It seems fitting that Vidya Balan is playing the protagonist in Amazon Prime movie Sherni. Ever since her debut in the Hindi film industry with Parineeta, Vidya has frequently made bold choices. It would have been so easy to get typecast after landing her first lead role in a Bollywood feature, as the period-sari-clad heroine. But it seems Vidya learnt to revel in freedom of choice, over the safety of quintessential Bollywood dramas. The streak of independence, it seems, was always there, but the actor took a few missteps before finding her footing.
This streak of ‘rebelliousness’ (for a lack of a better word), is evident with the movies she signed post the Pradeep Sarkar directorial. In 2006, we saw Vidya as the spirited radio jockey Jhanvi, the love interest of Sanjay Dutt’s Munna in Lage Raho Munna Bhai. It was a small part, but it helped the audience see Vidya in a new light, in new clothes, as a modern young woman of a new India. Her “Good Morning, Mumbai,” felt vibrant and true, and so did her chemistry with co-star Dutt.
Then came Mani Ratnam film Guru, where again Vidya had a small but distinct part, of a person suffering from multiple sclerosis. But despite the artiste’s honest intentions, the character didn’t come through fully due to its thinly sketched outline. This was followed by a critical failure in Akshay Kumar-starrer Heyy Babyy, wherein Balan was judged for her attempt at a glamorous avatar. Similarly, in Kismat Konnection, she couldn’t quite find her place as Priya opposite Shahid Kapoor. In between, Vidya had the main part in Priyadarshan’s Bhool Bhulaiyaa where she shone. Missteps notwithstanding, the actor always thought of pushing the envelope and rushed to break out of the box people tried putting her in.
After the somewhat dull phase, Vidya’s career was resurrected all thanks to R Balki’s family drama Paa. Once again, Balan did the unthinkable, she acquiesced to playing Amitabh Bachchan’s mother! Playing a mother, even in the late noughties, was not deemed advisable for an actor, but Balan went a step further and said yes to being a mother of an actor decades her senior. Yes, Senior Bachchan was convincing in the role of a child, but it was still a brave step to take, especially considering the times. In 2010, as the manipulative and seductive Krishna, Vidya was a great mix of dangerous and sensuous in Abhishek Chaubey movie Ishqiya. You were both in awe of her (in the traditional sense of the term) and charmed by her antics on-screen. This, again then, was a ‘hatke’ decision to take. Romancing Arshad Warsi and Naseeruddin Shah, Vidya was enigmatic in the frames she featured and the movie brought her a Filmfare Award too, her third since her debut in 2005.
As they say, success begets more success, and so was the case with Vidya Balan. Ishqiya was followed by three landmark films of the actor’s career — No One Killed Jessica, The Dirty Picture and Kahaani. All three movies couldn’t have been more different in terms of genre and storytelling, and it is definitely no hyperbole to state that Vidya Balan effectively stole the spotlight in the films. In fact, The Dirty Picture even won her a National Award for her performance as the vulnerable yet strong Silk Smitha. It should be noted that Vidya put on weight and a sexy demeanour despite the backlash she had faced for her physique and sense of style otherwise. She fully embraced the character and did what was required of her job, thereby giving one of the most committed and entertaining performances of an actor by an actor. Her unlikely pairing with Emraan Hashmi also worked wonderfully.
After 2012, there was yet another lull in Vidya’s career, where despite her eclectic choice of scripts, she didn’t quite hit the mark, neither performance-wise or even commercially. 2017’s Tumhari Sulu saw her once again as a radio jockey, but a homemaker moonlighting as an RJ for a late-night relationship show. Vidya was back in the game, and how! After dabbling in films down south for a little while (NTR: Kathanayakudu, Nerkonda Paarvai), the actor was seen as one of the four leading ladies of the Hindi space movie Mission Mangal, which paired her with Akshay Kumar. Mission Mangal is Balan’s most commercially successful movie till date, earning Rs 290 crore against its modest Rs 32 crore budget. Not many people are comfortable with sharing screen space with younger and up and coming actresses, but not Vidya, who in several interviews was seen sharing a great camaraderie with her co-stars.
Last seen in the titular role of Shakuntala Devi, Vidya Balan may not have given excellent performances in all of her films, but it cannot be denied that the actor is a talented and versatile performer, who has time and again proved that she is a chameleon when it comes to her roles. Here’s hoping Amit V Masurkar’s Sherni helps establish that statement further.