The platter of food looks delicious – a few spoonfuls of a home-made lentil preparation, a couple of rotis, and a healthy portion of grilled vegetables.
Dressed in a designer purple sari and a full-sleeve blouse, Vidya Balan daintily tears off a piece of roti, scoops some vegetables with it and tucks into lunch.
Her hair neatly braided and large eyes lined with kohl, the Bollywood star – named India’s hottest vegetarian by Peta in 2011 and 2012 – looks like a picture of perfection as she leans back in a chair in a room of a hall that hosts cultural activities in suburban Mumbai. When we meet, the 38-year-old actor, along with her favourite co-star Amitabh Bachchan and a few crew members, are promoting the film Te3n, which released last week.
Smiling warmly after a fan compliments her on her gorgeous sari, The Dirty Picture star modestly thanks her. ‘I’m really not much of a dresser,’ she says. ‘I have my good days and bad; I guess today is a better one.’
As far as dressing up is concerned, Vidya likes to keep it simple. ‘On a regular basis, I avoid wearing a lot of make-up – a little kajal, a dash of lip gloss and my jhumkas (dangling earrings), and I am ready,’ she says, her gold earrings glinting every time she moves her head.
Pushing her plate back, she prepares to hit the road for more promotional events scheduled for the day. ‘I’m trying to eat healthy; all this travelling has increased my appetite,’ she says.
Kicking off her acting career as Radhika in the iconic Nineties sitcom Hum Paanch, Vidya clearly has a healthy appetite for fabulous roles too. Over the past 13 years, since she first acted in the Bengali drama Bhalo Theko in 2003, Vidya’s cinematic journey and her portrayal of a diverse range of characters have expanded her oeuvre unimaginably. From Lalita in Parineeta, to the dissociative identity disorder-affected Avni in Bhool Bhulaiyaa, supercool mom Vidya of a progeria-affected child in Paa and the audacious Silk Smitha in The Dirty Picture, she has been climbing new heights with every project.
‘As an actor and a woman, The Dirty Picture was a liberating experience,’ she says.
But no journey is without its downs, and Vidya went on a brief sabbatical following a not-so-envious run of films such as Shaadi Ke Side Effects and Ghanchakkar. Nothing can hold her back though, and the National Award-winning actor soon returned to the sets with a clutch of promising films – she has already completed Sujoy Ghosh’s Kahaani 2, a sequel to the award-winning 2012 film Kahaani, and is preparing herself for Begum Jaan, a Hindi remake of the Bengali film Rajkahini, where she will be portraying a madam. Both are directed by Srijit Mukherji and shooting is scheduled to begin tomorrow in Jharkhand.
‘It’s thrilling to be back to doing what I enjoy – movies,’ she says. ‘I was unwell for a while and didn’t work on anything. I realised I had to rest and focus on having healthy habits. I missed working so much at that time.
‘It was then that I truly realised what work meant to me. That’s why there’s this renewed energy... a hunger.’ No wonder then that she’s been working harder this year than she has ever worked in her career.
After a brief sabbatical, Vidya got back to work with Te3n, a good old mystery set in Kolkata starring Amitabh Bachchan and Nawazuddin Siddiqui.
‘I completed shooting for Te3n in January, then I shot for Kahaani 2. I will begin shooting for Begum Jaan and do Kamala Das later this year.’ Kamala Das is a Malayalam biopic based on the life of the renowned author and poet.
‘I am not at all complaining,’ says Vidya, smiling excitedly. ‘I am raring to go.’
So what has she learned so far in the slippery world of Bollywood?
‘Taking criticism in my stride or for that matter not getting affected by them,’ she says. And Vidya has faced her fair share, which has often never been directed at her acting prowess.
Hailed as the next big star of Hindi cinema after her self-assured Bollywood debut with Pradeep Sarkar’s Parineeta in 2005, Vidya soon found herself facing flak for poor career choices and even her unflattering outfits at events and otherwise.
‘I don’t come from a film background,’ she says. ‘Earlier, when people would write something negative about my choice of clothes or my performance, I used to feel terrible. I’d think, “Oh my gosh, the entire world is looking at me like this”.
‘Gradually, I realised it is never the entire world... what you read or hear is not everyone’s opinion and it never will be. So don’t take all that seriously; it’s not the end of the world.
‘That is when I stopped reading features and opinion pieces about me and stopped watching any entertainment news.
‘I understood there will never be a day when everyone will praise you, and there never will be a day when everyone will criticise you.’
Now Vidya shrugs off criticisms about her weight and attire with ease. ‘I just make sure that if I look into the mirror, I should be happy before going ahead with the outfit.’
The star, in fact, takes the war to the fashion police camp. ‘At the end of the day, I feel that you need to be happy with what you see in the mirror,’ she says. ‘For instance, when I see some of the clothes on ramps, I wonder whether they are really not just tatters and rags. It is a difference of perspective. They will say that I don’t know anything about fashion, but this is my take.
‘Initially I wanted to please everyone. I wanted everyone to like me when I entered Bollywood. But now I have become more focused, I am just being myself. It has become easier for me to express myself now. So whether it is anger, irritation or any other emotion, I speak my mind. I’m just not guarded anymore.
‘I believe all of us are entitled to have an opinion, and if you have one contrary to mine, that doesn’t mean you are not nice.’
Undoubtedly, Vidya has made some brave professional choices, be it The Dirty Picture, which received rave reviews, or Kahaani, a thriller, which had a lukewarm opening but soon made it to the big league.
‘When The Dirty Picture released, people said it was a success because it had a lot of sleaze in it; but when Kahaani, which was about a heavily pregnant woman in search of her missing husband, became a success, everybody sat up and took notice.
‘My personality reflects in the brave choices I make. I am most worried, most concerned about my happiness. I have no qualms in admitting that my happiness is of utmost importance to me. I spent lot of time pleasing others except myself, but I reached a stage where I told myself that I won’t be able to make everyone happy, so do what you are happy doing.
‘Whether a film has worked or not, there is not a single one in my career that I regret doing. I have no-one to blame my failures on, or share the credits for the decisions I made.’
Vidya is completely occupied with Begum Jaan at the moment. ‘I’ve been having several meetings with the director Srijit and the rest of the cast, she says. ‘It’s a very difficult part and very challenging for me, but also exciting. We’ve been reading parts of the scenes; we talk and discuss the movie... that is how we have been preparing for it.’
What is her take on the sudden spurt in biopics and films on real-life characters in Bollywood? After all, she was one of the flag-bearers of biopics with The Dirty Picture, which released in 2011.
‘I guess this could be because we don’t define our heroes in the same manner as we used to,’ says Vidya. ‘Now it is more about ordinary people rising to do extraordinary things, which is far more inspiring. Also, it is extremely interesting to tell such stories.’
However, to tell such a story with conviction, Vidya admits that she first needs to be convinced about her role as well as the character.
‘I do a film primarily on the basis of what the role is, and I instinctively know whether I want to be the other person or not, because for about two months, you are living, breathing that person. So, I have to be convinced about telling the story.’
Vidya also adds that the director is just as crucial.
‘If I’m seeing the film from the perspective of the director, it is a good sign, so how I vibe with the director is very important.’ She also says the producer has a huge role to play as well ‘because he ensures the film gets made the way it is meant to be made and also gets a good release’.
Vidya is deeply attached to her parents, her sister Priya and her kids, and has found marital bliss with producer Siddharth Roy Kapur.
After a slew of rumoured relationships that weren’t meant to be, Vidya finally tied the knot with film producer and CEO of Disney India Siddharth Roy Kapur in 2012. And she says that life has changed in many ways for her.
‘Ever since I started seeing Siddharth, I began to travel outside of work,’ she adds. ‘I began to enjoy life, so to speak. Until then, my world revolved around my work and family.’
How does it feel to manage a home?
‘I enjoy taking care of the house,’ she says. ‘However, what I can’t bear is cooking... I just don’t know how to cook at all. I struggle to make even a cup of tea. I was never interested in cooking.’
A strict vegetarian, she prefers home-cooked food prepared by her cook to eating out. ‘It’s only after I started seeing Siddharth that I started eating out.
‘Earlier, when I would go for parties and dinner, I would eat at home and then go to the venue where I would just nibble on some finger food. But with Siddharth, I was exposed to different kinds of foods and cuisines. I wouldn’t call myself an explorer in terms of food, but I like trying new things once in a while.’
When she is not busy on sets, Vidya enjoys travelling. ‘Actually, I get to enjoy me time only when I am travelling overseas,’ she says.
‘It is not possible in India as we are constantly surrounded by people, but when I’m abroad, I love exploring a place by walking around, going into markets, walking down streets, get a sense of how the local people live, what they wear, what they eat...’
In order to stay fit and healthy, Vidya has taken up yoga. ‘I love exercising,’ she says. ‘I used to enjoy gymming, but of late, I’ve shifted to yoga. I do it four to five times a week. It’s showing me all you can accomplish with your body. It is incredible.’
And how does she destress?
‘I’ve a simple formula,’ she says. ‘I sit by myself sometimes doing absolutely nothing, or I write my diary, or chat with Siddharth.’
Vidya says her recent sabbatical ‘helped me regain my good health. I made an effort to exercise, eat healthy, have a lot of water and sleep well. I would listen to music, watch films, read...’
She also found a cure for insomnia – a condition she had been suffering from since she was 15 years old. ‘When I was younger, until I hit the bed, I’d either be reading, watching a movie or chatting on the phone with friends.
‘Then, a few years ago, I met an alternative doctor who told me to stop any kind of activity once I hit the bed. He said our minds are constantly working if we are engaged in any of these activities. I was told to just relax and calm down and try not to think of anything. And it has helped.
‘Now, I go to bed at 10.30pm and almost immediately fall asleep. It wasn’t instant though; it took me about 40 days to achieve this state of bliss!’
With good work on her plate and happiness in her personal life, it is evident bliss is in the palm of her hands.