Vidya Balan: 'There’s only one person whose empowerment I’m concerned with and that's me'
She is the earliest female star of her generation to fight her way to successive, substantial central roles in entertaining, commercially positioned films despite Hindi cinema’s continuing obsession with men.
Anyone who has observed the workings of the film industry will tell you that Vidya Balan’s has been a monumental achievement. It is fitting then that the first poster of her next film Begum Jaan was released just hours before International Women’s Day.
Srijit Mukherji’s remake of his own Bengali film Rajkahini, Begum Jaan features Balan as the madam of a brothel that ends up falling partly in India and partly in Pakistan at the time of Partition.
In this extended conversation, Balan discusses what it means to be a woman in a male-dominated society and profession. Excerpts from the exclusive interview:
In an article in The Hindustan Times for Women’s Day 2015, you wrote: “The Second Sex, a sort of bible of feminist literature, reads, ‘Humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself, but as relative to him. So, a man can think of himself without a woman, but she cannot think of herself without him.” You continued: “But that is changing now, and that is exactly why now is the best time to be a woman.” Would you say the past year has been the best year so far to be a woman in the Hindi film industry?
I can only speak for myself, Anna. More and more I realise, I am leading my life exactly the way I want to. I don’t want to make generic statements about the industry, though we’ll talk about changing cinema trends. I think more importantly it has to start at a personal level. For me, especially after marriage, for example, I had begun to question how things very subtly but surely change.
For instance, how it becomes a Mrs Siddharth Roy Kapur as against a Vidya Balan and Siddharth Roy Kapur. These are subtle changes.
I don’t have to justify, but just in case someone doesn’t get it correctly, I love the man, I want to be with him, which is why we’re married, but that does not mean that I have to subsume my identity.
I’ve seen a change happen in these four years since my marriage. Now we just started saying Vidya Balan and Siddharth Roy Kapur on cards and invitations. (Laughs) It’s not just becoming a “Mrs”. What happens is, people are slowly goading you to lose your identity. We’re all finally products of our conditioning. It need not be conscious conditioning. Even if you come from a home like mine where we’ve not been brought up with any of those “a girl cannot do this” attitudes, yet somewhere, the way you begin to look at yourself after marriage changes.
And I realised that my fight was with myself really, because I kept questioning every little thing that happened. Like this example I gave you, someone who knows me as well or who’s worked with me even before having worked with Siddharth inviting me through Siddharth now. I couldn’t get my head around such things. And I’d tell myself, “Am I being any less a woman or any less a partner if I’m not accepting of this?”
So in the past four years I’ve seen my understanding of this become clearer, stronger, and that gets reflected in my choices. I’m not one person who’s going through this.
All around us, women are asserting themselves more and more. We are nurturers and givers, all that is fine, but we don’t want to give up our identities.
So whether it’s on a set in relation to a male actor, or in a marriage in relation to your partner, or while bringing up children, you’re seeing that change all around. And that’s the change we’re seeing in the industry. It will only become stronger as time goes by.
Soon after Madhuri Dixit got married (in 1999), I remember asking one of her directors why women get limited roles after marriage, and he for some reason thought I was asking whether he was mindful of her marital status while making the film. So he assured me, “Don’t worry Ma’am, I have kept in mind the dignity of married women while shooting this film”. That’s the mindset: that married women should do only a certain kind of role. Have you faced that attitude from the industry?
Mediapersons used to ask initially, “Does Siddharth have a say in your choice of films? Do you need his permission?” and I would have a shocked reaction to the word “permission”.
And the industry?
The industry has never asked me this because I’ve never allowed it and I don’t have that kind of attitude. It was never a concern in my head.
People keep asking, “Now that you are married, will you do another Dirty Picture?” And I keep saying, “Now that I’ve done The Dirty Picture maybe there’s no need for that, but if someone writes something as compelling or interesting, I’m most open to it.” I’m an actor. I’m not Vidya the person who is in the film. In my head that distinction between the actor and the person is clear. If I’m romancing someone on screen, it’s not Vidya Balan who is romancing the person. It’s that character. So how does my marital status make any difference there?
I will do whatever is required of me for a role. That can only change if… How do I say this? It’s a role, (laughs) it’s not like doing something with someone on the sly.
In the years since Madhuri’s marriage, do you think the industry has evolved, so that women like you or Aishwarya are less likely to get this kind of attitude from directors, “she can’t do this”, “we have to shoot her more carefully and present her in a more dignified fashion because she’s a married actress”?
Attitudes have changed but we are driving the change as women, Anna. Of course there are very supportive and understanding men who are trying, because finally, like I said, we’re all trapped in that conditioning, but at least they are aware of it so they’re trying in their own way.
Having said that, we are the drivers of change. So when we reflect that, that gives filmmakers, men or women, the courage to write roles for us that are not apologetic.
In the past year we have had some very successful films telling stories of women. Pink, for instance, was powerful and a reason to celebrate. But it still needed that poster of a protective patriarchal figure (Amitabh Bachchan) to promote itself. Some people, who I don’t agree with by the way, also felt the driver of change within the film was that man.
To be very objective, Anna, we have to use the opportunities we have before us. For example with three relatively unknown girls – Taapsee is known – Pink may not have otherwise got the kind of viewing it got. The point is it did some 80 crore of business, that means that many people watched it. It doesn’t matter that the driver of change was a man there, as long as people watched. When people said, “Oh but sex brought people into theatres to watch Dirty Picture”, I said, “But once they come into the hall, they’ll see the larger picture. That’s my interest.”
Maybe in a few years that will change, that is changing anyway, but at this point, it was great they had a huge superstar like Bachchan who’s got a pull. It’s great he’s doing these kind of films. I personally of course felt that putting his name last in the credits was a bit of tokenism, but I’m nitpicking here. I’m still saying I’m just glad that a lot of people saw the film, a lot of people probably thought about their own attitudes, because sometimes even the most liberated and so-called evolved people end up making these judgements about women, maybe sometimes unconsciously. So you have to use what’s at your disposal to make the point you want to.
For example in Kahaani 2, the fact that we used the value of the Kahaani franchise to tell a story about child sexual abuse is what really excited me because if we’d made a film about child sexual abuse otherwise I’m not sure it would have got the kind of numbers watching it. This is not manipulation, these are just smart choices.
Are you optimistic about the possibility maybe a year or five years from now where a Pink can be made with a Madhuri, Sridevi, Rekha or Waheeda Rahman in Bachchan’s role?
Absolutely. Why not?
What gives you that hope? We are looking at the glass as being half full, but some things remain depressing even now. Even now, for instance, there are directors and producers who put rape jokes into films on a routine basis. What makes you so optimistic?
One, I am an eternal optimist. I choose to see the glass half full rather than half empty. I’ve seen the kind of scripts coming my way, especially since 2008 since I began to make certain choices that spoke to my sensibility, my belief, my sensitivity.
It could have been the end of the road for me post marriage for example, especially when my films didn’t work, but there is no dearth of opportunities coming my way. There are other actresses doing wonderful work, doing the regular stuff but also one film here, one film there, which is more woman-centric.
At my age (38), I’m playing the lead in a film, which five years ago wasn’t possible.
Earlier, if a woman-centric film flopped at the box office, people would attribute the failure to its woman-centricity. Are people now a little more open and not saying that?
More people are seeing our films as films, not just woman-centric films. Of course it irritates me when people say, “Acchha, for a woman-centric film it’s done good business.” But those are the industry types who want to tabulate and see trends, analyse and paralyse and all that, but the general public is changing.
I don’t think it’s about women-centric films having a limited scope of success. Some films work greatly, some don’t, that’s what it is. And I’m part of stories that I feel compelled to tell. So some of them work, some of them don’t, but I’m not here to champion the cause of women’s empowerment.
You mean, in your films?
Yes. If I’m here to champion anyone’s cause, that’s I, me, myself. (Laughs) If it ends up inspiring someone therefore to take up cudgels for themselves, great! Change has to happen at a very personal level for each one of us.
That statement can be misunderstood so could you elaborate on “I’m not here to champion the cause of women’s empowerment”?
Ya. There’s only one person whose empowerment as a woman I’m concerned with and that is me, therefore I make the choices I make. My choices are an extension of my beliefs. I’m here to tell stories, but I end up picking stories which empower me. It’s not shying away from feminism, or shying away from doing the kind of films I do. All I’m saying is that change has to happen at a very personal level.
Do you mean that you are happy if a point is made through your films, but your primary purpose is to entertain?
My primary purpose is to entertain, but just that the story through which I entertain invariably is an extension of my beliefs. So, can I entertain in a film where I have four songs and two scenes? I can’t. I’m incapable of it. It has to have substance.
People ask me, “Why do you keep choosing women-centric films?” Because, I say, I’m at the centre of my universe and I happen to be a woman. So I’m the most important person in my life. I’m telling stories where that importance, that value is shown to a woman, because I would choose only that. It comes naturally to me.
But am I doing it for the larger good of womankind? No. Yet, when someone comes up to me and says, “This film gave me the courage to do a so-and-so," I feel humbled and gratified, but I’m not… (long pause)
I’m not (pauses again) I’m not jhanda gaadke jo kehte hai na championing the cause of women’s empowerment or anything like that through my films.
But are you not doing that when you speak on issues, write feminist articles and so on?
But I’m saying I’m championing the cause of women outside of that, not through my films. I’m telling stories, but stories which inspire me are stories where women take centrestage, where women are overcoming obstacles and hurdles, discovering themselves, leading lives on their own terms. But outside, as Vidya, I’m very opinionated. I don’t know if I’m able to communicate exactly. Like, everyone says that every film should give a message. I don’t think you should give a message with every film. I don’t believe in preaching, I believe in practice, that’s what I do.
That’s what it is. Thank you, you’ve helped me nail it. That’s what it is, when I say that I’m not here to champion the cause of women’s empowerment – I’m here to practise it.
Shaadi Ke Side Effects was promoted as a film that was equally about you and Farhan’s characters, but when I watched the film it seemed like the writer completely forgot your character at some point. You had a lot of screen time, but the story completely became the hero’s point of view. Do you still find it hard to get scripts where your character’s point of view is as important if not more than the male lead’s point of view?
Sometimes writers get waylaid, and again I can’t harp enough on the conditioning that we all are products of. Which is why sometimes with the best intent you end up getting muddled up and confused. It starts out as one thing, but somewhere there is compromise because you feel the need to toe the line, to align with the male perspective.
But even to recognise that takes a while. Today when you said this about Shaadi Ke Side Effects I actually began thinking, no one’s ever mentioned this to me.
You may have hit the nail on the head. Because it started out being about a couple and then it was about a man wanting to escape the routine or the responsibility of a marriage.
All this was part of my confusion also, which is why I’m saying I was probably choosing the films that gave voice to some confusion or a certain state of mind.
How did you not see the problem with Shaadi Ke Side Effects when you read the script?
That’s exactly what I’m telling you, because I was muddled in my head.
I was grappling with whether marriage really means that you subsume, so if my character gets lost in the second half maybe that’s how it’s meant to be and I’m not ashamed to say that I was going through these questions. Because one is what you believe you are, and the other is what you feel you should be.
Again I come back to conditioning. In my house there’s been no active conditioning of the sort at all, and yet somewhere I think as a woman in this country you’ve grown up believing that in marriage you become the last priority for yourself. Anyway women are not that much of a priority for themselves, then after a marriage you definitely are not a priority for yourself. That’s what’s been fed to us, which is why this entire question that really exasperates me is: how do you balance your work and household? I don’t balance it.
When I’m at work I’m at work, when I’m at home I do whatever is required for the house. I do more than Siddharth because I am more finnicky about things, but there’s been no issue between us in terms of, if I’m not there he’ll say, “No no, I’m not going to do this,” or some rubbish like that. And I’m completely disconnected when I’m at work. But when people are asking you those things, you’re wondering. Then for a while I started calling up the cook daily from shoot and saying, “Acchha toh aaj sabzi kya banaogi?” (What vegetable will you cook today?) That was not me.
Has anyone ever asked Siddharth how he balances work and home?
Not at all. And you know how many times I’ve gotten asked… Forget Siddharth, male actors never get asked, “When are you impregnating your wife?” Why the hell are you asking me, “When are you going to get pregnant? When are you going to expand your family?” How is it your concern? Am I asking for your salary slip? It’s as personal.
Am I asking when you’re consummating with your partner? It’s actually akin to asking me that. And it used to anger me. Now I’m amused. I’ve started saying, “Agli baar jab hum saath honge toh aapko zaroor bataayenge (Next time we are together, I will definitely tell you).” Because, what are you expecting me to say?
On a related note, following the controversy over Aishwarya’s pregnancy and the film Heroine, there was talk in the industry of introducing a pregnancy clause in actresses’ contracts? Has that started happening?
Uh, not any of my contracts.
Would you be willing to sign such a contract? Would you be offended or do you think it’s practical and fair?
It’s practical and fair. Because the physical you changes, god knows what else will change. I’m accepting of all body types, that’s not the point. I’m saying suddenly for example after signing a film you’re going to change, that’s unprofessional, so I guess you have to plan these things.
Why, for me, more than anything else I don’t want the pressure of having to look a certain way even when I’m pregnant. If and when I do plan my baby, I want to enjoy it yaar, and I want to keep it safe at all costs. I don’t even want the negativity of people saying you’re being unprofessional and you didn’t tell us. And it’s only right, isn’t it?
A male actor may gain weight between the time he signs the contract and he comes on set. Would you say it’s fair for a contract to have clauses relating to weight gain and physical appearance of all the cast, not just a woman who might potentially get pregnant?
Uh, no. Because I as a woman have gone through various bodily changes during films. Forget male actors, I wouldn’t be okay with being subjected to something like that, because a lot of things, hormonal changes for instance, are outside my control.
If someone gets drunk and goes out of shape, that’s really unprofessional, but some things are beyond one’s control.
Pregnancy is also not just the physical appearance na. Maybe it will impair you from doing certain things, maybe in a delicate pregnancy you’re not allowed to. It is an investment of time, money, energy. So many people are invested in a film, so out of respect for that I would definitely tell people.
Let’s say an actor is looking trim when he signs the contract, then he starts getting drunk, over-eating and not gymming. Six months later when they shoot he’s looking different.
So male actor contracts should have that. (Laughs)
Or any actor’s contract. If you’re saying you’re okay with a pregnancy clause, then would you be okay with a clause about that also?
No. I take my work very seriously, so I for example won’t even stay up the night before a shoot because I treat it like an exam in that sense. (Laughs) Therefore I would think that people should be more responsible, but I have a problem with (pauses) with body image. Now I think we’re slowly going into the body image area. For me, uh, unless it’s a real requirement of a role that you be a certain way, if you’re playing a warrior and you have to have a certain kind of body and you just let loose, then that’s not okay, but otherwise, (pauses)
This is something that you are thinking about as we do this interview, am I right?
And you have not yet fully formed your opinion?
Ya, I’ve not yet.
Fair enough. There has been an increase in the number of women writers and directors in Hindi cinema in the past year or so: Gauri Shinde (Dear Zindagi), Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari (Nil Battey Sannata), Leena Yadav (Parched). Would life become easier for actresses like you when more women are in decision-making roles in the industry?
Ah, for sure. We need more of them for a balance of perspective. No one wants to do away with hero-centric films, but I hope there is a day when we don’t need the term “women-centric”. That will happen when there are an equal number of films made with men and women taking centrestage.
Similarly it will just be a healthier balance, one, from a larger perspective of equal opportunities for women writers. And do it on the basis of merit.
There are very good women writers. Neerja’s dialogues were written by Sanyukta Chawla who wrote Bobby Jasoos’ dialogues. Juhi Chaturvedi (Vicky Donor, Piku) has been doing film after film, and it’s so wonderful to see a comedy by a female writer. Then there are those you named. I definitely think we’ll have different stories coming from women.