MUMBAI—With her very first film, “Parineeta,” Vidya Balan showed that there was space in the industry for a homely girl whose forte was acting and not glamour. Fourteen years later, after playing roles as varied as a housewife, a ruthless femme fatale, a brothel-owner, sister to a murder victim, lady detective and an RJ, she has shown that she is a star with a difference.

Admittedly, she has floundered in many a case, notably in fairly recent films like “Kahaani 2” and “Begum Jaan,” but the triumphs have outclassed these failures – people still remember her path-breaking turns in movies like “The Dirty Picture” and “Kahaani” among others. We begin our conversation on this note as we meet up on the eve of the release of “Mission Mangal,” in which she essays a scientist.

Excerpts from an interview:

Q: You have been the forerunner of the trend of substance-heavy films, especially the female-oriented ones. In the 2010-2011 phase, you acted in “Ishqiya” and “No One Killed Jessica” for starters.

A (Laughs): I just think that I was there at the right place at the right time, and it is kind of people to give me credit! A change was underway, waiting to happen, and Ekta Kapoor and Milan Luthria for “The Dirty Picture” and Sujoy Ghosh for “Kahaani” also deserve that credit. The bomb exploded soon after, and today, look at Sujoy’s “Badla,” wherein Taapsee, one of my co-stars in “Mission Mangal,” had much important a role as Mr. Bachchan!

Q: Talking of co-stars, how did you enjoy being one of five heroines here?

A: It was so cool! It was great fun! We actually outnumbered the men! Last year too, there were five actresses in my “Begum Jaan,” but they were all relatively unknown actresses. Here they are all big names – it was as if we are back to the times of “Amar Akbar Anthony” with Neetu Singh, Parveen Babi and Shabana Azmi!

Q: And how was it reuniting with Akshay Kumar after “Heyy Babyy,” “Bhool Bhulaiya” and that cameo in “Thank You?”

A: He still speaks a lot. But now, so do I. He is a great prankster and leg-puller, but now I pull his leg too. He once tied spoons to my saree pallu! He would keep hiding our mobile phones and watches. I once played a prank on him, and he fell for it! I was so thrilled! (Laughs)

Q: How do you feel about the recent Chandrayaan 2?

A: I am very proud of the fact that women are prominent there as well, but at a selfish level, it is the best publicity for us! (Laughs)

Q: How do you look at Science and God?

A: Look, there are energies around. There is an energy that cannot be explained by science, is beyond calculation and understanding. So you could say that I believe in God and also Science!

Q: What attracted you to “Mission Mangal?”

A: It had everything. I knew I have to do this film. Even the scientific part was easily comprehensible. It was about a very big mission, so there was the scale. Even more interesting were the personal journeys. Jagan Shakti has spent hours on researching the film and meeting innumerable women scientists from ISRO. He kept their designations but fictionalized their journeys, where personal and professional meet, like it happens with all of us. We all have professional crises, but have to be normal at home, and vice-versa. Along with all this, there was humor – and entertainment.

Most important also was the fact that we Indians tend to instantly judge on appearance and don’t wait to know someone. A successful woman must be suited and booted, with short hair. A long-haired, saree-clad woman, we think, is fit only to look after her home. But this film shows that we are all competent, talented individuals, even if we may be different in thought and appearance. And that applies to men as well.

Q: Akshay Kumar said that the idea for the film first came from Jagan because his sister is a scientist. Do you by any chance play her role?

A: No, but I did meet her to understand her life. Her husband is from either the Indian Navy or some merchant navy, and he is largely at sea, so she has to manage both her job and her two kids largely by herself.

Q: Why do you work so less?

A: I work for the joy of it, because there are so many things more in life to do! I would sometimes do films for other reasons earlier, but not now. I am happy that I still get to do a film a year or once in two years. I literally surrender myself to a film. Basically, while reading or hearing a narration, I must feel that I want to live this character. But if I can’t see myself in it or feel that I can’t do this, I don’t take it up. The role should call out to me.

Q: And what if one or more of those films flops? How do you feel then, like the recent phase in which you had back-to-back failures?

A: To my fans, I guess it should prove that I am a human being and not King Midas! (Laughs) Today, I have realized that one person alone cannot make a film work. I would think, “What wrong have I done?” or “What did I do right earlier that I did not do now?” Sometimes, a film I do not like works, and I wonder, how did this film run? But I think the energies matched. When films flop, the energies in them somehow do not match! So now I am okay with the fact.

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