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Vidya Balan on success failure and nepotism

How happy are you with the reaction to Shakuntala Devi?

I’m over the moon. It’s really better than I’d imagined or could hope for. When I watched the film, I was happy that we’d made the film we wanted to. We told the story exactly the way we wanted to. If I may say so, everyone on the team felt proud. Anu (Menon, director) pushed us to give our best. So, there was a lot of satisfaction but the cherry on the cake is the audience appreciation. Since the film was on Amazon Prime and not in theatres, I didn’t know how the reactions would come in. You know people stayed up to watch the film because it released on July 31 at midnight. By the time I woke up the next day, people had started sending me messages. And I was like, “Oh my god!”. The reactions have been overwhelming. The reviews were lovely. People are watching it repeatedly and every time they’re watching it, they’re reaching out. There are new things that have touched them in every viewing.

What attracted you to the film in the first place?
The fact that it was Shakuntala Devi. Of course, when Anu Menon came to me, all I knew about Shakuntala Devi was that she was a mathematical wizard, she was known as the human computer and that she’s in the Guinness Book Of World Records. I thought that was a good enough reason to make a biopic on her. But I was fascinated by what Anu Menon told me.  Her take on the story… how she wanted to tell Shakuntala Devi’s story through the eyes of her daughter, blew my mind. Also, I was getting to play her over a span of 40 years. For an actor that is exciting and challenging at the same time.  I felt she was a woman way ahead of her time and she was so much more than just a mathematician. So, I told her to start writing it. That took a lot of time because there
was so much information. She worked on the script for three years. This was a passion project for her. With every draft that she brought to me, I felt even more strongly that I wanted to do this film.

How much did you prep for the film?
There was a lot of prep because she had a way with numbers. There was so much joy she derived from them. She saw math in everything. Though I am someone who enjoyed math at school, I had to exude that. I had to be as easy and as friendly with numbers. I remember having a lot of conversations with Anu Menon about that because my main concern was that the math should show. Because she did it with a certain flair, flamboyance, exuberance… it almost seemed like a magic show.  It was almost like she’d say Abracadabra and the answer would appear. To capture that was most crucial because math isn’t something that gives most people joy. That required a lot of preparation. Of course, reading about her, watching her videos and also listening to all the anecdotes that her daughter and son-in-law, Anupama Banerjee and Ajay Abhaya Kumar, shared with Anu Menon helped a lot. Also the accent…, I trained a lot for that too with Vikas Kumar, who is the founder of ‘Strictly Speaking’. They train actors with their diction. As a South Indian, I was conscious not to speak Hindi like my parents. Most people of my generation don’t. While growing up, we had North Indian neighbours, so I picked up the language.  But then to bring the South Indian accent back, was interesting because this was like an unlearning of sorts. Small things like the way she would say, “Shuwer” not “Sure”.  Even when she goes to London and gets groomed by Javier, her English improves but you know when people have an accent, it still shows up. So there’s a very fine balance. Your grammar may improve, but the accent is difficult to give up. I’ve met lots of people like that. So that fine balance also was a joy to crack.

When you see her videos,  you see she’s got this flourish, the hand gestures and all… And you weren’t impersonating her but you still got it all alive. How did you work that out?
The attempt was to capture the essence of Shakuntala. There is no point impersonating someone. I’m Vidya Balan playing Shakuntala Devi. I just tried to capture her essence.  That’s all I focused on. I’m grateful to Anupama and Ajay for all that they shared with us about her as a person. In fact, today Youtube is filled with videos of her. I was like, “Where were these videos when I was doing my research?” There’s so much more information about her out there today, I’m happy about that.

Vidya Balan


Most critics felt that seeing the movie through her daughter’s eyes wasn’t being kind to Shakuntala Devi because she was more than just a mother. Do you think that?

Personally, this was the story we wanted to tell. I think it gave a more rounded perspective. It could have been boring to just talk about her accomplishments. You needed to see her as a full-bodied person, who felt hurt, anger, possessive…Of course, everyone is entitled to their own opinion. I personally feel that this was the best way the story could have been told.  Also, we’ve never seen such an explosive mother-daughter relationship on screen. You’ve seen father-son relationships, you’ve seen mother-son relationships, but you’ve never seen mother-daughter relationships. Of course, her accomplishments you’d have seen any way the film was made. But here, you’re seeing her as a mother, daughter and wife besides seeing her
as a genius.

If you were asked to review the movie, what would it be like?
It’s exactly the film we set out to make. I feel proud of that. Everything has worked out beautifully. You see her as a genius, you see her as a person through the eyes of her daughter alongside her personal accomplishments… and there’s heart, there’s humour. My review would be a 10/5. But you can’t blame me because I’m extremely close to the film. You feel that about every film and I feel that much more about this.

This is the first time you were working with a female director. How was that experience? Does gender make any difference?
On the set, not at all. People ask me what’s the difference between a male and a female director? I have to wrap my head around it. Maybe she’s a lot more collaborative. Women generally tend to take everyone along, that’s how we’ve been trained, that’s how we’ve been conditioned… to keep it together. Ego can have negative connotations and I feel there’s less of that. Otherwise, she just was a director on the set doing her job and doing a bloody good job. Where it made a difference, I feel, was a woman telling a woman’s story through the eyes of another woman. It was Anu telling Shakuntala’s story through the eyes of Anupama Banerjee… As a woman, you understand other women better just like men understand other men better. I’ve told a lot of women stories but they’ve all been told through a male lens. I think that was a definite advantage.  

Did you find any 
similarities between you and Shakuntala Devi?
Yeah. The easiest similarity is that both of us laugh a lot. I’ve been told after people watched the film that both of us have a wicked sense of humour. But she was a free spirit and I’m working towards being free-spirited.

Vidya Balan


Talking about mother-daughter relationships, what was your relationship with your mother like? Did you have these kinds of burst ups with her?

Lots of clashes. That’s a given in any mother-daughter relationship. Of course, in the movie, it’s a little more explosive. Ours wasn’t like that. But there were moments of explosion. In fact, at one point in my life, I fought the most with my mother. Maybe my mother’s protectiveness sometimes got to me because I was like, “Why can’t you have more faith in me?”  She was actually just being protective. For example, when I wanted to join films she was so scared. This was a world unknown to us. I remember she used to dissuade me and it used to make me feel that she doesn’t have faith in me, my talent. Today with age, maturity and experience, I can see that. That time I felt she thinks I’m not good enough. Initially, I felt she was standing in the way of my dreams. But after I went through a spate of rejections down south, she started praying more than anyone else that this dream of mine works out.  She saw my passion and in the end, every parent wants their child to be happy. So, even though she showed reluctance and did not want me to do this, in the end, she was praying the hardest. I went to my parents’ house to watch the film on the day it was released. It was my parents, my sister and her family and Siddharth (Siddharth Roy Kapur) and me. At the end of the film, she got up and I could see that she was holding back. I put my arm around her and she cried. She is a woman of very few words but she cried and I said, “This is my tribute to you.” I just wanted to let her know that I realised she’d given up so much for us.

We often don’t see our mothers as women…
Yeah. It was only a few years ago that I started seeing my mother as a woman. There was in some way an acceptance of her as a person, as an individual, as a human being… one who has likes and desires. Less than a year ago, I asked her, “Did you have any dreams or ambitions? Did you want to do anything?” She said something that actually blew my mind. She wanted to be a singer. But there was no question about that then. Her father got her married and I don’t think she even expressed to anyone that she would like to be a singer. I don’t think at that time, any woman in their circle had a career. She’s learnt music throughout her life, even today she learns music. She’s learnt classical Carnatic music, now she’s learning Hindustani and light classical.  You know I’ve spoken about my dreams, my sister has spoken about her dreams. We’ve spoken about our drive, ambitions and all that. It was only last year that I asked her this. I asked her if she’s ever said this to anyone and she said, “No.”  

You’ve completed 15 years in showbiz. What has been your highest peak as an actor and your lowest ebb as a human being?
Highest peak as an actor… There have been quite a few times thankfully. Every time you think this is the ultimate, something changes. Sometimes you go a few steps down, sometimes you go even higher. That’s just how it is. But as a human being, I see them as lessons. Maybe the time when after five back-to-back hits and a lot of critical appreciation, there were seven flops. That was a tough time.

Vidya Balan


As a person?

As a person also. When your films don’t work, or maybe because I take it too personally, I began to question a lot of things about myself. It’s because lagataar nahi chal rahi thi na films (Film after film wasn’t earning money). I was thinking what am I doing wrong? It makes you confront your worst fears. Yes, if in that period you’re able to confront your worst fears and insecurities, you come out on the other side stronger. I was also going through terrible health issues at the time. I don’t know what came first, the chicken or the egg… whether it was all this stress that led to me going through ill health or it was my health that further compounded how I was feeling. It’s tough to tell but that was probably when I felt my lowest.

Did you ever lose confidence in yourself at that time?
Yeah. I think I did. Thankfully, I’ve always been appreciated for my work. So that was something to hold on to. But
in terms of commercial success, because it was evading me at that point, I wondered what had changed. I wondered if it had anything to do with the size of my body? For someone who’s grown up with being called fat, everything in life boils down to the size of your body. I was also the biggest I’ve been at that point. I definitely was thinking that everything is only about the body. That’s when I began working with a healer, who I’ve been working with for a while now.  And I confronted my worst fears. That helped me accept myself even more than before. I finally stopped judging myself at the cost of my body. If The Dirty Picture liberated me and made me comfortable about my body, this phase made me realise that it’s my body which is keeping me alive. If I’m going to hate it, then I might as well be dead. I think my body was reacting to the negative thoughts by spiralling into
a health issue.

Did your body ever deter you on the screen?
Thankfully not. You know when I’m in front of the camera, nothing else matters because that gives me the greatest joy. It’s in between, when I’m not in front of the camera, that these problems turn up.

Looking back, is there any director you’ve disagreed the most with in your 15 -year career?
Not disagreed but Mohit Suri is someone… We spoke very little to each other. We didn’t really spend the kind of time that I’m used to spending with my directors. There was no disagreement. But we were seeing the film, the characters in a different way. I think we didn’t get each other. I watched Aashiqui 2 and I was like, “Wow!” But that kind of thing did not happen between me and him, which is fine.

Vidya Balan


You think that affected Hamari Adhuri Kahani?

I don’t know. Obviously, there were things in the film that for some reason, people did not connect with that much. But it’s amazing that people watch it on television and absolutely love it. So many people I’ve met tell me their favourite film of mine is Hamari Adhuri Kahani  Sometimes everything falls into place and sometimes things don’t.  Maybe this also must have contributed. I don’t know.

Tell me what have the last few months taught you?
The last few months have taught me that I’m capable of a lot more than I think. I got into the kitchen for the first time. I tried my hand at cooking, which was a big deal for me. I hated even the thought of it before. But I actually tried my hand at it and realised that cooking is not that tough… (laughs) good cooking maybe. But cooking per se isn’t. God forbid, if there’s another situation like this, at least I know I won’t feel helpless if there’s no cook. It’s not something I enjoy, but it is something I can do. Also, it was a new experience to share household chores with my husband. Life wouldn’t have ever given us an experience like that. You take so much for granted in life, it made me realise the worth of those things. You also realise you can become self-reliant. I was doing all these self- shot videos. You learn that, if push comes to shove,  you can set up the camera even if the camera is your phone, you can do whatever minimal stuff and get by. Previously, I wouldn’t shoot a video if there wasn’t someone to hold the camera. Even if it was a casual video in which I didn’t have to get dressed. We underestimate ourselves. Also, I’ve got immense gratitude for the life I have.

What have you learnt about Siddharth in the last few months?
That he’s a trooper, an absolute trooper. If there’s a need, he’ll do it. He did everything around the house. Also, both of us are finicky about cleanliness, so we’re on the same page. Who would have imagined something like this? But
I realised that both us were just making do with whatever was possible. He’s very easy to be around. I’ve known that from before but given these circumstances, I realised it all the more. It’s been tough for people and like I said, I’m very grateful for the life I have, for the resources, for being in the comfort of my own home and having company. A lot of people got stuck at home alone. I met a friend recently, who’d lost so much weight because she was working from home. So sometimes she was just having Maggi and sometimes boiled rice and dal. You realise there’s so much to be grateful for.

Vidya Balan

Did you have any new insights into marriage?
I’m sure this was the time when a lot of people had to confront the truth about their relationship. Thankfully, it was all good here. It was great to be at home together for such a great expanse of time. We could enjoy the house, we were enjoying being with each other and yet, we were doing our own thing. It’s not like we were 24×7 together. It was a healthy space where each one was doing their own thing and also spending time together. Sometimes, he would drive me to get groceries. About marriage, I just think that if it works, it works and if it doesn’t, it doesn’t.

As an outsider, what is your take on nepotism debate which is raging in the industry …
Nepotism is a reality not just in the film industry, but everywhere. It happens in the music industry, it happens in business families, the medical profession, politics etc. We’ve had a dynastic government in India for the longest time. So nepotism is a reality. But, I have to say that it has never deterred me from moving forward. It’s never come in my way, so my experience has been absolutely fine.

So you’ve never been replaced with a star kid in a project?
No, never. At least, not that I’m aware of. Once the film has come to me, it has stayed with me. But I do think that I’ve been fortunate.

What do you have to say to people who are actually going through all this?
It must be tough. I don’t come from a film family. I don’t know the workings of the film industry. When I used to ask my parents about what they think I should do, they’d  say, “Do what your heart says.” That was their advice because even they didn’t know how this place functions. When people leave their home and come here to make a career and then when they feel unsupported, I think that can be shattering. According to my experiences, I’d say the world is what you make of it. You just have to keep moving forward with faith. It’s not like I’ve not faced rejections. I’ve had huge ups and downs. But, I’m someone who has faith in the goodness of people. That’s how I’ve been brought up. I feel the Universe has my back. I feel that it is a fair world. So, I think things have worked out for me.

Lastly, tell me what else is on your mind?
Now we’re just talking about how soon we can start shooting Sherni. I was shooting for it when the pandemic hit us all. So we’re all figuring things, keeping fingers crossed and saying let’s see if we’re able to resume it, post the rains. And then, of course, I’m reading scripts. So hopefully I can decide what I’m doing next. But I also feel you can’t decide until work actually starts, shoots start… I guess things will get clearer once we get back to work. 

Vidya Balan