Vidya Balan on feminism of Sherni: It breaks the ‘strong woman’ stereotype

Vidya Balan stars as a upright forest officer in director Amit Masurkar's Sherni, which is currently Streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

Vidya Balan shares not only the name of her character (Vidya Vincent) in the latest film, Sherni, but also her ability to unassumingly defy norms. “There is a Vidya Vincent in me for sure.” Yet, the actor says she found it difficult to understand her. Maybe because what Vidya Vincent does quietly, Vidya Balan does with a crackling laugh.

In this interview with indianexpress.com, the actor decodes playing a non-reactive character, the stereotypes of a strong woman and what makes her reject industry trends.

How does it feel, Vidya? It’s been a week and people can’t stop talking about Sherni.

I am thrilled obviously, thrilled to bits that people have loved the film and have sent me so much appreciation for my performance. I am really really so chuffed and thrilled.

Was there ever a pressure that how would people receive this subject, considering we don’t make a lot of films on environment? In fact, this subject, the way we have seen it in pop culture, people find it a little boring.

There was no such worry. But I have to also admit that I was prepared for people to not watch the film on release, as in immediately on Prime Video. I thought people will take their time and watch it at their own pace because it is not one of those masala, entertaining films that you look forward to.

So for example, for Shakuntala, everyone watched it the weekend it released and continued to watch it. But I thought that maybe this won’t happen with Sherni because it has a different pace, it is a different style of storytelling and like you said it is about conservation. I didn’t know how many people would warm up to it but I have been pleasantly surprised.

What was your understanding of Vidya Vincent when Amit (director Amit Masurkar) narrated you the script? What really spoke to you about her?

We are living in a reactive culture or rather ours is a reactive world today. You feel you need to react to everything and Vidya Vincent is not one of those people. So I think I took a while to get a grasp of her as a person because I kept feeling like am I underplaying it too much, am I conveying her angst or am I being too non reactive or passive. But Amit Masurkar was absolutely clear this is how he saw Vidya Vincent and I go by my director’s conviction.

 

 

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So, every time I was a little doubtful, he would say, “No, I am getting what I want. This is how I see her, don’t worry.” I think I asked him a couple of times.

We have a stereotype of strong woman in our films but Vidya Vincent goes against the type. This is a forest officer so we expect her to definitely lose her cool at one point and perhaps deliver a speech. But there’s nothing like that abut Vidya Vincent for there’s power in her calm.

It has been a revelation for me. I was worried that maybe in this effort to be non-reactive, I was not conveying much. That is why I keep saying I owe my performance to Amit Masurkar and I am glad I trusted his conviction completely.

But importantly I am so happy to see the kind of reactions and I feel she is a different kind of person. Like you said, we have also stereotyped the strong woman, no? That’s why I was talking about the reactive culture like everyone has to have a reaction. They have to be aggressive. For a strong woman, you are invariably aggressive. You will voice opinions loudly… I don’t know maybe have more reactions, maybe slap two-three people when they behave badly.

But I think Vidya Vincent is a very strong woman. There’s no one talking about that. She is a doer and I think a strong woman is someone, who is a doer. But there’s no one type of strong woman. Therefore, I appreciate the way Amit has broken that stereotype with this film.

Like you said, a strong woman can be anything and yet be strong. She is agitated when her mother-in-law asked her to wear jewellery for a family dinner so the moment she took it off while going out for work, her sheer frustration was evident. Her actions spoke louder than words.

And that she is non-confrontational. So many women have written to me that it has resonated with them because not everyone is confrontational. A lot of times we choose our battles. We know where to speak up. So with her husband, she will still say, “No, I am not that girl. I have changed,” but with him she has the space to say it. With her mother-in-law, she thinks, “She has come for a few days and I am not going to waste my time arguing with her,” so she wears the jewellery.

https://www.instagram.com/p/CQOzFrXHVUn/

 

 

A post shared by Vidya Balan (@balanvidya)

At her office, with Bansal (Brijendra Kala) she voices what she feels, with Nangia (Neeraj Kabi) she uses another tactic. I think most women are like that, which is why we keep harping on how many roles women play because they could be very different in all those roles that they are playing.

I think one scene people have been talking about is with Neeraj Kabi where you learn about his cowardice and you call it out but with remarkably restrained anger.

Because she is not going to be screaming .That’s not her personality. She is not going to say, “You pathetic fool!” or something like that. She is someone, who is very withdrawn, largely internal. So if you observed her, knew her you would know she is getting irritated and angry, but it’s not very apparent.

Even when it comes to feminism or feminist narratives on screen, it tends to go into one single trope but it is so important for us to present different kind of women being feminist in the way they know it, to personalise it.

I have to say that when I did a film Humari Adhuri Kahani and at the end the woman just walks away from the marriage. So many people had a problem with that. Of course the film may not have worked for various reasons but a lot of people told me, “Why? She should have done something.”

But my point is that her moment of truth or her moment of so called “empowerment” came from her walking away from her marriage. Not everyone wants to scream, shout, rant and slap. Everyone has their own way.

How are you as a person? Do you also pick your battles?

I think I do. There have been lots of instances in life where I have been a Vidya Vincent because there are so many of us within us. Like I said, in the different roles you play, you let different aspects of your personality emerge. And yet there are times when I am absolutely vocal, there are times I am aggressive. But there is a Vidya Vincent in me for sure.

The flip side of this discussion is that it’s frustrating that at the end of the day it’s us, women, who have to choose our battles. Men, whether they fight it aggressively or with restrain, won’t be given labels.  

It does get to me. I think we judge women far more than we judge men. Maybe men don’t get judged at all. But I guess that’s also because this is a fairly new reality for us where we are not only handling the home and our families but we are also going out and conquering the world. There was only one battle before. The battle of having to keep your man.

So, what was the extent of it? Whom you were battling with? Your mother-in-law or another woman? You needed to fight to make sure that you had his attention because your survival depended on him. You were not financially independent because you didn’t have an identity outside of him.

But today, your battles are very different. There are many battles we are fighting at the same time. So, I am saying the more we reject and ignore these judgments passed, people will get tired and stop. I am saying people very consciously because it’s not just the men judging us, we are judging ourselves and judging each other.

A similarity between you and Vidya Vincent is that you have also played by your own rules. Did it take time to be this Vidya Balan because you do films at your own pace, you do not go by the formula, even that of a “female-oriented” film. Is it easy to not conform to trends?

I don’t know another way to be, honestly. But I tried to be someone else. I tried to be different person at different times in the initial years of my career. I think all of us are doing that, right? Even in our teenage years we are trying to be who we are not. That’s just a part of growing up. It’s taken me years, decades or you can say a lifetime to be this comfortable with being myself but I think it’s the most precious gift I have been able to give myself.

I think it’s being an actor that has really accorded me this freedom. Being a public figure, a celebrity or whatever you call us that has made me realise how precious it is to be myself.

Do you recall a moment that paved the way for you to embrace yourself and reject what the industry wanted you to be, when you decided you won’t be the “heroine” that Bollywood wants to see in every female actor?

I am just someone, who doesn’t like to be told what to do, how to be. So, I think my life has been a reaction to that. I am not a rebel without a cause but I am stubborn and I will do exactly what I want to do. So, there was not one moment but several such moments in my life where I have just said that I have defied the norm, not wanting to do that, but because I want to be true to myself. I want to live my truth.

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