After the National Award for Best Actress andthe success of “Kahaani”, she's the flavourof the season. But the climb to the top hasbeen anything but easy, Vidya Balan tells SHASHI BALIGA

Vidya Balan is now the overwhelming flavour of the season but her ascent has not been as sudden as the hype might have us believe. In fact, she's worked her way up over the last three years with film like “Paa”, “Ishqiya”, “No One Killed Jessica”, “The Dirty Picture” and now “Kahaani”. All critical hits and box-office successes; now topped with a National Award for Best Actress for “The Dirty Picture”. But this amazing spell hasn't come easy. A freewheeling chat with the award-winning actor.

You've been climbing steadily towards this peak of what is already a cult movie, being the first actor to power a film to the Rs.100 crore mark and collecting every award in the business, including the National award. Is this what your dreams were made of?

Yes! And the only emotion I'm feeling right now is gratitude. Lots and lots of it. I always dreamt of being an actor and it's been a long, circuitous, arduous journey. But if I had to live it all over again, I would repeat every single episode and incident.

Including all the criticism about your weight and wardrobe?

Especially that. Because it gave me such clarity, such self-awareness, showed me who I was and where I wanted to go. “Parineeta” was an unconventional debut and people started telling me, “You have to do the ‘regular' stuff if you want to hold on to what you've got now.” And I didn't want to lose it, so I tried to do ‘regular' films. But it wasn't me, and it wasn't working. Luckily I realised that and reined myself in. But before that came a lot of self-doubt, self-criticism and anger.

But the criticism was always about your weight and clothes; it was never about your acting, was it?

No, thank God. That's what my family always told me. They made me realise I was here to act and shouldn't get distracted by all that criticism. Designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee also played a big part. He kept telling me, “Why are you trying to look like someone else? There's only one of you; why are you looking at your individuality as a curse?” And I realised that's what had happened. I had started looking at my individuality as a curse instead of being proud of it.

Isn't it ironical, and sweet revenge then that the picture that catapulted to you to such heights was about an overweight, tackily dressed woman?

When I heard Niharika Khan had won the National Award for Best Costume for dressing me, I laughed heartily! But there is no bitterness or sense of vindication, because I've realised that the change had to come from me. When you accept yourself, the world accepts you. If you reject yourself, the world will reject you too.

Did no one from the film industry reassure you during those dark days and tell you, you're a good actress, hang in there?

No. But I really didn't know anyone well enough for them to do that. So I can't say, “Oh nobody helped me.” I drew my confidence from the directors who chose me for their films. From the fact that Vishal Bhardwaj approached me to do his production, “Ishqiya”. That Balki offered me “Paa” and said, “if you don't do it, I won't make the film.” Sometimes, you don't have to articulate praise or flatter people to make them feel good.

To be honest, I was one of those who wondered if you could pull off Silk in “The Dirty Picture”. You've proved us all gloriously wrong, of course, but how tough was it?

The very first scene I had to shoot was the fake orgasm one. I told (director) Milan Luthria, “How can you do this to me? I want to scream at you!” But he said, “Trust me, if you conquer this scene, everything else will be easy.” And it was. I just surrendered to him. It was liberating to be Silk, sitting around in those costumes with fat oozing out.

Any self-doubts before you began?

There were a few, and I'll be forever grateful to Naseer saab (Naseeruddin Shah) for being so… (searches for the right words) invisibly indulgent. He would not make his reassurance obvious, he would not praise me loudly in front of everyone on the sets; he would just give me a quiet thumbs-up after a scene. That meant so much to me.

You're not a trained actress, but do you believe in the method school of acting?

I haven't studied acting techniques, but I can say this: when I'm immersed in a role, I find that the lines between me and my character start to blur. That's the joy of it. But it's difficult for others because I'm not my usual self when I'm shooting; I find it difficult to be Vidya Balan and someone else at the same time. Luckily for me, my family and friends understand this and give me my space.

Also, I focus completely on the movie. I don't even look at my phone when I'm shooting. I can't have an inane conversation and then give my shot. There are other actors who can do all that and give a good shot, but I don't know how the hell they do it because I can't.

How important is it to you to have a comfort level with your director?

Very important because I have to connect with him. Because it's his vision I have to translate onscreen.

Could you work with a director if you really liked his script but didn't have that comfort level?

I haven't had to, as yet, luckily. But if push came to shove, I guess I could. You know, I had the most difficult equation with Sujoy Ghosh (director of “Kahaani”) because our personalities are so different. He's an extremely observant, knowledgeable guy. He has, what I call, a ‘mad hunger' that I really like. But we had a lot of clashes on the sets. We either agreed totally or disagreed violently; it was only extremes. But they were professional clashes; it never became an issue. I will always try my best to never let anything come between the film and me.

Even at your lowest point, you got some terrific roles. What's in store now?

After “Paa”, everyone asked me, “Now what? Where do you go from here?” I refuse to believe that this is the ultimate. I believe there's lots more to come.