National Award-winning Indian actress Vidya Balan and her character from her latest biopic, ‘Shakuntala Devi’, seem to have a lot in common.
Just like the legendary Indian math wizard who could multiply two random 13-digit numbers in a few seconds, Balan has this incredible knack for cracking the code of Bollywood — that too on her own terms.
“The world knows Shakuntala Devi as this brilliant human computer, but she was more than just a mathematical genius. She defied myths known to women who lived 50 years ago. She lived her life exactly the way she wanted to … Unapologetically,” said Balan in an interview over a Zoom call.
Just like the subject of her new film, Balan is gloriously uninhibited and has always shied away from fitting into that conventional leading ladies mould. Unlike other flawlessly-presented Bollywood heroines, the ‘Mission Mangal’ star has never tried to cultivate an unattainable aura around her nor has she just aimed at playing second fiddle to an ageing superhero.
The self-made actress is one of the few talents in Bollywood with a robust box-office bankability and just like Shakuntala Devi, Balan knows how to tackle sticky and tricky terrain like Hindi cinema and dazzle us with her charm and ingenuity.
Her films ‘The Dirty Picture’, a biopic in which she played an sex siren from the 1980s, and ‘Paa’, where she played a troubled parent to a sick child afflicted with reverse ageing, are a masterclass in good acting and riveting storylines.
‘Shakuntala Devi’ — a story of a genius who had grit and gumption in plenty, is likely to be no different. While the computing whiz’s life may not be as salacious as the fading siren act in ‘The Dirty Picture’, Balan assures us that there’s plenty of ‘ups and downs’ in Shakuntala Devi’s life to keep us riveted.
“She’s really one of a kind … Shakuntala Devi wanted to have it all and she went ahead with her dreams unapologetically and had it all. And that was what so inspiring … Trust me, there was enough drama in her life and difficulties to make it a compelling story,” she said.
Directed by Anu Menon, of ‘Four More Shots Please’ fame, Balan promises that this biopic has adopted a warts-and-mole approach.
As ‘Shakuntala Devi’ gets ready to premiere on Amazon Prime Video on July 31, Gulf News caught up with Balan for an interview filled with mathematical references. While a request by her team not to touch upon burning topics like nepotism or Sushant Singh Rajput’s death was adhered to, here’s a look at what she had to say about her latest film and her well-rounded approach to Bollywood and life in general ...
Q: Biopics in Bollywood are notorious for glossing over their subjects’ inadequacies and unsavoury attributes. But will ‘Shakuntala Devi’ be different and have a more warts-and-mole approach?
A: Yes, as you said there’s a warts and mole approach to her life. And I am so grateful to her daughter Anupama Banerji for being so forthcoming and so honest about her mother’s life. When Anu Menon came to me, she told me she wanted to tell this story through the eyes of her daughter.
After you see the film, you will realise that she is a genius but even geniuses are not perfect. She’s a human being with blood and bones and there’s a great joy in telling her story. Although we are celebrating the genius without doubt, we are also exploring what lies beneath.
Q: Her life was eventful … Didn’t she also write a book on homosexuality where she indicated her tolerance to different sexual orientations and also cooking?
A: Absolutely, we have touched upon those aspects too. In 1977, she wrote a book on homosexuality in a place like India at a time when it was considered taboo. However, she was absolutely no-holds-barred when it came to living her life and she did not care how you perceived her or how you judged her.
She was beyond all of that. For a woman even in this day of age it is very hard to divorce yourself from what you feel the world expects from you or how you will think you will be judged. It takes a lot of work but she was already there.
It touches upon that. She led an incredible life. She wrote about 20 books and even wrote a crime thriller. Apart from her mathematical brilliance, she went on to practice astrology too. She subscribed to that ‘Zindagi Puri Taraha Jio’ (Carpe Diem) philosophy.
Q: Keeping the movie in mind, do you think your life is the sum of all your choices?
A: Absolutely. I believe in that completely. Just two days ago, I was having this conversation with someone and was asked: “Do you believe in destiny?”, And I said, ‘I believe that fortune favours the brave and our choices determine the way our life pans out’. So my life has been a sum of all my choices.
Q: If you had the power to subtract an episode from your life, which one would you choose … your gawky teenage phase?
A: I would not subtract anything from my life. I believe in addition … I may subtract a zero from my life (laughs).
Q: You seem like an actor who has everything figured out Vidya …
A: Not at all. But I am just a good actor who lets you believe that.
Q: Can happiness multiply with wealth, especially in these grim post COVID-19 times?
A: Absolutely! But not in absolute terms. I am not someone who believes that money means problems. I think Indians have been brought up to believe that too much of anything is not good and going by that yardstick, too much of money is not good. But I do not believe that.
Look at Shakuntala Devi. She was one of the richest women to emerge from India, but she led a smart life. Your relationship with money is crucial. If you have a positive relationship with money, then it is great. But if you feel like money is going to bring problems in your life, then rest assured that it will bring you problems … I have never felt guilty or shy about wanting to make more money or having money.
Q: If you could add a quality to your craft of acting, what would it be?
A: I wish I could do physical comedy like Charlie Chaplin. I did a photoshoot, but I hope I get an opportunity to explore his brand of physical comedy as an artiste.
Q: Are roles written for women in Bollywood reductive?
A: No, not at all. All the roles that I have played in my life have always added to my experience as an artist. Every role of mine has helped resolve something for me and sometimes, it has gifted something to me. My roles are never reductive.
Q: I am so glad to hear that. Who do you have a perfect equation with?
A: I have an amazing relationship with my parents, but what I share with my mother is different from what I share with my dad. There are certain somethings where I rely on my mother alone and certain things where I discuss with my dad alone. But I love my equation with both.
Q: Were you ever involved in romantic triangle in your life?
A: Yes, but I lost … Thankfully, I lost because I would never have met Siddharth [her husband and producer Roy Kapur]
Q: Lastly, how do you keep the faith alive?
A: From my own experience, I have realised that if something does not work out, it is because there is something better in store for me and that has held me in good stead. I have always listened to my inner voice for the last 15 years since I joined films. You just have to learn how to drown out all the other voices. It’s not easy and you may get waylaid or distracted, but always pay heed to your inner voice. It has always held me in good stead.
“There’s something definitely new to a woman’s story being told by a woman director. My experience of working with Anu [Menon] has been exceptional. She’s very collaborative. She doesn’t have an ego and she is open to suggestion from anyone from the team … While she is demanding and pushed us beyond our comfort zones, I am happy with what we have done in this film.” — Balan on working with Anu Menon.
Don’t Miss It!
‘Shakuntala Devi’ will stream on Amazon Prime Video on July 31