'I don’t think she saw the glass ceiling': Vidya Balan on playing Shakuntala Devi in upcoming biopic
After playing real life characters in The Dirty Picture, No One Killed Jessica and Mission Mangal, playing Shakuntala Devi presented a new set of challenges for Vidya Balan.
In March this year, Vidya Balan was shooting Sherni in the jungles of Madhya Pradesh. She returned home to Mumbai just days before lockdown was announced. Almost four months later, she’s elated to be back at work. Her husband Siddharth Roy Kapur’s office has become the base from which to engage in promotions for her forthcoming feature film, Shakuntala Devi.
Director Anu Menon’s film, which also stars Jisshu Sengupta, Sanya Malhotra and Amit Sadh, tracks the story of the genius mathematician, from her childhood to her marriage, her relationship with her daughter and her myriad interests and ambition.
After playing real life characters in The Dirty Picture, No One Killed Jessica and Mission Mangal, playing Shakuntala Devi presented a new set of challenges for Balan. Here’s what the actress had to say about her latest work and life in a lockdown.
How have the last few months been?
Now that I have started working and stepping out for promotions, I no longer feel locked down. It is different because everyone is in masks and PPE suits and being cautious overall. We were so cut off in the jungle, that when we had to wrap up the shoot of Sherni and come back in March, I was stunned by what had happened to the world. When lockdown was announced, at first I panicked, then I was very restless. Then I got used to it and adapted. I think we all went through the initial shock of what is happening to the world we know. In hindsight, these months were great. Now, more than ever, I count my blessings. I got a lot of time with Siddharth at home. I just got a lot of time at home, to do stuff I had not done before. Having said that, I am so happy that I have started work.
In Shakuntala Devi, you are playing almost the entire lifespan of the character.
As an actor, what more can one ask for than to play the entire lifespan. You see me when she is in her 20s up to her 60s. It was incredible to go through the physical transformation, the entire emotional graph and the growth of her career. So many things evolve over time in a person’s life and I was getting to experience all that.
She was breaking the glass ceiling as a mathematician and performer.
I don’t think she saw the glass ceiling. I don’t think she saw why men and women were looked at differently. She was someone who wanted to have it all and she could not see why she could not have it all. As a woman, at that time, her experiences were incredible.
What was it about her character that you connected with?
As an actor, when you read a character you think OK, I have got the hang of her. But that did not happen with Shakuntala Devi. It was literally like peeling the layers of an onion. I would think I had figured out what she was about, and then I would discover something else.
We have this perception that people who like maths, or mathematicians, are serious and slightly reclusive. You don’t think they will be full of beans, which is how she was. She was a performer. She loved attention and loved being on stage. She engaged with audiences when doing her maths shows which made people enjoy the maths even more.
Plus, she wrote many books, including the first book on homosexuality in India. She was an astrologer, a politician and loved dancing. Apparently she and her husband would go to clubs in Calcutta and tap-dance. She would tap out the rhythm – you know, maths and rhythm! She was fearless and wanted to life each moment to the fullest.
Were you good at maths?
Yes, I was good at it and did well in the 10th standard. I especially enjoyed algebra.
As you solve equations and problems, you have to rattle off a string of digits in the film. It must have been crucial to get it right.
When you are rattling off numbers it is so easy to mess it up. Even though someone was checking what I was reciting, I would still be worried. As an actor, if I fumbled, I could ask for another take, but Shakuntala Devi would be live on stage and give the right answer in a few seconds. What a mind. How did she do what she did?
What kind of preparation did it involve to get into the part of the ‘Human Computer’?
I did speak to her daughter Anupama, but I also had access to hours of taped interviews that Anu (Menon, writer-director) and Nayanika Mahtani (co-writer) had done with Anupama and her husband Ajay. That gave me a sense of who Shakuntala Devi was, what she liked and other things you need to know if you are going to play someone. I also watched lots of her videos and went through many images. Besides that we had to create the five stages of her life, which included physical changes as well. I also worked with an accent coach to bring a South Indian lilt into her English speech.
Does the film cover her marriage and experiences that lead her to write ‘The World of Homosexuals’ in 1977?
Yes, it does. This is what I feel is so important about this film – it’s not a puff piece. There is wholeness to Shakuntala Devi’s personality and we have not shied away from exploring that on screen. She was very accepting of her strengths as well as her flaws.
What part of her personality did you connect with the most?
I connected wit her zest for life, her desire to live life to the fullest and wanting to do so much. I too like to make the most of every moment. What was most inspiring for me was that being a woman in the 60s and 70s, she believed that she had a right to the life she wanted and she went ahead and grabbed it.
How do you feel about your film premiering on Amazon Prime?
It’s true that films made for the theatre are being released on OTT, and that’s because we have that option today. Otherwise can you imagine sitting on a ready film, for the next six months or more, with escalating costs and escalating interest, which is not something everyone can afford. Streamers and OTT also open up new models for you. I have seen so many films and shows in languages I am not familiar, which I think is a big advantage. I am glad we have this option and what a benefit because now on July 31 the film will be seen in 200 countries at the same time.
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