Apr 17, 2017

Vidya Balan says she 'wanted to be liked all her life'

Vidya Balan's Begum Jaan is one of the most-anticipated films of the month. Directed by Srijit Mukherji, it is an adaptation of Bengali film Rajkahini. In Begum Jaan, Vidya Balan plays the role of a brothel 'madam.' The film is set in the Partition era, when the East India Company proposed to split Punjab into two halves, Begum Jaan is asked to vacate her brothel.

The film's plot is based on her struggle. Naseeruddin Shah, Ila Arun, Gauahar Khan, Pallavi Sharda, Rajit Kapoor and Chunky Pandey star in key roles in Begum Jaan. The film is produced by brothers Mahesh and Mukesh Bhatt.

Here are the excerpts from the interview:

NDTV: Vidya Balan you said when Mahesh Bhatt approached you for the role, he wanted an emotionally desolate person and a very angry person. Is it?
Vidya Balan: Yes, an emotionally desolate person. I don't know what that means, Bhatt saab will answer. Angry, I think because we had a conversation during Hamari Adhuri Kahani promotions, where I told him I really wanted a role that allows me to vent out my anger. I was just getting comfortable to express anger. All my life I wanted to be nice, I wanted to be liked. So I always found it difficult especially after becoming an actor. Hence, I told him I am ready and he brought me Begum Jaan.

Mahesh Bhatt:
She has mixed it up. I didn't come to her she came to me. Vidya said that there is a part of hers which wants to express the rage. I want a narrative that can give me the privilege to express that. So as I say be very careful what you want to get because God will give it to you.

NDTV: And someone who is so averse to remakes what made you say yes?
Vidya Balan: If you had seen it, even you would have wanted to do it. I found it absolutely compelling. I loved the story and most importantly Begum Jaan's character just grabbed me. So yeah, I just wanted to play her.

NDTV: Also, it is about sex workers. The fact that we have seen in Indian cinema always .They have been victims but here there are women who are proud doing what they do and it was actually Manto who wrote about women sex workers, portraying them at a human level during Partition of India.

Was Manto the inspiration when you started writing this?
Srijit Mukherji:
Absolutely, I think amongst the fictional work which describes Partition era and its dynamic equation and the social paradigm. Yes, Manto was a huge huge inspiration at the same time. Also I'd like to mention the partition scholars who not just wrote with such creative flair but chronicled both the plight as well as the resistance of the marginalized sections.

During the partition era, when we are saying marginal almost a huge chunk of that would be the women, who bore the brunt of the two violent nations. When they were at each other's throats. Their resistance, their plight and also how as you said they were humanized. That era came through majorly in Manto's work. Not only humanized, I think Begum Jaan goes one step forward sometimes even manipulates the patriarchal forces to kind of extract freedom in this exploited mechanism.

NDTV: We like the tagline, 'My Body. My House. My country. My rules'
Srijit Mukherji:

You said something very interesting, where women when they have to somewhere showcase their power get very apologetic about it.

Vidya Balan: Yes

NDTV: So, here is Begum Jaan, who is unapologetic about what she is.
Vidya Balan: I think it definitely is success and power, which is very difficult for us to come to terms with. You know we are not easily comfortable with it. I have experienced it myself. I have seen people around me. Women you think are extremely independent and broad-minded. Still somewhere we feel guilty and find the need to overcompensate. But not Begum Jaan and that's why I think maybe I was ready and the film. I think I am more comfortable being me after I played Begum Jaan, because every film I think gives you something, every character.

NDTV: True

Vidya Balan: It frees some part of you and this is what it has done to me.

NDTV: So for Vidya, Srijit Mukherji and Mr Bhatt told us what Begum Jaan means to them. Gauahar and Pallavi, what attracted you to the roles?
Gauahar Khan:
The fact that it ticks all the boxes, you know as an actor, as a person, I want to perform. Rubina (Gauahar's character) is all that and more. She is extremely emotional, loving and loyal. She has a sense of anger and power in herself. Playing Rubin, is a dream come true.

Pallavi Sharda:
Personally, I feel I was craving for the opportunity to be authentic on screen. What Vidya really said hits at home for me because you know that idea of apology. You are asking me something I have struggled for my whole life. I think growing up in a cross cultural environment, I was told to be brazen and confident, to be independent in my life as an Australian woman and at home I was told to be an Indian girl. When I moved to India, I didn't know how to behave I was almost cautioning my internal confidence and things that I believed about myself. I found that in my workplace, in the roles I was playing and I think Gulabo (Pallavi's character) gave me the opportunity to break free from that.

As an actor and as a person, I always say that I am inspired by Gulabo and I think that's a great thing when you can play a character and take something away from her.

NDTV: Vidya, it is said that you don't have to like the characters you play. Has that ever been the case with you?
Vidya Balan: No, the role has to excite me. The more I don't understand it, the more challenging it becomes for me. I have to like it at some level. I don't think I have ever played a character I have disliked.

NDTV: You said somewhere, you really like mouthing the expletives. Did playing Begum Jaan free you from the anger?
Vidya Balan: Yes, you know again it goes back to the fact that even when you are really angry, how many of us really abuse. You feel that's not right.

Gauahar Khan:
If a girl abuses, people always judge you.

Vidya Balan: Hindi mein toh gali dedo toh phir. I think I have always wondered what it would be to sit across a person and you know. But this film I am enjoying it. I would be lying if I said I didn't. I enjoyed every word that came out of my mouth.

NDTV: What was your take home from Begum Jaan?
Vidya Balan: I think I am consciously or unconsciously freeing myself from doing what is expected and who I am expected to be. This is one step further or maybe a few steps further. I moved in that direction because it really made me more comfortable with my own success.

NDTV: You have always portrayed women who are very comfortable in their being. You've said people may judge and say yeh kaise kar liya but you have nothing of that sort. Are you now looking out to play such roles because you've been very picky in the last few years?
Vidya Balan: Yes, now it's reached a stage where it is a very organic process. I don't know whether I attract those roles or they came to me, they are beyond really the body. They can't be bodily defined if you know what I mean, which I love because I feel that is extremely stifling and suffocating to put a person in a body type you know. Have a look at our film and there are beautiful women. When I look at that frame I feel it's so real, it's so alive and that is fetching for me.

Srijit Mukherji:
Also, I feel her choice of roles has injected that thought in aspiring screenwriters. They know when there is a woman or character who is unapologetic about the way she looks, the way she is, the first one that automatically comes to you is Vidya Balan.

NDTV: Where do you derive your strength from?
Vidya Balan: First I think about myself, then my loved ones, my family and my faith that the universe conspires to make things happen for people who believe.

NDTV: Absolutely and Bhatt saab you said, "The Director is dead." Why, you really do not want to direct a film?
Mahesh Bhatt:
When you have brilliant people like him, why would I risk on even flirting with the idea of reincarnation. Why don't we accept this fact that a flower blooms and then withers and crumbles into dust. But that's not the end of it. It becomes fuel for the next generation of flowers and plants. So today by delinking myself from the director's spot I can root for Srijit, rather than being somewhere a withering director somewhere trying to stay on the crease. Whether people want me or not. So it is so exhilarating to create destinies and create people. You know create people sounds very pompous and arrogant. To see people come into their own and see them bloom. That is more gratifying.

Srijit Mukherji:
Baton passing the baton to the director.

Mahesh Bhatt:
You do the dirty job. You go two days and you fight with scorpions and snakes and live with the highs and lows of living crazy women and create a masterpiece.

Gauahar Khan:
And make them crazier.

NDTV: Absolutely. And Vidya, we were all looking at Kamla Das
Vidya Balan: I was looking forward to Kamla Das myself.

NDTV: But what happened? There were lot of things happening back and forth
Vidya Balan: Yes, you know I had creative differences with the director. Any other things are super imposition, is in the imagination of someone's fertile mind. You know it was being said there was some political pressure. If there was, I wouldn't care to hoot. No one tells me what to do and definitely not. I do not subscribe to any political ideology but more importantly no one said anything.

NDTV: These days, everyone in the film industry is debating on nepotism? You are from the industry, your daughter is doing really well and there are three independent women who come from outside and have carved a niche for themselves. What is your take?
Mahesh Bhatt:
There is no denying that Kangana Ranaut was right in a way. The film industry world over is insular, it is inward looking it is kind of like a fortress and this what I had heard in the tone of great filmmaker Rober Wise, who I had the chance of meeting. He said, "Look when Speilberg and Copala broke into Hollywood they said this is a place which is rampant with nepotism an outsider can't get in." So this was the first time I had heard this kind of phrase way back in time, but to say that every narrative of every achiever is very easy because he takes birth in a filmmaker is untrue.

Alia's journey to the box office was as difficult as Kangana's, or like these girls. In fact, the odds are against you because knives are out, people are too eager to break you apart and the power to make or break people is not with us it is with the people there.

NDTV: Absolutely

Mahesh Bhatt:
After the first show starts and the images begin to flicker it is the relationship between the screen and the audience that writes the destiny. No matter who you think you are you just can't do it.

NDTV: Absolutely

Srijit Mukherji:
I think like Harry Potter there could be wizards from wizarding families but there could be mud bloods too. The quality of the spells actually doesn't depend if you are from a wizarding family or not. So I guess...

And what do you want to say?

Vidya Balan: I haven't faced nepotism but I can't take away from what he is saying. Like there are camps in the industry and everyone keeps asking me. I have never wanted to be in a camp, I am enjoying working with different people. I'm being offered such variety of films, so I am very happy with the way my career has shaped up.

NDTV: You are the eternal optimist. You once said that you were heartbroken that Hamari Adhuri Kahani didn't do well. But people still talk about it. Were you upset that Kahaani 2 didn't live up to part 1?
Vidya Balan: Strangely, the fact that Kahaani 2 didn't do well didn't bother me at all. I think because I feel very proud that for us it was a brave attempt. You know how good or bad that is for audiences to decide. But I really felt we dealt with child sexual abuse in a very sensitive and sensible manner which is what people who went into theatres also said. Which is why I feel that even those who contributed to those 35 crores is far more than what this film would have got five years ago. So I am an eternal optimist.

NDTV: After this we will see you in Tumhari Solu. Looking forward to that?
Vidya Balan: Absolutely. Someone told me, "We haven't seen you smile or laugh in a film for a long time." I didn't even realise it but I am looking forward to that it is going to be fun.

NDTV: Since Begum Jaan helped you vent out your anger, what is one thing that truly makes you angry?
Vidya Balan: When anyone is patronising to a woman, I can't bear it. Whether it is me or anyone else.

NDTV: So now you will be more vocal with your expletives?
Vidya Balan: Not with my expletives. (Laughter)

NDTV: With your aggression, how did you blend in the femininity?
Vidya Balan: I'm really thankful to the conversations we've had because she has been a prostitute her whole life, It's called a progress to be Madam of a brothel. So she doesn't get rid of her feminine charm. So it's there, she uses it when she needs it. She can be very charming, she can be very seductive but it's used exploitatively that's what I enjoyed about her.

NDTV: One dialogue that gets the essence of Begum Jaan together?
Vidya Balan:Mahina humme ginna aata hai saab...

- Puja Talwar