For almost four years now, Vidya Balan has kept her date with Melbourne. This year, she is making it special. By Tonee Sethi
Vidya Balan is an actor that has broken down some walls in the largely stereotypical world of Bollywood. From doing films which are not very mainstream but highly successful to being widely acknowledged as a star who has brought about pioneering change to the concept of a heroine in Indian films, little wonder then why she has earned the tag of a ‘female hero’.
That is also the reason why an egalitarian country like Australia loves her, and Melbourne in particular. As brand ambassador of the Indian Film Festival Melbourne for the past four years or so, she has brought not just the spark but blazed the trail to this iconic festival produced by Mind Blowing Films. This year, Balan says the festival is crucial because it has a theme: equality. That according to her reflects “a dialogue that’s on in every which way, that’s happening in theatre and dance as well as cinema. And not just in art, but in every day lives”.
Addressing the media in Melbourne as part of the formal launch of the film festival which takes place during August 14-27, Balan dressed in a resplendent red sari said, “Whether it’s disability, gender equality, any kind of stereotyping which could be a sort of impediment, is being addressed now… We can’t have myopic views of things anymore. We have to be aware, first. And awareness is the first step to action.”
The award-winning actor is of the view that “equality of gender, sexuality, disability, and race… the diversity that defines us, needs to be celebrated.
The impact of this festival is felt and is being seeing year to year, she agrees. “We are seeing more people, more Indian Melbournians coming to the festival which is very encouraging, even if it means two more people every year. We welcome them with open arms and hope that someday the festival is so big that everyone marks these dates on the calendar so that they don’t miss out on the action.”
Festival director Mitu Bhowmick-Lange says the festival is blessed to have someone like Balan whose good will and credibility is amazing. “Pretty much every country in the world has a film festival but ours within just four years is already in the top 2-3 competing with the Florence Indian film festival which has been there for the past 17-18 years. And that is very significant. Most of that goes to Vidya because when she says something it is news to India and that is why it gives us so much visibility. I cannot thank her enough for that.”
On his part, state minister for creative industries Martin Foley who also there along with Balan and Lange to announce the key components of the film festival, said successive Victorian governments have recognized the important role that the Indian community plays more generally and more particularly through festivals such as this which acts as a great cultural force. “The support continues very strongly at all levels. We look forward to the festival going from strength to strength and also take the opportunity to create deeper links between our film sectors and thereby creating a much more wider opportunity for people to people exchanges, industry to industry exchanges and mutually beneficial exchanges between the Indian and Australian communities.”
Giving a synopsis of the festival, Lange said the theme of “Equality” will be explored through a special program of films, the Western Union short film competition and a panel event featuring Australian and Indian guest.
Foley said he was also pleased to learn that IFFM addresses diversity and inclusion as part of its leadership role in promoting cultural solutions to civic issues.
The Festival will for the first time incorporate Indian Independence Day celebrations, to be held at Federation Square on 15 August.
The IFFM Awards Night will a feature an Indian-inspired fashion show showcasing Australian designers along with iconic Indian designer, Anamika Khanna.
Proceeds from the Fashion Show auction will go to The Royal Children’s Hospital, after it was announced that a new partnership had been formed between the Hospital and IFFM.
The Telstra Bollywood Dance Competition will also return, bringing the best classic and contemporary dancers of all ages and cultural origins to Federation Square.
The Festival will close on 27 August. The full program of the Indian Film Festival of Melbourne will be released in June.
In her interaction with the press and in a tete-a-tete with The Indian Weekly, Balan spoke at length on various issues. Below are some highlights:
As an artist it is very difficult to accept any kind of regulation because freedom of expression is extremely vital. I think work is underway with the minister of information and broadcasting to expand the scope of film certification against film censorship. That is a hopeful scenario because we have the support of the government which appoints the censor board members and its chief. I repeat it is difficult to accept any form of censorship but there is work underway so we are hopeful of better times to come on that front.
On having Godfathers in Bollywood:
This is a better time now for young people from non-filmi backgrounds to come into the industry. Merit supersedes any other consideration today. It doesn’t matter whether you have any film connections. What you can do or how well you can do is what matters most.
On her new release:
Hamari Adhuri Kahani is my next film which is scheduled to release on June 12. It is an intense love story and it is about forbidden love. After Parineeta, I am doing a love story after a gap of almost nine years. Very excited because Mohit Suri is a very sensitive director and very importantly I got to work with Mahesh Bhatt who has written the script and screenplay for the film. I always wanted to work with him as director but he gave up directing even before I came into films so this is the closest I can get to working with him. It’s an experience I will cherish.
On international premier of her films
(Laughs) I am actually trying to convince everyone I know to shoot a film with me in Melbourne. Then we can have an international premier of my film. I hope we will do something like that, I hope my film gets shown in the festival. I definitely always recommend that.
On her hosting an Oprah-like talk show
It is stale news but it was news to me earlier. Yes television is something I am open to. There is more exciting television content at this point but I am not keen on doing fiction on TV. And I am not talking about American TV, if I do TV it will be for India first, then Australia.
On masala films versus serious films
Masala is what makes our film exciting, so there is nothing wrong with masala. Serious films that are making a statement have been made in India over a time but I think the change today is that those films are working. We have an audience for every kind of film today thanks to the multiplexes which has really opened a Pandora’s Box. You have the option to watch a Hawaizada or a Cinderella and films that are made not just in India but from all over the world.
On what drives her
The producer as Siddarth Roy Kapoor drives me. Jokes aside, it is the character, the role that I am being asked to play and the director’s vision – all these things have to tie in and also have to take into account the producer who want the film to be made the way it is meant to be made. The kind of films I do are not your typical mainstream films, so I like to collaborate with people who do justice to the product that is not typically mainstream.
I have not worked with any female director unfortunately. I just did a video for nutrition by a female director. Would love to work with one but the script has to be exciting.
On her impressions of the festival
This is my routine day in Melbourne as brand ambassador for the film festival. We start with the press conference and then by the one to one interviews. It is interesting because most of you are now familiar faces and good acquaintances so there is always a feeling of warmth when I meet you all. I feel very welcomed and it is always exciting to talk about the festival because every year it is expanding in scope. We are taking baby steps but having said that this year it is crucial because we have a theme to the festival which is equality across gender, religion, races, disability and all of that which is interesting. Equality can never be absolute so I am just glad this festival is not your run of the mill kind, yes we do hope that its commercial scope increases that more and more people come to the festival etc., and saying something beyond.
On her future projects
Many biopics have come my way. While each story is marvelous I have not committed to do any biopic as yet. I am inspired by a lot of women of substance. I have not decided anything yet. So I would not like to say anything about any biopic right now