When we learnt that Vidya Balan is going to be MW’s June cover star, we were bubbling with questions. After all, how often do you get to interact with a star as unabashed as her these days? Sherni is her latest outing on Amazon Prime Video, an Amit Masurkar film that has been shot in the jungle, and focuses on the man-animal conflict. As we researched, we went down a rabbit hole of her achievements, since her career has clearly been all about changing typical narratives in so many ways. Not that we needed to check her filmography to establish that everything Balan has done is downright impressive. When Balan donned the gorgeous Bengali avatar for Parineeta after her geeky Radhika in Hum Paanch and the many commercials she did, we all sat up, and took notice. Her Manjulika from Bhool Bhulaiyaa couldn’t have been as impactful if it wasn’t for Balan. She changed the mould the world had assumed for her by doing the most bold role of her career in The Dirty Picture, and Kahaani onwards, she has carried her films on her shoulders, and delivered hits like Tumhari Sulu, and Shakuntala Devi. Not just films, as an actor and as a person who many people look up to, she has been unapologetically herself. Be it body shaming, her relationships, her equations with other co-stars or even the issues that concern the industry, Balan has always spoken her heart out. She knows what she deserves, and has never settled for anything less than that. When people telling her how she should dress annoyed her, she damn well made sure they knew it. She is a powerhouse, and you feel that energy when you talk to her, or see her on screen. She has made her own path — one that many can follow — and told stories that she knew will resonate with her audience, and well, that is what, amongst many things, makes her Vidya Balan.

Vidya Balan

Outfit by Jewellyn Alvares; Jewellery by Diosa Paris

What about Sherni made you say yes?

The fact that the film is set in a forest, which is an unfamiliar world for me, and that was the most intriguing part for me. Also, the fact that I got to essay a character like Vidya Vincent, who is a woman of few words, but has immense determination and great inner strength. So in that sense, she is a Sherni herself. I feel there is a Sherni in every woman. You don’t have to really roar to be a tigress. You can be quiet, you can be poised, and you can be innocent. I feel women, in various situations, in various walks of life, have that quality, that inner strength that they use as they negotiate their space in the world It could be within a household, within the corporate world, in the media, wherever.

Shooting in a jungle can be challenging. What was the most difficult part for you?

Waking up really early in the morning. I am not a morning person at all, and our days started really early. Sometimes we were travelling for two hours one way, two-and-a-half hours one way, and we had to get to the location by 7 or 8 am, so we were leaving at 5:30 am. The only good thing was that the road was beautiful and there were no cars, no buildings, so it was just nice to put the windows down, listen to good music, and drive away. I would always think I’ll sleep in the car to make up for lost time, but I could never do that. It was so fascinating to look outside.

Working with an ensemble cast is an experience in itself. What is the one thing you enjoyed the most about shooting the film?

These are all people whose work I have liked, and I finally got an opportunity to work with them. I have worked with Ila (Arun) ji in the past but Sharat Saxena, Vijay Raaz, Mukul Chaddha, Brijendra Kala, Neeraj Kabi, I never got a chance to work with them. It was lovely to work with them. Brijendra Kala was the cutest (laughs), because of the way he talks. He is adorable.

When you play a serious character like this, that has a graph of becoming powerful eventually, how much does the character’s journey affect you as an actor?

I don’t think that it is about becoming powerful or feeling empowered by the end of it. But yes, I think that Vidya Vincent is headstrong, and has a strong will. But if you met her, you would not think that she is all of these things because she is a very reserved person, she is withdrawn, she doesn’t even smile too much, forget talking. But she wants to do things the right way. So there are many challenges and hurdles in her path, but she overcomes them all, and at the end of it, she emerges triumphant. She uses her voice where it matters. So I think that is the arc you see by the end of the film. As an actor and as a person, of course, you are always affected by what you are doing, but the experience of shooting Sherni was very unusual. At the end of the day, it always felt right. There was a certain lightness because we were shooting amidst nature, and it was always refreshing, the air was clean. Amit (Masurkar) is a director who does not get hectic, and there was no scope to scream and shout because we were shooting with certain restrictions. So it was very peaceful. Because of the character I play, I think I was a little mellow during the film.

How was your experience working with an attention-to-detail director like Amit Masurkar?

He is a very unusual director, so it was a very interesting experience working with him. He has a very unusual take on things, his approach is different. And I think, therefore, I enjoyed it. Every director is unique, of course, but Masurkar is not only unique but also unusual.

Vidya Balan

Outfit by Jewellyn Alvares; Jewellery by Diosa Paris

The trailer got a great response, and people have a lot of expectations from the film. Does this put any kind of pressure on you?

I am flattered, but no, that is the very reason I don’t read comments on social media (laughs). It is not just the negative comments that you run away from. This could pressure you into feeling ‘Oh my god, people have so many expectations from me that I have to live up to’, so I take the easy way out by not reading anything.

This is your second OTT release. Did Shakuntala Devi’s release help you prepare better for instantaneous reviews and comments for Sherni?

Definitely. Last time, I did not know what to expect but yet, the reaction was almost so instantaneous. The film was released on Amazon Prime Video at midnight. When I woke up the next morning, I had messages from people who had texted me at around 2 or 3 am, saying they watched the film, and they liked it. The theatre experience, the theatre release is ethereal, and it comes with a certain amount of pressure of the box office. Here, there is no such pressure. However, there’s always that nervousness as you want to know if the audience is liking your film or not.

Amazon Prime Video offers a range of films and shows in different genres to the audience. What do you think is the future of OTT?

I think it has come to stay. What it offers you, really, is freedom of choice. You can watch it whenever you want. You don’t have to go to a theatre, there are no appointed hours. Even with television viewing, it follows a program. This is not the case with OTT. In terms of telling, it gives you a lot of freedom. Also, there is an audience for every kind of film or show here, and there’s a film or a show for everyone’s tastes.

The kind of stories that are being told through web series are so diverse, and the platform also has space for mainstream. Do you think the platform has opened up more avenues for people in the industry?

Absolutely. Look at a show like Bandish Bandits. They made Indian classical music cool. I love Indian classical music, and I always felt like people did not think it was cool, so they never listened to it. Now, thanks to the show, it is popular in our generation too. So yes, the great thing about OTT platforms is the diversity of the content that is being produced. It is an explosion of both talent and versatility. It has also generated more jobs. Now, when Sherni will be released on Amazon Prime Video, it will be viewed across 240 countries. That is unimaginable.

Vidya Balan

One common factor in your films, especially Tumhari Sulu or even Shakuntala Devi, is that of the male co-star, or the husband being a progressive, supportive character. Does this somewhere reflect your personal life and marriage?

The women who shine, women who chase their dreams are the women who are supported by the people in their lives, especially the men in their lives. Whether we like it or not, I think we are still trapped in the patriarchal mindset where we look for permission from the men in our lives. That too, unknowingly, most of the time. I think I have no contribution to any of my husbands in the films that I have done being supportive, they have been written like that. But I guess because these women have gone out to achieve something, it’s something that invariably happens with women who have supportive husbands, which is what gets reflected. And is this a reflection of my personal life? I think so, touchwood (laughs).

You’re probably the only actress who has been able to carve that space of a solo female lead, and changed the perception that actress-led films can’t be commercially successful. How did you turn yourself into this example?

It was never a conscious choice but yes, I made choices that led to this. I just responded to stories that were being offered to me. I said yes to those films that made sense to me. I think this change is happening in the world around us. We are claiming and owning our choices. We are fighting for what we believe in, standing up for ourselves, and using our voices. All of that is reflecting and is resonating with people, and therefore, these films are doing well, and more of them are being made.

Although the conversation about women progressing in different aspects in the industry has been going on for a while, what are the challenges they still face?

The industry is not an island. It is a part of the society. So whatever is happening in the society is reflected in the industry. As change happens around us, it happens on screen. We are beginning to celebrate not just the big achievements of women, but also beginning to realise that sometimes, even the smallest step is a big achievement. We are beginning to recognise the everyday heroes. Actually, the everyday ‘sheroes’. For example, my character in Sherni, she wants to actually be left alone. If you leave it to her, she would like to be invisible. She is not looking for validation from the world or a pat on the back. She is doing what she believes in.

Vidya Balan

What does Vidya Balan look for in a script?

 It just needs to call out to me. I have to feel like I cannot wait to tell this story. I want to tell the story as the character in the film that is being offered to me. That is also very important. Sometimes, I could relate to another character more in the story than to the character that I am being offered. That is what I look for.

The pandemic has taken a toll on all of us. How have you navigated this situation?

I think prayers have kept me sane during this time. It has given me hope that things will get better. It is a time where you have not been able to be there physically for people, so I think the only thing that I could really do was pray for them. It gave me strength, and it gave other people strength.

Cover Story By Ananya Swaroop and Samreen Tungekar

Photographer: Dabboo Ratnani

Styled By Who Wore What When

Make-Up Harshal Jariwala

Hair Shalaka Bhosle