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“‘Treat her with respect,’ was my motto,” she says.

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Vidya Balan, The Boldest Story In Bollywood

Is it because The Dirty Picture has stormed the box office? Is it because she’s so good in the film? Or is it because she has flouted every rule in the Bollywood book and emerged a winner on her own terms?

Nearly everywhere you go she is the subject of discussion and the conversations are nearly always flattering.

The obvious point of reference is The Dirty Picture. For two months before the movie released, Vidya was everywhere. Never before in the history of Indian cinema has a star done so much publicity for a film. And The Dirty Picture was not even a big budget special effects extravaganza like say Ra.One. But Vidya appeared on every television show you could think of (and many that you would never have thought of) and in every print publication.

Or could it be that everyone loved The Dirty Picture? The box office figures suggest that it will be a massive hit not just relative to its (somewhat modest) budget but compared to most other films released this year. Obviously, this is a picture that everyone has seen and liked.

Or it could be that they all think that Vidya is terrific in the movie (which she is)? Few actresses could have carried off that role with so much aplomb and managed to hold their own against an actor of the calibre of Naseeruddin Shah who gives one of his best ever performances. But if you ask me it’s none of these things.

My view is that India has fallen in love with Vidya Balan all over again (and we’ve been here before after the release of Parineeta and once again after Lage Raho Munnabhai though it’s never been quite so intense) not because of her current ubiquity or because of any individual film but because we have finally come to terms with who she is.

In an industry full of size zero figures, dancing bimbettes and self-consciously trendy bejeaned muppets, Vidya comes off as a breath of fresh air.

Basically, it’s this simple: she is a real person.

We talk of Vidya’s courage only in terms of her willingness to play a southern sex symbol in The Dirty Picture. But compared to the other things she’s done in her life, this is no big deal.

In fact, her whole story is one of courage in the face of impossible odds.

Born and brought up in Bombay to a middle class south Indian family, Vidya had a dream: to become an actress. But while other girls with that dream would want to be glamorous heroines, Vidya focused on the acting itself.

Each evening she would stare at the mirror and re-enact Shabana Azmi’s dialogues from Arth. A particular favourite was the bit where Shabana tells Smita Patil to leave her man alone.

“I kept trying to cry because that was what the scene required,” she remembers. “But I didn’t know about glycerine in those days and I wasn’t sure how to make the tears come. All the same, I kept trying.”

Good middle class south Indian families do not react with delight when their daughters tell them that they want to join Bollywood. So Vidya’s parents insisted that she went to St Xavier’s College and studied. She did her BA and then an MA in Sociology.

“My father said that I could always become an actress,” she recalls. “But I couldn’t go back to college later in life. So I had to first finish my education and then I could do what I wanted. At the time I was not pleased but now, I can’t thank him enough. My parents were absolutely right.”

The education explains why Vidya started off late. But nothing explains why things kept going wrong for so long.

She was eventually signed up for a Malayalam film and though it wasn’t the Bollywood career she dreamt of, at least it was a beginning. Moreover, she was starring with Mohanlal, a legendary figure in Malayalam cinema and one of her idols.

But Mohanlal had a problem with the film’s makers. And so, halfway through, the movie was abandoned, never to be completed.

Because Mohanlal is such a big deal in the south, it was unusual for one of his movies to remain incomplete. And the film industry, ever quick to blame a newcomer, decided it was because Vidya Balan brought bad luck to the project.

She could have survived this debacle but a second film also ended in disaster. Four days into the shooting she was replaced. The makers decided that they did not want the Balan jinx.

What followed was heartbreaking. In the initial flush of excitement after she had been cast as Mohanlal’s heroine, she had signed a dozen Malayalam films. She was sacked from every single one of them.

She tried Tamil cinema and found a role. There too, things went wrong. The producer also decided that she was a jinx and she was replaced. She signed a second Tamil film, got to the sets and discovered that it was a sex comedy. She had been signed up under false pretences. Naturally she walked out. And as naturally, she was replaced once again.

Desperate to find some work at least, she agreed to act in a Euphoria music video directed by Pradeep Sarkar. This time she was not replaced and the video was completed but there was a fight between labels and the release of the video was stalled.

So, after three years in the film industry, Vidya Balan had been replaced in twelve Malayalam movies, two Tamil films and had made one music video which had been caught up in a legal quagmire and not released.

You tell me: wouldn’t you give up at this stage? Anybody else would.

But Vidya wouldn’t. And she didn’t.

I asked her about her state of mind during that phase. She says that it took every ounce of will power to keep from giving up.

She went everywhere for roles: on one occasion she walked from Nariman Point to Bandra, a considerable distance. At other times, she sat for hours at the Saibaba temple praying with tears running down her cheeks. (“I am a person with a lot of faith and I have conversations all the time but I am not so religious in the conventional, organised sense,” she says).

Then, slowly, her luck began to change. She was cast in a Bengali film and discovered that she was a Bengali at heart and learnt to speak the language fluently. (She even sings Bengali songs, one of which she sang on camera for me when I seemed somewhat dubious about her linguistic abilities).

Pradeep Sarkar who had kept casting her in ad films and other music videos never lost faith. He had planned to make Parineeta for producer Vidhu Vinod Chopra and insisted that Vidya would make a perfect heroine.

Naturally, Chopra was leery of investing money in a first-time director and a virtual newcomer as an actress. He insisted on auditioning Vidya and she says she has lost count of the number of auditions she did over a period of several months.

Finally, Chopra gave in. He agreed with Sarkar that she was the perfect choice for the role and agreed to sign her.

By all rights, Vidya should have been a nervous wreck. Her career had stalled in two different film industries (Malayalam and Tamil) and her reputation for bringing bad luck to projects had spread far and wide. This was really a make or break situation for her.

But oddly enough, she says, she was never nervous. She knew what was at stake. She knew it was her last chance. And she knew that the camera was her best friend. (“The camera is my confidante,” she says. “I speak directly to it.”).

So she gave it everything she had. And the rest is history.

It hasn’t exactly been an uphill struggle since the massive success of Parineeta. Lage Raho Munnabhai gave her the stamp of commercial acceptability and it would have been easy enough for her to have joined the Bollywood rat race since success seemed to come so easily and naturally to her.

But after some strange films like Heyy Babyy and Kismet Konnection in which she tried to pretend to be what she is not a Bollywood bimbette Vidya decided that this was not part of her original dream.

“At some stage my sister and brother-in-law sat me down and asked me why I had become an actress,” she remembers.

“I said it was because I wanted to be different people, to play different characters. And they pointed out what should have been obvious to me. If I was going to do these typical Bollywood films, then I wasn’t really playing different characters. It wasn’t why I had become an actress at all.”

Ask yourself this, if you had only one dream, if that dream had been dashed on the rocks by fate through rejection and replacement and if you finally had found some partial fulfillment of that dream, some measure of success at last, would you really risk it all?

The reason all of India loves her so much is because she was ready to start from scratch again. She was willing to walk away from one kind of success. She was ready to take risks that seemed like commercial suicide.

All because she still believed in that original dream, not in the commercial fantasy that it had morphed into.

The films that have come in the latest phase of Vidya Balan’s career are not those that a commercially savvy actress would have signed. She agonised for three months before agreeing to do Paa even though it offered her a chance to act with Amitabh Bachchan, an early idol since his Yaarana days. (She even liked that silly outfit with the lightbulbs that was stolen from The Electric Horseman).

It wasn’t that she minded playing Amitabh’s mother. It was just that she was terrified of screwing up.

As it turned out, she was brilliant. She was terrific as a deglamourised Sabrina Lal in No One Killed Jessica. And she was even better in Ishqiya where she played the kind of character she developed further in The Dirty Picture: a woman who is willing to use her sexuality in the advancement of her own interests.

Even so, The Dirty Picture represented a huge risk. Hindi cinema no longer requires its heroines to be virginal angels of innocence. And then there was the terrible visual deterioration that her character suffered at the end of the movie. Which heroine would agree to do all this without wondering about the effect on her stardom?

But Vidya took the risk. She liked the role, she said. It offered her a chance to take a character that society looked down on and to invest that person with dignity and depth. Her character didn’t have to be somebody you felt sorry for. You just had to accept that she was an independent woman making her own choices in her own interests.

 

Now that the risk has paid off and the film is such a stupendous success, it is easy to say that Vidya was right to take the role. But had it gone wrong, it could well have been career suicide.

After those years of disappointment, rejection and experimentation, Vidya Balan has found her destiny.

And her destiny is simply this to be her own person. To be Vidya Balan.

Bollywood

Sridevi dies at 54 of cardiac arrest: India, Bollywood in shock

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SRIDEVI-DEAD

Sridevi no more, and a part of my childhood dies with her

Sridevi died on Saturday night after suffering a cardiac arrest at the age of 54. Called the first female superstar in India’s male-dominated film industry, she made over 260 films in a career spanning 45 years.

As a starry eyed schoolchild, I would spend hours trying to get the steps of Morni Baagan Maan right, in front of the mirror. As a girl, not even 7, I was too young to understand the complexity of the lyrics or the depth of the feeling that the Lamhe song held within it, but it was she, Sridevi, her fluid dance moves and the play of emotion in her face that had me entranced. I would try to turn just like Sridevi, get her hand mudras right. Again, it would take me years to understand there was nobody like Sridevi. The twinkle in her eye, the charm she could switch on as cameras turned towards her or the movie star charisma that was part of her personality — Sridevi lived what her Mr India song said, Bijli Girane Main Hoo Aayi.\

Sridevi as a child actor in Thunaivan.

Sridevi as a child actor in Thunaivan.

My experiments in front of the mirror were not extraordinary, nor were they one of a kind. Lakhs of children across India were trying to emulate Sridevi — for some (like me) it was her dance, for others it was the fact that she was a superstar when women rarely had the word super attached to them in any form in the industry. And for almost everybody, it was her ability to light up the frames she inhabited.

My romance with Sridevi began long before I understood how to tell good films from bad; at that age I either loved them or hated them. So, when, early on a Sunday morning, as I got up to incessant messages, tweets and Facebook posts full of grief, I went back to my childhood. It was a child again who was mourning the loss of her star.

Sridevi as the quintessential Yash Raj heroine in Chandni.

Sridevi as the quintessential Yash Raj heroine in Chandni.

Indeed, Sridevi’s death has taken away something crucial with it — a part of my childhood. Whether it was her act as a child-woman in Sadma, the luminous double role in Lamhe, the quintessential Yash Chopra heroine in Chandni or the bubbly Hawa Hawai of Mr India, Sridevi managed to bring a certain je na sais quoi to every role she played.

Among the yellowing photographs and fading memories is a photo of me with my friends with a fruit hat a la Sridevi in Hawa Hawai. Maybe it was a day during summer vacation when time hung heavy on our hands. But I remember how disastrous the first attempt with a straw hat and a bowl of fruit was. We were rescued when the friend’s mother emerged and gave us a tongue lashing that only mothers are capable of. Then, being a Sridevi fan (who isn’t?), she helped us fashion the hat.

For every Lamhe, Sridevi also did duds like Roop Ki Rani Choron Ka Raja but managed to bring a certain charm to it.

For every Lamhe, Sridevi also did duds like Roop Ki Rani Choron Ka Raja but managed to bring a certain charm to it.

Then came Madhuri Dixit, and the gaggle of girls divided into Team Madhuri and Team Sridevi. I was a staunch member of the latter and many a evening, we would spend in fraught debates on who was better. Sridevi had been around for decades. Starting as a child artiste at the age of 4, she had worked in Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada films before she decided to shift her focus to Bollywood. She was a star here as well. Madhuri, IMHO, was a novice.

There were chinks in her career but it was still 90s Bollywood and actresses — even the one called the first female superstar of Bollywood — had to take the good with the bad. The pulpy papers of those times were full of how the leading actors of those days would cower before her. They may or may not have been true but they fuelled my imagination as a fan.

SRIDEVI FAMILY

SRIDEVI FAMILY

She definitely left a stamp on my career. I believe that years of defending her against Madhuri fans (you know who you are) made me pick up the job of an entertainment reporter. I came across her on many occasions in my career and always found her a picture of grace and poise, standing out in the sea of beauty that is Hindi cinema.

And today, she is gone, in a moment that appears was written by an unfeeling screenwriter. Or maybe, it is the fan inside me who is not ready to say goodbye. Oh, what it would be to watch her once again in a dark theatre with the lights dimmed.

Sridevi made 264 films over 45 years, and while not all of them will stand the test of the time, her charisma will. I would remember her as the effervescent Chandni, the middle class mother in English Vinglish but mostly as Hawa Hawai — who wore fruit hats and solved crimes as an intrepid journalist.

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The Great Sanjay Leela Does Disservice To Cinema With Propaganda And Dishonest Portrayal Of History In Padmavat

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I saw the film more than a week back and I was flabbergasted and disgusted by what I had seen.

It wasn’t until my mentor and friend Promod Puri, the founder an former publisher-editor of Canada’s oldest South Asian English language newspaper  The LINK, wrote his review online that I felt compelled to add to the debate about one of the worst forms of propaganda in a Bollywood film I’d ever seen.

The great Bollywood writer-director Sanjay Leela Bhansali has basically put himself in the gutter with this outrageous Rajput Hindu propaganda that glorified the individual suicide the Sati (mass suicide as in Padmavat called Jauhar).

Looking back at the Hooliganism and blockade of the film by extremist Hindu and Rajput groups – it seems like a conspiracy given that the film actually shows the Muslims as evil blood thirsty monsters and I’m not even talking about the actually monstrous Khilji played by Ranveer Singh.

It should be the Muslims who should be appalled and disgusted at the polar opposite portrayals of Muslims and Hindus. It’s the Muslims who should be protesting and saying the film should be banned!

Padmavati

Given that the film is produce by Viacom India which is now 51 percent owned by billionaire Mukesh Ambani, I think the “Show” if extremism might have been planned ahead so that Muslims in India don’t actually think the film is anti-Muslim which it clearly is.

Writer-Director Sanjay Leela Bhansali is a good if not great filmmaker but here he comes across as Hitler Propagandist  filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl who made pro-German propaganda films during Adolf Hitler’s reign.

Films like Padmavat are extremely irresponsible at a time in India where there continues to be a divide among Hindus and Muslims  in Modi’s India.

sanjay-leela-bhansali

And the film is really laughable as it tries to reconstruct history from a Hindu perspective when in reality the great but blood thirsty madman Khilji defeated the Rajputs. And no matter how much the film may try to sugarcoat it, the Rajputs were no match for the brutal strength of Khilji at a time in human history when brutal and maniacal strength was the Warrior’s code.

Take the brutal rulers of Europe and Asia – they were no different than Khilji!

I lost a lot of respect for director Bhansali as it seemed like he was just a puppet pulling someone else’s strings with much dishonesty and disgrace!

 

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Aamir Khan say there is no Intolerance in India, urges Modi to reign in people spreading hatred

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Aamir-Khan-say-there-is-no-Intolerance-in-India,-urges-Modi-to-reign-in-people-spreading-hatred

Days after his intolerance remarks, Bollywood star Aamir Khan today said India is “very tolerant” but there are people who spread hatred and appealed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to rein them in.

The actor also believes that he still continues to be country’s brand ambassador even though the government may have discontinued his services, saying India is his mother and not a brand.

“Our country is very tolerant, but there are people who spread ill-will…Those who speak of breaking up this vast country, such people are present in all religions, only Modiji can stop them. After all, Modiji is our PM, we have to tell him,” he told Rajat Sharma in his ‘Aap ki Adalat’ show on India TV, according to a press release issued by the channel.

Aamir said a sense of security comes from the justice system, which should ensure speedy justice, and from elected representatives who should raise their voice when something goes wrong.

“After all, law is equal for all, and nobody is above law. Unfortunately, there are some people who spread negativity and hatred. If I am not wrong, our Prime Minister has also expressed concern. His slogan is ‘sabka saath, sabka vikas’,” he said.

The actor, who hit headlines with his remarks that his wife was thinking of leaving India over growing intolerance, also replied to megastar Amitabh Bachchan’s remark that he damaged India’s brand identity by his statement, saying there was a feeling of insecurity due to growing intolerance.

“I had said in my interview that there was a sense of depression, a sense of despondency, a feeling of insecurity and intolerance was growing. But these are entirely two different things,” he said.

He added that he was “wongly quoted” and said, “I never said India was intolerant, I was wrongly quoted…To say about rising intolerance and to say India is intolerant are two different things.”

Claiming to continue serving as India’s brand ambassador even after government discontinued him, the superstar said, “For me, my motherland is my mother, it cannot be a brand. I can never view my mother as a brand. It could be a brand for other people, but not for me. Till this date, I continue to be India’s brand ambassador, even the government may have discontinued me.”

He said for 10 years he was brand ambassador for ‘Incredible India’s Atithi Devo Bhavo campaign’ and never charged a penny for all his public service campaigns for the country and nor will he charge in future.

Aamir also asked media and news channels not to air news about violence on TV as it creates an atmosphere of fear.

“Every Indian is infected with fear. I would also appeal to media not to highlight such violence, as it creates a sense of insecurity and fear among common people,” he said.

On his wife Kiran Rao expressing her intent to leave India due to insecurity, Aamir said he and his wife were not going anywhere and have been born here and will die in India, but said, “After all, Kiran is a mother, a mother always worries about her children.”

“Often we speak so many things among ourselves, but that does not mean, we take 100 per cent action on them. Now was that our intention. Kiran has actually expressed a feeling, an emotion, and we were born here, and we will die here. We are not going to leave our country, let me make it clear,”he said.

The superstar went on to say that whenever people try to divide, “we should become alert, and should beware as to why we are being reminded that we are Muslim, Hindu, or Sikh. After all, we are all Indians. We have to be on our quard.”

Seeking to clarify that there was intent on his or his director’s part on purportedly denigrating Hindu religion in his film ‘PK’, he said, “It was only a character playing the role of Shiva in a play, who was made fun of, in a particular situation. After all, Lord Shankar is Almighty, how can we dare to make fun of him?.”

The actor said he fully empathised with the cause of Kashmiri Pandits. “My heart cries even today for them. It is shameful, and I appeal to people living in the Valley to bring the Kashmiri Pandits back.”

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