Vidya Balan on Mission Mangal: The myth that scientists are geeks was busted in my head with this film
Vidya Balan talks about reuniting with Akshay Kumar for Mission Mangal, returning to woman-led films in the future, and playing Indira Gandhi in a web show.
Four years after starring opposite Emraan Hashmi in Mohit Suri's 2015 romantic drama Humari Adhuri Kahani, Vidya Balan will finally be seen in a movie where she doesn't have to carry the film on her shoulders alone; in Jagan Shakti's space drama Mission Mangal, that releases on 15 August. The film also stars Akshay Kumar fronting the film, and four other actresses who conduct the real-life mission of Mars Oribter Mission (MOM) aka Mangalyaan, as scientists of Indian Space and Research Organisation (ISRO).
Vidya claims that what drew her to the film, and primarily to her character of Project Director Tara Shinde, was the work-life balance that every woman around her grapples with. "She's like any other professional woman who is handling both home and her work. Her work is her identity. It gives her great joy. But she also manages her home with as much dedication. Most of the women are constantly playing this game. You're expected to be a superwoman. But Tara is not even trying to be a superwoman. She's beyond," says Vidya, coupling the remark with her trademark full-bodied laughter.
But unlike her last Hindi outing, Suresh Triveni's comedy Tumhari Sulu, Vidya rises above the mother's guilt that was hurled at her during the narrative of that film. "If you've seen Tumari Sulu, when her son steals mobile phones, her father tells him, "Ab tu sirf meri baat sunega". It is almost as if he's absolving himself of the responsibility of raising his child. So I'm saying we don't have to burden ourselves with that responsibility anymore," says Vidya.
]Apart from the work-life balance, what attracted Vidya was the way Indian scientists resort to jugaad, or the art of using science in their daily lives and incorporating it into their mission. "The way Balki (co-writer and co-producer) narrated the script to me, what I found really fascinating was the number of obstacles they face in their mission, and more importantly, how they sidestep them. The myth that scientists are geeks was busted in my head when they used their everyday lives to solves problems that arose in their mission," says Vidya. One of the most interesting parts in the trailer shows Vidya demonstrate a normal kitchen procedure as the solution to a problem they faced in their mission.
However, she could not completely steer herself away of the theories of science since she played the project director of MOM. "I had to look confident as the project designer. The jargon coming out of mouth shouldn't have sounded mugged up. So I had to work there. For my part, I also talked to Jagan's sister, who is a scientist at ISRO herself," says Vidya.
She shares screen space with four other actresses: Taapsee Pannu, Kirti Kulhari, Sonkashi Sinha, and Nithya Menen, who all play scientists in the film. She claims that just like her, Taapsee has now also opened up to shouldering a film alone, given her recent successes: like Anubhav Sinha's courtroom drama Mulk, Sujoy Ghosh's revenge thriller Badla, and Ashwin Saravanan's home invasion drama Game Over.
"See, once you've tasted the blood of being in total control of a film, it's difficult going back. People also start expecting you to stick to that in the future," says Vidya.
In Mission Mangal, she reunites with Akshay Kumar 12 years after their last hit, Priyadarshan's horror comedy Bhool Bhulaiyaa. They have also shared screen space in Sajid Khan's buddy comedy Heyy Babyy. "I thought it's going to be awkward since so much has transpired in the 12 years we've not worked together. But it was just the same. We keep bullying each other now also. He's still such a prankster. Whenever I'd get up for a shot, he'd tie a plate or spoon to the pallu of my sari. So I would wonder why the sari seems so heavy suddenly," she says, laughing.
She did not object to the idea of Akshay's face being displayed prominently on the first look poster of Mission Mangal, whereas the five women were relegated to the background. "I don't think it's unfair. Finally, it's the business of cinema. Because Akshay Kumar is the biggest star of us all, if it means giving him more space on the poster is going to get more people to the theatre, I don't mind. It'd be a huge risk otherwise. The producers would rather do it than take any risk. And I'd definitely use Akshay Kumar's stardom to my advantage. Haha! You know, when I did The Dirty Picture, people accused me of selling sex to get the audience to the theatres. I said I would do that so that people come and watch the film to realise it's so much more. So I know we have prominent roles in the film so I didn't bother much. Someday, our faces will be equal on the poster. Someday, they'll be bigger," she says, with a hint of wink-eyed mischief in her signature laughter.
She also clarifies that MOM was achieved by both women and men, contrary to the popular belief.
"We just remember the picture of women behind the mission posing together at ISRO. However, what we don't know that they were of an administrative capacity. They weren't even scientists. Akshay said at the trailer launch of the film that the mission was fronted by women. As much as it is good to say that diplomatically, we realised it's not true. We initially wanted to name the film Mahila Mangal Mandal, but realised we couldn't do it. So it's not fair to not give the men their due."
After Mission Mangal, Vidya will return to what she does best — starring in films with her as the solo lead. Two weeks after the release of Mission Mangal, she will start shooting for Anu Menon's Shakuntala, the biopic of the renowned late mathematician. "I'm very nervous because I didn't have much time to prepare. You have a certain perception about mathematicians, just like you have one about scientists. But she was a human computer, and at the same time, had a crazy, wicked sense of humour. I think I relate to that," she says, laughing.
Shankuntala is not the only biopic she is doing. She will also be seen as former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in a biographical web series, directed by Ritesh Batra and produced by Ronnie Screwvala's RSVP Films. "The Indira Gandhi web series is taking longer than I wish. They're rewriting the script according to the web, and will soon come to me with the final version. Web is a different ballgame so it takes more time," she says, adding, "I was offered the role five years ago also, by multiple people. But I told them as long as you don't get the requisite permissions, I can't do the film. But it's much easier in web."
She also says she was always keen on playing Indira since she also bought the rights to the adaptation of Sagarika Ghose's book Indira Gandhi: India's Most Powerful Prime Minister. She was thus less inclined towards playing the late Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and AIADMK Chief J Jayalalitha, when she was offered the latter's biopic Thalaivi. "I don't think playing two strong political figures would have been a good idea. Had they been of different ages, I'd have still considered. But I'm happy that Kangana (Ranaut) is doing it," says Vidya.
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