The sentimental bores me

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By Text: Arindam Chatterjee Which director should Vidya work with for a Bengali film? Tell t2@abp.in in Vidya
  • Published 15.07.13
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Anjan Dutt with Vidya Balan at Town Hall on Saturday

He set the tone by singing John Denver’s Sunshine On My Shoulders. She struck the last chord with, ‘Onek aador shobaike!’ For an hour in between, Anjan Dutt engaged Vidya Balan in a chat that touched upon the Kahaani actress’s professional and personal lives. The occasion was Together We Rise — an evening for the children from the Indian Institute of Cerebral Palsy, presented by the Bengal Chamber of Commerce and Industry in association with The Telegraph — at Town Hall on Saturday. Excerpts from the chat...

Vidya: Sunshine sara jibon shobar chai! My god! This is really such a beautiful start to the evening. I am so overwhelmed meeting the kids. I don’t have the words to express how I feel. And I keep saying, ‘Ami mon theke Bangali.’ So someone asked me, ‘What do you know about the pop culture of Bengal?’ I can now go back and say I just heard Anjan Dutt singing live! What more do you want me to know? Thank you Anjanda...

Anjan: I feel the Indian democracy is working because of certain honest professionals, in spite of so much crisis. You are a very important professional in this country. Do you see yourself using your stardom for a cause, do you see yourself as an activist? Not necessarily political...

V: I don’t see myself as an activist at all. Of course, there is a desire to do far more, but most of us end up being armchair activists saying this and that should be done. Yes, I have tried to leverage it to draw attention to certain causes over time. But I will say that I am first an actor, and I’ll focus on that so that there is more for me to leverage. Having said that, I think I am really a humanist. Even in my one-on-one interaction with people, if I’m being true to that moment, I’m making a difference.

A: So you are saying your work stands for what you are doing.

V: Absolutely. My work is really an extension of my belief. I don’t know why I veer towards certain kinds of roles, or they towards me. Earlier today someone was asking me, ‘Why do you only play strong women roles?’ I said, ‘Because I believe strength and women are synonymous with each other. How can I not play?’ It is something that comes naturally to me.

A: Do you remember the first time we met?

V: Yes, I do. At Nandan, at the film festival. I think I had just shot for Bhalo Theko, the film hadn’t released…

A: Outside Nandan, in 2003…. Do you remember what you were wearing?

V: No! (Laughs out loud)

A: I think I do. I asked my son (Neel) today and he remembered that you were wearing an orange shirt and white trousers or something like that…

V: Really?! My god! I’m flattered to know that!

Sharbari Datta gifted a sari to Vidya

A: You were in school in Mumbai. Did you always think of being an actress?

V: Always. Thank god it worked out.... Let’s say I liked being in other people’s shoes. So either I would have ended up robbing people’s shoes outside temples or doing a more glorious thing like acting (laughs). No, I’m just kidding! I tend to empathise a lot with people, so I always wonder what a certain person in a certain situation might do… that’s what attracted me the most... about living your life and yet living those lives that you would have probably fantasised about.

A: Anybody inspired you?

V: Shabana Azmi to begin with, and Madhuri Dixit in Ek do teen.... She fascinated every girl in the country… men differently, but every girl wanted to be Madhuri, and I would watch Ek do teen and perform it in front of the mirror. But then through my school years I would also watch films on Doordarshan, Hindi and regional cinema, and I remember being extremely awestruck by Shabana’s performance in Arth, I couldn’t get over it, I still can’t..... That probably has been one of my strongest inspirations as an actor.

A: You started off with Malayalam films that didn’t do well...

V: No, they didn’t take off.

A: What was your experience?

V: The Malayalam industry was going through a slump, a lot of films were getting stalled, mine was one of them. I was doing a film with Mohanlal and this director Kamal, they had done eight successful films together, and the ninth film had me, and they had a problem between each other… and how we tend to blame an external force.... Word began to spread that I was probably jinxed. I either got thrown out of films before I shot for them, or people would replace me and I would not know of it. I would read about it in a magazine or hear about it from someone else. Then I went on to do a Tamil film and they threw me out of that film. I was so unacceptable to myself at that time. I was constantly doubting everything I was doing, which was probably reflecting on screen. I remember a producer telling me, ‘You are ugly.’

“I am so overwhelmed meeting the kids,” said Vidya, on stage with the children from the Indian Institute of Cerebral Palsy. Pictures: Anindya Shankar Ray

A: How did you come to Bhalo Theko?

V: I did a Euphoria music video, Kabhi aana tu meri gali for Dada (director Pradeep Sarkar). At the end of the first day of shoot, he said, ‘I’ll do a film with you’. By then I had heard so much of that that I didn’t believe him. He began to groom me, cast me in a lot of his music videos, ads... he showed me Satyajit Ray’s Seemabaddha. I had come here for an ad with Dada, and Dinesh Rawat, a production manager, suggested my name to Gautam Halder who was making Bhalo Theko. I had put out a desire to be an actor, and somewhere I wanted to do a Bengali film at some stage because I was fascinated. I had watched a lot of Ray’s works, I had watched one of your films, Antareen (directed by Mrinal Sen)... I loved the film. I wanted to do a Bengali film and it fell into my lap. It was unreal!

A: Did you use make-up there?

V: Very little. I haven’t seen the film in a long time. I’ll always regret I couldn’t dub the film myself. Which is why I decided that before I do my next Bengali film I’ll speak the language well.

A: Is that why you didn’t do another Bengali film? Or were you not approached?

V: No, I was approached. It is unfortunate that Rituda (Rituparno Ghosh) is no more. He would come up with fascinating ideas... things didn’t work out. But if I find a compelling script, I’ll be more than happy to do a Bengali film. I’m dying to do one, also now because I speak the language much better.

A: I’ll try to write something worthwhile.

V: Please! I would love that. I also sing a few Bengali songs. I love to show off my Bengali wherever I get a chance!

A: All that happened through Pradeep Sarkar?

V: Dada, Bhalo Theko, Parineeta.… I have worked with other Bengali filmmakers for ad films.... Dada had faith in me at a time I didn’t have faith in myself.... And I have Bengali friends.... Then Sujoy (Ghosh). He invested a lot of time in teaching me the language. I see films and message him saying, ‘Do you have the lyrics to this song?’ And he would send me the lyrics and I’ll sit and learn it.... Then I learnt Shunte pelam Posta giye, tomar naki meyer biye (a Sukumar Ray poem) from Rajesh Sharma.

A: You never had to struggle economically?

V: No. I come from a modest, middle-class background. We are Tamil Brahmins for whom education takes precedence over everything else. So initially when I told my mother I wanted to be an actor, she had a mini heart attack. She said, ‘How can you say that?’ Satyajit Ray was in hospital at that time and I wrote him a letter that said, ‘Please get well. I would love to work with you.’ Before I could send it, he passed away. My mother thought it was a passing fancy. My father said whatever you do, do to the best of your abilities. I did my masters in sociology.

A: You have always been doing these different kinds of roles, not mainstream song-and-dance. Was it a conscious choice?

V: I don’t want to be repeating myself on screen. For me, it’s important to play different people. Some were good films, some indifferent. I am glad I had the chance to do the work I have done. I have been always inspired by the great actors, whether it is Uttam Kumar or Amitabh Bachchan. Stardom follows great actors. My focus was always to try and do what I was expected to do well. I never chased stardom. I believed it would come…

A: How was it working with Mani Ratnam?

V: Incredible! Every director has an individual style, the actor has to adapt to the director. With Mani Ratnam, there was a lot of un-learning. Mani Ratnam pushed me to feel it. There’s a scene (in Guru) where Madhavan proposes to me and he made sure I broke down. It was a very tough scene. It was raining, I was on a wheelchair, and he said until you feel the pain, the humiliation, I will not shoot.

A: You always veered away from the sentimental. Was it the actor in you trying to do that?

V: I am not a sentimental person, I am an emotional person. The sentimental bores me. The subjects I choose don’t lend themselves to sentimentality. Like Paa. Balki is the most un-sentimental director I have come across. He doesn’t romanticise anything.

A: Critics had said Vidya’s talent is being wasted. Do you agree? Looking back, do you think you could have done it earlier?

V: No. As an actor, it’s nice for me to try out different things. But a Parineeta doesn’t happen every day. As long as I’m aware of that, I am not wasting my talent. Waiting for it would have been a bigger waste. At least I have gathered these experiences. And there is something to learn from every performance. And I cherish each one of those films whether or not they worked.

A: I have heard… The Dirty Picture and Kahaani were happening more or less at the same time, but you tried very hard to bring Dirty Picture before Kahaani. You were convinced that Dirty Picture would work and it would help the low-budget Kahaani to storm. Was there any calculation like that?

V: Not at all. I had absolutely no say in the film’s release. I wanted the best for Kahaani. I knew there were lots of people backing Dirty Picture. It was a semi-biopic on Silk Smitha and it was controversial, which grabs eyeballs anyway. The music was doing very well. But Kahaani had one pregnant woman going around saying, ‘My husband is missing.’ It was such a struggle to put the film together. It was literally like I was carrying the baby, and I wanted the best for it. I had no say, but lots of prayers.

A: You broke a lot of rules with Dirty Picture. In a mainstream film to act bitchy, to be debauched, to put on weight...

V: I was loving the part and the fact that Milan Luthria and Ekta Kapoor had the conviction that I could pull it off. It was not conventional casting. In Dirty Picture, she wore her sexuality on her sleeve. My personality is very different, but I knew if I ever got a role I would do everything I could. Initially I was apprehensive about putting on weight because I battled weight issues all my life. And for someone like me, who had lost all the weight and then being told to put on weight for a film, was like god testing you in strange ways. After a while I realised either I give in to it completely — whether it’s being uninhibited about my body or dancing or wearing little clothes I had never worn in my life or putting on weight — or not do it at all. Milan said, ‘If you are inhibited, awkward, the camera will catch it. It will make it look sleazy.’

A: With Dirty Picture, you achieved something that few women in India have been able to. An actress driving a film is very rare. I think Suchitra Sen was one… Uttar Phalguni and Dweep Jele Jai. Later on Rekha... Khoon Bhari Maang, Umrao Jaan. And the third one is Vidya Balan. Let’s give her a big hand!

V: I don’t know what to say! I feel very humbled. All I had was a dream to be an actor and I am living my dream. God has been so kind. This city has been so kind and has played such a strong role in my life. I feel so overwhelmed by all the love. I can’t believe it sometimes!

A: To get a star who is a brilliant actress is very difficult. Thank you for that.

V: Amake niye akta Bangla chhobi korben toh?

A: Absolutely! If I can write something worthwhile...

V: Aami opekkha korbo.