Vidya Balan: ‘She laughed loudly; that’s a similarity we share’

Latha Srinivasan | Updated on August 07, 2020

Genial genius: Like Shakuntala Devi, who lived every moment to the fullest, Vidya Balan (in pic) says she always looks for a reason to smile   -  IMAGE COURTESY: AMAZON PRIME VIDEO

Vidya Balan on maths, feminism, geniuses and portraying the dramatic life of Shakuntala Devi

* Mathematician Shakuntala Devi’s story was waiting to be told on celluloid. Anu Menon’s biopic, released on Amazon Prime Video on July 31, looks ably at her roller-coaster life

Vidya Balan greets you warmly, all geared up to talk about her new film — Shakuntala Devi. The mathematician’s story was waiting to be told on celluloid, the 41-year-old actor says, adding that director Anu Menon’s biopic, released on Amazon Prime Video on July 31, looks ably at her roller-coaster life. The Bengaluru-born number cruncher, who solved complex equations in public shows, died in 2013. “She was a woman way ahead of her times,” Balan, known for her women-centric roles in films such as Kahaani and The Dirty Picture, tells BLink in a video interview. Excerpts:

How have you been coping with the lockdown?

No complaints whatsoever. I feel over the past few weeks the lockdown has eased up — for me personally — because I’ve started promotions [for the film]. Initially, I was doing it from home in Mumbai and now I’m going to work. At least there’s some semblance of normalcy. I’d tried lots of new things, cleaned a lot (laughs).

What fascinated you about this role in the Shakuntala Devi biopic?

When [director] Anu Menon came to me about the biopic on the mathematical genius, I felt that was qualification enough for me, honestly. But when she began to tell me more about her, her life and personality, I was struck. I felt this was a story waiting to be told on celluloid because there was so much inherent drama in terms of ups and downs and how she went about living; how she was a woman way ahead of her times, and that is a large source of conflict in the film. There are so many layers to her. She’s so much more than a genius. That was fascinating. Just to get into the skin of that person — I’ve always wondered what geniuses must be like. [But] she was also blood and bones. They’re not very different from you, yet they’re so different.

How easy or tough was it to capture the essence of this role?

It was challenging for sure. She enjoyed maths and taking maths to the people. She engaged with her audiences and loved the attention... I was a bit nervous about the maths shows. But thankfully, Anu and I spoke about it a lot and finally arrived at how to approach it.

Did you find any similarities at all between Shakuntala Devi and you?

I almost feel awkward when someone asks me this because, I’m like, how can I say there are similarities between a genius and me (laughs)? While there are other things also, I think the biggest similarity was that I react to things the way she’d react. She wanted to live every moment to the fullest. I think I have that, too. I’m constantly looking for a reason to smile and be happy and just to live out the moment.

Like her, you are fun-loving…

I like having fun on a set because we are together for two months and I like to get to know people. I like a nice positive atmosphere on set. More important, I’m interested in people — that’s the crux of it all. She was fun-loving and that’s not something you associate with someone who likes maths, forget a genius. All of us have this perception that maths is a bit distant as a subject and, therefore, anyone who likes it is also distant, reclusive and inaccessible. She was none of that — she laughed loudly; that’s a similarity we share (laughs). She was fun.

Were you good at maths in school?

Yeah, I was good. I guess that comes with the territory of being a Palakkad Iyer (laughs)! So far I haven’t met a single one [from the community] who was not good at maths. I was probably lower on that food chain but I was still above average.

This is your first digital release…

It’s a different experience because there’s no pressure of how the film fares at the box office on the weekend. But having said that, even if what those numbers tell you is just how many people have watched your film and how much people like the film, that [is something] I still want. But in these given circumstances, I think it’s great that we’re releasing on Amazon Prime Video, because people are sitting at home. Most families are together at home and this is a family film. Yes, even the experience of promoting it is different — I’m not travelling, there are no television appearances.

You do one film a year. Is this a conscious decision?

I need a lot of time in between films; I feel when I do a film it’s all-consuming. I need to do just nothing for a while and then travel a bit. I said ‘yes’ to three films last year, which were to have been shot this year. So I’m telling myself now the universe is telling me to do just one film; that’s perfect for you (laughs). Jokes apart, I like that pace of work. It gives me the time to do other things in life — even if it is just being — so I can replenish myself and go back and do another role.

You’ve done many women-centric roles in your career. Would you call yourself a feminist?

I definitely think I’m a feminist work-in-progress because I don’t think that can be an absolute. Maybe a few generations down the line they’ll be able to call themselves feminists.

What are the kind of roles you are now looking forward to playing?

I have no clue (smiles). I’m not very inventive or imaginative, so I leave that to the writers and they come up with better ideas than I can ever hope to. I hope the best stories and roles come to me.

Are you happy about where you are today?

More than happy. So grateful! I couldn’t have ever imagined that this was how it was going to pan out. I think it’s only going to get better.

Latha Srinivasan is a Chennai-based journalist

Published on August 07, 2020

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