“I think Sabrina Lall is one of the real life heroes in recent times” – Vidya Balan

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She made an outstanding debut in the film Parineeta and since then Vidya Balan has lived up to the promise she showed in her first film. She has gone on to play many different characters and with each new role, Balan tries something new and impresses. She is an actress who gets lost inside her characters and is now considered one of the best actresses in the Hindi Film Industry. In her recent films, the actress has taken roles a little off the beaten path and has really proved her amazing talent. She was given rave reviews for her performances in both 2009’s Paa and last year’s Ishqiya. She continues that path of offbeat roles with Sabrina Lall in No One Killed Jessica. The role required Balan to be stripped down, both in look and character, to play a woman fighting for justice for her murdered sister. In an exclusive interview with BollySpice, the actress talked with us about playing the role in the highly anticipated film.

You always seem to choose unique roles. What do you take into consideration when deciding which roles to say yes to?

I think primarily the script, my role in it, the director, the producer, but over and above all of this I think my gut, because there are times when everything seems in sync. You have the perfect script, you have a fabulous role, you have director you connect with, you have a very credible producer; but something from within says this is not for you. So, I think, over and above everything is my gut.

What was it about the role in No One Killed Jessica that made you say ‘this is a role I must do’?

One, because I think Sabrina Lall is one of the real life heroes in recent times. Her journey has been unbelievable. From being someone who probably likes to get lost amongst a crowd of ten or even among a larger crowd, someone who likes a certain inconspicuousness, who is almost like a wallflower, she came from a sheltered, protected background. For someone like that to suddenly face such a harsh reality and take charge and slowly put up a fight for so many years, relentlessly, is just a show of inner strength. I think I found that journey extremely empowering. One, just as a person, I’ve always found that interesting and inspiring. Then in the script, it was doing justice to that journey, which is what I wanted it to be and I was being offered that part. That was my reason to be in the film.

How do you prepare to play a role like Sabrina Lall?

I’ve really based my interpretation and characterization on the script because it’s very tricky when you are playing a real life character, especially one like Sabrina. While on the one hand you have access to all the facts, the sequence of events and peoples’ reactions and all of that, the emotional journey is something that is not accessible to you, because you obviously can’t expect her to relive or revisit that journey. That would have been very insensitive of us. She was kind enough to share with Rajkumar Gupta, the director, a lot of facts from her experience and feelings through her journey which he incorporated in the script, and which lent it that much more credibility. Beyond that, I really had no access to her emotional journey. We’ve all at different point in time imagined what it must have been like for her, but we really don’t know. So, I used my imagination and along with the director, with a basis of the script, actually charted an emotional journey for her. There was no preparation otherwise. Like in any other film, my script was my bible here.

Was it difficult journey to go on to play her? Just getting inside her and portraying all those emotions you imagined?

I think it’s daunting because that kind of show of strength is almost unimaginable. There has to be a certain amount of sensitivity when you are portraying a real life character. I didn’t know at certain points sometimes how to react. For example, most crucial, I didn’t know how someone would react if they heard that their loved one was just shot down. That, for me, was the most challenging scene in the film. It’s beyond me. I don’t even want to imagine it as a person. To be able to actually play out that scene, I think I was a bit stumped. I didn’t know as an actor what to do because even as a person I don’t want to imagine it. There were lot of moments when I said, ‘My God! Did this really happen?’ There were times when I felt anger, there were times when I felt helpless, there were times when I felt elated. Of course, this film is not a documentary feature. It is a feature film. So, there is a lot of fictionalization. There is dramatization. To me, if you ask what really is where fact and fiction meet – to me, fact is what happened, fiction is how it happened. While a lot of the things I am reacting to may have been the director’s interpretation, nonetheless there is only so much any of us would really know. Only the people who went through it would know the exact truth about what motivated, what prompted, what went through them when that happened.

That must have been difficult. I can’t imagine getting yourself into a place that you have to portray that…

Yes, yes. I wouldn’t say exactly difficult but there were times when I didn’t know what to do. It was unimaginable.

How was it working with director Rajkumar Gupta?

Raj has a certain hunger which he infused into me and into the entire team. It is one of the reasons I got really encouraged to do the film. I am consciously calling it hunger. It’s not even passion, it’s a hunger to tell the story. It’s hunger to shoot a particular scene a certain way. That is very, very rare. I hope this is the only time in life when I wish someone a lifetime of hunger! (Laughs)

How did he guide you along this character’s emotional journey?

I think he had done such a fabulous job on the script that we were on the same page very, very early in the process. We, of course, charted out the emotional journey, like I said, but as we went along we worked our way through. I must say that he stripped me of my excesses, whether it was makeup, hair and clothes or even in terms of the drama, he’s managed to bring in a very palpably real quality to Sabrina.

That must have helped you get into the character, the glasses, the clothes because she is someone who is so behind the scenes until she has to take on this.

Precisely, and that is the quality we really wanted to portray. Her journey is very interesting – a wallflower emerging into a hero. So, we needed that quality of her being regular, you know, the girl next door, who actually metamorphosis into the hero she is today, into the icon she is today. So, to bring in that real quality, he stripped me of the excesses.

How was it working with Rani Mukherjee?

Fabulous. We don’t have too many scenes in this film. She’s an actor I really admired amongst my immediate seniors. I was glad we got to work together on this film because this film is really about these two girls who are instrumental in bringing justice to Jessica. When you are faced with an actor like Rani Mukherjee it lends it that much more credibility. They are completely different roles and that contrast in the personalities came through beautifully, if I may say so myself. (Laughs)

You shot a lot in Delhi. Tell us about that experience and the scenes that were done with the hidden camera.

Oh yes! I’ve seen Delhi the way I’ve never seen it before, and I don’t think I’ll ever get a chance again to see Delhi the way I have. I’ve walked through all sorts of places, through crowds filled with people at crossings. In broad daylight, I walked through crowded streets with no one ever noticing me because there was the hidden camera and they don’t expect a star dressed the way I was. It was very thrilling. There were times where I was forgot I was really shooting. (Laughs) It was fantastic.

The press/media was shown to be quite pivotal in the film. What are your thoughts on the media today?

Pretty much what they were before, because one really didn’t need a film to realize that the media played an extremely pivotal role in this case. It really not only mobilized public opinion, but I think it united people from all over the country, people who backed Sabrina in her struggle, in her fight for justice. So, I think you realized what an important force the media was even before this. But, anyone who has not followed the case probably doesn’t know the extent to which the media contributed. This film will always be there on celluloid for people to realize what a movement this had become and how the media was spearheading that movement.

What do you hope audiences will take away from this film?

One, I think they will feel very inspired by Sabrina. Just the fact that she never gave up. And how the universe actually conspired to bring justice – so justice prevailed. The other is that, you know, united we’ll always stand. I think that is the real take away from the film.

What do you think about Amit Trivedi’s music?

I think his music has really contributed to the film in the sense that it elevates certain moments beautifully. These are not lip-sync songs; it is a background score. When a song really elevates a moment and does justice to it and brings it alive, I think, it’s beautiful. A lot of times the music in films is indifferent or sometimes it even hampers the scene. But his music really beautifully elevates some of those moments and does justice to them.

What do you love about acting?

I think it feeds the schizophrenic in me (laughs), the need to live someone else’s life vicariously for a while even as I continue to live my own.

Do you have a hard time letting go of characters once you are done?

Not a hard time. Invariably at the end of the film you feel a bit empty, but you get over that. You just feel like you’ve been this other person for so long. You’ve known this other person intensely and you never again will know that person. You have to let go. It’s almost like you are possessed by this other person for a while. Then that person is extricated from you. Whatever there was will be on celluloid forever, but beyond that that’s where it all ends.

What will we see you in next?

Sujoy Ghosh’s Kahani, which I’ve completed work on. It’s a thriller, which is entirely shot in Calcutta. I’m really looking forward to the release. Then there is The Dirty Picture, which I’ll start work on in a little over a month, and will start preparation for that in a few weeks.

Do you only do one film at a time?

Yes, I do. I can’t multitask. I definitely am schizophrenic, but don’t think I’ve got a multiple personality disorder! (Laughs)

Do you have a message to your fans?

Yes! I really hope you guys go to the theatre and watch No One Killed Jessica and appreciate and enjoy the film. Thank you for all the appreciation for my work so far. I do get a lot of mail from the US and it’s very, very heartening. I’m hoping to visit soon.

No One Killed Jessica opens in theaters on January 7th and from what we have seen so far Vidya’s performance will once again be given a rave review! Stay tuned to see what our critic has to say!

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