My Mirror column.
Watching Kahaani 2 triggers a retrospective look at the city’s role in Vidya Balan’s actorly career.
|Vidya Balan as an urban working mother in Kahaani 2|
There, now, that's out of the way, we can get on to the real business of this column — which is to try and understand what Vidya Balan is trying to do with her star persona. I can hear the surprised reaction already: “But Vidya Balan isn't a star. She's an actor.”
I agree. Balan is indeed one of the few A-list female stars in Mumbai who does not seem to care at all about appearances — by which I mean not that she isn't good-looking, but that she isn't always striving to look her best. In fact, as I wrote in a 2014 op-ed, “Balan is one of the rare Mumbai heroines who enjoys that most basic element of acting: becoming someone else.”
And yet, since watching Kahaani 2, I have begun to see a distinct pattern in Balan's cinematic appearances. There is a kinship among many of her recent characters that can only be explained as the slow, perhaps organic — and perhaps inevitable — crafting of a star persona.
For one, Balan — in conjunction with her directors, most energetically Sujoy Ghosh, but also Ribhu Dasgupta and Samar Sheikh — seems to have taken it upon herself to craft for the Hindi film heroine a new relationship with the Indian city. (The cities chosen for this project so far are interesting, too: Calcutta in Kahaani, Te3n and Kahaani 2, and Hyderabad in Bobby Jasoos.) Again and again, Balan plays female protagonists who get to traverse the streets of Indian cities with an abandon that is rare in real life — and practically unseen on screen.
Second, unlike the many mainstream heroines whose on-screen explorations in urban space are limited by class and the protective company of men, Balan's indefatigable female characters walk the city alone, and with purpose. What is fascinating is how frequently this purpose involves a crime.
|Vidya Balan tracks her sister's killers in No One Killed Jessica (2011)|
From the grieving family member who finds herself on a mission against the city's obfuscations, it was a short step to playing a professional solver of urban mysteries. In Bobby Jasoos (2014), Balan enjoyed herself thoroughly, playing a roza-keeping Hyderabadi women whose uber-enthusiasm for her job as a newbie detective also involves a series of disguises: turbans and moustaches, false bosoms, Kanjeevarams and burqas all treated with the same nonchalant panache.
|Vidya Balan as a cop on a case, in Te3n (2016)|
From Poe and Conan Doyle, until the present day, the idea of the detective as an urban explorer and guide has run parallel to the idea of the city as a site of criminal imagination. So it was likely only a matter of time before Vidya's urban trajectories turned full circle: from unravelling the city's secrets as an investigator of crime, to becoming the investigated. Kahaani 2, in fact, allows us glimpses of three of these female flaneur selves: the do-gooder urban detective, the heroic everywoman and the potential criminal mastermind. Sadly, Balan's age-old good-girl persona (think Parineeta, Lage Raho Munnabhai, Jessica) prevents her Kahaani 2 character's potential doubleedged-ness from being convincing.
Maybe we need another Ishqiya to bring her dark-black mojo back.
Published in Mumbai Mirror, 4 Dec 2016.