Vidya Balan: I don't have a brand of feminism; I practice and don't preach
Vidya Balan says she doesn’t preach feminism, like a doctrine, she just goes ahead and practices.
Like a plastic-pink pacifier, feminism is used to lock any infantile gap in a society’s civility towards its women. Time to time, this gap widens and the pacifier falls off clumsily, and then whimpers are heard. Are we merely pacifying our women with jargonised feminist theory and social media campaigns whose promises are incongruent with the truths of our time?
For example, back in 2009, a campaign titled Dark is Beautiful was launched by a public awareness movement called Women of Worth, taking the self-worth of thousands from dusk to dawn. Last year, six brands of Hindustan Unilever (HUL) notched up annual sales in excess of Rs 2,000 crore. Their fairness cream Fair and Lovely too entered the 2,000 crore sales bracket. In 2015, Bollywood gave the country a song titled ‘Chittiyaan Kalaaiyaan’ (White wrists, quite literally) released in 2015 and scored over 190 million views on YouTube. Feminism, like spirituality, has a deep impact in short bursts on tiny attentive audiences. There’s one woman who says she doesn’t have a brand of feminism but is slowly and surely bringing many women closer to who they are, just like spirituality could have.
Vidya Balan is casually, inherently bold. She doesn’t need to victimise herself to attract the world’s attention to her life. Both her fortune and her misfortune, are her own. So, when a character played by her is wronged by society, she chases justice on the streets alone as a slain girl's sister, as a dead husband's wife, standing firm within her brokenness. When she plays a woman possessed by another one (Bhool Bhulaiya; 2007), a gestural madness meets an extraordinary mind with poise; as she brings back to life a long dead soft-porn star (The Dirty Picture; 2011), she restores dignity to the lady’s name by throwing the dirt back onto people’s minds, where it belongs. Shortly, the world will see her in and as Begum Jaan, a period film where the matriarch of a brothel stands up for her profession and her establishment, which happens to find itself on the India-Pakistan border and must be demolished at all costs.
An actor comes face to face with reality, in order to romanticise it, to make it less ordinary and more heroic. Vidya Balan was in the capital recently, to inaugurate an extended space in designer Gaurang Shah’s showroom. Here, light entered in broad blinding swathes through naked glass walls, lending gloss to the wooden flooring over which stood racks with roll-over-roll of a rainbow of coloured fabrics from where the sound of wooden hangers on steel rods emerged. Shah has been working with over 600 artisans in 11 states. Vidya, his muse, sat by a wall upon which colourful pattan ghagras had been spread open like Chinese paper fans. In an almond white Khaadi paithani saree, jasmine garlanding her loose bun, she spoke about feminism and empowerment, only because she was asked to.
“I don’t think I have a brand of feminism at all. I believe I am the centre of my universe and I value myself a lot and there are times when that gets compromised because as women we are natural givers and tend to put others before us. I am constantly reminding myself not to do that and I am so much happier because of that. So, I tend to choose characters that echo the same feeling of being really precious and important in one’s own right,” explains Vidya Balan, smiling her patented Parineeta smile. Her idea of beauty is attached to the saree, because as a child she saw her women in her house in sarees. The other reason why she loves the saree, she says, is its ability to embrace any woman’s body at any moment in her life; a levelling of the differences in our being that society is quick to point out.
“When women come up to me and tell me that they were going through an issue in their lives and they did what one of my characters would have done if faced with a similar situation, or when they tell me that the roles I have played have made them comfortable with their bodies and sexualities, I feel touched,” shares Vidya. She feels performers like her are here to tell stories and if people are embracing those stories in a manner that they’re able to read into their own lives better, then there isn’t a success greater than that.
She says she doesn’t preach feminism, like a doctrine, she just goes ahead and practices. Recently, Sushmita Dev, a Congress MP, has launched a petition on Change.org to make sanitary pads free. Currently, it has almost 7,000 signatures. It is a product that nearly 70 percent women in this country cannot afford. Parallely, in her next film, Vidya Balan will be seen lending her raw womanhood to the dialogue “Maheena humein gin na aata hai sahib, har baar saala laal karke jaata hai.” This is how Vidya complements any women’s movement in India. She boldly puts an end to the crying and wailing and eliminates the need to the pacified at all. Be self-assured and ask for what is yours, that’s the Vidya Balan way.
Vidya Balan, who has delivered several hits including the national-award winning Paa and The Dirty Picture, says she does not feel the pressure to deliver as she chooses good scripts.
"To have someone like her play a character of this sort is enough to create curiosity," says the director of 'The Dirty Picture'.
Balan's fashion "problems" are not her own, but of our self-loathing notion of beauty. We now live in a bizarre time when an actress can be deemed "too Indian" in face, body and attire to be considered beautiful in Bollywood.