“I think we expect ourselves to be goddesses but don’t treat ourselves like that”: Vidya Balan

Monday 14th September 2020 07:58 EDT

Jaipur Literature Festival London at British Library 2020 recently hosted a virtual discussion with the award-winning actress Vidya Balan and author and screenplay writer Nayanika Mahtani to discuss their latest film on the mathematical genius, the late Shakuntala Devi and the challenges that ambitious women face in our culture. The session was moderated by Vani Tripathi Tikoo.


Talking about her film and playing the “human computer” who was  celluloid friendly, Vidya said, “You could see this person as a human being. It was not just a buff piece where you were glorifying her. We wanted to celebrate her but in her wholesomeness, in the fact that she embraced her flaws and she was unapologetically herself. She owned her choices. She lived her life - should I say queen size! I love that.” 


Vidya also emphasised the amount of effort and research that went into making the film which is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video. She said, “They (director Anu Menon and writer Nayanika Mahtani) put in years researching Shakuntala Devi, sitting with Anupama Banerji  and Ajay (Shakuntala Devi’s daughter and son-in-law), knowing her well so that it could be a full body piece.” 

Speaking on the judgments that women live with, Vidya said, “One - as working mothers, and then just as mothers, and wives, as daughters, as women, we’re always guilt ridden. We take on possibly more than a human being can take on, and should possibly take on. I think we expect ourselves to be goddesses but don’t treat ourselves like that. It always amazes me, that even to this day, as women, we find it difficult to think for ourselves, to make choices that could come across as selfish, which is why I think Shakuntala Devi was amazing because she didn’t judge herself. That’s the first thing we do as women. Forget what society puts you through, we are so unkind and unfair to ourselves.” 


“My sister works as an executive head of an ad agency and she passed on a huge promotion because she felt she might not be able to be there for her kids as much as she’d want to if she took on that role,” she added. 


Revealing her process of writing and approach towards the great mathematician’s biopic, London based writer, Nayanika said, “The hero is an Indian woman whose superpower is mathematics, who is unschooled and goes on to conquer the world and inspires millions of people. And she’s grown up in sad circumstances but never played a victim,” which she said is the reason why she enjoyed writing the story of the film. 


The women also discussed the fault lines of the relationship between Shakuntala Devi and daughter in the movie and her marriage. “When she (Anupama Banerji) shared the story, it was without airbrushing, neither her mother’s flaws, nor her own. She was telling it with an honesty that really resonated. For me the core was the realisation, that your mother is not just a mother. She also has her own dreams, her own baggage, her own journey and that may be very different from yours,” Nayanika said. 


Vidya Balan also highlighted that most of the heads of departments working on the film were women. 


Balan also revisited her first role in a biopic, i.e. Milan Luthria’s The Dirty Picture. Talking about the initial “radical” reception of the idea of that film, she said, “Initially when people saw the trailer, they said Oh My God what have you done? They kept saying ‘oh it’s all about sex’. And I said I don’t care if sex is what brings you to the theatre. You’ll see beyond that, you’ll see the person  beneath that body or within that body. A lot of people told me that it might sound the death bell on your career. I’m just glad that I went ahead with my conviction. It opened with 10 Crores at the box office and people said ‘sex thha na’ (it worked because of sex).  And then Kahaani (Vidya’s film directed by Sujoy Ghosh) happened and went on to do crazy numbers and that’s what cemented it. That movement of female led stories began to happen with The Dirty Picture.” 


Speaking about how women view themselves and are sometimes too harsh on their own self, she said. “For some years I had some hormonal issues and I kept gaining weight on a daily basis. To feel sexy in that body, while I was saying all that I thought am I going to be convincing? Then I realised it had nothing to do with the body.” 

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