Shakuntala Devi to The Dirty Picture, Vidya Balan destigmatises women who lived on their own terms
Vidya Balan may have rejected many-a-biopics but she has always chosen to play women who share her feisty spirit, like Shakuntala Devi and Silk Smitha.
At the end of the trailer of Anu Menon's Amazon Prime Video India film Shakuntala Devi, Vidya Balan explains to a Londoner how Indians are inherently dramatic. "We Indians are like that only... drama or nothing," she says, with a South Indian twang to her English, before sipping on the tea.
This instantly took me nine years back to the popular scene from Milan Luthria's 2011 blockbuster The Dirty Picture, where Balan, as South Indian actress Silk Smitha, tells a filmmaker (Emraan Hashmi), "Filmien sirf teen vajah se chalti hain: entertainment, entertainment, entertainment. Aur main entertainment hoon," punctuating the statement with a signature wink.
Balan has always played full-bodied characters on screen. But her turns as real-life personalities have been far more interesting. Though she has essayed characters borrowed from real life in other films like Rajkumar Gupta's 2011 crime drama No One Killed Jessica and Jagan Shakti's 2019 sci-fi ensemble Mission Mangal, she has made the daunting challenge of portraying far more popular and visible personalities seem rather effortless in both The Dirty Picture and Shakuntala Devi.
Silk Smitha and Shakuntala Devi may have coexisted in the same era but it is quite clear they belong to completely different backgrounds. Their childhoods were similar in terms of the geographical location, economic situation, and the expectation of the family for the young girls to turn bread-earners. But their skills and choices made them drastically different: Smitha of the South Indian film industry, the item songs, the front-row audience, and a life short-(but well-)lived. And Devi of the Maths shows, the Guinness Book of World Records, globetrotting with base in London, and a long life full of a myriad range of occupations.
There are, however, some themes that overlap in both lives, and the ones Balan brought home with complete conviction.
Gifted by birth, rebel by choice
The consummate ease with which Devi would decimate tricky mathematical problems within seconds was quite similar to the swiftness with which Smitha would turn up the temperatures at the sound of 'Action!' When Devi was quizzed on how she is able to process her faculties at a lightening speed, she would always respond with a shrug of her shoulders. Similarly, Smitha made it clear to every man who tried to shame her that while she was born to wreak havoc on screen, it is the audience's choice whether to indulge in her or not. (Read: "Jab sharafat ke kapde utarte hain tab sabse zyada mazza shareefon ko hi aata hai.")
Balan also conveyed rebellious nature through her dialogues that summed up the characters' personalities. When Devi's daughter Anupama (Sanya Malhotra) asks her why she cannot be 'normal' like all mothers, she responds, with her smile hiding in a corner, "Jab amazing ho sakti hu toh normal kyun banu?" (dialogues by Ishita Moitra). Smitha also shuts her naysayers up with a similar sentiment: "Jab zindagi ek mili hai toh do bar kyu sochna?" (dialogues by Rajat Arora).
Quick work, huge impact
Irrespective of their professions, both Devi and Smitha believed in making short work of the task at hand. While Devi, famously known as 'The Human Computer,' would do that with unmistakable flair through her calculations, Smitha would have everyone's eyes glued to the screen by turning on the sensuousness on screen. Both were charmers in real life as well, catching several men off guard.
Even though they would drape their saris in ways as different as chalk and cheese, their wardrobes would only accentuate their lively personalities. Devi would offer to tell an 8-digit answer left-to-right and vice-versa, and Smitha would even turn on the Derby horse she put her money on.
Trouble in the paradise
A major part of Shakuntala Devi, the film, hinged on the renowned mathematician's rocky relationship with her daughter. It started with Devi being unable to respect her mother for she would always stay silent to her father's injustices. She grew up vowing to never let her daughter resign to patriarchy. However, her daughter Anupama, burdened by her mother's legacy, disappointed by her unavailability, and annoyed by the guilt-ridden obsession of her mother, grows into a woman who wishes to lead a 'normal' life.
The Dirty Picture did not choose this angle as the focal point of the film but there were similarities in the way it was treated. Like Devi, Smitha also revisits her childhood home in her native village. A hoard of neighbourhood children are seen dancing to welcome Smitha, now a popular star, back to her native place; only to see her rejected by her mother, who seemed embarrassed of her.
Fight or flight?
The newspaper cuttings of their achievements/controversies is a very interesting motif in the lives of both Smitha and Devi, as depicted on screen. Devi has a black book replete with newspaper clips of her achievements around the world. She goes back to them at crucial junctures in the film, like when she aspires to go back to her globetrotting adventures after a motherhood break or when she decides to take some time off from her work to spend time with her grown-up daughter. Balan plays her like a fighter who does not retire the working woman in her just because she has become a mother.
But the same newspaper cuttings that works as an incentive in Devi's life leads to the downfall, and eventual death by suicide, of Smitha in The Dirty Picture. Smitha resolves to never read the bad press about her, and only cuts out the pictures (if they are good) from the newspapers to keep with them. But after a minor setback, Smitha goes down the forbidden path by reading reports about her. It dampens her confidence, as Arora explains through a telling analogy: "Parvaah nahi karti thi jab tak, parinde jaisi udd rahi thi. Zara si pareshan hui, tab par katt gaye."
Balan has always chosen to play people from real life who may be vastly different from her in how they are perceived, but live by the same feistiness of spirit. She makes choices that are bold, and often gives up on the offers that do not offer her enough meat. For example, she has rejected many-a-biopics in the past, like those of Kamala Das and J Jayalalithaa. When she was asked if any other actress could pull off The Dirty Picture, she famously responded, "No. A dirtier picture? maybe."
Very soon, she will step into the shoes of Indira Gandhi, the only woman Indian prime minister. She has bought the rights to Sagarika Ghose's book Indira: India's Most Powerful Prime Minister, and is currently developing a web series directed by Ritesh Batra and produced by Ronnie Screwvala's RSVP Movies. Balan admits the biographical series "is taking longer than it should," but one is sure when it does materialise, we will have her paint another layered, powerhouse portrait of a woman who lived on her own terms. Vidya kasam.
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