Srijit Mukherji’s 1947-set Bengali drama Rajkahini was begging for a remake. The 2015 production plays out in a brothel on the border of India and the former East Pakistan. The establishment is run by the foul-mouthed and iron-fisted madam Begum Jaan, depicted by Rituparna Sengupta. Begum Jaan is harsh with her employees, but she reserves her ire for the officials who drop in to inform that her brothel will have to be moved since the border of the newly formed nations runs right through it. Begum Jaan is in no mood to oblige.

The Hindi remake rights were acquired by Vishesh Films, run by the brothers Mahesh and Mukesh Bhatt. The producers are reuniting with the star of their 2015 movie Hamari Adhuri Kahani for Begum Jaan, which will be released on April 14. Vidya Balan has played her share of tough and resourceful women in the past, starting with Ishqiya in 2010. In Begum Jaan, which is set in Punjab, she smokes a hookah, swears a lot, beats up her detractors, and generally bosses around. The cast includes Chunky Pandey, Naseeruddin Shah, Gauhar Khan, Pallavi Sharda and Mishti. Balan, who will be seen next as a radio jockey in the December release Tumhari Sulu, spoke to about her attraction to an unlikable character and the factors that influence her career choices.

Why did you choose to step into Rituparna Sengupta’s slippers for ‘Begum Jaan’?
I watched the Bengali film Rajkahini once on DVD, and that, rather than the script, was the basis on which I agreed to do the film. I found the movie to be extremely powerful and moving. I took a couple of days to say yes, because I am uncomfortable with remakes. I would rather choose original content over a remake, but I cannot deny that I was excited to be playing such an unabashedly aggressive and powerful woman who is in charge. I have never played this strong a character before – she is boss, and what you see is what you get. Her inner strength had to be played out with complete intensity and abandon, and this appealed to the actor in me.

Begum Jaan.

‘Begum Jaan’ is set in Punjab on the Indo-Pak border. What else has changed?
The geography has changed, the story has moved from Bengal to Punjab, and that has changed not only the landscape but the way people look and therefore Begum Jaan herself. When I found out about this, I didn’t watch the film again since I didn’t want to be influenced in terms of performance or the treatment of the scenes.

Rituparna has a hoarse voice in the original. I asked Srijit if I should change my voice too. He said, don’t, you have a strong enough voice, and we will make sure that your voice has the grain throughout.

The character has aggressive body language – she spreads herself out, for instance.
When you have to rein in other women and you become the boss, you take on masculine aggression, and that is why the body language is bigger and broader. It is about the appropriation of space. Begum Jaan sits with her legs wide apart – it is her body, her house, her brothel and her land.

In terms of the character’s look, Srijit wanted costumes that were powerful but not masculine. There is some cleavage, and the clothes have solid and strong colours. Begum Jaan also has a unibrow and grey eyes. Srijit made me wear grey lenses since he wanted the character to have an animalistic quality.

What was it like bossing around the female characters on the sets?
I am actually most comfortable with women. My closest friends have always been women. I enjoyed working with my co-stars. Srijit wanted me to keep a certain distance from them. He told me, you make people make comfortable very easily, and I don’t want the actresses to be comfortable around you. I came for script readings and workshops for a few days, and that is all the familiarity I needed.

The poster of Begum Jaan (2017).

Begum Jaan is not a very nice woman to know – she uses strong language and assaults her employees.
I love that the character has negative shades, and I take it as a compliment if you don’t like her. While making Hamari Adhuri Kahani, I told Mr Mahesh Bhatt that I wanted to play an out-and-out baddie who bashes and slaps and screams unapologetically. I am a very angry woman deep down, and I guess every woman is. I wanted to vent this anger.

I enjoyed every moment of the shoot. Having said that, I found it tough to express anger. There is a scene in which I have to repeatedly slap a new member of the brothel. I kept kissing the actress Mishti’s head and put ice on her forehead and massaged it later. I have never slapped anyone before.

The strong language is never a problem with me – I have had experience with profanity in Ishqiya.

Abhishek Chaubey’s ‘Ishqiya’ changed your screen image for good by presenting you as a sensual and tough woman. How important was that film for you?
Ishqiya is the film that resurrected the actor in me. I wasn’t very happy with the work I had been doing until then. I wasn’t doing effective work and I was getting a lot of flak for it. Ishqiya was the kind of stuff I wanted to do. I remember feeling like I had experienced a certain kind of resurrection. I sand my teeth into the role and gave myself to it.

Ishqiya (2010).

What are the scripts that motivate you at the moment?
There is no dearth of work. Ever since Ishqiya, the roles coming my way have been varied and fabulous. Some films may not have worked, but every role has offered me something different to do.

I don’t end up doing most of the films that come my way. Sometimes, the story doesn’t excite me, or I can’t relate to a director, or there no real graph, or directors are trying to push the envelope superficially. Even if it is a mouse who ends up like the goddess Durga in the end, the journey has to be fulfilling. I don’t regret any film I have done, though, since every film has explored a new side of me.

Why did you refuse to play the poet and writer Kamala Das in Malayalam director Kamal’s film? He was very upset with your exit.
It was very unfortunate. I finally opted out because we had creative differences. It was made out to be something else, which I don’t appreciate at all. There wasn’t an iota of truth that I was threatened against playing the role in any way. That statement came as a shock to me – I have not received one word from anyone.

Kamala Das is very well respected, and when you are playing a real-life character, you have to be that much more careful about someone revered and loved. I would rather not do it than do it badly.

Some of your recent films didn’t work too well, such as ‘Bobby Jasoos’ and Kahaani 2’. How conscious are you of the box office?
I won’t deny that I felt bad about Bobby Jasoos. I felt terrible since it wasn’t like people were going to the theatres and then rejecting the film. That was upsetting. I wasn’t terribly disappointed about Kahaani 2 since we were dealing with something that wasn’t easy to deal with. I think we talked about child sexual abuse with sensitivity. The ones who watched the film found other flaws, but they agreed with our treatment.

The box office dictates a lot – filmmaking is a business, eventually. Not for a moment will I say that I don’t think about it, but not while signing up. I go all out during the marketing, and beyond that if a film doesn’t work, I can’t do anything about it. I have learnt to keep my distance.

Bobby Jasoos (2014).