At India Today e-Conclave Inspiration, Vidya Balan spoke to Sushant Mehta on her journey in the film industry, the biggest challenge she has faced in her career, and how she dealt with body shaming and more.
Compiled by JYOTHI VENKATESH
Describe your childhood.
It was a very simple childhood. I was born and brought up in Mumbai in a little suburb called Chembur. There was a sense of community, you would feel a sense of security anywhere you go in Chembur. You knew everyone. That was my world. At home, I had my parents, elder sister. That’s it. And I was a fat child, I was happy eating. I didn’t want to go out to play. I didn’t like reading but I loved watching TV. But I was a very sincere student. I worked really hard and I did well. I remember my sister just used to skim through the books and did even better than me.
How did you overcome that feeling of being lesser than somebody else because you were a little plump?
I wasn’t plump, I was fat and I was absolutely okay with it. I think we’ve got this negative connotation to the word ‘Fat’ which should be done away with. I got a lot of attention because people would pull my cheeks and say ‘Oh you’re so cute’ and all of that. I loved it. As I started growing up the same thing became a problem, not for me but for the world. People would say ‘Oh, you have such a pretty face, why don’t you lose weight?’ and I would be like ‘How rude are you?’ ‘I am not telling you why you don’t grow some brains!’ hahaha. So why are you telling me to lose some weight?! When you’re a teenager and you want attention from opposite sex and you’re not getting it from the people you want it from, then that’s when it becomes a problem. It’s then when you feel undesirable. You think there’s something wrong with you because you’re fat. And I started doing all sorts of crazy things to lose weight. I remember at one time I started drinking 10 litres of water and no one realised this at home. But successively for a few weeks at night I would start puking. And they’ll be like ‘What happened to you?’
They obviously thought there’s problem in my stomach and they took me to the doctor and then I told the doctor ‘No, someone told me if you drink 10 litres of water a day you would lose weight and I started doing it’. So the doctor said that ‘whoever said that to you is a stupid person because you not only lose weight you lose important nutrients in food and also energy if you have so much of water. So please stop it’. So there was a desperate need to be another body and at various points even after I finished education and even after I became an actor I wanted to lose weight desperately and I lost weight but it would come right back because I have a certain body type. You know when I stopped fighting my body (and it didn’t happen overnight, it happened over time) it was then when I started becoming healthier and happier because its body is what keeps you alive. Many of us spend our lives hating our bodies, which is so unfortunate as you hate the very thing that keeps you alive.
Did you always want to be an actor?
I wanted to be a cardiologist very briefly because my father had a heart attack when I was 8 or 9 years old and thankfully he recovered and is absolutely fine. That time I realised how important a cardiologist was in our lives. So I thought I wanted to be a cardiologist but I it was just a passing phase. It was Madhuri Dixit who did a ‘Ek Do Teen’ and I was like ‘Oh my God, I want to be a Junior Madhuri Dixit’. My sister had brown silk skirt which she never wore. So I used to tie it around my head and twist it like Madhuri in that song. I used to spend hours in front of the mirror dancing on ‘Ek Do Teen’ because we also had a mirror floor to the ceiling. So that’s where the bug got me.
How did you work towards your dream?
No, I am not a trained actor. I remember I started observing performances. I remember watching Shabana Azmi. I remember watching Julie Lakshmi in some Tamil film on Doordarshan. They used to show Sunday afternoon films. I used to watch and I used be like ‘Wow, they are so good’. So I started watching with the intent of learning how to act and after my 10th exams one of my sister’s friends told me that ‘you know there is a 2-month drama oriented workshop at Prithvi Theatre, you want to do it?’ And I was like ‘Wow, I want to do it’. I started doing that and then of course by the end of it, I thought that I was Shabana Azmi.
I was like ‘Arre, ab tohmaine 2 maheene ka theatre phi karliyahai. Shabana Amzi ka ghar Prithvi theatre ke ekdum saamne hai toh I thought great talent vibes are coming towards me’. One thing led to the other and then I got into Xaviers where I did my first television serial which never saw light of day because it was for a channel which just bombed. That didn’t take off but we were sent to Ekta Kapoor for a daily soap she was starting. I auditioned and then she gave Hum Paanch instead.
How was your first meeting with Ekta Kapoor when you were cast for Hum Paanch when she was just starting off?
Hum Paanch was already on-air and I replaced Amita Nangia. I remember a few weeks before this happened, we were all watching Hum Paanch together and my mother told me that ‘if you want to be actor you should do a serial like this’. For her it was a family entertainer, a decent show; good actors. It was just fun. And then I remember in a few weeks when I met Ekta, she told me that ‘any other girl in your place would have been jumping if I told her that she was going to be a part of the most successful show on television currently’. She asked ‘Why don’t you have any reaction?’ I turned to her and I said ‘I take everything with a pinch of salt’. I remember getting along very well with Bhairavi, Vandana and Shoma aunty. I was learning. I was just an awkward teenager. I was not well groomed. I was just 16 or 17. Even today when I watch Hum Paanch I am like ‘Oh, no nono’. But Hum Paanch was my beginning and I would always cherish that.
Did you have to struggle a lot before you landed that big role in your first film?
I had to quit Hum Paanch because I was studying at Xaviers and I was getting into the black list every month. My parents told me that I have to complete my education. But I started doing ad films after that. I never had any portfolio. It was just someone doing a workshop with Nandu Ghanekar and he said that his brother-in-law was looking to cast someone for an ad film and whether I was interested?’ He realised that I wanted to be an actor and everyone else wanted to be either writer or a director or editor during that week-long workshop.
I went for the audition and there were 40 models and some of them were really well-known models at that time. My mother, sister and I had gone together to Famous Studios and spent all day there but at the end of the day I got the ad film. Then you know I ended up doing 90 odd ad films before my South films began to happen. So I think one thing led to another. It’s like they say that when you truly want something universe conspires to make it happen. I have not been proactive in that sense, towards realising my dreams. I just held it very close to my heart and things have just happened. I am very blessed and fortunate.
When did you bag your first feature film?
I think when I first did my feature film with Mohanlal in Malayalam, I got 7-8 film offers after the first schedule. The only problem was that the film got shelved after the first schedule. So not only did the film get shelved, I was also replaced in all other films as I was labeled jinxed after that.
Wasn’t it a very big problem, being labeled and jinxed too soon?
I am not a superstitious person. I don’t think any success or failure can be attributed to anyone else. I was heartbroken when I was replaced in all those films. I was thrown out of a very big Tamil film at the time. I couldn’t understand what was happening and then I met Pradeep Sarkar who cast me in Euphoria’s Kabhi Aana Tu Meri Gali and that’s what changed my life, because after that he started training me and mentoring me and then we did Parineeta with me. In between this I did a Bengali film which was my moment, I thought as I had seen myself on the big screen once.
How did you handle yourself when you were down and out and hit rock bottom and how did you get back on your feet?
I obviously felt rejected. I was angry and that anger would come out on my mother because my father would go to work, my sister and my brother in law had moved to another city and it was just mom and me at home. So I would take out all my anger at her. My mom used to ground me with prayers, mediation.
She would tell me ‘why don’t you just sit and pray?’ but I would just fight with her because I was feeling angry, helpless and agitated. But I am thankful that my parents knew where I was coming from and I am sure my mother was hurt at various points. I think she realised how important this was for me and she supported me in every way. I also think that bad behaviour should not be acceptable but I didn’t know any better at that time. You also take out your anger at people you are close to but my family was my rock, constant pillar. I used to go to Sai Baba Mandir close to my place in Chembur and pray regularly. There were times when I went to bed crying and would wet the pillow with my tears but next morning I would wake up feeling like – ’Okay you know what, I will give it one more day’. That’s how passionately I wanted to be an actor.
Talk to me about that phase of your life when you were the hero of the film – box office wise and got critical acclaim for Dirty Picture, Kahaani and Bhool Bhulaiyaa.
Now in retrospect, it seems like ‘Wow that was such a spree of successes’. But at that time I was just working, going one film to another. Of course, I was aware that I was critically acclaimed or my film got commercial success but I didn’t give it too much importance. Also, often people tell you things about yourself and I don’t see myself necessarily like that.
But when someone says that I see you like this suddenly there were all sorts of tags attributed to me I think that’s when around 2012 after Kahaani I was like ‘Om my God, what has just happened?’ People were telling me that I have this Midas touch and I was like ‘I have just been just following my instincts. All of this also puts pressure on you because you think that ‘oh, now how do I maintain this success?’. I think that’s the worst thing to happen to anyone. When you are just in the flow of things and you know things work out but when you are start trying to plan and figure and strategise, that’s the end of it. You can’t actually sustain. There is no 2+2+4. It doesn’t apply here. So it’s all about chance. I think the only thing one can do is what I have started doing is working on remaining positive and grateful so whatever phase I went through I was able to deal with it.
Dirty Picture just out of the blue, steamy, hot and unapologetic. Did you have any reservations signing that film?
No, I didn’t have any apprehensions. The moment I met Milind Luthra, he instilled faith in me. I knew that he has a certain aesthetic sense; I knew it won’t be cheap. Also, Ekta was involved and she is a woman. I knew her; I started my career with her. So I was safe on those accounts. But there were people who told me that ‘Are you mad? You are a girl next door and you can’t be doing things like these’ I remember speaking to my parents at that time and I asked them ‘Should I do it?’ and my parents, they are obviously not from this industry, so they kept saying do what feel is right and I went ahead and did it.
How did you feel when you saw the costumes?
As a child, my mom had made me wear shorts and everyone teased me because I was really fat. After that I had never worn shorts in my life. And during the first costume trials, Niharika Singh gave me a pair of hot shorts/hot pants and I came out in that and I actually felt fully okay. I remember they gave me a cigarette and a glass, they wanted some pictures. I only knew how to put the cigarette in the mouth but didn’t know how to take it in and I remember the first time Milind told me to inhale, I coughed like a maniac. But suddenly I felt like, I think I had already been speaking to Milind about the character and I had started my dance rehearsals and the choreographer would keep telling me more thrust, more more thrust. So I think slowly I was letting go of my inhibitions and maybe that’s why when I wore the shorts and walked out I was fine. Because there was no expectation of being perfect, I was not expected to have the perfect body in the shorts. Silk was big.
Did you think that would bag the National Award?
No. That was very special because when you see the kind of films that have received National Awards, a film like Dirty Picture and a character like Silk figure nowhere in the list. Therefore for me to have gotten it for Silk was all the more special. And the citation they gave me was so beautifully was articulated.
How did you work on the behavioural patterns which you thought were detrimental?
Growing up a fat girl you’re always hoping that you’re niceness will make up for lack of desirability and compensate you. You let yourself be a pushover. I am not saying this is for everyone but I know a lot of fat girls and boys who shared the same experiences with me. So often people walk all over you and you allow that. And I worked hard on changing that. I worked hard at valuing myself, in my body, the way I am just the way I am. Not wanting to change my body because everything would come back to the body somehow -Big, small, whatever.
How did you overcome the biggest challenges you faced in the film industry?
A lot of times when I received criticism, I thought ‘Oh, the world is against me’. It’s not true. It’s true for 5 journalists who have written something and it’s their opinion. And these 5 Journalists don’t represent the world. I remember in 2007/2008 I was heavily criticised for my weight and my clothes. I remember I felt like ‘Oh, the world is against me now that it has become a national issue’. No, it wasn’t a national issue. Obviously for me to process that was too much that I felt like I was a loser that I should be ashamed for the way I dressed. I should be ashamed because I am so big bodied. But I am glad that I started working with a healer a few years ago. It helped me in letting go off that baggage of the judgments that I have around my own body. I have learnt to love and accept myself each day. And it is very helpful to speak to someone. Of course you can speak to your own people, it’s great. But sometimes it’s nice to speak to someone who is not emotionally invested in you. Because when someone feels for you, they don’t listen and just want to give solutions, feeling protective and they get affected. So it is better to have a counsellor, therapist or a healer. If you can speak to someone, it is great. The pressure is not just on actors. Today, the pressure on all of us is very, very high.
People can’t accept that they need help.
You don’t need anyone’s help. You help yourself when you speak to someone. All I am saying is that, you can use various things. You can write down what you’re feeling, tear that sheet or paper. Record a voice. Whatever helps you. When you articulate, it gives you clarity. I think every individual and particularly, every woman who is trying to live her life on her own terms with honesty and integrity, with compassion and value for herself.