She’s played numerous characters who have quiet strength, but in Begum Jaan, Vidya Balan steps into the skin of a woman who she describes as “unabashedly powerful”. The actor’s last release, Kahaani 2, may not have achieved the same success as 2012’s Kahaani, but Balan is not one to look back and regret.
While she does not set professional targets, Balan is delighted that, over the last few years, she’s being offered a rich selection of scripts, from The Dirty Picture to the under-production comedy Tumhari Sulu. On a warm Mumbai afternoon, sitting in a vanity van outside a bare studio, Balan talks about why she chose to work on a remake (Begum Jaan is a Hindi version of the Bengali film Rajkahini), her affinity for Kolkata and more. Excerpts from an interview:
What attracted you to ‘Begum Jaan’?
The story and my character are the two most important criteria for me when I look at a film. Srijit (Mukherji, director) showed the Bengali version to me and I decided on the basis of that. He did not have the Hindi script ready at that time.
I have not played a character who is so in-your-face powerful and comfortable in her skin. She’s almost like Gabbar – she fears no one. The raja is her patron, which is why she is so powerful. She doesn’t care who stands with her and who doesn’t. Even without the raja’s patronage she knows she can stand up to anyone, and for me that is her strength.
What homework did you have to in order to play this character?
I needed to understand her backstory. That didn’t exist in the script. I like to do that and, in this case, I needed that in order to understand what has hardened her to this extent and why she is so aggressive. However, there is a certain amount of femininity to her as well. I read Urvashi Butalia’s The Other Side of Silence, which is one of the few books that deals with women during Partition and what they went through. But no one has dealt with prostitutes and what the marginalised must gone through. Okay, they are doing business here and so what if they are asked to cross the border and take their business elsewhere? What difference does it make? But everyone is rooted somewhere.
You seem to have quite an affinity to Bengali stories.
I am drawn to everything Bengali. I love Kolkata: I speak the language, I have seen lots of their films, and I can sing songs and recite rhymes (in Bengali). My mother says it must be a past life connection. But the truth is that I like stories that are rooted. The original story was set in Bengal but Begum Jaan is set in Punjab. It’s a fresh perspective.
What did Srijit Mukherji bring out in you as an actor?
He made me realise that I am capable of a lot more than I give myself credit for, in terms of working under really difficult conditions. We were shooting in this barren landscape in Jharkhand and were fighting the weather every single day. One day there would be a storm and heavy rain and then it would stop and snakes and scorpions would come out. Or it was 45-46 degrees and crew members were fainting or feeling dehydrated. For some reason there were many foot injuries – almost every day. Because we didn’t know how long the sun would be out for, we were working at breakneck speed.
What amazed me about Srijit was the amount of planning and preparation that went into the shoot, which is why we could finish in 32 days. But what this film and Srijit taught me is that, if push comes to shove, I can brave scorpions, snakes and whatever else.
Were you disappointed by the response to ‘Kahaani 2’?
Of course, I would have liked it to have better box-office numbers, but I still feel happy with the way it did because it dealt with a difficult subject. What was nice was that many people said that we dealt with the subject with sensitivity. Therefore, I was not disappointed; I thought it was a step forward.
I give a film my all, I enjoy it, and maybe it doesn’t work, but there is nothing I can do beyond that. I don’t want that joy to be taken away and for the experience to change after the film releases. I talk about it, I cry, I mourn, I grieve and I get over it. When you give so much of yourself to something and it doesn’t work, then it is bound to hurt. But you have to overcome it and continue to work. As long as I am happy working and performing I am fine.
‘Begum Jaan’ releases in theatres on 14 April.