In Sherni, Vidya Balan plays Vidya for the fourth time. More specifically, she plays a character called Vidya for the fourth time. This is pretty unusual. Of the other leading actresses of this generation, only Alia Bhatt has played a character with her own name – once, in Shaandaar. (Of course, in the nineties, Pooja Bhatt made a career out of this: she played a Pooja in at least eleven different films.) Even amongst the men it is uncommon. Yet, Balan has played four different Vidyas. And each one has been a milestone of sorts in her career.
The first Vidya was Auro’s single mother in R Balki’s Paa (2009). After Parineeta and Lage Raho Munnabhai, she spent two years doing some largely forgettable work – Kismat Konnection, Heyy Babyy, Salaam-e-Ishq. But with Paa, she was back to what we have come to expect of her: playing a layered, complex, capable woman who must go up against large odds (usually the patriarchy). Rid of awkward styling and bad hairdos, she could focus on Dr Vidya’s rather unorthodox journey: pregnant and unmarried at university, and then raising a child with no support from the biological father. To add to this, the child (Amitabh Bachchan as Auro) had progeria, a condition that caused accelerated ageing.
Balan was thirty – too young to be Auro’s mother in real life. Yet she held her own against a raft of terrific performances from both Bachchan men, Arundhati Nag and Paresh Rawal. Vidya was strong and independent, but also hurt and still smarting from it. Balan captured this mix; by the end, when Auro died, you knew that Vidya would survive his death. She’d be broken, but she would pull through.
The next two times Balan got a character named Vidya were perhaps the most interesting. In both cases the name played a significant role. These were the two Kahaani films, both directed by Sujoy Ghosh. In Kahaani (2012), Vidya Venkatesan Bagchi arrives in Kolkata pregnant and searching for her husband. All of it is lies, though: her name is Vidya Basu, her husband is dead, she suffered a miscarriage, and is in Kolkata to hunt down her husband’s killer. In the city, she is introduced to the Bengali concept of dual names: everyone has a bhaalo naam (given name) and a daak naam (pet name). She muses that this gives them each two identities. Her own name, Vidya, is always mispronounced as Bidda by the locals. And so she too is given two identities: Bidda Bagchi, the pregnant lady desperately looking for her missing husband, and Vidya Basu, the vengeful widow out to nab a terrorist.
To my mind, Kahaani is Balan’s greatest performance, endlessly watchable, and supported by a clever script. Vidya may not in reality be a mother, but her prosthetic belly gives her the aura of one. She is told at one point that nobody suspects a pregnant woman. At the film’s end, Ghosh identifies Vidya with the mother of mothers, Durga Ma, who turns up to vanquish evil before disappearing again.
Four years later, Balan and Ghosh reunited for a spiritual sequel, Kahaani 2: Durga Rani Singh (2016). Here, too, Balan played a slippery character with more than one identity. When the film opens, she’s named Vidya Sinha, mother to a young daughter, Minnie. But then the film goes into a lengthy flashback, where once again our assumptions about the character are on shaky ground. Her name is not Vidya but Durga Rani Singh and Minnie was a student in a school she worked at. When Durga finds out Minnie’s uncle may be abusing her, a series of increasingly dangerous events leads to Durga and Minnie escaping together. Durga adopts the name Vidya Sinha (a tribute to the actress) and Minnie as her daughter.
In both Kahaani films, the name ‘Vidya’ assumes a special importance, giving the protagonist a way to create multiple personas and avoid detection by those who would impede her mission. Also, all three Vidyas discussed here are mothers. Balan has played a mother elsewhere – in Tumhari Sulu, Mission Mangal and Shakuntala Devi – but it’s her Vidya roles that define her portrayal of the all-knowing, fiercely protective mother.
Amit Masurkar’s Sherni features the first Vidya who is neither a mother nor positioned as one. Vidya Vincent is married but has no children, and she doesn’t want them either.
In fact, Amit Masurkar’s Sherni features the first Vidya who is neither a mother nor positioned as one. Vidya Vincent is married but has no children, and she doesn’t want them either. Evidently, though, it is the destiny of Balan’s Vidyas to be seen as maternal material, because Vidya Vincent’s mother and mother-in-law both encourage her to think about having children. ‘What will you do in your old age?’ her mother asks.
But these scenes are only asides to the narrative, making Sherni the first time Balan has played a Vidya whose life is not centred on a child and a family. All the previous Vidyas had careers as well (a doctor in Paa, a computer scientist in Kahaani, a clerk in Kahaani 2), but each of them was dealing with motherhood in ways that overshadowed her day job.
In Sherni, the job is Vidya’s life. She is a Divisional Forest Officer dealing with a man-eating tiger on the loose. She is honest and upright, and so in addition to the tiger hunt she is also dealing with red tape and corrupt higher-ups and jingoist electioneering. When an urgent call comes during a family dinner, Vidya doesn’t think twice before leaving instantly to attend to her work.
Indian actors have often been tied to character names: Amitabh Bachchan with Vijay, Shah Rukh Khan with Raj/Rahul, Salman Khan with Prem. But few have played characters with their own name and had those become their most memorable performances. What is most interesting is how the various Vidyas inform and contrast with one another. All four take charge of their lives and stand up to oppression, largely from the men around them. They’re also all remarkably intelligent women (living up to the name’s meaning, ‘knowledge’). And all four characters, while each distinct – in appearance as in personality – are united by a virtuoso actress who is their namesake.