In her best roles, Vidya Balan has portrayed a heroine who can do, will do and does do. She has frequently played a heroine who challenges her circumstances and battles her way through adversity.
In her latest movie Shakuntala Devi, Balan plays the Indian mathematical genius who amazed the world with her ability to perform complex calculations. Anu Menon’s biopic, which will be streamed on Amazon Prime Video from July 31, explores Shakuntala Devi’s fame and the impact of her unusual talent on her daughter. Why should I be normal when I can be amazing, Shakuntala says in the trailer.
This is Balan’s second role as a member of the Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics field. In Mission Mangal (2017), she plays a rocket scientist. However, there was little indication in her early roles that the actor would be called upon to depict emotional and mental strength.
After making a strong impression in television serials, Balan made her feature debut in the Bengali-language Bhalo Theko in 2003. The lavishly produced Parineeta (2005) introduced her to Hindi audiences. Lage Raho Munnabhai the following year gave her a few nice scenes and songs, but this being a Rajkumar Hirani movie, the heroine was subservient to the hero.
Mani Ratnam’s Guru (2007) was the first indication of Balan’s ability to play a sly, mischievous and independent-minded heroine. Guru is the story of a fictitious businessman who bends the rules and gets into trouble with the government and the media. Balan had a small but significant role as Meenu, the granddaughter of a muckraking newspaper editor. Meenu has multiple sclerosis that has confined her to a wheelchair. Her spirits are always high and she radiates optimism despite knowing her time on the planet is short.
Balan’s subsequent roles were of varying quality. The career-altering performance, and the first that suggested that her beauty sheathed hard resolve, courage and intelligence, was Ishqiya (2010). Director Abhishek Chaubey saw in Balan what no other director had spotted before. He boldly cast her as Krishna, a widow who uses her sexual allure to manipulate two seasoned criminals into helping her take revenge. Dressed in bright polyester saris and capable of sudden nastiness, Krishna is not to be trifled with.
Balan once again took charge in Rajkumar Gupta’s No One Killed Jessica (2011). The movie is based on the murder of model Jessica Lall by Manu Sharma in a nightclub in Delhi in 1999. Balan played the victim’s sister, Sabrina. Doughty and unfazed by the perpetrator’s political clout, the deceptively mousy Sabrina fights for justice, aided by a television journalist (Rani Mukerji).
Balan’s Silk in Milan Luthria’s The Dirty Picture, released later in 2011, could not have provided a greater contrast to Sabrina Lall. Balan plays a bit-part actor who leaps from bed to bed in search of fame. Silk is defined by her sexuality and her relationships with men. Yet, her decisions also suggest native intelligence, a strong sense of self-preservation, and wisdom beyond her years. The film world and beyond is unable to contain Silk’s insistence on living by her own rules: she overdoses on sleeping pills.
In 2012 came the movie that amplified the impact of Ishqiya on Balan’s career. Sujoy Ghosh’s crime thriller Kahaani (2012) cast Balan as the embodiment of the goddess Durga. She plays Vidya, a heavily pregnant housewife who lands up in Kolkata in search of her missing husband. Vidya gets embroiled in a terrorist plot and appears to be in grave danger – until she reveals that she has been in the driving seat rather than crouching in the back all along.
Kahaani inspired a redundant sequel in 2016, in which Balan’s character was unsubtly named Durga.
Balan had to wait for two years for a role of substance. Samar Shaikh’s Bobby Jasoos (2014) features her as a working woman defined by her actions rather than her romantic ties. Bobby is an enthusiastic but underemployed detective trying to prove herself in the male-dominated world of private investigators in Hyderabad. She finally gets a break from a mysterious client, leading to several disguises and much skedaddling all over Hyderabad. Balan’s Bobby is a woman on the move, stopping occasionally to fall in love but mainly focused on her work.
By now, it was clear she was a director’s first port of call if a strong-willed and unrepentant heroine was needed. Srijit Mukerji’s Partition era-set Begum Jaan (2017), a remake of his Bengali drama Rajkahini (2015), sees Balan as a tough and profanity-spewing brothel madam. The hookah-puffing Begum lords over her house of pleasure, but things get ugly when a new border is drawn between India and Pakistan. It runs right through the brothel. Begum typically refuses to yield an inch.
Balan returned to professional mode in Suresh Triveni’s Tumhari Sulu (2017), an update on Satyajit Ray’s Mahanagar (1963). Balan plays a housewife whose talents are being wasted on housing society events. Although her sisters constantly belittle her, Sulu is determined to make a name for herself – and do so by becoming a successful late-night radio jockey. Her marriage suffers as a consequence, of course.
Balan’s rich voice, belly-shaking laugh, and ability to convey strong-jawed resolve are used to great effect in what is one of her most affecting movies.
In Jagan Shakti’s Mission Mangal (2019), Balan is one among a bunch of women in the male-dominated Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics universe. The movie explores the Indian Space Research Organisation’s successful Mars Orbiter mission. Parallels are drawn between home science and rocket science, as though the creators cannot believe that women do not need to fry puris in their kitchens to launch rockets into space.
Akshay Kumar’s noble hero leads the mission, but Balan’s Tara stands out as a professional who finds the balance between dreaming and achieving. It’s all in a day’s work for Tara – and Vidya Balan.