advice. “There is constant pressure to not be an individual. A heroine is supposed to sing songs, dance, do four scenes, not ask questions about the character. For the first time in my life, there were people telling me how I should behave all the time. And I buckled under the pressure. I was not acting anymore. I was trying to be another Vidya Balan. And the lack of conviction showed in everything. In the movies, in my life. On top of everything else, there were fashion bloggers reporting if the nailpaint on the second toe of my left foot was chipped.” She hints that her love life took a hit at this period as well. “People tell you — don’t tell anyone you are dating. Or how do you know this man is interested in you because you are a star? Or I would share some excitement about a relationship with a friend and it would be in the papers the next day. Now I know better than to listen to anyone. I know I am not going to be seeing someone who is in awe or shock. My relationships are between me and the man I’m seeing.” She peters off, “Of course, one is young. There is desire…” She begins to say more and then pauses, “Perhaps I should just stop with ‘desire’!” And howls with laughter at her twee choice of words.

Luckily, she says, her identity crisis passed quickly. Clarity largely came from her older sister Priya who Vidya shamelessly eulogises to anyone who will listen. Priya (until recently the head of the ad agency, Lowe Lintas, Delhi) had written to Vidya when she did her first audition: “Retain yourself, do only what you want to do. And remember cigarettes do not make you more creative.” Though this last bit still makes Vidya guffaw, her sister’s prescience helped her find her moorings again. With Balki’s Paa and then Ishqiya, Vidya was back in the game. She stopped listening to any advice about movies and remembered that even on the sets, she functioned best by feel — not by looking at the monitor to review her last take.

SHE HAD remembered what she was there for: a bid for posterity. And she says this in so many words. Ask her why other young female actors are not staking the same claims, fighting for better roles and scripts and she has a considered answer. “Everyone’s attention is so fragmented now. People don’t have the time, energy, faith to invest in any one thing and see it through. Everyone wants to be a celebrity and make sure they have at least their two seconds of fame.”

The good thing about fragmented attention span is that it is easy to reinvent yourself. And Vidya, happily for her, is only amused by the new guff about her being an ‘Indian’ beauty. In No one killed Jessica, she played Raj Kumar Gupta’s version of Sabrina Lall: a quiet woman whose life is brought to a standstill by a senseless murder. Her next role is the diametrical opposite — Vidya stars in Dirty Picture, a biopic of Silk Smitha, the vamp whose life was just as configured by tragedy. Smitha was of the lower lip-biting, silver-tasselled skirts and headdress-wearing vintage, the kind of star once described as cabaret dancer, what the Bible imagined as a ‘fleshpot’. It boggles the mind to imagine a simmering Vidya or any anaemic Hindi movie achieving that level of, well, dirtiness, but stranger things have happened.