By Jackie Thakkar Dec. 02, 2021
Vidya Balan is an anomaly. In an industry rife with svelte figures and saccharine personas, her body of work is an aging but fresh breath of air. From playing a sex symbol to a ferocious agent, Balan made offbeat cool before it became mainstream.
Watching a Bollywood masala flick in a multiplex is like eating tandoori chicken with multi-grain bread, it just deprives you of its true flavour. You need butter naan or in this case, single-screen theatres to truly relish the nuances of the spice on offer. So naturally, when my friends and I first watched the trailer of The Dirty Picture – we knew we had to book tickets to our local Chandan theatre – the mecca of masala movies.
Wolf whistles, cheering, jeering, thunderous applause and even dancing on the floor were all fair game at Chandan that night. Grown men gyrating to “Ooo La La” in the aisles, chillar being generously showered on the screen every time Vidya Balan said one of her quote-worthy salacious lines like, “abhi chaar button khol diye, toh sabke paseene chhoot jaayenge”. There was uproar every time Nasseruddin Shah’s caricature-ish superstar Suryakanth said something sexist and whistles every time Emraan Hashmi said something earnest. It wasn’t the men, however, but the strangely seductive and bold act by Vidya Balan that caught everyone’s fancy.
A lot has changed since, especially the somewhat restricted landscape of sensuality, despite the boom of OTT platforms. It makes all the more fascinating that Balan helmed a role that pretty much every actress in that day and age would have shied away from. The Dirty Picture showcased Vidya Balan at the peak of her sensuality as well as acting prowess. She owned every frame, so much so she became Silk. No surprise then that the film went on to become the highest-grossing female-led film in Bollywood up to that point.
The Dirty Picture showcased Vidya Balan at the peak of her sensuality as well as acting prowess.
While waiting for her feature film debut for a long seven years, Vidya Balan cut her teeth in countless TV commercials and music videos. A majority of which were directed by Pradeep Sarkar. So it was only fitting that he also directed her in her debut film, Parineeta. As the demure yet defiant Lalita, Balan not only held her own against stalwarts like Saif Ali Khan and Sanjay Dutt, but went on to become an instant critic-favourite. She followed this up with her chirpy portrayal of RJ Jahnvi in Lage Raho Munnabhai and before you could croon along to “Good Mooooooorning, Mumbai”, she had already transitioned to playing Amitabh’s Bachchan’s mom in Paa. Her range was only further cemented with the black comedy, Ishqiyaa and a wronged sister that’s driven to fight the system in No One Killed Jessica.
In an industry rife with svelte figures and saccharine personas, Vidya Balan seemed like the mature outsider, who walks onto screen every once in a while to hand out lessons in performance and acting to an industry overflowing with youthful hormonal flux. But talent alone cannot land you the work you deserve and Balan has had to do her fair share of drudgery to land at the one rare role that is written with her in mind. For that matter, most of her flopped films are ones where she is projected as the gullible, soft heroine to the main, man-act, something certain actors are perhaps just not born to do.
As the demure yet defiant Lalita, Balan not only held her own against stalwarts like Saif Ali Khan and Sanjay Dutt, but went on to become an instant critic-favourite.
Between The Dirty Picture and Kahaani, there is range that most actors and actresses won’t be able to finesse over the entirety of their careers, let alone do in a spell of two. Kahaani, for my money, was a significant step in proving that the Indian film heroine can be so much more than just arm candy. That said, Balan’s film choices either haven’t been consistent or she remains, to must makers, the actress who can’t become the heroine of their film.
In Tumhari Sulu audiences were reminded again of Vidya Balan’s versatility. A quirky yet headstrong housewife who aspires to make it as a late-night RJ, Balan’s chemistry with Manav Kaul is affecting in a non-mushy way. I’ve been lucky enough – for reasons related to work – to witness Balan at work in close quarters. Her understated elegance and every-woman energy is infectious and frankly, in a business filled with high-headed narcissists, refreshing.
Balan’s film choices either haven’t been consistent or she remains, to must makers, the actress who can’t become the heroine of their film.
Balan has affirmed to most women in this country, that the actress need not be the woman of their fantasies but can be the women of their realities. She has proved that sexuality and grit are not the possession of abs and fine legs but of character and personality. Balan has inspired women to accept and accommodate their bodies and ideas of sexuality rather than serve someone else’s. It’s a choice that might set her back in terms of the kind of work she is offered, but in social context, Balan has accomplished more than what most women playing ceiling-breaking roles do.
In her most recent performance in Sherni, Vidya Balan plays a muted civil servant who is privy to the prevailing notion about her gender, but resists, quietly still. Between The Ditry Picture and Sherni, a decade apart, Balan has put together a near humbling resume of work. It’s only galling that it takes our industry a few years to bring her to our screens. Try as we might to fill it with actors aspiring to her calibre, they just don’t make em like Vidya anymore.
Masking anxiety with humour. Living with his dog, cat, and mediocrity. Creating content aur life se kaafi discontent. Tweeting as @juvenile_jack.