[YourStory Inspirations] How Vidya Balan, a Bollywood ‘outsider’, changed the narrative in a male-centric industry

The Padma Shri awardee and National Film Award winner is often credited with being a pioneer in changing the discourse of modern Hindi commercial cinema.

[YourStory Inspirations] How Vidya Balan, a Bollywood ‘outsider’, changed the narrative in a male-centric industry

Tuesday July 14, 2020,

9 min Read

Cable TV was new, fascinating and all the rage in India in the 1990s. The excitement was akin to what over the top (OTT) platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime inspire these days. Viewers from back then, the mid-90s to be more precise, may remember the dorky, bespectacled character of Radhika Mathur, one of the five sisters from the popular sitcom ‘Hum Paanch’ produced by television czarina Ekta Kapoor. Initially played by TV actress Amita Nangia, a 16-year-old Mumbai teen was asked to audition as a replacement and went on to bag the role in the family sitcom, which aired on Zee TV. 

Vidya Balan in conversation with Shradha Sharma

Actor Vidya Balan (R) chats with YourStory Founder and CEO Shradha Sharma

Today, she is a bonafide star having broken several barriers and glass ceilings. Whether it was her transition from TV to cinema or making her mark as a female lead in Bollywood, who carries the weight of a film solely on her shoulders, refusing to just play the token role of the traditional Hindi film heroine -- who sings, dances, looks pretty, and supports the male lead -- her journey has been nothing short of extraordinary.

She has been awarded India’s fourth-highest civilian honour, the Padma Shri, a National Film Award, and several Filmfare awards. She is a pioneer. She is Vidya Balan. 

YourStory Media Founder and CEO Shradha Sharma recently caught up with the critically-acclaimed actor on YourStory Inspirations series to talk about Vidya Balan’s  incredible and inspiring journey so far. 

Watch the full conversation on YourStory Inspirations series here:

Nepotism in Bollywood, has been a hotly debated topic for several years, and more so now. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule such as superstar Shah Rukh Khan who transitioned successfully from being a TV star to becoming the ‘Badshah of Bollywood’, without any connections or backing in the industry. However, the general impression is that for an outsider without any Bollywood connections or mentors, it’s difficult to survive, let alone thrive. But Vidya has thrived and how.

Pioneering women-centric films

Despite largely being a male-bastion, where over the years, male leads have typically been the centre of Hindi film narratives in India, there have been outliers like Smita Patil, Shabana Azmi, and Nandita Das to name a few. 

But in modern commercial Hindi cinema, it is perhaps Vidya who has played a pioneering role in shifting the focus from male-centric narratives to the woman’s perspective with successful films like Kahaani, No One Killed Jessica, and the Silk Smitha biopic- The Dirty Picture.

“As much as I’d like to grab that praise I think it was also about (the fact, that) I had this innate desire to do work where I feel I am at the centre of my universe. So I am not ready to play a peripheral role in my life; I am not ready to play a peripheral role in a film. And I am not necessarily talking about the size of the role, it is the substance of it,” she says.

Vidya also candidly admits that she was perhaps never cut out for traditional heroine roles in Bollywood, “failing miserably” at it. 

“I thought I was failing miserably at playing the typical Hindi film heroine who does the songs, looks pretty and does a few scenes; it’s basically supporting the male actor. I failed miserably at that because I think my heart was not in it. So i think it was that desire to take centre stage that I probably put out, that I was at the right place at the right time.”

While she acknowledges the role she may have played, she refuses to take sole credit for being the catalyst to the change, highlighting the role her predecessors and contemporaries have played.

 “Women around us had slowly begun to (bring change). It’s the work of all the women who have come before us. Honestly, we can’t take credit for it.”

The turning point

Vidya started her film career in 2005 at the age of 26 with the Saif Ali Khan-starrer Parineeta based on the Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay novel of the same name, where she essayed an author-backed central character. The film picked up several awards including Vidya bagging the Filmfare award for the best debut.

Today, 15 years later, looking back at her journey in the Hindi film industry, Vidya says the ‘tipping point’ for her actually came in 2008, when she was offered the role of a ‘femme fatale’ in Ishqiya, after mostly playing girl-next-door kind of characters until then. 

“It was a very unusual role for me because people were only seeing me as a girl-next-door in the two-three years I had done films for. And now suddenly, I am given the role of someone who is very sexual, who revelled in her sexuality. And I said wow, she (the character) was actually driving the plot even though you don’t see it like that. So I thought this is the kind of stuff I want to do.”

However, Vidya was warned by certain people in the industry that the film would be “less commercial; it was a bit hatke”. 

“But I said forget it, if it’s good people will watch it and it’ll do well, and I am happy to see that it actually did well.” The black comedy co-starring veteran actor Naseeruddin Shah surprised naysayers by performing well at the box-office.

And after that, one step at a time, the game kept changing as far as Hindi cinema narratives were concerned, she says. 

“I think we were poised for that change because after all cinema is a reflection of reality. Around us, we are seeing more and more women take charge of their lives, and at least realise that they have a right to their own lives, to their own bodies. That realisation was finding expression on screen.”

With the change in narrative slowly but surely coming about in the industry with newer strong female leads like Tapsee Pannu, Bhumi Pednekar, and others emerging, she believes it’s the best time to be a female actor in Hindi cinema because “...it’s just so nuanced. The way women’s roles are written have changed over time,” she says.

On how she chooses roles

Vidya has recently essayed the role of mathematician Shakuntala Devi, popularly known as the ‘human computer’ in a biopic that will release later this month on Amazon Prime. 

Vidya Balan Shakuntala Devi poster

Speaking of the role, she says, it is perhaps the most complicated and complex role she has played till date. 

So how does she pick her roles? 

“When it’s not easily decipherable and the person’s motivations are sometimes not easily understandable for you or their choices are not the most obvious choices, that’s what makes the person so much juicier for me to play. It’s that need to do something different,” explains Vidya.  

Every role she has chosen has almost been an extension of her state of mind at that particular point in time, she says. 

“It’s almost like my work is furnishing me answers. Without romanticising it or dramatising it, it’s almost a spiritual process. It’s almost a healing process.”

Embracing both the points of identification and differences with the character are an important part of the process for the 41-year-old actor while picking a role. “This also requires some amount of acceptance of the other person. It requires that you don’t judge the other person’s motivations and choices. And if you do, then you don't (do the film); I don't end up doing the film.”

On how she gets into the skin of the character for her roles, Vidya says that it is important that she is able to see and feel where the person she is portraying is coming from as far as their emotions and personalities are concerned. “I think at some point those differences, those points of identification, I think it’s almost like it seeps into my skin.”

She also feels it's important for her to be able to tap into her different personalities while choosing a role.

“For me I want to be a different person every time I play a role. When I say a different person, it’s to tap into a part of me because there are different people within me.” 

For Vidya, the need to play different roles also stems from her desire to take on new challenges, explore new facets of her own self, and, more often than not, to save herself from boredom.

“So I want to explore a new facet of me with every role. If I am going to explore the same facet over and over again, then what am I doing for the role or what is the role doing for me?,” she asks.

On why she chose to become an actor

It’s this same trait -- of getting “very easily” bored with everything -- that prompted her to pursue a career in acting. Had she not done that, she would never have had the opportunity to meet the “various parts” of herself at various points in time through her roles, Vidya says. 

This and the fact that actors are forced to “hide” and stay home to keep away from the limelight and public attention made acting the perfect profession for Vidya. 

As a deeply private person and a complete homebody, Vidya actually likes to “hide” and stay home, she says. “All the fun that I want to have that I don’t necessarily have being myself, I can have being someone else or tapping into that other side of me which I can handle for a bit.”

Despite growing up in a middle class Tamilian family settled in Mumbai with no connections to the Hindi film industry, Vidya was always certain that she wanted to become an actor, and her family was wholly supportive of her decision. 

But she also knew that she needed to have some kind of a cushion to fall back on in case things did not work out on the acting front. 

Vidya says, “I didn’t have a Plan B, I just wanted to be an actor. But having said that, I continued my education when I was waiting for the big break. I did my BA (Bachelor of Arts) from (St.) Xavier’s (College), I did my MA (master of Arts) from Mumbai University.

“I said, at least I have a backup plan because otherwise when it comes to survival, survival can often push you to make the wrong choices.”

Edited by Tenzin Pema