She said, ‘You want sex? I am sex’

A still from Dirty Picture

Vidya Balan on her most sexualized role to date and how there is no such thing as a woman being exploited

Vidya Balan specifically chose Basilico in Bandra as the locale for an interview. “They make a dish for me that is not on their menu anymore. Yet, I merely step in and they bring it to my table because they know what I will order anyway. Isn’t that lovely?” Vidya is vegetarian; the dish in question is cracked wheat ragout. And speaking of dishes, Vidya is looking the dishiest she ever has. Excerpts from a very meaty interview:

How did your close ones respond to your most sexualized persona on screen to date?
At first, I had to come to terms with this role myself. My dad is not someone who reacts very vociferously. When he saw Jessica, he was like, “Oh, you’ve donned your St. Xavier’s College look.” My mom said you smoked stylishly. She always gets a bit nervous with any role I play, I know. But on seeing the promos she said, “You’re looking very sexy. You’re dancing very well.” I am very close to my sister and my brother-in-law; they are like my second set of parents. If they felt what I was doing was cheap or tacky, it would have been a concern. But thankfully, they’re both proud of my performance.

What is the most frustrating aspect of being a talented woman in a male-dominated industry?

What really frustrated me once – though I can see a change now – was the perception that if a film is woman-centric then it’s got to be heavier, a critic’s film. By god’s grace, I enjoy commercial success, and to me film is about entertainment. A film should be entertaining. There was a time when films with a woman in a lead role had to be leaden with a social message. I understand if you want to make a point, but do entertain. If you want to educate, then you should make documentaries, not movies.

Speaking of education, have you got your hands on ‘Layanam’, India’s first soft-porn flick that made Silk Smitha so famous/notorious?
No, I haven’t seen ‘Layanam’. ‘Dirty Picture’ is not entirely based on Silk Smitha. It is a hybrid of the many dancing girls from the ‘80s who were ruling the roost. These women were skimpily-clad, raunchy women who made up for the fact that lust had been amputated from our heroines. A woman, as in a leading lady, could not have any sexual desire. Helen, Nadira – the sort of woman who had a sexualized persona had to eventually redeem herself by giving up her life for the hero or a similar such compensation for having desire. Zeenat Aman and Parveen Babi in the 1970s, perhaps, were leading ladies who changed that equation to some degree. But the 1980s literally stripped Bollywood heroines of their minds. In the ‘80s women became solely the romantic interest. There were government-funded films with Shabana and Smita Patil in meaningful roles, but then again, these were art films. So the dancing girls filled this gap. A sexualized breakthrough for the heroine came, I think, in the late ‘80s when Madhuri with ‘Ek Do Teen’ in ‘Tezaab’ merged the heroine prototype with the item number. But this era, with ‘Kaate Nahin Katte’, ‘Dhak Dhak’, ‘Choli Ke Peeche’, etc also ironically led to the demise of the vamp, the dancing girl.

So ‘Dirty Picture’ is partly based on a woman who became famous for her semi-pornographic, oomph-y appeal. How did you negotiate the thin line between exploiting a juicy role such as this and being, well, exploited?
I think part of the reason that everyone thinks that ‘Dirty Picture’ is about Silk Smitha is because she was not an ordinary dancing girl. She enjoyed pan-Indian fame. She was a front-runner, who got billing alongside the hero – a feat by any standard. Silk was well ahead of her time. She, it seems, was celebrating her sexuality, while the others were being exploited. That’s what made her a star. She seemed to be saying, “I am enjoying my body. I am enjoying the attention my body gives me. You like sex, I am sex. Take it or leave it.” For instance, in 'Sadma', she was blatantly wanting sex, she enjoyed sex. I would like to emphasize that there is no such thing as a woman being objectified. It is her choice. So I was rather comfortable with the role.

Acclaimed author Martin Amis has been vocal about how pornography demeans women. Conversely, others say that our squeamishness about sex is hypocritical. Across this spectrum, with pornography as misogyny and anti-pornography as moralistic, where do you locate your stance?
The first step in having a more balanced stance towards this subject is when you recognize that there was more to dancing girls than just their bodies. Beyond the body exists a person. A shift in our stance is not going to happen overnight. But films such as ‘Dirty Picture’, films that probe the lives of our dancing girls, or porn stars even, are baby steps towards a more developed perspective that is neither too misogynistic, neither too moralistic. As I said before, there is no such thing as a woman being objectified. It is her choice.

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