In a virtual press conference, Vidya talked about playing Shakuntala Devi, the struggles of ambitious women today, and more.

Vidya Balan sitting at a table with a coffee mug and a book Vidya Balan/Facebook
Flix Entertainment Tuesday, July 28, 2020 - 18:04

Actor Vidya Balan has played several real life characters (like Silk Smitha, and Shakuntala Devi in her upcoming film) as well as fictional ones. Ask her which ones are more challenging to play and she replies that both are tough, but those modelled on real persons come with more responsibility. “When you’re playing someone who was a real person, you have to take into account their mannerisms and characteristics as well. But you can’t copy them because that appears caricaturish. At the same time, it’s not just a person from your imagination. So it’s a fine balance you have to maintain,” Vidya told TNM in an online interaction with journalists prior to the release of Shakuntala Devi on Amazon Prime Video on July 31.

In the trailer of the film, we see Shakuntala Devi having a turbulent relationship with her daughter, Anupama – played by Sanya Malhotra – because she is not a conventional mother. Even today, when women want to be more, they face similar struggles, Vidya said.

“Women are not taught to be on their own priority list. If she has a child, her life should only revolve around the child. Women live with some amount of guilt when they pursue their career [over other household responsibilities]. Shakuntala Devi questioned that. She had a child – she loved her, and she loved what she did. She wanted it all,” Vidya said.

The Bengaluru-born mathematical genius, also known as the “human computer”, was renowned world over for her quick arithmetic involving long and complex numbers. She could solve these equations within seconds, and trotted the globe giving demonstrations of her talents and inspiring many people. Shakuntala Devi passed away in Bengaluru in April 2013, however, her old interviews and videos available online make her love for numbers pretty clear. And this love for numbers was something Vidya shares too, which she said helped her play the mathematician’s character.

To prepare for the role, Vidya said she worked hard not as much to imitate Shakuntala but to imbibe her essence. “Her shows were like magic shows. She used humour, teased people, and made them feel less fearful of numbers… like even they could try them. I had to capture that essence of her love for maths. Here, my love for numbers came in handy.”

The actor revealed that she was good at maths in school. “I was no Shakuntala Devi of course, but I could remember dates, and even car numbers after I saw the registration plates sometimes. So when I had to rattle off long numbers in the movie, my love for numbers helped. Thankfully I didn’t have to do a lot of calculation; readymade answers were there. But it helped.” She added that another similarity between her and Shakuntala is that both of them laughed loudly.

Vidya also made a reference to a dialogue she has in Shakuntala Devi: “When I can be amazing, why be ordinary?” She said that in real life, ambitious women are not supported, and especially with social expectations and pressures to be a certain way, it can be hard to assert yourself. “Women are told, be amazing but to an extent… so long as there is status quo. They don’t want you to topple the apple cart. We also tell women, it’s great, go out and work, but also come back and handle the family and the household.”

“But what I learnt from Shakuntala Devi is that if you have belief in yourself, nothing is impossible. Every character you play impacts you offscreen, leaves you with something, and heals you in some way. Shakuntala Devi didn’t even go to school but the world acknowledged her as the human computer. Nothing is impossible if you have self-belief,” Vidya asserted. “You can’t let anyone tell you that your dreams are not worthy of success. Especially girls and women.”

Whenever biographies are made, especially in mainstream cinema, one wonders how much of it is true. With Shakuntala Devi, however, Vidya noted that they did not have to take many cinematic liberties. The main resource persons for the story were Shakuntala’s daughter Anupama Banerji and her husband, Ajay Abhaya Kumar, who reside in London. “They were both so open with us, and shared all their ups and downs and struggles. There was a lot of inherent drama in the story,” Vidya said.

The actor also talked about how her own mother had supported her in her life. “In 2007-08, I was facing a lot of criticism for my dressing and my weight. My mom sat me down and said, ‘Why are you so upset? It’s just weight, it can reduce. You can’t give up on your dreams of being in the film industry so easily,” Vidya narrated, emphasising that we need to support women more.

In response to a question from TNM on whether we would get to see Shakuntala Devi’s struggles through the gender dynamics of the times she lived in, Vidya replied, “Shakuntala did not consider herself a female mathematician. She didn’t understand why there needed to be a separate set of rules, especially after she had a daughter.”

Talking about depictions of gender and women in films, Vidya said that films should always be correct in terms of gender, but she did not necessarily believe in “political correctness”. “Everyone should be allowed to express themselves the way they want to. However, everything that involves women should be respectful to them.”

On whether we will be seeing Vidya more in south films, the actor said that she had not come across scripts and roles that were as challenging or appealing. “I don’t worry about being accepted in a role, but what matters is whether I want to play this person,” she said. “If such roles come my way from the south industries, I’ll be happy to play them,” she added.

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