Sneha Menon Desai (SMD): How did you, so effortlessly, just blend into the world of Sherni? I know you're someone who said that you weren't really an animal lover or a wildlife enthusiast. How did you get yourself to care enough?
Vidya Balan (VB): Yes, I am not an animal lover, but, I love the jungle. When I say I love the jungle, it probably means that I love the jungle today. I have been on jungle safaris in the past, but I was never absolutely at ease in the jungle. This film has changed that. I think when you go there, it's such a humbling experience. You realize how inconsequential your problems are, or you know the issues you have in life are, because nature has that ability to make you realize. I went there 4-5 days before we began to shoot, because we wanted to do rehearsals in the jungle as well. We were allowed to shoot only for a certain number of hours and in the less populated areas of the jungle, not where you have a lot of animal traffic. So, that really awakened me to the sights and sounds of the jungle.
You suddenly realize that in the jungle, you are that much alert. You know you're attuned to the little gurgling stream, the birds chirping and then the little sounds – the shuffling of feet in the way, dried leaves cracking under people's feet, and suddenly you're disconnected from the rest of the world. The fact that we didn't have network made it very easy to get lost in that world. This film actually changed my relationship with nature. I think I only wanted to enjoy its beauty, but beyond that, I didn't want to engage with it, or was just indifferent. But suddenly you begin to realize how these are things that I've read and known, but have not really thought about. When we were told about how protecting the tiger actually meant protecting the entire eco-system and the food chain, because a tiger is at the top of the chain. How protecting the tiger equals to protecting the jungle — which is also in the film when those people say, 'sher hai, toh jungle hai, jungle hai toh paani hai…' So when you go through an experience like this, you realize what the meaning of a symbiotic relationship is.
I enjoyed being there, I enjoyed shooting there, I think you can't help but just immerse yourself in that experience. I don't know whether I can take the credit for anything here. Maybe I owe it to nature.
SMD: Tell me about a scene you found particularly hard to crack, or one you are particularly proud of. Now that a bunch of us have seen the film, I think it'll be nice to think back to it.
VB: It's not one scene, and I don't know if I am proud of it, but I will tell you that I grappled with it. It took me a little while to get my head around to how non-reactive she (Vidya Vincent in Sherni) was. Today, we are living in such reactive times. Every one has a reaction to everything, and even when there aren't, they know what is happening. Look at the social media, look at WhatsApp. I felt, therefore, that she'll be perceived as just being passive, because she is not passive. I would wonder sometimes whether her angst, her inner frustration was getting conveyed, or whether I was looking placid. But Amit [Masurkar] was absolutely sure. He said, 'No, there are people like Vidya Vincent who don't, who sometimes just ignore what people are saying and move on. Sometimes they are very reserved, withdrawn and they don't have the right words to say. Maybe sometimes because of fear, or sometimes it's just about choosing your battles'.
Whatever it is, there are people like Vidya Vincent, and I am amazed by the kind of reactions to that. I went with the conviction of my director. Initially, whenever I asked him about it, he assured me that this is how we saw Vidya Vincent. After that, I just stopped asking, but I didn't know how that would connect [with the viewers]. But I was amazed by the number of people who've written to me about that particular aspect – the number of women especially – who've said that we too have to keep quiet in so many situations.
I think I am a strong woman, but I'm not strong in a way that people are normally perceived to be strong – like today, we also associate strength with aggression. There are lots of people who are not that – but does that mean she is not strong? No. She is a very strong woman. In that sense, I am so glad that it has translated the way it has, and I am getting so much praise for the performance, but it is Amit Masurkar all the way, really.
SMD: That actually brings me to what was one of my favorite scenes in the film – that little moment when her mother-in-law is chiding her for not wearing enough jewelry. Like you said, there were so many ways that the scene could've been played, but just that moment, the way she played it, by not reacting, of maybe picking her own battles… How did you create this?
VB: Yeah, you know picking your battles is what it really is about, but I have to say that on set we tried a couple of reactions. You know just within the scene, this was one reaction, another was an almost poker face. Here you literally know that she is telling herself that my mother in law is here for a couple of days, so let me not waste any time here and she just does that, ok. So many people are non-confrontational and that has connected with so many people. I am quite amazed actually.
Because it is not that there are so many different approaches, you know if it was myself as a person, I would've probably just gotten irritated, but you know Vidya Vincent.
SMD: I know you've mentioned that Amit is a director whose touch is light. Did you ever worry that the lightness could be too light at some points?
VB: I was worried because she is, as a person, as a character, non-reactive. She is not confrontational; it's very internal for her. And then he [Masurkar] is not really pronouncing it by using background music, or by putting in a closeup where you expect a closeup. So, I was wondering how it would translate because it was a completely different approach. But I trusted that he obviously knew what he was doing. It's just that I couldn't imagine it till I saw it.
SMD: As an actor, what are the challenges of reigning in a performance? Did you ever find yourself go extra and then having to pull back, because this was altogether a new territory?
VB: I think that was part of the process, so, sometimes I would do that. Amit would tell me, 'Ok, you can do a little more here,' and then sometimes he'd tell me, 'No, just feel it, don't let it show.' So a lot of times I did feel confused, I didn't know what was the right amount, what was the balance, but he could see what I was doing and he was sure about it, and therefore he knew it was working. I trust the director, I never checked the monitor or anything, so if he was ok, I was ok.
SMD: You were shooting with a lot of real-life forest officials and theatre actors as well, and I can imagine that just having the Vidya Balan on set can be an intimidating experience for them. What did you have to do to ensure that they were able to look past Vidya, the star and focus on Vidya, the actor?
VB: I like engaging with people, I like talking to people. I think that's always helpful. Maybe people have a certain perception of actors being inaccessible or whatever, but I think that didn't happen here because I was chatting with everyone. I was interested, and they were people with immense knowledge about the jungle.
The jungle is part of their everyday lives, so I think because of the conversations, they didn't feel conscious. We had a lot of people on set – the villagers and forest department officials – and I was more interested in what they do, so I think it probably helped. I hadn't thought of this way, but maybe that helped.
SMD: Talking about clothes and makeup in the real world, I know there were a couple of years in the past where you really struggled with coming to yourself in terms of fashion and I could see the effort there. Cut to now. It's amazing to see you have so much fun with fashion – you're flaunting the Sherni saree and completely owning it. I feel like there's a lesson in here for the rest of us. How did you get to this point of just being so comfortable, and making that work for you?
VB: In 2007-08, I think I was getting a lot of criticism for what I wore. I kept trying to alter things saying, 'Oh, this time they criticized this, so next time I shouldn't do that.' So, there was a lot of thought that got into it, to the extent that I would get really stressed before I made an appearance. I'd get so stressed that I would start feeling unwell. I would bloat up, because I would feel scared about the judgement that was awaiting me.
After a while, I realized that whatever I did, people were criticizing me anyhow. So I said, 'Forget it, I am not going to make everyone happy.' It happened over a period of a year or so, or maybe longer, but I finally realized that I should just do what I like. I met Sabhyasachi Mukherjee around that time, and though I haven't met him or spoken to him in the longest time now, I will always be grateful to him for the fact that he said, 'What do you enjoy wearing?' and I said that I love wearing sarees, so he told me that I should wear sarees; that I look gorgeous in them. I told him that people would say I that I look older and it's not glamorous, but he told me to forget all that and just do what I want to. Because if I feel good, I look good. And I embraced the saree because I enjoy wearing them, and suddenly people started literally applauding my sartorial choices. I think you have to wear and do and be whoever you want to be and the world will come around because they have no option.
SMD: I am going to leave you with one last question. I know that you have a scent for pretty much every character. Did Vidya Vincent smell a particular way?
VB: Yes, I used Gucci Bloom for Vidya Vincent because bloom, jungle, and all of that.