Vidya Balan confesses to being a “greedy actor” and “medium agnostic”. “Give me a good story and I will even shoot it on a mobile,” says Balan, when asked if she was apprehensive about doing a short film after reigning in the world of Hindi feature films for so long. She confesses that the big screen has been her primary passion for a long time. “I used to have 70mm dreams as a little girl but experience and maturity have taught me that it is wonderful to perform in different mediums. The possibilities are immense today,” she says.
Balan’s first short film Natkhat , also marks her debut as a producer along with Ronnie Screwvala. The film is written by Annukampa Harsh and Shaan Vyas and is also directed by Vyas.
Natkhat is a film, Balan confesses grabbing with both her hands even though, according to her, it belongs to her screen child Sonu, whose mother she plays. The actor liked the film and the role for being a part of the ongoing conversation on how to bring up men so that they don’t treat women differently, respect and not abuse them. She explains, “In such a short duration it [the film] becomes a personification of that conversation.”
On one hand, the film is hard-hitting, especially in the way it shows how children grow up in the thick of patriarchy and toxic masculinity, considering it as normal and often, in a disturbing way, imbibing it knowingly and unconsciously as well, in their own psyche and behaviour. Natkhat covers gender inequality, rape culture, domestic violence and more. There is, however also a simultaneous hope and a way out of it. Responsible parenting is upheld as the key. How we mould our children would determine the future, it’s how they would grow up to see men and women as equals.
There is also a compelling hierarchy of patriarchy underlined in the film. How one man may feel “less of a man” among other men and take his frustrations out violently on other people. “It’s ultimately all about power,” says Balan. For her Sonu works as the central character because he is talkative, chats nineteen to the dozen, is extremely sharp but at the same time is sensitive and retains a sense of innocence despite all the corrupting influences around him. He is both the reality and the possibility.
The interplay between Balan and Sonu feel like a real mother-child bonding and forms the crux of the film. “He is so cute that anyone would feel maternal with him,” she says. She remembers shooting with him in a cramped house in Madh Island. It was raining, sticky and humid. He was supposed to give her cues for close-ups but was feeling sleepy. “His eyes were shutting but he didn’t miss a single dialogue. He was naturally comfortable with the camera,” says the actor-producer. There were workshop sessions with him to break the ice. “But we got along immediately. His mother would guide me about how to pin the pallu and put it on the head,” she remembers.
Balan hopes the film connects and strikes a chord and carries forward the gender equality discussion. “It’s something that cuts across the economic strata, not just something that only the poor or illiterate go through,” she says. Yet she feels it will take a long time and several on-going conversations—not just one film—to deal with it, “We have been stuck with centuries of patriarchy and conditioned in a certain way, while navigating through life and [have] picked up so much watching people around us,” emphasises the actor.
Each of Balan’s films is about this continuing engagement. Like the upcoming Shakuntala Devi , on the Indian “human computer”, a woman she feels was way ahead of her time. “She was unapologetically her own self, lived her life the way she wanted to, was a feminist at a time we didn’t know how to spell feminism, in India at least,” she asserts.
Ask Balan about the overt gender focus of her films and she says that it’s not about espousing causes, “It’s about finding my own answers and thinking aloud.” She adds, “On the one hand is the equality. On the other is deep-rooted conditioning. I am also as much a part of, a personification and recipient of that conflict.” Or, as she goes to assert succinctly about herself, “I am a work-in-progress feminist.”
Natkhat premieres on June 2 at 4.30 p.m. IST, at the We Are One: A Global Film Festival on You Tube