In cliched terms (even though her career choices have been anything but cliche), we do not have a female actor better than Vidya Balan, from her generation of actors (and even after). When you watch a Vidya Balan interview, where she’s talking about films, you see a certain passion in her eyes. And the most striking thing is that even after almost 15 years of being in the industry, you see a very young passion in her eyes, a very young and energised thirst. We definitely have actors who know their job, but very few, like Balan, put their heart and soul into a character, cross their heart and hope to die, and get into a new skin. Even films and characters that have been non-cinematic geniuses, you see Balan invest in them as she does in projects like Kahaani or The Dirty Picture.
With each of her films, it was as if Balan had forgotten, entirely, who she was, where she came from, where she’s headed, to become these women, these strong powerful women. Very early on in her career, Balan made the choice to do films that didn’t just treat her as eye candy, or second fiddle to the hero. Whether these choices were a conscious effort or subconsciously made, Balan would be the better and only person to answer that. But the choices she made, made her unique. And directors perhaps saw their powerful leading lady in her. She changed the general narrative of Hindi Cinema. With characters like Silk, Vidya and Sulu, among others, she carved a path for women at the movies, announcing that they had talent and credibility of their own and can be as bankable.
I will admit, happily and proudly, that it was Vidya Balan’s performance in Paa and Lage Raho Munna Bhai (which I rewatched after Paa) that made me fall in love with Hindi Cinema. As Amazon Prime has now announced the release of Shakuntala Devi directly on their platform, my heart breaks a little because we will be missing the film on the big screen, but at least, we get to watch it. I went back to Balan’s previous works, and listed out my five favourite performances of her…
#5 Bhool Bhulaiyaa
As a child, I was very scared after watching Bhool Bhulaiyaa and for a couple of years after that, I would shut my eyes whenever Ami Je Tomar would play on the TV (now I don’t). Back in the day, as a child, I did not understand the nuances of both, Avni and Vidya Balan. But now, whenever I rewatch the film, I cannot think of any actor who could’ve played Avni better than Balan. Layered characters are Balan’s forte and no one does it better than her. In this horror-comedy, she proved to be one of India’s leading actors.
#4 Tumhari Sulu
Balan’s latest release, Tumhari Sulu has fetched her much praise and why should it not. As Sulochna/Sulu says, “Main kar sakti hai,” I always felt it was Balan saying the same, referring to the fact that she can, and will, outdo her previous performances. For her, the glass ceiling has always been her own performances and the aim is not to win awards (which she anyway does) but to tell stories and give these wonderful women (her characters) a voice. Sulu is empowered, she is confident, unashamed and competitive with her own self. She is the kind of woman who doesn’t want to win a lemon-spoon race just for the sake of it. She is concerned more about the lemon falling off. And Balan makes even Sulu’s most mundane achievements interesting. Balan seems to not have an end when it comes to her creative knowledge. Her talent is admirable, her heart and skill more so.
Paa was the film that changed Vidya Balan’s career. After Hey Babyy and Kismat Konnection, she had understood that everyday romances weren’t for her. The ‘everyday’ sure was. At a time when she couldve opted for more glamourous roles, she chose to play a mother of a 12 year old (Amitabh Bachchan) with Progeria. As a young, single mother, who also has a full time job, Balan proved to the world what she was capable of. This R Balki film was to Balan what a Dharma Productions debut is to young actors today. From here, there was no stopping her and there still isn’t.
#2 The Dirty Picture
In one of her finest and most layered performances in The Dirty Picture, you see Silk at a temple asking for what she rightfully needs and demands. Even the Almighty at that moment believes in her sincerity. The Dirty Picture is full of moments where Balan is just plain terrific. But this is one moment where you see the conviction in her eyes, you see the honesty with which she thinks that she is capable of demanding whatever it is that she wants out of her life. When I sat down to understand why this particular moment was a stand out for, I recalled another interview I had watched, of Balan, where she had said that when early in her career, film after film got shelved, or she got replaced, or things didn’t work out somehow, she turned to the powers of the Almighty and said, if you have dangled the carrot in front of me, you show me a way to get it.” These are the parallels I drew almost subconsciously. Out of my love for the actor and human in Balan.
Only an actor as passionate and honest as Vidya Balan can pull off a character as layered as Vidya Bagchi. While I’ve loved almost all her characters, Sujoy Ghosh’s Vidya Bagchi from the 2012 Kahaani remains an absolute favourite. Kahaani is a benchmark. As a pregnant, lost woman, Balan gave Bagchi possibly more than she could’ve. It is, by far, Balan’s best perfromance, followed by her act in The Dirty Picture. In one scene in the film, when Bagchi and Rana, the police officer, are talking to the receptionist at Monalisa Guest House, but he’s busy talking to just the policeman, Bagchi shouts, “Kya sir sir laga rakha hai? Mujhse baat kijiye na!” And you can almost hear Balan screaming for women’s rights in a scene which is not about it. Kahaani was a film depicting Shakti and at the hands of even a tad weaker actor, Sujoy Ghosh’s story wouldn’t have been etched in history like it is today. Of course it would have been a fabulous script even with someone else, but with Balan, it makes history.
Follow us on Instagram here: