Vidya Balan: ‘Begum Jaan’ is as aggressive as it gets

Vidya Balan: ‘Begum Jaan’ is as aggressive as it gets |

The Bollywood star talks about the power of empathy and how her latest film helped her own her success more easily.

Balan plays the title character in this story set against the tumultuous period of Indian partition where civil unrest between Hindus and Muslims were eating away at India, a country on the cusp of independence from the British colonists. Her home, where she does her flesh trade, comes in the middle of the designated Indo-Pak border and she’s slapped with an eviction notice within a month.

“And as a woman, you also tend to empathise with prostitutes. We may never know the extent of their humiliation and pain on a daily basis, but as a woman, a human being and a student of sociology, I knew it wasn’t difficult to humanise her,” said Balan, adding that she has reached a stage in her acting life where she is open to play dark characters.

“It’s as aggressive as it gets in my career. Begum Jaan is strong, foul-mouthed and has this never-say-die attitude. For her self-preservation is primary and there are several shades to her that makes her intriguing. One one hand, she comes across as ferocious but she’s also sensitive towards her girls,” said Balan, who considers her brothel her home.

Her character doesn’t take the notice to vacate easily and launches a war against the establishment along with her eleven sex workers. Think a bunch of feisty women learning how to shoot with a rifle and throw grenades to ward off their invaders.

Directed and written by Srijit Mukherjee, this acting offer had come her way two years ago when he expressed interest in making a bilingual feature in Hindi and Bengali simultaneously, but Balan had turned it down as she was taking an eight month sabbatical due to health reasons. But under producer Mahesh Bhatt’s insistence, she re-visited the Bengali film Rajkahini and was impressed with what she saw.

“I am not open to the idea of remakes because I feel if the story is told once, what’s the fun in retelling it. But I found Begum Jaan irresistible and I loved her ferocious attitude. Secondly, I realised that the story has not been told to a national audience so I grabbed at the opportunity,” said Balan, who was last seen in the dark thriller, Kahaani 2, which dealt with the murky world of child sexual abuse.

Balan is one of the few actresses who has the heft to carry a film on her own steam. So what was her takeaway from this film?

“Women feel the need to overcompensate for their success and their power. Somewhere, there’s some amount of guilt and discomfort about being successful and powerful. What Begum Jaan helped me do is to help me wear my success and power more easily… When I look back, I don’t think I was comfortable with all the tags that was attached to me,” said Balan, adding that being called the hero of Bollywood was oddly discomfiting.

After the success of women-centric films Kahaani and The Dirty Picture, Balan was crowned as an actress who could enjoy box office success and awards glory.

“Honestly, at that point I didn’t know how to deal with it and I remember my ex-manager telling me that I still haven’t accepted that I am a star yet. Begum Jaan made me more comfortable with my success and I am more accepting of my power,” said Balan.

The film also stars Pallavi Sharda, Gauahar Khan, Rajit Kapoor and Naseeruddin Shah in a cameo appearance. While the original version was set in Bengal, the Hindi adaptation is set in Punjab.

“I am not a history buff, but I think history has been used as a successful subtext here. There’s a macro look at what it takes to be a patriot and how 11 women struggle to save their home.”

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