Vidya Balan on freedom of expression, gender dynamics, OTT and Shakuntala Devi biopic

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As the 'outsider' debate rages in Bollywood, Vidya Balan is seen as a star who can be blunt on issues ranging from gender dynamics and political correctness to OTT platforms.

Vidya, who has not hesitated to do movies driven by women, excites us with her selection of roles – From playing a sari-clad lady in her debut film Parineeta to essaying as mother of megastar Amitabh Bachchan in Paa in her career spanning 15 years.

Now, the versatile actress is taking up screen mantle of mathematician Shakuntala Devi.

Vidya believes every character heals you in some way. “I have always learnt many things from each character. I am very grateful that I have got opportunities to play different characters in each of my films. I feel that’s the true definition of being an actor,” Vidya said in an online interaction with journalists prior to the release of Shakuntala Devi on Amazon Prime Video on July 31.

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Vidya opens up on how she stepped into the shoes of the mathematician, gender dynamics and political correctness in the present age of turbulence. Excerpts.

Politically correct?

In response to a question from Onmanorama on how politically correct films of today should be in terms of gender, Vidya replied, she did not subcribe to that notion of political correctness at all.

“Films should always be correct in terms of gender. That is my opinion but having said that I don't believe in political correctness at all because I think freedom of expression is more important. Different people have different experiences, opinions and perceptions. Everyone should be allowed to express themselves the way they want to. An ideal situation that involves woman is to be respectful to the gender,” said Vidya.

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With films like The Dirty Picture, No One Killed Jessica, Mission Mangal and now Shakuntala Devi, Vidya seems to be amagnet for filmmakers toying with biopics.

When the Shakuntala Devi biopic was announced, Devi’s daughter, Anupama Banerji, asked filmmaker Anu Menon about the casting.

She had no hestitation to name Vidya Balan even before approaching the actress.

Real-life to reel

On fictional and real life characters, Vidya says both are equally challenging though with the later comes more responsibility.

“With Shakuntalakji's life, the team did not have to take many cinematic liberties. There was too many inherent drama in her life already. The main resource persons for the story were Shakuntala’s daughter Anupama Banerji and her husband, Ajay Abhaya Kumar, who reside in London.

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“They were open to us and shared all the struggles that they faced,” she added.

On how women tend to give up their dreams for the sake of her family, Vidya admits that alongside every successful person there are many other people.

“If a woman has a child, should her life only revolve around the child and isn't her dreams not worthy enough? Whenever women focus on their career, they live with some guilt. And that's exactly we get to see in Shakuntala Devi's life. She had a child and while she loved her, she also loved what she did,” Vidya said.

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Living your dreams

Vidya recalled how her mother stood by her during a bad phase.

“There was a time when I was facing a lot of criticism, especially with regard to my weight. My mother would simply put it: What's the big deal in getting upset for such things? It’s just weight. If you want, you can work on it. And that does not mean that you have to give up your dreams.

“So, if you are able to go out to live your dream, it’s because someone is taking care of your child. Tomorrow there will be a chance for you to do the same for her. The narrative is changing and that's the best part.”

Though Vidya's roots are in the south, she was barely seen in South films. She briefly appeared in Ajith-starrer Nerkonda Paarvai and fans wished to see more of her.

“I am not concerned whether I am accepted in a role or not, but what matters to me is if I actually want to play that particular character. If scripts with challenging and appealing roles come my way from the South, I will be only happy to pick them,” she added.

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Unlearning the language

Sharing an interesting fact about the movie, Vidya reminisced about unlearning her language skills.

“My parents sounded South Indian while they spoke Hindi or English over the years, so I was always conscious that the Southern accent shouldn't come my way. But for this film, I had to unlearn that and it was fun. Each dialogue I made, I made sure that it sounded similar to what I always tried not to come in my way”.

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OTT vs Theater

For Vidya Balan, it’s not about being the medium but about the art and craft.

With theatres all over the country still shut, Vidya feels that it's great how Amazon Prime Video stepped in, getting the film a digital release.

Vidya Balan believes that with these changes, “the horizon has just widened' and 'it's all about a global reach”.

“In the post Covid-phase, there will be content exclusively for OTT as it gives the makers the liberty to experiment. And at the same time, theatres will continue to thrive because big screen experience is also unique.”

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