Balan bares it: Vidya sans makeup

When we meet Vidya Balan at her seaside Juhu bungalow, the actress is dressed casually in a cotton chikankari kurta with the evening sun doubling up as her halo. There is not a speck of makeup on her face. Yet she looks more gorgeous than ever.

It’s brave of Balan to agree to do a photoshoot without makeup. The actress, known to swing between spectacular highs and near-rockbottom lows in her career, has been a victim of body-shaming ever since she arrived in Bollywood, with vicious gossip about her shape and silhouette, and even worse tittle-tattle about her dress sense.
Yet, in the same candid manner in which she deals with her work, her fans, colleagues and the media, Balan is willing to bare her face, pores and all, to close-up scrutiny. It’s an incredible thing for a person working in the glamour industry to do – even Shah Rukh Khan, for all his down-to-earthness, would be apprehensive – and it says a lot about the woman behind the actress.
It also says a lot about how hero-driven Bollywood has changed from the time heroines traditionally played the role of decorative items. In the last decade, the scales have started to tilt towards women, so much so that today women-centric films are bringing in equal money at the box office, if not more.
Much of this has been credited to Balan and the strong, bold characters she essayed in films like Paa, Ishqiya, No One Killed Jessica, The Dirty Picture and Kahaani.
In every one of those films, the audience drooled over her subtle, often raw sensuality, and the critics lauded her power-packed performances. But off screen, Balan is perhaps the most bodyshamed heroine in Bollywood.

Vidya Balan with Naseeruddin Shah in The Dirty Picture

“There was a time I used to take these negative criticisms very seriously. I was killing myself over losing weight. I would work out like crazy, starve myself and go on all kinds of weird diets,” she says. “Yes, I would lose some weight but all that starving would leave me feeling very unhappy and drained. Worse, eventually I would regain that weight and that would make me more miserable. It had become a vicious cycle. Slowly, I realised that there is a body structure that I can’t fight, and I better embrace it. I began to feel comfortable in my weight. Today I do not consider it a ‘weight problem’. I think fitness is more important. Who decides what is desirable? We have begun to pigeonhole beauty, sexuality and desirability.”
Before this pragmatism arrived, Balan did a movie for which she had to gain 12kgs – The Dirty Picture. For a woman struggling with weight issues it was a courageous, if risky, decision. “I can go to any length to tell a story. That’s my thrill,” she says. But the first step is always the hardest and in her case it involved squeezing herself, plus her 12 kg excess baggage, in a pair of hot pants. The fact that she had never worn short clothes before didn’t help.
“A few years back I was supposed to do a very big film. When I went for the costume trial this famous designer gave me some very skimpy clothes. I refused to come out of the dressing room and I couldn’t do the film. I was so awkward. But here I knew I was Silk and not Vidya. When I saw those pants, they looked too short. I had never worn such short clothes. But when I wore it, I felt like Silk.”
But she didn’t expect people to find her hot in the movie. “The Dirty Picture liberated me. At that time I was at my biggest, and yet people found me sexy. The reactions I got broke many norms for me. My lifelong struggle with my weight came to an end.”
Today, Balan religiously hits the gym every day – but the aim is to stay fit. “I love to work out but I am not trying to defy my body structure anymore. I can’t change my body type. But I can change the way I feel about my body. And most days I feel absolutely sexy… of course, if I am not having a bad hair day!”

In a still from Bobby Jasoos

Given how she’s glowing despite the lack of makeup, Balan is clearly not having a bad hair day today. Perhaps it’s because of her return to Bollywood. Kahaani 2, releasing in November, is being touted as her comeback movie. But the actress is startled at the very mention of it.
“Where did I go to make a comeback?” she asks, before clarifying that although after Hamari Adhuri Kahani, which released last year, she had taken a few months off, it is a myth that she had taken a sabbatical to enjoy quality time with her husband.
“As with most workaholics, I was neglecting a few niggling health issues, which got worse over time and I had to pay attention to them,” she says. “Also, I have always done roles that I have found challenging. At that point, the scripts I was finding interesting were in various stages of development. So, I thought this would be the best time to recuperate. And now I have three films on the floors – Sujoy Ghosh’s Kahaani 2, Srijit Mukherji’s Begum Jaan, which I have finished shooting, and a bilingual biopic of poet Kamala Das.”
Still, she does admit that with four back-to-back flops in Ghanchakkar, Shaadi Ke Side Effects, Bobby Jasoos, and Hamari Adhuri Kahani, all made after her marriage to Siddharth Roy Kapur, CEO of Disney India and UTV Motion Pictures, in 2012, it did cross her mind that perhaps her marital status had had an impact on the box office.