Vidya Balan has every reason to be happy. She’s almost back to her ‘fighting’ A-list weight, has been signed up to co-star opposite Amitabh Bachchan and is awaiting the release of her latest film Hamari Adhuri Kahaani (Our Incomplete Story), which is predicted to be a box-office success – thanks in no small part to her acting prowess.
‘It is an intense love story and one I’ve been dying to do ever since Parineeta [her period-drama love story]. It is something that people haven’t seen me doing for a long time.’
At 37, Vidya is now no doubt hoping that it’s enough to catapult her back to the top of Bollywood, a place she held for years. And then seemingly overnight, it was gone.
Her looks and style were savaged, her films were box-office failures and she was written about more for her weight – is she or isn’t she pregnant? screamed the headlines – than her roles.
But Vidya’s tough. She clawed her way into acting after facing umpteen rejections, and even being called a jinx on set. She dragged herself to the top through sheer hard work as well as brilliance, and after a two year hiatus she’s back – and if the critic’s predictions are to be believed, better than ever. From the Queen of Bollywood she’s set to become the comeback Queen.
So what went wrong? How can a woman with so much talent, determination, beauty and accolades vanish, just like that?
Just 24 months ago she had it all. Five Filmfare trophies in seven years, a National Award for best actress, a seat on the Jury in Cannes, Padma Shri – India’s fourth highest civilian award – critical acclaim and phenomenal box-office success. From 2006 to 2013 Vidya was achieving what other actors at the time could only dream of.
Scripts were being written for her, she graced the red carpet to the delight of fans and the paparazzi who couldn’t get enough.
And then, two years ago, suddenly her career stalled. The 12kg she’d gained for her role in 2011 release The Dirty Picture still hadn’t been lost and the very people who had just months before been toasting her talent now sniggered at her ‘fat and frumpy’ look. Although she did three movies, all of them flopped at the box office.
‘It sure was disappointing,’ she says. ‘It was devastating for me when Ghanchakkar (Crazy), Shaadi Ke Side Effects (Side effects of a wedding) and Bobby Jasoos (Detective Bobby) didn’t do well. We all did our best in all these films, but they just didn’t click.’
For Vidya it was a major setback because she was riding high on the success of five huge consecutive hits. ‘Maybe I needed to go through these experiences too,’ she consoles herself. But she is optimistic of her latest venture. ‘People are going to love this film for its theme and treatment,’ she says.
‘I am very excited about it. Mohit Suri is a very sensitive director and most importantly I got to work with Mahesh Bhatt, who wrote the script.’
Excitement about her roles and cinema in general is something that has been a constant for Vidya. From 2005 – when she made her dazzling debut in Parineeta, a period love story about an idealist and the son of wealthy businessman – to Kahaani (Story) in 2012 about a pregnant woman in search of her husband in the back alleys of Kolkata, she has proved that she’s not only a box-office draw, but a critical success too.
And then, very quickly, it all went quiet. After failing to lose the weight she’d gained for The Dirty Picture, film-makers who were earlier writing scripts with her in mind went in search of other muses.
Did her marriage to Managing Director of Walt Disney Company India, Siddharth Roy Kapur, affect her career? ‘No, I don’t think so,’ says the star in an exclusive interview with Friday. ‘When you find and connect with the right person, maybe it gives you a sense of calm. I think it’s more a state of mind that can happen even if you’re single.
‘I’m going to say something that is not very politically correct – my last three films haven’t worked the way they should have, but that has nothing to do with my marital status.
‘The films didn’t connect with people and that’s why they didn’t work. But you want to blame the failure on something extraneous always. We look for easy alibis.’ She admits that she has been doing just one or two films a year unlike some actors who do almost six.
‘The reason you don’t see me in a lot of movies of late is because I’ve become choosy about roles,’ she says. ‘I only choose film scripts that excite me. I’ve worked very hard to get where I am. I’m now offered a wide variety of choices – over the last five years the choices have only become better and I’m enjoying every moment of it.
‘But I’m only excited about the things I want to do. Maybe there’s no point left to prove… Unless I’m really charged about something I don’t do it and that’s been the case for the last five years.’
The reason she agreed to act in Hamari Adhuri Kahaani opposite Emraan Hashmi was ‘because this movie is very special to me in many many ways’, she says. ‘It has a lovely script and has the ability to touch and stir you… just what a love story requires.’
Co-star Hashmi was also her hero in two of her earlier movies – The Dirty Picture and Ghanchakkar. Their latest film tells the story of a woman who, after suffering domestic violence and abuse at the hands of her husband, finds love, respect and herself.
Partially shot in the UAE – including a tricky scene that was taken in the midst of a sandstorm – the film is set for release in India on June 12.
‘The sandstorm scene was a tough shot but we did it in the first take,’ she says. But then she’s always been a natural actor.
At the age of 11 she enrolled for a theatre workshop and by the end of it bagged the main role in a play. ‘It was one of the most memorable moments of my life,’ she says. ‘My confidence truly zoomed.’
She then signed up for a comedy series but it failed to air after running into production problems. Nevertheless, soon Vidya had landed a role in what went on to become the hugely popular TV series Hum Paanch.
But shooting from 8.30am to 10pm four days a week began to affect her education and her parents insisted that she give up her acting until she completed her studies. ‘In retrospect I’m happy because college life cannot be replaced; it’s something that should be non-negotiable for everyone.’
Although she quit the series a year and half later to pursue academics, Vidya had become a well-known face and modelling offers began to trickle in. ‘In my first ad – for a detergent, when I was just 19 – I played the role of a mother to a five-year-old,’ she says.
In a couple of years, she had done 90 ads and was well known in the advertising circles.
From there it was but just a hop to the world of movies – her dream. ‘The first offer I got was when I was 21 for a Malayalam film opposite the leading actor at the time – Mohanlal.’ However, 15 days into the shoot, the production house faced some problems and the film folded. ‘Since I was the only new person on the sets, I was labelled a jinx.’
In an industry where superstition rules, the news quickly spread and many directors and producers who had signed her began to back off. A Tamil film she signed up for and started shooting also replaced her a few weeks into the shoot. ‘One of the producers said I didn’t know how to act or dance,’ she says. ‘It was the lowest point in my career. I began to question everything about myself – the way I look, the way I act...’
Vidya then enrolled for a post-graduate degree. ‘But I was obsessed with acting and didn’t really have a plan B. I was determined to get back into movies.’ In 2003, at the age of 25, she moved away from Bollywood, signing up for a Bengali drama Bhalo Theko about lost love. Her first film release, it won critical acclaim and she walked away with the Anandalok award for best actress.
However, Vidya had to wait two more years before she debuted in Bollywood. And coincidentally, the location again was Kolkata. This time, well-known ad film-maker Pradeep Sarkar, who had worked with her in several commercials, invited her to act in his maiden film, Parineeta.
‘Meeting Pradeep for this movie was a high point in my life. The fact that he had faith in me at a time when I didn’t have faith in myself gave me reason to look at myself differently,’ she says. The film, a musical love story, went on to win a clutch of awards and Vidya became an overnight sensation.
‘I began getting offers from the best film-makers, the big banners, with big actors – such as Amitabh Bachchan and Naseeruddin Shah – people I had watched on the screen and had dreamed of acting with.’
Flushed with success of Parineeta, Vidya went on a signing spree, grabbing pretty much everything that came her way. However, her next two films Heyy Babyy and Kismat Konnection bombed at the box office. Critics blamed her for her poor choice of costumes. ‘I think this was blown out of proportion – me being badly dressed in two films,’ she says. ‘It was making a mountain out of a molehill.’ That was in 2008.
Vidya decided to be fussier about her future roles and it paid off – both Paa in 2009 and Ishqiya in 2010 did well. Then came the movie that made her a household name – The Dirty Picture in 2011. It was loosely based on the life of south Indian actress Silk Smitha.
‘I had to gain 12kg for this film because my character portrays a dancer in the south-Indian film industry where some of them are wholesome.’ There was also a lot of mental preparation. ‘The character had a child-like innocence but was also known for her sensuality,’ says Vidya. But so brilliantly did she essay the role that she walked away with the National Award for best actress that year. A year later came Kahaani, which also won her the Filmfare award for best actress.
So is she happy the way life has panned out ? ‘I love the fact that people know me; they show their love and appreciation; they applaud me. All that is very overwhelming, encouraging and humbling. I’m not one of those people who say, ‘I don’t want to be recognised. I don’t behave like I’m in the profession of saving lives because I’m not.
‘But status symbols mean nothing really because I’ve got far more than I set out to achieve. I never dreamed I’d be so successful, have a big house, or cars or travel to such fabulous places. Those things have never meant that much to me. But yes, I feel very privileged to be travelling the world because those are experiences that are invaluable.’