The grey, grim ‘wanted’ posters started appearing on the walls of Mumbai the other day. Maybe your eyes paused for a brief, unblinking second before that flicker of recognition lit it up. Vidya Balan! Haunted, fatigued, like she’s been through a tempest. Though not devoid of self-possession. Grungy and deglammed, but still with that soft, vulnerable lustre of old. All the reasons are visible right there for why she could claim that whole territory between the woman in the detergent ad and the gangstress with a sulphur-coated tongue. It’s just as well they put this up, she’d been MIA for a while now. Long enough for you to think, someone better arrest her and bring her back.
Well, they did. She’s Durga Rani Singh now, and what kind of shadowy badlands she had to ride through, we’ll know when Kahaani 2 releases on December 2. A touch of suspense is in order with a title like that, harking back to that 2012 thriller. With everyone prepared to be startled this time, maybe director Sujoy Ghosh will have a harder time pulling it off—but in Vidya’s unlikely but near-pitch perfect presence in an edge-of-the-seat suspense film he can trust. For the viewer too, this inaugurates a whole new Vidya Balan season that should compensate for her long absence. In the offing after Kahaani 2 are Begum Jaan, the Hindi remake of a Bengali film in which she plays the madam of a brothel during Partition, and a film on the controversial and brilliant poet Kamala Das.
Vidya was called ‘the fourth Khan’ after a string of stellar performances a couple of years ago—an odd way perhaps to doff one’s hat to an actress who has been quietly shoring up a viable space for strong woman characters, but still an acknowledgement that she was often in the centre of the frame, a space usually reserved for outsized male egos. But, unlike the other three Khans who have rarely disrupted the frequency of their films, she goes through seemingly inconsistent patches of breaks and appearances. After No One Killed Jessica, Ishqiya, Dirty Picture and Kahaani, and some tepid ones like Shaadi ke Side Effects and Bobby Jasoos, there followed the forgettable Ghanchakkar and Hamari Adhuri Kahaani. And then a long break for health reasons.
What is Kahaani 2 all about? Is it a sequel/prequel? In a plush hotel room in suburban Juhu, not far from her residence, Vidya is primed for media interviews. Sujoy is at hand. No dearth of warmth, giggles and energy—she apparently ploughed through 44 interviews in a day once, they say. Vidya jokes about Sujoy’s Hindi, wonders why she is the only one feeling cold in the room, desultorily scans her day’s schedule, ignores the beverage that’s been waiting for her and so on and so forth.
Vidya is not your average workaholic. She took almost a year off in 2015 before returning with a smaller role in Teen, another suspense thriller.
Finally, Kahaani 2. “Yesss!” says Vidya, lighting up instantly. “Both Kahaani and Kahaani 2 are suspense thrillers, but the similarity ends there. Vidya Bagchi and Durga Rani Singh are as different from each other as can be. It’s a fresh story, taking the franchise forward. It’s not a sequel.” Why not? It fairly brimmed with the potential for one, with viewers having bought so much into her character, set off against the unnerving Inspector Khan (Nawazuddin Siddiqui). “We did explore a few stories for a sequel, but it didn’t really work out. Then we decided to make a film called Durga Rani Singh, but I had to opt out for health reasons. Then Kahaani 2 happened.”
So the challenge was to actually disrupt, to differentiate it from the first, rather than seek to recreate? “Yes, there are expectations but Sujoy said as long as we know it’s a different film, it would be fine,” says Vidya. “That helped me sort out the baggage I may have carried—and thankfully it’s a completely new character. I don’t know if am capable of playing the same character again. People ask me how I played Manjulika (Bhool Bhulaiyaa), Silk (Dirty Picture), Vidya Bagchi....All I know is that I responded to the script. Outside the film, if you ask me to perform any of the scenes, I can’t.”
She goes a step further and says the primary reason for her to not do theatre is her inability to repeat. “Everyone (including my husband, who has acted in theatre) tells me that the thrill of performing in front of a live audience is unparalleled. But for me to do the performance again and again is close to impossible. If you ask me to repeat two takes, I don’t know if I can do it. In that sense, I’m incapable of imitation or emulation.”
This restlessness has led to an interesting filmographic journey. Her initial films after Parineeta and Lage Raho Munnabhai, when she tried to go “mainstream” with Heyy Babyy and Kismet Konnection, didn’t get her too far—they thought it unbecoming of her to go all bimbette-like, and said she didn’t have the figure and fashion nous for it anyway. Then Paa and No One Killed Jessica marked a new trajectory altogether. What followed was a variety of strong, daring, sometimes risqué roles, a national award, Filmfare awards and a Padmashri too.
She’s candid about her missteps. “After the first few years of groping, trying to figure, exploring, people started realising I am up for all kinds of challenges, any genre. I started doing the films I wanted to do. I began to get a wide variety of roles, some appeal to me, some don’t...but very rarely does someone come with a stereotypical role. I’m very happy about that. I don’t think I can do a quintessential heroine. I enjoy the kind of work I do,” she says. A quick ‘touchwood’ on the arms of the chair signs off the sentence. The sign of someone with a memory of shaky days.
So what does appeal to her? “I’d like to do a nice relationship story like a Silsila but they are not making those any more. Although Shaadi ke Side Effects was in the romcom space...it was a first for me.” She guffaws over the trailer, with those typical husband-wife arguments. “It was so relatable, it still happens to me,” she says.
A poster of Kahaani 2 carrying a mug of Vidya’s character
Rajesh Mapuskar, the filmmaker who cast her for a dance number in his Ferrari Ki Sawaari, says she’s as simple as she was ten years ago. “She has no fear. The way she uses her body for different roles is amazing. And she doesn’t want to be trapped in any image.” But Vidya—who started with television (Hum Paanch), commercials and many films that never took off—encountered the image trap right with the first film that shot her to the big league, Parineeta. A lot of her journey afterwards was about her shaking this off.
Parineeta saw her in an almost calendar-like depiction of traditional beauty: graceful, coy, swathed in silk, very “Indian”. Her kind of looks seemed coded for an evocation of that ‘simple, yet ethereal’ quality—minus any sassiness. But she willed that was not to be her forte, the “quintessential” heroine slot. Her marriage to producer Siddharth Roy Kapoor changed nothing about her decision. She has spoken of the relationship with an affectionate openness—her initial surprise at being married, her inability to cook, Siddharth’s encouraging her to do what she likes.
Nandini Sardesai, who taught Vidya sociology during her undergraduate years at St Xavier’s College, remembers her as her “favourite student”. She later did a masters in sociology from Mumbai University, while modelling and trying to get a toehold in Malayalam and Tamil cinema. Did her academic background help in her acting. “Yes, it makes you believe in the possibility of possibilities. Something that’s not true for you is true for someone else. By inhabiting another person’s world and body, you develop empathy for all kinds of people.”
Dirty Picture’s Silk Smitha, the lower-middle-class detective of Bobby Jasoos, Jessica’s sister, Geeta Bali in Albela—they’re nothing if not “all kinds of people”. Now comes Begum Jaan, the madam. Srijit Mukherjee, that film’s director, is all praise. “After a very long time, one actress inspired confidence in scriptwriters to write scripts with her in mind. It’s because of Vidya that distributors started putting money on films with a female protagonist. The trend continued with Kangana and Priyanka.” Srijit had planned the original Bengali, Rajkahini, also with Vidya but health issues aborted that. With the Hindi, he redeemed his promise. “Unko Begum Jaan karni hi thi. It was destiny. Everything can wait, but you can’t substitute fire in the belly. In that sense, Vidya is indispensable to the industry,” he gushes.
Rajkumar Rao, her co-actor in Hamari Adhoori Kahani, too says Vidya inaugurated this phase of “female-centric films” with some “phenomenal” work. “I was totally zapped watching her in Kahaani. After working with her, I’ve become a fan for life. She has no hang-ups or ego issues. She is somebody who loves to laugh. It’s such a delight knowing her.” Directors also speak of her discipline and dedication. That spans all the way from weight gain and smoking for Dirty Picture or, now, trying to penetrate the inner world of Kamala Das. “I never understood poetry. As a matter of fact, it intimidates me. I understand film songs where you know the context, your interpretation is guided. But here I am preparing to be her. So her poetry was the guide,” Vidya says.
She was amazed to learn about Kamala Das’s life. “It’s not just her writing. It’s the context that made it shocking for people. Saying things about her life, husband and marriage. Hats off to her husband too.... She lived life unapologetically, while being in what we call a successful marriage. Probably we are being biased when we try to figure how much of it was real. Maybe it was all a figment of the imagination, maybe all real, maybe the truth lies somewhere in between—that’s who she is. Someone who we will never know....”
A strong leaning towards women’s rights issues underlies her passion for understanding and portraying strong women. She’s lent her face for the usual campaigns. And she was rooting for Hillary Clinton. “I was really hoping America would have its first female president. Britain has its second woman premier. I believe even Somalia has its first female presidential candidate. It’s time women ruled the world.” Like anyone else, she is affected by what happens around her but she is categorical about celebrities having the choice to lend their voice or not to a cause. While she was a signatory to a letter supporting the FTII students during the strike, she continues to be an FTII Society member.
But before things can get too heavy, she clarifies that she really doesn’t like it when people show off their mental chops. That is a real factor with her—she has to get along with her directors. “I am most comfy with Sujoy because he’s not intellectual in that sense. He’s approachable. I like people to be approachable and affable—rather, I get along with people who are like that. He is extremely sharp and intelligent, but he is not throwing it in your face. I don’t want to wonder if what I’m saying is the right thing or not. I’m too impatient for that,” she says. But she has also learnt that people can have a vocabulary different from hers and one needs to understand that. “Again it’s acting that gives you that crash course. Experience in the film industry is like an accelerated growth in learning.”
She oscillates between playfulness and deep thought so often that one wonders if a commercial filmmaker will venture to offer her a mainstream role. “I know. I said this to Rajkumar Santoshi who once said he’ll think ten times before he comes to me. I said I’ll think ten times anyway so just come. Though I do believe they would have come to me with a Silsila,” she smiles. Rekha’s role, then? She winks, saying “maybe both”. So a Yash Chopra relationship film, and what else? She has a dance film on her wishlist. But for now, she is happy to be back in the suspense thriller space. “I love the thriller genre. Maybe it has to do with my impatience.”
For all this, she is not your average workaholic. She took almost a year off in 2015 before returning with a smaller role in Teen, another suspense thriller. “This year, I have done two full films back to back with just a month’s break, during which I was prepping for the role. But I need time off. I need time in between projects, time for family, to watch a play, read, go on a long drive. I like my solitude, me-time. I go through phases where I don’t want to meet anyone, the leisure of nothingness. I give myself that.” During such lulls, she does things like being on jury of the MAMI festival, attending a play at Prithvi Festival. “I love all that atmosphere, the chai sessions. I got a whiff of it after yeeeears at MAMI. I watched some 20 films. It was great.”
But right now, she is readying herself for a manic year ahead. At the end of which, audience response may again confirm her as ‘the fourth Khan’. Or, to be more gender-accurate, ‘the first shero’—which is the other moniker she earned. Yes, earned. Though a feminised form of ‘hero’, it can also be read with a curry western-gangsta kind of twang worthy of the Chambal ravines—not something one would have associated with her after Parineeta. So when Mapuskar says “she’s a lambi race ka ghoda and she knows it”, it’s both a fact and an incomplete one at the same time. It’s great watching her on the race course precisely because, ever so often, she jumps off-course for the thrill of risk.