From "Parineeta" to "Shakuntala Devi", Vidya Balan has completed 15 years in the Hindi film industry and the Bollywood star says she is "grateful" to be living the only dream she had – to be an actor.
There have been ups and downs along the journey, but Balan has always charted her own course in the industry, creating the way forward for women-led movies with the success of “The Dirty Picture” and “Kahaani”.
"It''s been very fulfilling. I'm very grateful that I''m living the only dream I ever had - to be an actor. When ''Parineeta'' happened, I thought, ''if this is the one film I do, I''m going to give it my all’. And that''s been my approach throughout. I've come so far," the actor told PTI in a Zoom interview.
Balan made her acting debut in 1995 sitcom "Hum Paanch" as the bumbling nerd Radhika in the pack of titular five sisters. The show was backed by "The Dirty Picture" producer Ekta Kapoor.
Her film debut, however, was the 2003 Bengali film "Bhalo Theko". It also starred Soumitra Chatterjee, Parambrata Chatterjee, Joy Sengupta and Debshankar Halder.
"Of course, there have been some ups and downs, challenges, and lessons learnt. Sometimes I felt like I have reached my ebb, sometimes I thought I peaked. That''s the beauty of it and I hope I'll be here for the rest of my life,” she added.
Balan’s career has seen her represent different shades of women, extraordinary or otherwise, but she has mostly stayed away from biopics, other than “The Dirty Picture”, a semi-biographical story of South star Silk Smitha.
The 41-year-old actor said she ended up turning down a lot of biopics as they are mostly “puff pieces”.
But her latest film on Shakuntala Devi was warts and all story with the math genius'' daughter Anupama Banerji sharing things openly.
"You want to see the person as a real human being who has her flaws or limitations along with the fact that she''s a genius and had this marvellous gift. That''s what makes it a wholesome watch. But honestly, you couldn't have told Shakuntala Devi''s story in any other way. She didn't want to be holier than thou,” she said.
The actor said her attempt while playing a real person is not to imitate and make the portrayal a caricature, which ends up being unfair to the person whose story is being told.
"Anu Menon (director) was very clear that ''Shakuntala Devi and you don't look exactly like each other''. When the physical likeness is not that much, you try to capture the spirit of the person. That has been my attempt.
"She has handheld me throughout this process. It was daunting and intimidating for me. It was exciting too but it came with its challenges. It''s a very fine balance when it''s a real person. You are trying to portray the person and at the same time you don't want to mimic,” she added.
Menon, Vidya said, always saw the movie as a mother-daughter story, which is also an ode to the genius “Shakuntala Devi is, was and will be”.
Biopics have been a rage in Bollywood for a while but asked why filmmakers hesitate to approach educationists, Balan said it may be because they appear "a bit inaccessible", like mathematics as a subject.
"My biggest realisation during this film was that maths is in everything but we have not been taught the subject like that. It''s been taught as an abstraction in school so it always felt like it belonged to another world, that we needed to fear it because we are scared of the invisible.
"But when you look around, maths is in nature, music, cooking, poetry, photography. If we were taught maths like that, none of us would be scared. Shakuntala Devi made maths fun," she added.
If one looks at the recent buzz-worthy projects around women, they were all directed by women be it Menon, the Marie Curie movie ‘Radioactive" director Marjane Satrapi or action drama "The Old Guard" by director Gina Prince-Bythewood.
Vidya, however, said more than the gender, it is the gaze of the director that matters while telling a story.
"Primarily, for me, it is about the gaze. That''s what''s different. Anu Menon is a film school graduate, she is a professional. She is also very passionate and demanding. She pushes you out of your comfort zone and not just actors but everyone in the team.
"The fact that she decided to tell Shakuntala Devi''s story through the eyes of Anupama in itself is very different. It''s a woman telling a woman's story through a woman's eyes," she said With “Shakuntala Devi” released and earning praise for Balan''s performance, the actor now hopes to resume work on her next “Sherni” post-monsoon.
The film is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.