After an unforgettable debut in Bollywood with 'Parineeta' (2005), Vidya Balanestablished herself as an actor par excellence with roles in films like 'Paa', 'Ishqiya', 'The Dirty Picture', 'Kahaani' and 'Kahaani 2'.
While critics have not stopped raving about this National Award-winning actor's ability to deliver one knock-out performance after another, her films in the past five years haven't worked their magic at the box office. Vidya, who will be seen essaying the role of a brothel madam in Srijit Mukherji's period and Partition drama, 'Begum Jaan', spoke to BT about her latest labour of love, dealing with box-office failures and why feminism doesn't mean being a man-hater. Excerpts...
When you started out, did you think that eventually, you would be in a position where roles will be written for you?
That always sounded fancy, but I didn't know what kind of roles people would write for me. However, I love the fact that people write roles for me; I feel humbled. You keep hearing that a particular role was written keeping Amitabh Bachchan in mind and wonder how that works... and suddenly, it happens to you. But consciously, I never worked towards it or even desired it.
You have always played hard-hitting roles, but your character 'Begum Jaan' is different from what you have done so far. So, how did you go about fleshing out your character?
I saw the Bengali film ('Rajkahini') and it struck me as extremely powerful and moving. But then, I consciously blanked out my memory of the film. Today, if you ask me how a particular scene was done in the Bengali film, the answer is, I don't know. That's the only way I could have brought in my interpretation of the character. For me to understand that it is about power, I had to have conversations with Srijit. It's a well-written script, so all I had to do was read it and enact the scenes.
But the fun is when you flesh it out a bit — get into details people don't necessarily watch on screen, but nevertheless lend life to those moments. Begum Jaan rules the space she lives in, so her body language is very chauda. When we asked ourselves why she would not set up her kotha somewhere else, we realised that each one of us is trying to establish our roots somewhere or the other.
And just because Begum Jaan belongs to the fringe element of the society, it doesn't mean that she doesn't feel the need to do that. She doesn't care if you decide to partition the country. She says that's irrelevant to her whether you are calling it India or Pakistan; it is her house and she will deal with it the way she wants to. She doesn't seek approval. These might have been mere words when Srijit and I were discussing the story, but thanks to those conversations, I could bring her alive.
You have often said that the first day of shoot sets the tone of the film for you. What was day one like on the set of 'Begum Jaan'?
On day one, my shoot was with Naseer saab (Naseeruddin Shah). The scene portrayed Begum Jaan's feminine and charming side — she negotiates with the Raja, almost seducing him with her charm. I looked at Srijit and said, 'After all those conversations about her fearless, aggressive nature, you are making me do this'. But, sometimes, it's the best way to start. The most unexpected thing happens on the first day and you nosedive into it; there is no other way to go.
You are critics' darling. However, your last five films have not worked at the box office. How did it affect you?
At times, it saddened me and at times, it broke my heart. At times, it destroyed me and at times, it didn't affect me. I invest a lot in the films that I do. So, there is always a part of me that wants love, acceptance and approval and it gets measured in terms of box-office success. After a spate of successful films, 'Ghanchakkar' didn't work and I didn't know how to do deal with it. When 'Shaadi Ke Side Effects' didn't work, I was angry. When 'Bobby Jasoos' didn't work, I felt like a victim. When 'Hamari Adhuri Kahani' didn't work, I was devastated. But when 'Kahaani 2: Durga Rani Singh' didn't work, I disconnected from the numbers game. And maybe that's why I had to go through this; so that I go back to focusing on what I enjoy doing — the process of moviemaking and even the promotions. Today, I am very glad that I went through that phase, though when I went through it, I am not sure I felt the same way. I feel maybe there was a lesson in store for me.
Actors are considered to be vain, but you have never let that come in the way of portraying a character...
I feel I am vain because I like to do whatever I can to make a character come alive. On screen, I have to think about what the character would like to wear.
Her economic or social background also needs to be taken into account. So, those things dictate how I look in a film. If I am looking true to the part, it satisfies and excites me. I am not Vidya Balan, the star on screen, and that distinction is very clear in my head. Of course, there is a part of me because I am playing the role, but I am not playing myself.