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Risk-taker Vidya Balan boosts Bollywood's girl power

Jury Member actress Vidya Balan poses on the red carpet as she arrives for the screening of the film "Inside Llewyn Davis" in competition du
Jury Member actress Vidya Balan poses on the red carpet as she arrives for the screening of the film "Inside Llewyn Davis" in competition du

By Shilpa Jamkhandikar

MUMBAI (Reuters) - It's a good time to be Vidya Balan. Indian cinema turned 100 this year and the versatile actress has emerged as the face of Bollywood, earning a spot in an elite nine-member Cannes festival jury headed by filmmaker Steven Spielberg.

The 35-year-old actress has picked her way through a minefield of movie roles in recent years, zooming in on strong and diverse female leads that have straddled box-office success and critical acclaim.

Balan, who made her Bollywood debut in 2005, took unusual risks in a male-dominated industry to play an ambitious soft porn actress in "The Dirty Picture" (2011) and a pregnant woman searching for her missing husband in "Kahaani" (Story) last year.

Her next screen bet is "Ghanchakkar" (Crazy), a suspense comedy that opens in Indian cinemas on June 28. Balan stars as the loud-mouthed wife of a bank robber who loses his memory after a heist.

Balan spoke to Reuters about her new film, breaking stereotypes and playing women who embrace their sexuality:

Q: Tell us about your role as the housewife in "Ghanchakkar"?

A: I am hoping that she's not obnoxious but yes, she is loud. There are people who are loud and they are not even aware. This is her take on being modern. She thinks that I'm fashionable but she buys old magazines for half the price from the neighborhood shop. She's a middle-class housewife, cutting corners. She's the kind of person who goes to a mall, and says "this is too expensive, I'll get this stitched from my tailor." What I find interesting is that Raj (director Raj Kumar Gupta) finds humor in situations that are so mundane and every day. Thrillers are his genre but I knew he'd do humor well too. When he came to me with this, I always wanted to do comedy and this was a breath of fresh air.

Q: After "The Dirty Picture" and "Kahaani", are you now the go-to actress for women-centric roles?

A: (Laughs) I don't know. I do know that when people have something different, they do invariably come to me but I am not complaining. I love it. They are offering me great variety and I am greedy. I want more and more. I am enjoying the work I am doing. People have the appetite for such films.

Q: You are playing strong women who don't hide their sexuality. Are you comfortable with that?

A: The reality is that women today are embracing their sexuality more than ever. We are all less apologetic about the sexual part of us. While I do see a certain hesitation in some people to take up roles like this, I am not averse to them at all because it makes the character more interesting. It's not a pre-requisite but if it's there, why not? It's an aspect that we are waking up to, more vociferously than ever before. So that's bound to find some resonance on screen.

Q: Why do you think people accept you in these different roles?

A: Audiences are OK with seeing the good and the bad in women. We no longer want to just glorify women. We're not vilifying them because they are sexual beings and it gives them so many other aspects. In "Paa" (2009) my character had a child outside of marriage but she is not apologetic about it. She is nurturing towards and of her child and she is the best mother. It just makes for more wholesome people and characters.

Q: Are you afraid of being stereotyped?

A: People said the same thing to me after "Parineeta" (2005). For the longest time afterwards, they said ‘we loved you as Parineeta'. Then "Paa" happened and people said after "Parineeta", it's "Paa". Then "Ishqiya" (2010) happened. So one film will stick on until the next. There are those who offer me films like "The Dirty Picture" but they also offer me films like "Kahaani". I guess people just find it easier to follow on the beaten track - they feel it's safe. But that doesn't excite me.

Q: Does that make you pickier then?

A: No. Even when people come to me with scripts that are different for the sake of being different, I am just happy people are making that effort. Five years ago when I decided that I am only going to do the kind of work that excites me, there weren't that many options. Today, there are that many more options. I am not pickier. I've been picky then and I am now. I do one, maybe two films a year. I am also the kind of person who needs to do other things from time to time. I can't just jump from one film to the other. It could be travelling, reading, spending time with loved ones, or even cleaning. I have a fetish for cleaning.

Q: You were on the jury at Cannes this year. How was the experience?

A: It was awesome. I got to see the cream of the crop and I also realized that we are not that far off. I think we are probably not sending the right films and we do stand fair chance in competition. I'm hoping to see at least one film in competition next year.

Q: There was media criticism about how you looked at Cannes. Does that bother you?

A: I don't read anything that's written about me - good, bad or ugly. I was told about it but when I walked out of that room, I felt happy about the way I was looking and that's it. You can't make everyone happy. While everyone likes to look good, it's about feeling good, because I cannot make everyone happy. I do understand that there is a thriving fashion industry but it was a film festival and I was representing Indian cinema there with a great amount of pride and joy. I think I did well.

(Editing by Tony Tharakan and Paul Casciato)

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