Indian actress Vidya Balan, whose trophy cabinet is filled with National Awards and Best Actor statuettes, is up for almost anything. However, there is one thing she refuses to do.

“I could never play a damsel in distress. I couldn’t do it even in my early years as an actor, and I don’t think I can do it now either,” said Balan in a virtual interview with Gulf News.

The only exception she would consider is if the damsel transforms into a fierce tigress by the time the credits roll.

“If I were to play a damsel-in-distress, then she has to discover her own strength. She would have to become one of Charlie’s Angels, at the very least,” Balan added with a laugh.

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Vidya Balan plays an investigating officer in director Anu Menon's 'Neeyat', which released in UAE cinemas on July 7

And it’s not all talk. Balan’s rich repertoire of hits like ‘Kahaani’, a taut thriller in which she played a pregnant woman who reaches Indian from the United Kingdom to hunt for her missing husband, and ‘The Dirty Picture’, a scintillating account of the late siren Silk Smitha’s life, indicate that she has always gravitated towards strong roles alone.

“That’s who I am and which is why I have geared towards those kind of roles. I only see women as strong people, which is why I don’t think I’d be able to do something [a film or series] where the woman is inconsequential,” said Balan. Her latest murder mystery, ‘Neeyat’ which is out in UAE cinemas now, is a perfect example of this philosophy.

In this glossy mystery, directed by Anu Menon, Balan plays the CBI agent Mira Rao who’s invited to be a part of a lavish birthday party hosted by tainted business tycoon Ashish Kapoor (Ram Kapoor) in a castle in Scotland. He’s an Indian entrepreneurial mogul who has taken refuge in London and his decadent celebration takes you into his privileged world, his spoiled/snooty children and friends. A murder plays out and Rao is called in to get to the bottom of the mystery. From the trailers, Rao comes across as an immediate misfit among the supercilious super-rich.

“She’s not your typical/stereotypical detective and that’s what makes her interesting. She’s almost like an oddball of sorts. She’s extremely sharp, but extremely shy. And that’s a very interesting combination. She is inscrutable, but she’s constantly observing, absorbing, and decoding.”

Balan, 44, believes her character is on a perennial quest to figure out these rich people and “their motives”.

“She’s trying to solve the mystery and they, in turn, are trying to solve the mystery that’s Mira Rao … In my eyes, Rao is a spectator and that world is new for her. While she’s fascinated by human beings per se, she’s actually socially awkward. She’s interested in knowing people just to be able to decode them,” she added.

Just like glossy series that delve into the world of the fantastically wealthy such as ‘The White Lotus’, ‘Succession’, and ‘Knives Out’ movie instalments, Balan’s ‘Neeyat’ is likely to afford you some vicarious fun into the sordid lives of the privileged and the entitled.

Balan spearheads a talented ensemble in 'Neeyat'. Actors including Rahul Bose, Ram Kapoor, Amrita Puri, and more are a part of this murder mystery

“Some amount of Simgmund Freudian fun can be had,” said Balan with a laugh. It’s the actress’ second time working with director Menon. Their first collaboration was for ‘Shakuntala Devi’, a film on the late mathematics genius Shakuntala Devi.

While their first feature together seemed modest in scale and storytelling, ‘Neeyat’ is relatively more ambitious.

This star-studded murder mystery boasts a raft of talented actors including Shashank Arora, Rahul Bose, Dipannita Sharma, Shahana Goswami, Neeraj Kabi, and Amrita Puri. They shot the film in the United Kingdom shortly after COVID was on its way out. But it wasn’t easy.

Vidya Balan in Shakuntala Devi
Director Anu Menon and Balan have collaborated for this film 'Shakuntala Devi, in which Balan played the titular role of a mathematical whiz. 'Neeyat' is their second outing together.

“Things had settled a bit, but we still had to be very careful. I was in London for almost 50 days, but I couldn’t go to the local theatres on my break days to watch a film because you were just so scared about contracting COVID. And filming in Scotland was very tough, weather-wise. We had visa issues with some actors not getting their visas and we were waiting for them. We lost locations, but the cast finally made it,” said Balan.

In a separate interview, director Menon described her cast as the biggest strength of ‘Neeyat’ and Balan, specifically as the perfect partner to work with.

“What I love about all these actors is that none of them judged or patronised these characters. They imbued them with a certain honesty … No actor just turned up to say their lines … With Vidya, there’s a certain purity in our pursuit … We both want to entertain and neither of us takes ourselves too seriously,” said Menon.

While they take their art seriously, there’s one thing that Balan doesn’t particularly care for.

Asked if she scoured through reviews, the actress – who made a big splash with her seminal romance ‘Parineeta’ in 2005 – had a clear-cut response.

“I don’t read reviews … especially on the release weekend. Sometimes my father, who reads every review, tells me about a well-written one saying I must read it. But I try not to read the reviews … It’s too much for me with the release and all.”

Vidya Balan
Actress Vidya Balan is known for her compelling performances in a career spanning more than 15 years

‘Neeyat’ is Balan’s first theatrical release after a gap of four years and for an actor, it’s a long gap. While has been busy impressing us with her films like ‘Jalsa’, ‘Sherni’, and ‘Shakuntala Devi’ that released directly on over-the-top platforms, after skipping the traditional theatrical route, ‘Neeyat’ inevitably becomes a significant film in her career.

“There’s most definitely excitement, but there’s also nervousness. It’s compounded nervousness because this is my first theatrical release after four years and I have forgotten about facing that pressure, actually tension, of knowing whether people are going to go to theatres to watch your film or not. It feels different.”

Balan, unlike her contemporaries or female peers, has never relied on male heroes to bring in audiences for her films. For most movies, she has always done the heavy lifting happily, and lured in the viewers based on her compelling performance and strong storylines.

“But people's viewing habits have changes. We, ourselves, have to be goaded into going into theatres now ... Having said that, every movie of mine is my labour of love and I am nervous and excited to see if audiences will watch it. I have my fingers crossed here,” said Balan.

Don’t Miss It!

‘Neeyat’ is out in UAE cinemas now

Did you know this about this star?
Vidya Balan is one of the actors who loves press junkets and has no issues in doing multiple interviews closer to the release of her films. She claims she loves people and talking about her labour of love, her films, is never a task but a pleasure.