Vidya Balan has never quite played by the rules. When the broke on to the big screen with Pradeep Sircar’s Parineeta, she played a Sarat Chandra Chatterjee heroine. Her first film itself made people see her for who she was: an actor. 15 years down the line, Vidya Balan has tasted both success and failures; and her method of dealing with the highs and lows has stayed the same: you win some, you lose some. Vidya Balan is now playing a genius, Shakuntala Devi, in the icon’s biopic. Shakuntala Devi drops on Amazon Prime Video on July 31.
Ahead of the release of Shakuntala Devi, Vidya speaks to cinemapluz .in about the ‘colorful life’ of Shakuntala Devi, her own relationship with Maths, how she takes accusations of ‘dramatizing’ a biopic and why at this point, there’s no point in making plans.
Excerpts from the conversation:
You have made the industry wake up and see that a male lead is not really necessary for the success of a film. And now, in Shakuntala Devi, you’re doing it once again. How do you say yes to a script?
I think the story has to really call out to me. There are some stories that just grab you from the word go. When [director] Anu Menon came to me with the story, she just told me that I want to make a biopic on Shakuntala Devi, who was known as the Human-Computer, and I said, I know that. And then she shared with me other information about Shakuntala’s life. And the more she told me, the more fascinated I got. It was almost like she was living multiple lives. She did so much in her life, she accomplished so much. Of course, she entered the Guinness Book of World Records, she wrote lots of books, she was a pioneer in terms of writing the first book on homosexuality in India, she wrote cookery books, she was into politics at one point, she was an astrologer… and that’s still the more public aspect of her.
What also interests me is the person behind all of that, and when she began to tell me about that, I was like, ‘we must definitely do this’. And Anu had so much information from Shakuntala Devi’s daughter and son-in-law, Anu, and Ajay, that we had to really cull out the landmark events to tell in a two-hour film. It could have gone on for five hours. The more I read about her, the more I got fascinated. This kind of a woman inspires me because she led a full life. Unapologetically. She did not get defined by the roles she was expected to play in life. She defined those roles.
What has been Vidya Balan’s relation with Maths? Through school, to now?
Good, actually. I love numbers. Even though I have always said that in the industry, I don’t really play the number game. But I rekindled my love for numbers through this film. Nowadays, we don’t really process numbers with our mind anymore; there’s a phone for everything. I’ve enjoyed this… having to learn up so many numbers, doing so many maths shows, learning tricks, being exposed to Vedic Maths, it’s been great.
This is also a very different role for you. I don’t think we’ve ever seen you in a role like this.
Yes, I think she’s the most complicated, the most complex woman I’ve played so far. She was unafraid to be complex. She was unafraid to be intelligent, she was unafraid to be successful. She did not dumb herself down so it would serve someone else’s ego.
A certain section of people seems to think the drama is not required in a biopic. But we all know how dry a commercial film would be without those bits. How do you make accusations of ‘dramatizing’ a biopic?
But also, she was that kind of a person, right? There were so many… she was so interesting, she was so colorful. You have a perception of a mathematical genius. Anyone associated with Maths, you think would be geeky and boring. She was none of that. She had a wicked sense of humor. She loved to dress up, till the very end, she dyed her hair black. She was very conscious of appearance. She wore bright lipstick, she wore bright nail paints, she loved to dance. She was the life of a party. She loved food, she loved sweets, she was diabetic but she loved her sugar.
I don’t know why we like to box people into certain categories. It is a human tendency… I guess it makes life easier for us to not have to deal with the complex people that human beings are. But she was far more. She was larger than life. Why not. There is drama inherent in her personality. So why shy away from showing that? We have a perception of a maths genius as being boring or staid or too straightforward… I’m sorry, but Shakuntala Devi wasn’t that!
When you’re making a film on an icon, where do you draw this line between fact and creative liberty?
That really… to put someone’s life into a story form, you have to take some creative liberties, but having said that, we got all our facts… we got Shakuntala’s story from her daughter and son-in-law. Even if we’ve taken liberties, it is in keeping with the integrity, the essence of Shakuntala Devi. It does not compromise that even for one moment. To put someone’s life into a screenplay, you have to bring in drama, and you choose only those elements which have drama. We are not making a documentary. We’ve chosen to tell her story in a feature film format. She was a very entertaining person.
Coming to Shakuntala Devi, there’s been a fair amount of discussion on homosexuality and Shakuntala Devi’s work for the community. Many are wondering if that part of her life has made it to the film, given that we did not quite see much of it in the trailer.
Leave something for the film!! So that there’s something to look forward to. You can’t play all your cards out in the trailer!
You are not someone who has played by the rules. If anything, you created your own rules in Bollywood. I remember reading an interview where you had said that the moment you stopped listening to what others said about you, is when you began growing. How has this process of shutting your ears been?
Ya… you know, because I think the most important thing is to listen to your inner voice. When you’re only tuned in to the outer world, there’s no space for you to tune in to your own instinct. That was a lesson I learned early in my career, into the first two-three years of my career. I realized that 10 people will have 20 opinions about you, and those opinions will change based on their mood, or on the weather, for all I know! If you base your personality, or try to win acceptance from them, or try to get their validation, you’re going to end up a confused person. So the one person who you need to be validated by is you. The person you see in the mirror; as long as you are validated by you, that’s all that matters.
Have your parents seen Shakuntala Devi?
No, no! Not yet… You know, they saw The Dirty Picture two days before release because we could have a preview. Now, we’ll all sit and watch it together, hopefully, on July 31, when it premieres. And then we can watch it whenever. But even if we watch it separately – like, they in their home, I watch it here, we’ll all watch it at the same time… that’s what we’ve decided. So let’s hope that happens. This will also be a virtual shared experience.
You have seen both highs and lows in Bollywood. When you see the young crop of actors today, struggling, trying to wait for that one break, what do you want to say to them?
That, you know, you win some, you lose some. All these rejections and failures are really testing your faith in your own dreams. That’s what I have realized, and continue to realize. I go through ups and downs in my life, all of us do, on a continual basis. It’s not like once you see success, it’s all rosy. Life will take its own course anyway. To realize that it’s just preparing you for what could be huge success, for you to be able to deal with that, for you to be able to value that success. Sometimes, it’s like the polishing of the diamond. So keep your faith.
If you feel that you need help, sometimes we just need someone to hear us; just share it with someone you trust, or a professional, or write it on a piece of paper and throw that paper. Just express yourself. When we express ourselves, we are able to sort ourselves out. All this I’m saying not as advice, but as learnings from my journey so far. I think it’s invaluable… when you talk to someone, you hear yourself, and you realize am I doubting myself, is my faith in myself shaky… solutions will emerge for you. There will be ups and downs. It’s never going to be perfect. And perfect is boring.
Just coming from these four months, this pandemic, so many young talented actors have killed themselves… so many tragedies. From your perspective, are these highs and lows because the future is so uncertain?
But I think now more than ever we must realize that we are all in it together. We must realize that it is as difficult for you as it is for me, or for you as it is for your neighbor. Everyone has some issues or struggles. For some, it’s just survival itself which is tougher. But sometimes, it’s just other things, you know. It’s very easy for me to sit here and advise that when you’re going through a low, it’s just learning… it is tough. And especially, at this time. But, if anything, now we must take solace in the fact that the whole world is going through this. So even if the realization of your dreams is getting delayed, remember that everyone’s lives have been put on pause at this time. And once things get back to the way they were, we won’t even realize how we are sucked into our routine. But we have to use whatever we’ve learned in this period, I guess… during this time. I’m also just groping in the dark and trying to adapt.
The pandemic has brought about all sorts of challenges. We saw shoots resuming, only to see people testing positive and shoots being called off. Just the word ‘future’ looks precarious, be it in any field. How do you see the future of filmmaking? How are we going to evolve?
I’m not even thinking of that. Because honestly, the film industry is a small part of this world we live in. Everyone’s life is on hold. We’re trying to figure out how to get back to what we knew as normal. So I don’t think I have any straight answers as to what the future of films will be. Films will survive, theatres will survive, it’s just a small break. We all have to keep ourselves safe and healthy at this point so that when this pandemic has bid farewell, we can all resume in no time.
At this time, it is very difficult to predict anything. I don’t really know how long it’s going to take, how we’re going to resume work, or what it will be like when we resume work… I think more than anything at this point of time I’ve realized that there’s no point in making plans. On a day to day basis, life is changing. All we can do is be grateful for our blessings, count our blessings, and take one day at a time.