For every dark cloud there’s a silver lining, and for every silver lining, there is a dark cloud in the horizon waiting to take over.
How many times have you been forwarded messages that tell you that a genius like Einstein used to be a confused boy in school? Or, how Michael Jordan was kicked out of his college basketball team? You must have been told an umpteenth number of times that Amitabh Bachchan got rejected by All India Radio for his now famous baritone voice. And how, the ‘nothing is impossible’ Rajinikanth used to be a bus conductor? Oft-repeated as they are, these stories of failures still inspire us when we are down. You often find yourself asking: ‘If he can do it, why can’t I?’ Such stories are never erased from our mail boxes. And now you can add another name to that list – Vidya Balan. Her story is particularly inspiring, considering she started her acting career roughly around the time I started writing on entertainment. So, maybe I would be able to tell you something here that you have never heard about her before. Everyone today is amazed at some of the achievements of Vidya Balan. If I have to measure success then perhaps there is no other heroine that comes to mind, who has made such a diverse mark on Bollywood.
But Vidya Balan’s life — like an Einstein, Amitabh Bachchan, Rajinikanth or a Michael Jordan — is a story of a string of failures and successive failures that followed. But we are so preoccupied with the spotlight that the darkness that surrounds it has escaped our eyes. Let’s go down that path again, and get inspired by her story.
Shall we start from her childhood? Well that’s too long a time to go back. We will start with her professional life — from the time she stepped into the big bad world of entertainment to earn some money and creative satisfaction, like the rest of us.
Vidya’s first ‘break’
Just look at the crop of heroines around you and you’ll notice that everybody had a definite trajectory that threw them towards Bollywood – a path laden with glamour. Most of them were beauty queens, who’d won the crown as a stepping stone to Bollywood. Others were established models for whom Bollywood was a foregone conclusion. Some like Katrina Kaif were fortunate enough to have mentors to guide them. But Vidya Balan was just another applicant among the 900 aspirants for a screen-test for a ‘campus TV soap’.
So, here’s the unknown story of her first television break that never materialised. When Vidya was in college, a friend of hers told her that a TV producer was scouting for young faces to cast in serial based on ‘college campus love stories’. The serial was to be aired for a new channel. Vidya decided to go for the screen test, a decision that would change her life forever. She ran to her elder sister Priya and requested her to groom her. Like any other elder sister, Priya took out the best dress from her closet, combed her hair and took her to a local studio to get photographed. The photograph where she was blankly staring into the camera was attached to the application and sent to the producer. She was called for a screen test after that. Probably 15 at that time, Vidya managed to race past the 900 applicants then and got chosen for the serial. Her big lucky break even though it was not a lead role!
If my sources are correct, then Vidya was chosen to play the go-to girl, a sort of an agony aunt of her college. She started shooting for the show on weekends for nine months, bunking her high-school lectures. But her first television serial was never aired as the channel it was shot for went bust and the show got shelved unceremoniously. Dejected by the experience, it somehow strengthened Vidya’s resolve to realize her dreams. Life gave her another chance — of playing a character that nobody would play.
The second ‘break’
Her first break was perhaps the worst that any Bollywood heroine can imagine as a debut. Sad that the actors of his serial did not get a chance to prove their mettle, the producer sent all of them to Ekta Kapoor, also a rookie in the television industry at that time. Ekta was making a sitcom called Hum Paanch. It was a tale of a family of five sisters, with each having distinct quirks — one was a feminist, the other obsessed with her beauty, the third, a tom-boy and the youngest, who was in school, a gossip queen. The only sister that stood out of the five was plain Jane, bespectacled, partially deaf, slow to react and with her nose in the book always, Vidya. Clearly the role of the sister was the worst among the five; it paled in front of the others. The role of the bland Radhika would be Vidya’s real big break on the small screen!
Here’s a partial footage of the Hum Paanch serial with Vidya Balan as Radhika. Notice how Sweety (Rakhi Vijan) steals the show all the way and Radhika (Vidya Balan) is just there as a supporting character.
Vidya had no other option but to accept the role at the time. She would get the least screen time among the five sisters, while Sweety (played by Rakhi Vijan), the one obsessed with her beauty, was the star of the show. The character of Radhika would often get pushed around by her sisters. It was clearly a role that nobody would have done, but Vidya did it. Hum Paanch soon started climbing up the charts in those days when Zee TV ruled the satellite air-space as it virtually had no competition. And the serial too virtually had no competition because of the afternoon audience (which mainly constituted of children and housewives) who loved it.
Why she opted out of her first TV serial
Hum Paanch started climbing the TRP charts and all the ‘sisters’ in the serial were on their way to some kind of stardom. But no sooner than she started getting recognition, came the next big hurdle. Her dad, a senior executive with a private company at the time, saw her attendance and mark-sheets and declared that her acting career was over. He issued a diktat that Vidya quit the serial and complete her studies first. And when Vidya broached the topic of quitting the show with the producer Ekta Kapoor, she was not amused either! Ekta didn’t waste any time and promptly replaced her. Her career in television almost came to a halt before it could actually take off. Her father told her that she should complete her education first. The logic that in Bollywood, you will have to be young to shine as an actor, didn’t cut much ice with her father who was firm that she complete her studies first. But then Vidya being Vidya was not ready to give up.
Vidya then went on to complete her class 12 with flying colours and got around 85 per cent marks which was good enough to secure her a seat at the prestigious St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai. She completed her honours degree in Sociology from there and went on to earn a Masters in Sociology from the Mumbai University. Till she got her Masters Degree, Vidya never tried getting a role for a film (as promised to her dad) and continued doing ad films instead. Here is the advertisement she did for Clinic Plus that was much appreciated. Interestingly Vidya, who was actually in college, played the role of a mother with elan. Take a look…
An observer watching her at that point of time would marvel at her audacity. But nothing stopped the podgy Vidya from dreaming about becoming the lead heroine of a film, one day. Vidya told me once in the course of an interview that if you want something real bad, the Universe conspires to make it a reality. How many times have we heard this gem of a philosophy from Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist being quoted; the most recent being its translation in Shah Rukh Khan’s Om Shanti Om. But Vidya seemed to have lived it – she nurtured the dream — a dream so intense that she lived the dream day in and day out.
While studying in St Xavier’s College (Mumbai), she kept doing advertisements on the side. By the time, she appeared for her Masters (MA) in Sociology, she had already done close to 92 ad films. A few more and she could have made a century then! Now you know why Vidya Balan was absent from the film and television circuit for almost five years after her debut. Here's another well-known ad that she shot during that period.