She calls it ‘stri-shakti’ and with good reason, because Vidya Balan has done more for the woman in Indian cinema than most other actresses. Balan, the leading lady (or should we say ‘hero’?) in her upcoming film Ghanchakkar, talks to Vajir Singh about Cannes, the changing face of Hindi cinema and a lot more
Let’s start with Cannes, a first for you. You did a great job and the response was very good, right?
Thank you. And I couldn’t believe that my very first time at Cannes would be as a jury member. It is the most celebrated film festival in the world and the jury they put together this year was incredible.
Are you saying that because you were a part of it?
(Laughs) That too!! Actually it was such a great mix of people, people known to produce great cinema from all over of the world. There was Steven Spielberg and Ang Lee and Christian Mungiu, a Romanian director. And from the UK, there was Lynn Ramsey and Naomi Kawase from Japan. They are all churning out incredible cinema. And then there were actors like Nicole Kidman, Christoph Waltz and French actor Daniel Auteuil.
I wasn’t conversant with the works of all of them. Of course, we have watched the work of Spielberg, Ang Lee, Nicole Kidman and Christoph Waltz. The beauty is that while we all come from different countries,social and cultural backgrounds and even different film industries,the binding force is Cinema. We are all telling human stories and human stories belong to no one particular place or people, they just belong in the human race... I was amazed to discover that we all reacted to films primarily as human beings... and lastly you realise that the greatest are also the humblest of people... and Steven Spielberg is the principal of that school.
Speaking of judging… judging is as good as reviewing a film. Has your perception towards reviewers changed?
It is a little like reviewing but I must admit im a trained eye. I think everyone is a part of the audience, including reviewers. Film is a very subjective medium and there are bound to be different opinions. What I really appreciated is the integrity of the jury. We were given a kind of code of conduct, where we were assigned separate points of entry into the theatre, and we would sit in the jury box, watch the film and leave.
We didn’t applaud any films; we didn’t interact with any of the filmmakers or the cast and crew. I thought that was incredible. That kind of integrity is very inspiring. My attitude towards reviewers hasn’t changed but I do think that even here, the most respected reviewers are objective.
We had all read up on each other so they had read up about me. They weren’t aware of my work but this was an opportunity for them to get a sense of the changing face of Indian cinema. They associate Indian cinema largely with colour and song and dance, which of course remains a strong part of the identity of our films. But I was able to share with them that today, various kinds of storytelling styles that are emerging. It’s a great time for Indian cinema, content is very varied and so is treatment, presentation and the audiences too. So they were very interested in learning about the various kinds of films being made. They asked me for DVDs and I shared some with them.
I have shared as many DVDs as I could because while someone wanted to watch Kahaani, someone else was interested in The Dirty Picture. All this from reading that I got the National Award for it. I think they were very excited and very open to watching Indian films.
Since you shared so many DVDs at Cannes, will we see you doing a Hollywood film soon?
(Laughs) You know, if there is something substantial, I would be interested in doing a Hollywood film or an Iranian film or a regional Indian film. I have always said that. I would have loved to show them other films from India but I didn’t have the DVDs of those films with me. It was only to give them a sense that the grammar or the idiom of Indian cinema is changing.
You dealt with the foreign media there and on Thursday, at Ghanchakkar’s song launch, you met the Indian media again. What differences do you notice?
(Laughs) Yes, I must say that the red carpet was a different experience so many of them all at one place and yet so organised and there were flashbulbs popping all the time. But I must say that even in terms of interviews, they are very organised; they raise their hands to ask questions. This happens here too, but over there, each one is assigned a time slot and they have to finish within that. Back here, we are much more casual about these things. Once their allotted time is over, they leave. And if you don’t want to pose for the camera, they leave you alone.
Do you mean the media there is like corporate house and back home here, they are like solo producers?
(Laughs) No! Like here they would say, ‘just one more minute please’ and you have to give them that one more minute. It’s not like that over there at all. But there are photographers everywhere you go. But they don’t get upset if you don’t want to pose for pictures. Like I said, they are very formal. But Indians in general are not very formal, which is a great thing. I love the way we are and I appreciate the way they are.
I think that always provides a direct association with the film.It provides a context to an actors myriad appearances across various media and that grabs eyeballs. Over time, I learnt that this works. I started doing it in Ishqiya and continued with it in No One Killed Jessica, The Dirty Picture and Kahaani. It’s a great way to draw an instant association with the film you are promoting.
Despite delivering back-to-back successes, why is it there such a long gap between your next release Ghanchakkar and your last one, Kahaani, which released in March last year?
I like to take my time with things. I like work at my own pace, Even then, the way things panned out, I found myself either getting into a film or getting into the promotions for the next. It was getting a little tiring. So after Kahaani, I didn’t really know which film I was starting work on. I said ‘yes’ to Ghanchakkar only after Kahaani released hence the gap.
Did you take your time because you had delivered back-to-back hits and audience expectations had soared?
I take that expectation in my stride and I also do things at my own pace. If a script really excites me, I would do the film. And I was talking to Raj (Rajkumar Gupta) but I was apprehensive about the character because she is so loud. And I thought that with TDP, I had played a character who was completely out there. Here its a different type of boldness. I was like, ‘OMG! she is so loud!’ So I took my time to think about it. But Raj was sure he wanted me and I trust Raj so I decided to do it.
I haven’t become choosy over the last few years. I always work like that. I don’t let expectations bother me. Instead, I feel , ‘Wow, its good to know people are expecting so much of me’. Having said that I only do what excites me completely because I want to enjoy what I do and I’m in no hurry to get anywhere.
When the first look of Kahaani was revealed, it created a buzz, which slowed down. But the way you promoted the film just before its release, hyped it once again and it did phenomenal business. Ditto with Ghanchakkar. It created a buzz with its first look and it waned. Now since you’ve got into the promotion and are about to go all out, can we say you will repeat history?
Inshaallah! Inshaallah! Inshaallah! I hope it not only recreates but surpasses Kahaani. With Kahaani, I was the face of the film. And since I was the only one who could promote it, I went all out. I enjoy promotions because I have a strong sense of ownership with all my films. And you want to use every means to make sure people come to the theatres in hordes.
The first promos of Ghanchakkar drew a stupendous response. But it’s been a while since the first promo, and now the songs are releasing. So I think the Disney UTV marketing team has some strategy in mind. I have no contribution to that and I do not have a say in that. But I am back and I will promote the film in the best way I can.
I get offered a lot of strong women roles, and I like doing them because there is a different interpretation of in each of these roles, you see the strength differently. Like in Ghanchakkar, you will see this character as a hatti-katti, tagdi Punjabi woman who likes her food and her clothes. But she is actually a regular housewife.
I am getting to explore the strength in regular people. So you don’t exactly have to be exceptional to be a hero; it is the ordinary that makes the extraordinary. And that’s what I am getting to explore in film after film. I believe there is the extraordinary in each one of us. Basically, a different avatar of a woman with every character.It is an exciting time for the woman in Indian cinema. You can see ‘stri-shakti’ in full glory and all this even as she has fun.
Can we say, Vidya Balan did it?
(Laughs) That’s music to my ears. Thank you for saying that but I think that it’s a matter of timing. Of course, it wasn’t planned by me; it’s God’s grace that it has worked out like that. Cinema is changing and we are all changing, not just actors or filmmakers but also the audience. We are currently in the best phase of cinema and I am grateful to be a part of it.