Exclusive interview: Vidya Balan inspires millions as a woman space scientist in Mission Mangal
Anyone who knows Vidya Balan will vouch there’s nothing remotely plastic about her. Whether it’s her performances or looks or the way she carries herself, the actor is grace personified. The South Indian beauty, who has enthralled the audience with riveting performances for the past 14 years in films such as Kahaani, No One Killed Jessica, Ishqiya and The Dirty Picture to name a few, was last seen and appreciated in Tumhari Sulu (2017), where she played a middle-class homemaker, who found her calling as a radio jockey. Balan is back after two years in Mission Mangal that releases this Independence Day, where she will be essaying the role of a space scientist. Tied up with back-to-back promotions, the charming actor had an exclusive chat with Indulge from Singapore, where she is busy promoting Nerkonda Paarvai, her latest release, and the Tamil remake of the Hindi film Pink, produced by Boney Kapoor, where she has a special appearance. Excerpts:
You are playing Tara Shinde, the programme director in Mission Mangal. Tell us a bit about your role?
Tara Shinde is extremely passionate about science and very proud of her job at ISRO. But she is also a wife, a mother, a homemaker and she balances everything beautifully like most women in the country have to — they do everything, they take care of the family, go out and work. Tara too is an ambitious, working woman with whom most women will be able to identify.
You are very conscious of the roles you pick up. In Tumhari Sulu too, you played a relatable character...
No, it’s not that I consciously play such roles. But you know, I believe that as more and more girls become aware of the fact that they can live their life the way they want to, we will find more of their stories being told on screen. In the case of Tumhari Sulu, Sulu was a homemaker who wanted to be a working woman but here in Mission Mangal, Tara has a job at the very prestigious ISRO. She is proud and passionate about science and she is the project director of this mission to Mars.
How did you prepare for it?
I had very long conversations with director Jagan Shakti’s sister Sujata, who is a scientist at ISRO, and was amazed by how enthusiastic she is about science. I got to know the challenges and pressures of the profession. For instance, as the launch date of any mission approaches, they work for more than 18 hours at times. Many a time it’s the family and the husband who takes care of the kids and it requires great family support. Also, there’s nothing called a male scientist or a female scientist — there’s no gender segregation at ISRO, which is incredible. Apart from that, I also read a lot of research material that Jagan painstakingly collected after talking to several ISRO scientists, which gave all of us a feel of their lives. As an actor, I don’t need in-depth knowledge of space science, I need to know how they behave and more particularly, what challenges they face and how they deal with them.
As a student were you fond of science?
Oh no, I was very scared of science (laughs) and hence I was nervous before playing Tara since it shouldn’t look like I am mouthing dialogues. I should look convincing and aware of what I am speaking about.
Why do you think most of us are so terrified of science as a subject?
I think the problem, if I may say so, was the way we were taught at school. Science and maths terrified most of us because we were not taught in an attractive and imaginative way. I still distinctly remember how a teacher of ours taught us diffraction of light. She literally ran across the classroom to show us how the light hits a surface and that concept is still fresh in my mind.
How was it working with debut filmmaker Jagan Shakti?
I have known Jagan since he was Balki’s assistant director in Paa. And it’s really sweet and amazing to see how involved Jagan is as a director. At times he would forget that he is the director of the film and would take on the role of a first AD, running around the set and ensuring everything runs smoothly. There was the pressure of dates and so many actors and you had to finish a complicated movie like this on time. But he was so hands-on and earnest about it, which is what I liked the most about him.
You are back with Akshay after a long time, after Hey Baby and Bhool Bhulaiyaa. How much has he changed as an actor since then?
It’s very interesting to see the kind of genres he explored over the years and how he keeps on re-inventing himself from time-to-time. I feel that’s the reason he is continuing to see success and I love his choices of films, too.
You will be seen in a Bollywood film almost after two years with Tumhari Sulu being your last film. Any particular reason for such a long absence?
It’s only because of the lack of good content that came my way. Also, the scripts for a few movies that I liked were not ready. Balki and Jagan came to me with a ready script and we started shooting within three months. Besides, I am in no hurry to go anywhere. I am here to stay for a long time and I like to space myself out. I did Kahaani 2, Begum Jaan and Tumhari Sulu back-to-back, which is exhausting since each film takes away five months from you. I want to preserve myself otherwise I am not going to enjoy acting. See, I don’t need to clock in the numbers and do so many films a year. I like to do work that I enjoy doing at my own pace.
What’s the status of your plans to star in a web series on Indira Gandhi, the first woman Prime Minister of India?
It is honestly moving much slower than I would like it to, but I believe it will happen when it’s meant to happen. It’s still in the scripting stage. There is so much information and the story is so popular and familiar that a lot of hard work needs to be done to develop the plot. Ronnie Screwvala is producing it and Ritesh Batra (of Lunchbox fame) will direct it and it’s surely going to happen, I hope.
The web platform is really opening up a plethora of opportunities what’s your take on the same?
As an actor, I am definitely interested and getting a lot of offers, too. But, I haven’t yet come across a story that’s compelling enough. Also, it requires a lot of time commitment, so, I don’t think I am ready for it yet.
Do you think such undeterred show of violence and sex on the web will have an adverse effect on the audience, especially the young ones in their teens?
No, I don’t think so at all. Firstly because children are not going to be watching them, since what they watch is monitored by their parents. I really think that what is shown on screen is a reflection of what happens in life. But how it impacts can be different. If there is an accident on road, where a dog gets run over, you might feel doing something for the street dogs, that’s a positive impact, while I might never let my dog go out for a walk, which is a negative reaction. So impact can’t be predicted and we must also rely on the maturity and intelligence of the audience and let them appreciate and understand it. I don’t do violent stuff since I don’t watch them but there’s an audience that enjoys violent content. It’s a choice and if someone likes watching violent stuff they can also watch movies and play these violent video games or can be exposed to groups of inciting people on social media who incite human violence or terrorism. So, you cannot control everything.
You are also producing and acting in your first short film Natkhat on every kind of inequality against women? Could you please tell us about the movie and your role in it?
It’s a lovely story of a mom and child and the story called out to me. Again, I got a lot of short film offers but this one was just gripping. It was a three-day shoot and Ronnie (Screwvala) was producing it and he said we could produce it together. I immediately said yes. The director is Shaan Vyas, a newcomer and the writer is Annukampa Harsh. It is a powerful story with a strong message.
What are your future projects?
I will start shooting for Shakuntala in September. It’s a movie based on famous mathematician Shakuntala Devi and I am excited to essay the role. There’s this other film too which I will be a part of but I can’t talk about it right now.
Who among the current crop of actors and filmmakers that you like the most?
I like different performances of different actors. I loved Alia Bhatt in Raazi and Tapsee Pannu in Manmarziyaan and also Ranveer Singh in Padmavaat. Among the directors I quite like Sahkun Batra who directed Kapoor & Sons.
The movies that you look forward to watching?
Of course, Mission Mangal! (laughs)
You have been a champion of social issues like body shaming and other such vital things. Will we in future see Vidya Balan in politics?
No no, not at all, I am far away from all this. As a public figure, I lend my voice and popularity to a good cause. But I do hope that at some point I have the time to work for a cause close to my heart, more intimately on the ground level. The closest cause to my heart is all the women’s issues, they really bother me.
Your body weight issue has always been much discussed in the media and your recent public appearance again sparked speculations about pregnancy. How do you deal with all this?
Firstly, I don’t read anything so, I don’t know what goes on. When I get to know I am amused. I am a public figure for about 14 years now, and people still don’t realise that I am not a reed-thin person and this is my body type. Just because I am married I am not pregnant — that’s ridiculous.
Fashion, fitness and diet:
• “If left to myself, besides being a fan of saris, I am a very ‘cotton person’ and I can wear it all the time. It’s the best fabric given our weather, it’s so breathable. It could be anything in cotton — a white shirt and jeans, a nice printed salwar kurta, a dhakai or South cotton sari. For the evening, it has to be nice dresses. I love long flowy maxi dresses or dresses that are a little longer, maybe a knee-length dress.”
• “I am a silver person and I am in love with jhumkas (earrings). I have about 400-500 pairs in all shapes and sizes. When not
shooting, I don’t wear make-up at all, except kajal and lipstick.”
• “When it comes to fitness, it’s three-day a week yoga and walking for me.”
• “I am a vegetarian and love Italian cuisine. We have a favourite place called Americano in Mumbai and I love their Corn ribs and Mushroom pasta. I love all veggies except bitter gourd and have them in good portions.”
When not working: “Love spending time with Siddharth (Roy Kapur) and my nephew and niece.”
Favourite song: “Deke Deke by RD Burman.”
Currently reading: “Being You, Changing The World.”
Last web series you watched: “Orange Is the New Black.”