The Woman Who Studies Women: A Candid Interview With Vidya Balan
Reader’s Digest meets Vidya Balan, award-winning actor, producer, inveterate observer and author of her own unique life story
Vidya Balan was shooting in the jungles of Madhya Pradesh for Amit V. Masurkar’s Sherni when the coronavirus outbreak put a stop to work. The critically acclaimed actor has spent much of the pandemic promoting the release of her new film, Shakuntala Devi, a biopic of the globally feted mathematical genius. In this candid interview, Balan speaks to Reader’s Digest about life, the lockdown and lessons she has learnt from her films.
Your last three Hindi films—Tumhari Sulu, Mission Mangal and Shakuntala Devi—are about professionally successful women. Is this a conscious decision?
It is not. Maybe it’s a subconscious decision. (Laughs) Cinema mirrors reality. Previously, cinema portrayed our lives as revolving around the people in our lives—especially men—from whom we derived our identities. Now we derive our identities from our own beings, our dreams and ambitions. Our struggles define us—and that’s getting reflected on screen. It’s high time, you know.
Look at all that women are accomplishing. That’s why Tumhari Sulu is as important as Mission Mangal and Shakuntala Devi. Sulu wasn’t sending a rocket into space, she may not have been as brilliant as Shakuntala Devi, but I like how cinema reflects all kinds of realities. Sulu was an average Indian woman who aspired to be something beyond a homemaker and chose an unusual profession. She was doing the balancing act most working women have to pull off—juggling family and career, pursuing your dreams after your kids have grown up. Our country has its Shakuntala Devis, Tara Shindes and Sulochanas.
"Now women derive identity from their ambitions and struggles, which is reflected on screen. It's high time," says Balan.
In recent years, some politicians have openly mocked higher education. Your colleagues tend to believe college education is irrelevant for an acting career. Shakuntala Devi herself had no formal education. That said, few Hindi film stars are as educated as you. Keeping all this in mind, do you think a college education is important?
College education should not be missed. Lessons learnt inside the classroom can probably be learnt elsewhere, but what you learn outside class is invaluable. Whether in school or college, it’s about working with others, enjoying those days of no pressure, no responsibility, adhering to rules and sometimes flouting them, preparing for examinations. I wanted to quit studies after the 12th standard, because after Hum Paanch, I got many TV offers. But my parents were like, ‘No way—you should at least have a basic graduation [degree].’ I was angry with them for that. I remember not wanting to talk to them for some days. But today, I am grateful they insisted because college prepares you for life after college. There’s no right or wrong, but I’d say college [life] is priceless.
How have your film roles educated you?
Every character I’ve played has answered questions for me, some that I didn’t even know existed. For example, I always wondered if my mother’s life would have been different if she was working, because she is enthusiastic, she participates in everything, she learns dance and music even today, she has the most active social life, and I know she’s always looked up to women who had jobs and studied a lot. Tumhari Sulu happened at a time when I was wondering about my mother.
Every role I’ve taken up has been a response to my current state of mind—and in answering questions, it has healed or freed some part of me. I now realize that my mother made a choice. She lost her mother at the age of five, so she wanted to be ever present for us—today, I respect that. Tumhari Sulu made me realize you can’t measure everyone by the same yardstick. At one point, we thought motherhood was the key to fulfillment for women. To me, for a while, it was that only women with full-fledged careers, or at least jobs, have fulfilling lives—and it was important to earn your own money. But I realize that as long as choice is involved, whatever you choose is right.
But choice is also a factor of social conditioning and pressure.
Yes, but it’s also about personality. My mother told me, “I’m not sure I would have been okay with stepping out every day.” She’s a homebody. So yes, it’s social conditioning, but we must also take personality into account. Who knows? Maybe my mother would have chosen a profession like Sulu; maybe she would have liked to dance or sing; maybe she didn’t even know she could explore those options.
Balan as Sulochana, aka Sulu, an ambitious housewife turned radio jockey in the 2017 film Tumhari Sulu
Choice is a loaded term in this context, especially since society largely does not give men the same choice to pick home over profession.
I may sound politically incorrect or rude when I say this, but I don’t care about men because women have been deprived of any kind of choice forever. Choice has always been a male privilege. If men do not accord themselves that choice because they feel society will judge them in a different way, that is for them to figure out.
But unless men see housework as a choice, the home will always be viewed as the woman’s primary responsibility.
True, the invisibility of housework will probably change if more men become comfortable with staying at home and taking care of the household.
In 1977, Shakuntala Devi wrote a book on homosexuality. Media reports say her interest in the subject arose because her ex-husband was gay. [SPOILER ALERT] The film says she lied about him. Whether or not that’s true, a book on homosexuality in 1977 is path-breaking. It feels like the film brushed that under the carpet.
Oh, it’s unfortunate you feel that way. What happened is, when she [Devi] wrote the book she apparently kept get-ting asked: ‘What gives you the authority to write on homosexuality?’ She was an extremely impulsive woman who would say things off the cuff, so apparently she got fed up, and there must have been some anger since there was a divorce, which I guess is human. So I think she just said: “That’s because my ex-husband is gay.” He was not. But she said this to get people off her back and it gave credence to her work, so she stuck to the story. The beauty is that, irrespective, she wrote literally the first book on homosexuality in India—which is great!
But the fact that she wrote this path-breaking book back then is overshadowed in the film by the position it takes that she lied. Would you disagree?
I’m too close to the film to disagree. That’s the thing with film-making, right? Sometimes, you know the backstories, so you assume it will be understood. It’s unfortunate it didn’t come out better. Many people did get it, but I also know some who said it could have been further elaborated on. I stand by the choices we made.
Balan, as a young Shakuntala Devi, in a still from the movie
How have you coped with the pandemic and the lockdown?
It was fairly simple and fuss-free—Siddharth (my husband) and I were home. For the first time, we spent so much time together. We shared the load at home. Thankfully, we had someone to cook for us because neither of us do. I tried making a few things just to give her a break sometimes, and that was quite a discovery, but I didn’t do anything fancy. I didn’t bake banana cake, I didn’t start playing an instrument and I haven’t read all the books I wanted to read.
But I do feel an overpowering sense of gratitude for the life I have. From the beginning of the pandemic, when I saw people stranded, trying to go home, when I saw homeless and hungry people, many separated from their families and then the sanitation workers, health-care workers and police putting themselves at risk—I have really felt so grateful.