Interview: Vidya Balan: Spread Love, Joy, and Faith
“Humanity is actually very kind.” Bollywood actor Vidya Balan’s belief in that principle has seen her through depressing lows in her early phase to the current peaks of success. In her frank, fun, and positive way, she chats with Khabar about life in the time of coronavirus.
Shakuntala Devi was released on the OTT [Over-the-Top] platform. What was that like? Did you anticipate that a movie made for the big screen would eventually be released on digital screens?
Absolutely! This film has scale, so it would have been nice to see it on the big screen. I think the tone was also a bit louder because obviously that changes according to the medium you are making it for. My writer, Nayanika Mahtani, was telling me that maybe for the OTT we could have toned it down a bit, though I like it the way it is.
It was a completely different experience, talking nineteen-to-the-dozen as always during promotions, but even more hectic now. Because there’s no time to physically travel. That would give you some sort of respite, when you’re travelling from one studio or hotel [to the other]. Whereas here, I was just sitting in one place, doing interview after interview. So, the only thing I did was give it a visual break by changing quite a few times a day!
You do promotions with so much zabardasti and passion. Now with this new normal, you’re sitting in front of a computer or an iPad. How has it been for you to promote the movie sitting on the comfort of your own couch?
[Top] Still from the movie Shakuntala Devi
There were some pluses, in terms of not having to brave the traffic. Therefore, I could pack in that much more in a day. Especially in the rains, if you don’t have to go from one place to another, it’s a real boon. It gets mucky and dirty! But otherwise, I am passionate about what I do. I love promotions; it gives me a chance to talk about what we have all created together. And this was all the more special. First time on OTT of course, but also [because of] Shakuntala Devi herself—there are so many facets to her, so many layers that I got a chance to, I think, almost give people a sense of what they could expect in the film.
You get flooded with roles that are written specifically for you. What exactly is it that says, I want to play Shakuntala Devi or Sulu?
If I’m able to see myself in the character that’s being offered to me, then I know that I want to do it. I feel like, “Oh my god, I want to tell this story!” Over time, I’ve learned to pay heed to that voice inside my head. So, even if it’s the perfect script and the people are perfect, if my inner voice does not give me a go-ahead, then I don’t do it.
[Bottom left] Mathematician Shakuntala Devi.[Right] Still from the movie Shakuntala Devi
I hear you put on perfume to get into the skin of the character, since you obviously cannot look like every character. How do you transform from Vidya into a Shakuntala or somebody else that you are portraying?
I imagine that some women smell like they are wearing jasmine in their hair, some others smell like they’ve just smoked a cigarette. Everyone has that unique fragrance or smell. But I am just one person. These are tools I use so that I can feel different each time. It’s a sort of trigger, a cue. For Shakuntala Devi, I used a Dior Spice Blend because I feel like she’s a blend of spices. So, I look for things like that.
Shifting gears on that topic, we are in the middle of a global pandemic. What would Shakuntala Devi do if she were alive in 2020?
I think she would have been doing her math shows virtually and therefore reaching her audiences across the world. She would have written many books; there was a time she wrote 20 books in two years. She loved to cook. She would have, maybe, danced. She travelled so much, I don’t think she got a chance to dance later in her life. I think she would have adapted beautifully to this time.
What is the new normal, for you, your fellow actors in Bollywood, the producers, and directors you work with in India right now? Have you gone out on shoots yet?
I can see how the new normal has impacted the team. As an actor, it’s not impacting me that much because I’m not going to wear a mask or PPE. But everyone else, poor things, are in masks and those face shields and sweating away, sometimes even in an AC environment. I think it’s very tough. And then, there’s no buffet system now at shoots. They’re being handed out these packed meals. There are those sanitization cubicles that you go through . . . it’s just different! Again, from my point of view—I’m a cleanliness freak—I feel like, thank God finally, you’re sure that when someone comes out of the loo, they’re clean!
In terms of life lessons, what has been the biggest benefit to come out of this pandemic ? A lot of people are complaining they cannot do this or that. But there are some wins. The globe is giving us a wake-up call. You may have already known, but how has this accelerated?
I’ve lived on the beach for eight years but during the pandemic, I felt like I owned it. There was no one on the beach. That was beautiful. You realize that you sometimes take things for granted. I enjoy the beach . . . I’m someone who sits on the balcony every night and watches the waves. But even then, I’ve never seen it this empty. It was spick and span. I felt, why can’t we be more responsible, why can’t it be this clean all the time, even with people coming in? That’s when I realized we owe a lot to our environment and we shouldn’t be so callous.
Spending time with Siddharth for so many months, that too at home, that was a beautiful blessing. You begin to count your blessings when you read and watch the kind of struggles that people have gone through and continue to go through during this period.
You have mentioned your amazing life journey, truly inspiring for so many people. How are you able to give back and what are some of the charities that are close to your heart, especially at a time like now?
At a time like now, I have contributed to a lot of charities at state and national level. But also, on an individual level, when I’ve heard of people I know going through tough times—especially within the industry— when someone would get in touch with my manager or a team-mate, then I would help. I’ve been brought up to believe that you have to keep the flow going, to give wherever you can.
Where do you think 2021-22 is going? Where do you think we will be a few years from now with how we live?
I don’t have a crystal ball. What I know is that this too shall pass. But this has been a very tough time for people at various levels. For some, it’s been about survival. But for a lot of us, it’s also made us confront issues that we’ve shoved under the carpet. Our failures, rejections, relationships that are not working. And sometimes, of course, people have enjoyed spending time with their spouses or they’ve grown closer to their friends, room-mates. People have enjoyed being families.
I don’t know how this period is going to change all of us. There are times when I am driving through and I just feel like, “What has changed? There’s as much traffic as before?” But I’m not talking about that because of course we need to survive and business will go back to how it was. I hope even better.
That said, I think there are other lessons that I hope we all have learnt. Value for ourselves, value for our time, for our relationships. And to realize that we can keep running for the rest of our lives but, beyond a point, what are we running towards? I’ve been doing a lot of introspection, a lot of thinking and I realize it’s okay to rest. It gives you that clarity, it re-energizes you and gives you fresh perspective; a zeal which is missing sometimes because we are so caught up in this whirlpool of doing, that we are not being. I think we need to learn that the biggest gift this pandemic has given all of us is the realization that the only way to be is to be present in the moment.
As an artiste, you have to interact with people. You cannot have a quiet set. Does it make you nervous, when you see all these numbers, the U.S. and India, unfortunately, being at the top of the tally when it comes to cases of deaths?
I get nervous, for sure. I don’t understand why people don’t wear masks! You’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t wear a mask. It’s not like the pandemic is over yet. The lockdown has been eased, but it’s not been released. My kind of work requires a certain density of people on set. It’s tough to control. But hopefully, the producers will be careful about following protocols. There are corona management teams, which is that people make sure all the protocols are being followed to the T. So, I think that’s a great one.
As we wrap up, I want to ask you a simple question. What is your morning routine? What is your mantra?
I start my day with a prayer. Then, I do my one-hour walk. After my walk, I have breakfast. Then I get down to do whatever else it is that I need to do. Whether that’s shoot—now of course, it’s not so much shoot—but then just go on with your day.
Rapid fire with Vidya Balan
Three words to describe you:
I think passionate, authentic (hopefully), and I’d say, loving.
Advice you’d give your 10-year-old self.
That fat is cute, fat is cool, fat is great. You are just great the way you are.
You are now invited to a dinner party. It’s 2025. What do you bring?
Hopefully, something that I’ve cooked myself. I hope to have mastered the art of cooking by then!
What would you like to accomplish before your New Year’s Day birthday?
This year’s been tough on the world. I’m just hopeful that the New Year ushers in joy, positivity, and prosperity everywhere. I don’t know what I want to accomplish next year . . . I just hope we all get through this year!
Who is your favorite actor to work with?
Farhan Akhtar and Woody Allen (someday).
Which film director would like to work with?
Shakun Batra, Gulzar.
Which actor do you admire in Hollywood?
Your favorite social media platform?
Instagram, and then Facebook.
Your favorite/inspirational quote?
Smile and the world will smile back at you. It’s not just about smiling. Everything that you put back into the world, you get back. So put out positivity, spread love, spread joy, spread faith. Humanity is actually very kind, that’s my genuine belief. I think the world is a very kind place. The universe has your back. The more you say “thank you,” the more life gives you a reason to say “thank you.”
Archith Seshadri is a TV news correspondent based in Atlanta. He serves as the Atlanta Bureau Chief/Anchor for Nexstar and covers politics and health for 15 stations across five states in the Southeast. He spent two years as an anchor for Zee News in New Delhi. An avid storyteller, he loves improv, acting, and yoga. He also trains students in Western classical music and won on ABC’s $100,000 Pyramid with Snoop Dogg and Questlove.
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