The Bollywood superstar on virtual sex, cinematic realism, and boring stereotypes

Variety called the Indian actress Vidya Balan a “thesping powerhouse”, and it’s easy to see why. Her five most recent films – all hits with both critics and audiences – made her one of the biggest names in contemporary Hindi cinema.

We spoke to Balan as she visited Melbourne to the launch the Indian Film Festival’s 2012 program with a screening of her movie The Dirty Picture. Inspired by the life of infamous erotic actress Silk Smitha, it’s described as “Bollywood meets Boogie Nights”. Balan is also the star of the festival’s opening night film, the twisting thriller Kahaani.

Vidya, I saw The Dirty Picture while alone in my loungeroom – but it’s a film that’s really meant to be watched with an audience, isn’t it?
Yes – I remember going to the theatre to watch it with a live audience. Of course, I went in a burqa. I couldn’t hear the dialogue. They were clapping and cheering and dancing. That is what I’d gone to watch! So you’re right, it’s not the kind of film that you should be watching on your own – but it’s also not the kind of film you should be watching with your parents.

How much did you know about Silk Smitha as a cultural figure? Did it make you reluctant to take the role?
I was, of course, aware of Silk Smitha – but this isn’t entirely based on her life. It’s based on Silk Smitha and many others like her. Silk was the strongest inspiration because she was the only one who became such a sensation and star. I was not really reluctant, because as an actor one is only hoping to be living different peoples’ lives on screen. The more divergent they get from each other, the better it is. I think I almost suffer from some kind of multiple personality disorder! I did have concerns, because I didn’t want it to be sleazy. The most heartening thing is when the film was released, everyone said it’s anything but sleazy.

In fact, it’s quite sweet. It’s mostly exaggerated flirting. I don’t think I’ve seen so much lascivious winking in my entire life.
“Lascivious”! I actually use that word for Naseeruddin Shah, who plays the superstar Surya Kant in the film. He’s a legend in Indian cinema – and he is lascivious! But yes, it’s more like flirting. I think that sometimes the undertone of sex is more treacherous than sex itself. For example, if you see Silk’s songs, or the likes of her, it is an undertone, an insinuation. It’s not really sex, but it could well be. It’s virtual sex. That’s tougher to pull off.

It’s fascinating how films like this can go from silly to tragic in a heartbeat – in a way that most western cinema just can’t.
Cinema is about people, and we are a very emotional people. That is why you see those ups and those downs and those colours. That is what Indian cinema is about. Having said that, this film needed a little overdramatisation. I’m not sure you’ll find that in every Hindi or Indian film you’ll watch, especially nowadays, because of how much has of it become more real and subtle. The Dirty Picture is based in the 1980s when cinema was larger than life, more colourful, and sometimes almost unbelievably ridiculous. We needed to be able to recreate that. That’s why the contrast is sharper in this film – but it is not true of every Indian film anymore, fortunately or unfortunately.

Most will be familiar with the clichés of Bollywood – but how do you think Indian and Hindi cinema could surprise those who only know about the singing and dancing?
They could be surprised by the fact we’re exploring a lot of hitherto unexplored subjects. The varied roles being written are really diverse, and their translation on screen is very different. So while it still retains a certain ‘Indianness’, I think there’s a larger accessibility today. Music is largely background now. It’s a new phenomenon for Hindi cinema. You used to have a song in the middle of nowhere. You and I, having a conversation, and I’m thinking about something... and I suddenly break into a song! That is really changing. We’re going through a period of flux.

Your last few films have been praised for featuring strong female characters. Do you think the opportunity to play those roles is part of this same change?
Absolutely. It’s part of the bigger picture, you know? Part of that is because cinema is moving towards realism, and women are also establishing themselves and spreading their wings in different spheres of life. That’s what you’re seeing. And I’m happy to break out of the stereotype. The stereotype bores me, and I’m someone who gets bored very easily. If I’ve done it more than one and half times? I’m bored. I need constant stimulation.

Have you been conscious to seek out these projects? Or is it luck that they’ve come to you at the right moments?
It’s a little bit of both. Women are innately strong but in many films they dumb that down. You see almost an indifferent representation of women, at least in the '80s and the '90s. Now, in the past five films I’ve done, you’re seeing a new facet of a woman in each.

Win a double in-season pass to the Indian Film Festival (Jun 11-22)

First published on . Updated on .

By Martyn Pedler   |  

Vidya Balan on The Dirty Picture video

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