The Big Issue : Edition 490
THEBIGISSUE7–13AUG2015 33 A BOLLYWOOD STAR CHALLENGES CONVENTIONS, ON AND OFF SCREEN. WHEN BOLLYWOOD STAR Vidya Balan accepted a role in the provocatively titled The Dirty Picture (2011), colleagues and media alike issued doomsday warnings about the end of her career. Moral judgements swirled regarding her choice to play a character inspired by Silk Smitha, an Indian screen siren famous for her unapologetic sexuality and erotic roles. With the support of director Milan Luthria, Balan forged on. “Silk lived her life the way she wanted to and she didn’t care about what anyone thought or about the labels that were being attached to her. I think I found that extremely powerful,” she explains. “I stood validated by the end of it,” she laughs. The Dirty Picture became a critical and commercial smash. In combination with Balan’s other roles, which have consistently challenged gender norms in the famously censorship-heavy industry, it earned her the moniker of ‘female hero’. It is appropriate, then, that Balan is the ambassador for Melbourne’s Indian Film Festival, the largest of its type in the Southern Hemisphere. This year it focuses on equality. The theme is far- reaching, but gender equality is Balan’s personal priority: “I don’t just talk about equal opportunities in terms of work, but just to lead one’s life the way one wants to.” If anyone knows about challenges facing women in cinema, it’s Balan. While she was still studying for a Masters in Sociology degree, she was cast in her first lead role in a Malayam- language film, Chakram, in 2000, when she was 22, and soon signed on to a further 12 projects. But when Chakram was shelved – despite a highly bankable star, Mohanlal, playing opposite her – producers labelled her a “jinx” and cancelled her upcoming contracts. It was a massive blow for Balan, who had long aspired to be an actress. “I had no hope, you know. I felt like this was the only thing I knew...but I think my hunger as an actor just overpowered every failure that came my way. I’m also a person who has a great deal of resilience and it comes from prayer; it comes from my family and their unconditional love and support.” While it took nearly a decade for her career to recover fully, Balan is now widely credited with expanding perceptions of what an Indian film heroine can be – a suggestion she’s flattered by but humbly rejects. Balan says such screen heroines are representative of wider social shifts that are taking place across India, albeit slowly. “Films are finally a reflection of what’s happening in society... More and more women are coming into their own... They’re not dependent on others to dictate what their lives should be like. It’s still got all the colour and vibrancy that characterise Bollywood cinema, featuring a cheesy song-and- dance routine and a love story between Bobby and her Lothario neighbour, who’s just as stubborn as she is. But the character’s willingness to defy both familial and social convention reflects the way Balan herself has consistently pushed boundaries. In her previous film, The Side Effects of Marriage (2014), she played a woman who, after having her first baby, becomes estranged from her husband when he refuses to accept his responsibilities. Unsurprisingly, Balan has inspired women throughout India. She says that after the release of comedy thriller Ishqiya (2010), in which she plays a scorned wife who murders her husband, women approached her in the street to congratulate her for giving him what he deserved. “It was probably some sort of metaphor for what they would have liked happening in their lives,” she says. “I’m sure they didn’t go about burning their men, but it probably gave them the courage to step up and stand up for themselves in some small way, or at least acknowledge that it’s okay to feel you’ve been wronged and it’s okay to therefore maybe walk out of a marriage if that’s what a certain situation demands, or it’s okay to challenge the status quo.” Balan has also defied an industry that, worldwide, tends to value women according to looks alone. Balan is often praised in Indian media for her beauty, but also attacked for weight fluctuations and dress sense. “It’s excruciating,” she says. “[This] is why I take great pride in the characters I’ve played so far, because for me all of them...found their purpose in life far bigger than to look good.” by Rebecca Harkins-Cross » Bobby Jasoos will play as part of the Indian Film Festival, which runs from 14–27 August in Melbourne. BALAN POSES IN CANNES “I think for a long time the Hindi film heroine was reduced to a mere prop in film... You could make the film without her, but you needed a little colour and you needed romance and you needed opportunities for the music to come in... [That’s] not to say that there weren’t films that told women’s stories, but they were few and far between, and they didn’t really do very well.” Her latest film, Bobby Jasoos, continues to challenge such stereotypes. It is a broad slapstick comedy in which Balan plays the first female detective India has seen on screen. Criticised by her father and shunned by male counterparts, Bobby the bumbling private eye goes solo but soon finds herself employed by a rich man who may have a sinister side.