S2E1: Vidya Balan: Changing Stereotypes in Bollywood

October 26, 2022
IFC Managing Director Makhtar Diop and trailblazing Indian actress Vidya Balan discuss the power of cinema to inspire young women.

Subscribe & Listen


In this episode of Creative Development, IFC Managing Director Makhtar Diop sits down with trailblazing Indian actress Vidya Balan. Balan is a passionate advocate for women and girls in India and beyond. Together, they discuss the power of cinema to inspire young women who want to see themselves represented on screen. Balan shares her experience of embodying powerful characters who defy expectations in this conversation about the role the creative industries play to spark change.


This is a podcast of the International Finance Corporation.

Makhtar Diop (MD):  Hello and welcome to the podcast Creative Development with IFC. I'm your host Makhtar Diop, and today I’m delighted to speak with Vidya Balan today, a multi-award-winning actress and icon for women’s empowerment in Bollywood.

A powerful agent of change, Vidya paved the way for socially conscious storytelling with women in leading roles in India and beyond. She continues to defy stereotypes and draw much-needed attention to crucial social issues.

Vidya, such a huge pleasure to be with you.

Vidya Balan (VB): Similarly, thank you for having me here,

MD: Now you have done many things in life, and you have been reshaping a lot of things in India. So let's start with the beginning, you know. How did you get to be the great actress that you are?

VB: Firstly, thank you for the compliment, but I think as far as I can remember, this is all I wanted to do. Thank God it worked out for me. I think I was in school. There was this Indian female actor who broke on the scene. Her name is Madhuri Dixit. And I was mesmerized like the rest of the country. And I wanted to be an actor. You know, I think I was eight when I first saw her. So ever since then, I've wanted to do this. But you know, I have no connections in the film industry. Neither do I come from a film family, nor did we know anyone here. So my parents were very scared, you know, because you hear horrible things about the film industry, or you did at least back then, you know, so they were very worried. And they were like…are you sure you want to do this? And my mother was almost dissuading me. But thankfully one thing led to the other. And here I am, it's been a long journey. I started on television, went on to do ad films. And then I did some music videos for some of the bands here. And then the next thing I knew is I was doing a non-Hindi language film, which is a Bengali film. And then I got my first Hindi film. So it's just been, it's, it's been amazing to say the least..

MD: Yeah, but you know, it's not as simple because it was very important for you to complete your studies. So how was the internal conflict between leaving your passion immediately, and saying “I need to do something which is important for me?”

VB: You know, though I was born and brought up in Mumbai, my family comes from Kerala, down South. And for us, there's nothing more important in life than education. When I told my parents, I wanted to be an actor, firstly, like I told you, they thought it was a passing fancy, and they thought, okay, you know, every child wants to be an actor, what the hell we’ll indulge her, but she's not going to do that. But, when I started becoming serious about it, they actually told me that, you know, I remember in one of our fights, they said, if you want to live in this house, you have to complete your bachelor's, at least, because you can keep working through life. But now is the time for you to go to a college to get a degree. And that's very important, because that lays the foundation of a strong life going forward. And, you know, I'm so grateful today, Makhtar, that I did that, because life is one long journey of learning. But having said that, that experience of going to college of attending lectures of bunking lectures, not attending them, you know, making friends participating in things.. that is invaluable. And of course, I love the subject that I studied, which was sociology. And I think that opened my mind to the world of possibilities, because I come from a particular culture. But sociology made me wake up to the possibility of possibilities. You know, there are so many parallel realities, yours is not the only one.

MD: I think that is reflected in the choice of movies that you accepted to act in. You know, one of the great movies that you had was about women in science.

VB: Yes.

MD: And I know that after that, a very famous movie in the US talking about Black women in science.

VB: Yes, I’ve watched the film.

MD: But your film was before and how did you come to choose that topic? You know, because I heard that you choose the topic of the movie you’re playing?

VB: Yeah. You know, because I think there are so many stories to tell. And you know, a lot of times you get offered just the run of the mill stuff. Stories that people have lazily put together. But I'm constantly looking for stories to tell that haven't been told before. The kind of characters that I haven't played before. And when this, actually when the Mission Mangala, the Mars mission happened in India, it was big. And the success of it was a very proud moment for all Indians. You know, the day after the mission, the newspapers carried a picture of women who looked like regular homemakers. But then when you saw the picture, you read the text you realize that they were the scientists who sent the spacecraft to Mars that really blew my mind. I thought that was such an arresting visual, ordinary women doing the extraordinary and then coincidently, four different filmmakers brought this story to me, I think, because this was a story that inspired a lot of Indians. But this was the one that was most well written. And I ended up doing it and I'm so happy, it was a huge success. I have so many children coming up to me after the film released. The film was called Mission Mangal saying, you know, we want to study science, we want to become scientists, we want to join ISRO, which is the Indian Space Research Organization, I’m like wow, you know, if our films managed to touch people's hearts like that, if it converts like that, that that is so gratifying.

MD: That’s fantastic because the self representation of women, who they are, what they bring to the society, and not the way the rest of society wants to define these individuals. And I think that the journey that you had in your life and you bring to this movie, I think there is a common thread, which is what women represent in society. So tell me, what is your vision?

VB: I just think, you know, when I look around me, I find inspiration in all kinds of women. And I'm not just paying lip service. I think I've seen domestic workers at home. You know, in India, we have people who come to our household chores for us. And they are also women with such passion and drive to better the lives of their children. They work hard, it's hard physical labor. And yet, they work with purpose, they work with dignity. And they are very sure that they don't want their children to be doing this. So they're working hard so that they can send their children to school, and then to college for a higher education. I find inspiration in all kinds of women, you know, women within the industry, I work with: scientists, mathematicians, teachers, you know, what I realized Makhtar Is that heroes are not cut from a particular cloth. Heroes come in all shapes and sizes. And I don't just mean physically, yes, they come in all shapes and sizes, and all colors and, you know, hair lengths and different kinds of skill sets and doing different jobs. I feel that I'm very fortunate to be in cinema at a time when women are being celebrated as individuals. Firstly, they're being recognized as individuals with dreams, with the drive to achieve and realize those dreams, even when they seem impossible. And that's the most beautiful thing about, you know, women around us previously, we had role models, women role models, like Indira Gandhi was the first female prime minister of the country. And, yes, we all looked up to her, but there are very few women in the public domain, or even otherwise, that you look to, who were really going out there and living the lives they wanted to lead. But today, you see more of that. And I think today's cinema is representing that. So you know, my vision is I just want to have my eyes open at all times, to be able to see the beauty that women represent in the realization on their dreams today.

MD: It was quite interesting the example you started with because I share the same view personally. Like all of us, you have asked often who is inspiring you who is your role model? And often the answer that people expect you to give is to get the name of a very accomplished person…Nelson Mandela, Indira Gandhi - name it. And generally, I don't use that answer, because it’s not - they inspire me - and it's what I hear from you. But it's the people you are dealing with every day. Who are teaching you something that you say, wow. A friend that you met when you were young, you've been to school with you, you are way more fortunate than he or she in life, but who keep a smile despite a difficult situation, someone who has a family member who is very sick, and in spite of it, keeping it. For me on a day to day basis those people are inspiring me a lot. And it seems like what you was just telling me.

VB: For example even homemakers, you don't we've always undervalued women who worked at home because women at home do a lot of work that helps the rest of the family go out there and live the life they want to. You know, and that is unpaid for work. Domestic work is not paid for. When it's a family member, I've seen my mother do that, you know, all my life. She stayed at home. She was a stay at home mum, who did a lot of the housework herself. She dropped us to school, she dropped us to our classes, took our homework, you know, and yet she learned music because that was her passion. She's not a professional singer, but she did something for herself. She instilled in my sister and me - we’re two girls - the passion and the belief that we could do whatever we wanted to do, and that we could be whoever we wanted to be. So I think I've been inspired by all these women.

MD: I share this sentiment, because I think this is what will drive you every day. You say “Oh, I'm so blessed and I’m so lucky” but I haven't achieved one tenth of other people who are less fortunate than me. And they are really an inspiration in resilience, in courage, in motivation. And so what you were saying then I was smiling, because it's really what's the way I personally see things.

Coming to women and science, which is another passion for you. I was yesterday in a Josh talks event. And it was about STEM and women in India. And when you look at the numbers, you have quite a lot of women who are coming now from STEM. I think 35% of - it's one of the highest in the world. But what is the question afterwards? How many of them are leading companies are leading startups are receiving money from the capital market? To be able to be the leading entrepreneurs that they could be and they should be? What is your take on the skill and at the same time the opportunities that are offered to women?

VB: I think you know, there is a huge disparity still. But I like to see the glass half full. I think we're in a much better place today, things are not going to change overnight. But like you're saying today, there are far many more people in STEM. There are far many more women who are leading the biggest corporates in the world. You know, there are women who've entered professions which were hitherto, you know, almost unavailable to them. In media, there are so many women, you know, in politics, there are so many women, I just think there are far many more women. But are we being given the same opportunities? I'm sure you've heard of Indra Nooyi, who was the ex CEO of Pepsi, PepsiCo worldwide. And I'm reading her autobiography currently. And she talks about how she was the only woman at the table, you know, in the 80s. And today, that has definitely changed. But to what extent has a change, it hasn't been still not 50%. We don't take up 50% At the table yet. But I think it's a hopeful time, we have to keep moving forward, we have to stand up for ourselves, we have to demand that we get those equal opportunities, we have to put ourselves out there, even when people in positions of power, are unsure of whether they can, you know, entrust us with responsibilities. You know, historically, we've not been in positions of power, I think we we tend to feel a little unconfident, even the most successful women, you know, but I think we have to really push ourselves.

MD: But Vidya let me ask you a more personal question, you are a household name, here, you are an icon. Everybody knows you in the country, you have such a reference point. So which type of responsibility do you think you're having?

VB: Can I be very honest with you, I think my own huge responsibility is towards myself. And I feel that every woman, that's my personal opinion, you know, not many may agree with me, but I feel the the only responsibility we must have as women is to ourselves, and maybe to our children, if for those women who have children, but I think most importantly, first responsibility is to yourself. Because like they say, Charity begins at home, you know, you have to do what you want. You have to live the life you want the way you want it that way. I think every every drop makes the ocean, you know, if each of us stood up for ourselves, one day, you will have a world full of standing women.

MD: I love it. Because you know, often people want you to be an ambassador or something. Okay. The expectation is that you're doing well you have a reference point, therefore, you represent something and like you I agree that your representation erases your singularity, and what makes your authenticity is your singularity.

VB: Absolutely.

MD: And I think that the way you put it is, just be yourself. And I think that being yourself will also inspire the way you're talking to people. And I believe that when you don't have that level of sincerity, we don't touch people as a way because people can see through it at some point. Absolutely.

VB: Absolutely. And you know, maybe if you lived your life, authentically, you may inspire someone else to do that. I think as women we are trained only to think about other people. you know, so I think if we all began to think about ourselves, unapologetically, we would go far.

MD: But I think the singularity for me is very important because often people think that inspiration is to Xerox copy someone and do exactly. And I think we know what works for you doesn't work for me what works for me doesn't work for you. And, and the beauty of it is that each of us come with our own contribution, people, like you are doing massive contribution to the world by really helping to have your voice to join the voice of others on important issues, like, you know, gender equality, and representation of your own culture. So I was talking to some of the people in the industry. And they're telling me that now they would like to have much more of what is done in India being exported outside India, because India is such a huge, huge market that you know one can stay in this market for a long time. So how is the next objective that you have the next phase in your career?

VB: Yeah, you know, I hope to be working all over the world, I hope to be working in Hollywood, I hope to be working in, you know, wherever films are made, in Iran, in, I don't know, in, in France, in Africa, wherever my work takes me, you know, because I really feel there are so many stories that are waiting to be told, as many number of women that there are, there are those many stories. So you know, I really love to work all over the world. And I think it is time today, thanks to the OTT platforms, you know, your Netflix, and your Amazon and your Apple and all of that. People have begun to consume content from all over the world, irrespective of whether they understand the language or not because of subtitles. You know, we're all now attuned to watching other language content, which has opened up the world in a way it's made the world a smaller place. So I think this cross pollination is the best time for all kinds of cross pollination between all the film industries, and therefore audiences of the world. And I'm very, I'm very greedy. I want to work everywhere.

MD: I'm sure that it will happen very, very soon of having collaboration with African actors, or filmmakers, from France from Europe. And I will tell you a story when I was young, long time ago, you know, we used to have in my country, two movies, a typical session is two movie as the first movie was always an Indian movie. And you had actors like Albula. Who was popular in my country. I can tell you he is very popular. And you'd be surprised to hear that at that time in the popular neighborhood, with low income, you had some dance troupe, which were created. And they knew all the Indian dance, watching the movies and singing exactly the same and performing in popular neighborhoods. Just tell you, you know that. I think that was making Indian movies very popular in Africa.

VB: Even now, there are two, this African couple, I think they're a brother and a sister. Not a couple. But the two of them on Instagram, sing and dance to a lot of Hindi film songs. It's amazing. They sing it like –

MD: You will be surprised if you go today to Dakar. Yeah, to see the number of people who know you. And will be also knowing about very, very old movies, right? It's interesting what you just said, because even more recently, in other parts of the world like in Africa, you have some women film directors who really besides making it - one was recently nominated for Cannes - So you see a new generation of young directors. And what is interesting is that they talk about gender issues, but they are ensuring that they are not pigeonholed in talking about only gender issues. And in fact, that impact on gender issues is done through multiple channels by talking about it directly because we need to do it, but also by talking about other issues, to show that the women as the a solution for a lot of universal issues, but not only for the issues that are affecting them directly. And I feel that what you're doing right now and I'm so honored and happy to talk to you today. Guys, it was wonderful to be with Vidya. You heard the story, you heard she’s changing the world. And the number of awards she has received as a leading actress in the world, in India, and to hear her journey. And I think that what we heard is a singularity, is speaking from the heart, is a lot of humility. And thank you for being so nice.

VB: Thank you

MD: Thank you for listening. Creative development with IFC is produced by Aida Holly-Nambi and Maeve Francis for IFC. If you enjoyed this episode, please share it with your networks and tell a friend.