Vidya Balan on Mission Mangal and the importance of female empowerment

Vidya Balan on Mission Mangal and the importance of female empowerment

Vidya Balan on going against the grain to embrace her true self in Bollywood and why she said yes to the role in Mission Mangal that has her rubbing shoulders with an ensemble cast

By Enid Parker

Published: Thu 15 Aug 2019, 9:23 AM

Last updated: Fri 16 Aug 2019, 11:46 AM

Vidya Balan's last Bollywood film was 2017's Tumhari Sulu, a quirky tale about a housewife's life changing decision to take on the job of a night DJ on a radio station. Since this powerhouse actress hasn't been seen on the big screen in two years, Vidya's latest film Mission Mangal, out in the UAE today, is one fans are looking forward to eagerly. The actress believes that the film will not only showcase an important scientific accomplishment by India - the Mangalyaan/Mars Orbiter Mission, but also dent stereotypes as far as women are concerned.
In Bollywood a lot of emphasis is placed on looking a certain way, and sometimes heroines are under pressure to conform to this idea of beauty and style. In a conversation with City Times, Vidya revealed why her new film may change the way people look at traditionally-clad women.
"There is an emphasis on heroines to look a certain way but I believe that's changing. I've never adhered to any stereotypes. It's therefore been difficult sometimes, in the face of criticism. I've felt like I was falling short but with time you realise that the best you is the authentic you. And that's the only way to be - however you look - whatever height, whatever weight, whatever skin colour, however your hair, however your walk... I've learned that over time, it's the most precious lesson that I've learned as an actor - to love and accept myself just the way I am.
"I think unfortunately being traditionally attired is looked down upon. It is looked upon as not being cool. And that has to change. Because coolness has nothing to do with what you wear but what you do and how you are. We couldn't have dressed the scientists any other way on this one because the scientists we are talking about dress like this. Most, if not all the scientists at ISRO, are clad in saris, salwar kameez, or kurtas. I think it's time this stereotype broke. Because we associate a powerful woman with being dressed a certain way. If she is dressed in a sari, you expect her to speak a certain way, do certain things and not other things. But you know, this woman could have been sitting next to you on a bus, discussing how expensive onions have become, and she was still these women (the scientists). They were part of an extremely important scientific national mission. Indian cinema definitely needs to represent real people as cool. I don't think enough of that happens. But maybe Mission Mangal will help at least make a dent in that stereotype."
The right Mission
Vidya, who is known to take the road less travelled as far as her career choices are concerned, plays Project Director Tara Shinde in this story of India's Mangalyaan/ Mars Orbiter Mission. "I said yes to Mission Mangal for multiple reasons. One of the strongest reasons being that it tells the story of one of the most difficult and challenging missions undertaken by ISRO, the success of which made all us Indians very proud. And it had a huge and prominent contribution from women.
"Even though as I was corrected by Sujata, director Jagan Shakti's sister, who is a scientist at ISRO, that 'we don't talk about ourselves as male and female scientists at ISRO.' Nonetheless I think it felt good to know that 27 per cent of scientists on this mission were women. The script had come together beautifully. So when R. Balki narrated it to to me, at the end of the narration I said 'yes', which is very rare for me.
"I'd worked with Jagan in the past, he was Balki's assistant in Paa, and also, he inspired faith in me as a director instantly. Then of course I knew that Akshay was doing the film, not just as actor but as producer, and it was a chance to team up with him after 12 years, and to work with a bunch of very well accomplished actors/stars in Taapsee, Sonakshi, Nithya and Kirti."
"So there were so many reasons to do this film, it just felt right actually."
Feminine energy
Vidya, who is used to shouldering a film on her own, tells us she had no qualms about taking on this multi-star project.
"It was wonderful to work in a multi-star cast film. We all got along very easily. I think each one of us is successful in our own right and therefore came with a sense of security, not competition. And I love so much feminine energy on set! It's a first. Of course on Begum Jaan I worked with an almost all female cast, but here all the actors are known and that's when you think there could be clashes and all - not at all!
"Even the promotions have been such a breeze. They were a welcome change for me because normally when I'm promoting my films I'm largely doing it all by myself. But here with all of us together it hardly felt like we were promoting it, we were having a ball! We've really had a good time on this film."
Vidya has two reasons to celebrate right now - apart from the release of Mission Mangal, she also made her Tamil film debut in Nerkonda Parvai (a remake of the critically acclaimed Bollywood film Pink), which is currently out in UAE theatres.
She seemed delighted about her part in Nerkonda Parvai. "Oh my God, yes, Tamil film debut finally! My parents are waiting to see the film. It's a special appearance but I'm happy to have been part of this film because it makes such an important point and I got to work with Thala Ajith, and what's more special is that this is Boney Kapoor's first Tamil film. And I'm so happy that the film is doing really well."
Turning producer was easy!
Vidya recently turned producer with the short film Natkhat. We asked her what the experience was like.
"I acted in the short film Natkhat and even co-produced it with Ronnie Screwvala, but my experience wasn't that of a producer because Ronnie and his team did all the work, so it was pretty easy for me. My primary role is that of actor in it. It felt very special to see my name on the clapper board."
One of Vidya's current projects is the Shakuntala Devi biopic, slated to release in 2020. She commented on what inspired her to take on the role of the famed "human computer."
"Just Shakuntala Devi the personality! I like to describe her as the only computer in the world with a wicked sense of humour! That combination is the rarest of rare, to my mind."
Vidya in a web series?
A lot of actors are turning to web series currently. Would we ever see Vidya in that space? "I've been offered a lot in the web space, but I am commitment-phobic, so unless I really really love what is being offered to me I don't think I will take the plunge. And besides that, I'm also planning a series on Indira Gandhi and that is going to be a lot of work - it might take a couple of years. Unless something really mind-blowing happens before that, I think that might be my debut in the web space."
I am an eternal optimist: Vidya 
Vidya has been through many phases in her career, and not all her films were well received. So which phase has been the brightest? "I am an eternal optimist so I would say this is the brightest phase of my career because I believe that the brightest is now. It's not in the past, it's not in the  future, it's in the here and now. I feel very blessed to be living my life as an actor, living my dream as an actor, every single day. I feel grateful for all the love that's come my way over the years and I hope it continues to grow." 

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