Vidya Balan Image Credit: Dabboo Ratnani

National Award-winning Indian actress Vidya Balan is keen to smash the patriarchy and dismantle male supremacy, but she wants to do it on her terms — one good film at a time.

In ‘Sherni’, her latest movie premiering on Amazon Prime Video on June 18, Balan plays Vidya Vincent, a female forest officer in a male-dominated workplace who’s on call to track a tiger on the loose.

“Vidya Vincent realises that you don’t necessarily need to roar to be a tigress,” said Balan over a Zoom video call with Gulf News.

Directed by Amit Masurkar of ‘Newton’ fame, Balan slips into a role of a reserved working woman in this man vs animal conflict tale. Her silence is often her biggest weapon at her gender-imbalanced workplace, filled with men who are inherently and sometimes unknowingly sexist.

“This is unlike any character that I have played in my career so far … Vidya Vincent is reticent and withdrawn, but she’s very strong-willed. In the past, all my characters have displayed a certain, innate strength that’s on display. Here’s it’s not so obvious and therefore this role was an eye-opener in many ways,” said Balan.

Vidya Balan as Sherni (2)-1623834308669
Vidya Balan as a forest officer in 'Sherni' Image Credit: Amazon Prime Video

She believes her character doesn’t feel the need to be hyper-masculine to be noticed. “But I love the fact that she’s passive-aggressive … And the men in this film are just trapped in their patriarchal mindset. They are not the only ones in this world, sometimes even women are unknowingly perpetuating patriarchy without even realising it. Sometimes we don’t realise how we women are not just victims of patriarchy, but we often carry that tradition forward,” said Balan. But grim topics like female complicity upholding male power are dealt with satire and not a heavy hand in the film, said Balan.

“My director Amit is a master of satire and he believes completely in his story. His ‘Newton’ is a classic example of his craft … It’s been a joyous experience for me shooting in the jungle. My entire journey for ‘Sherni’ was an unusual one,” said Balan.

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Vidya Balan in 'Sherni' Image Credit: Amazon Prime Video

For the film, Balan spent time with real-life female forest officers and even spent nights in a forest lodge to get a grip on her character. During her legwork, she discovered that female forest officers aren’t an anomaly and there’s a sizeable number of them leaving their mark in the field.

“I was fascinated by the lives they lead. They go through intense training, which can be very grueling. But their love for the forest and their passion for conservation binds them to their work,” said Balan.

I am always drawn to strong women and playing strong women characters makes me incredibly happy

- Vidya Balan

For those wondering, Balan isn’t a natural lover of big cats but sinking her teeth into a meaty role is something that this actress, who’s married to top Bollywood producer Siddharth Roy Kapur, would not give up on, no matter how uncomfortable the legwork.

Balan's quest for powerful roles:

Just like Hollywood actress Kate Winslet, Balan is one of Bollywood’s fiercest performers and is known to take on strong roles that allow her to explore her range as an actress.

In ‘Kahaani’, Balan played a pregnant widow in search of her missing husband with aplomb, while she turned on her seductive game in ‘The Dirty Picture’ in which she played a fading movie icon. In her recent film, ‘Shakuntala Devi’, a biopic on the real-life mathematician whiz, which premiered on Amazon Prime Video as well, Balan managed to look convincing as a woman in love with the world of sums and numbers.

Vidya Balan in Shakuntala Devi
Vidya Balan in Shakuntala Devi Image Credit: Amazon Prime Video

Over the years, she has built a reputation for shouldering Bollywood films on her own steam. Despite the film industry being male-dominated, Balan has managed to carve an enviable niche for herself. ‘Sherni’ isn’t any different.

Also starring Neeraj Kaabi, Vijay Raaz, Brijendra Kala, and Sharat Saxena, this film allowed Balan to explore terrains that she hadn’t previously explored as an artist. Plus, she believes that Bollywood rarely makes films on animals or conflicts that play out between humans and beasts.

“You don’t get many films that are set in a jungle in Bollywood. But, what you take away from ‘Sherni’ will be subjective, but it tackles the man and animal conflict, throws light upon it, and will make you realise that you are a part of nature, but nature is as much a part of us and we can’t deny it. We impact each other in ways that cannot be ignored and we need to strike a balance,” said Balan.

Vidya Balan with forest officers in the film-1623834316427
Vidya Balan in 'Sherni' Image Credit: Amazon Prime Video

The film also wades into the territory of mob violence, where a bunch of disillusioned villagers, in despair about a tiger destroying their crops and happiness, are dying to take law and matters into their own hands.

“During a mob-violence, you behave differently as they get swayed very, very easily as a group. Mobs behave differently than individuals,” said Balan.

‘Sherni’ also spells a second for Balan. It’s her second direct-to-web premiere in her career this pandemic.

Vidya Balan and Neeraj Kabi-1623834299873
Vidya Balan and Neeraj Kabi in 'Sherni' Image Credit: Amazon Prime Video

“OTTs [over-the-top or streaming platforms] have been such a big boon! Otherwise, we may get content only shown on television. OTTs have opened up Pandora’s box when it comes to content and genre. A movie like ‘Sherni’ is perfect to watch as it rains in Mumbai as you sip on a cup of masala chai with family,” said Balan.

She’s equally kicked about her film being screened in over 240 countries at the same time. There’s another silver lining too after her stint in ‘Sherni’.

“I can’t claim to be an animal lover, but I have warmed up to the idea of big cats. This movie has helped me humanise them and that was important to me. This role also reminds me that I am always drawn to strong women and playing strong women characters makes me incredibly happy,” said Balan.

Vidya Balan (only for the use of this interview)
Vidya Balan Image Credit: Dabboo Ratnani

Don’t Miss It!

‘Sherni’ is out on Amazon Prime Video on June 18