Fracturing nostalgia:
the subversive dissonance of
Vidya Balan’s star-text

by Tanushree Ghosh

Reviewers of Vidya Balan’s first Hindi film, Parineeta (2005), delighted in the film’s recreation of 1960s Calcutta; they reveled in the film’s period charm as well as its thoughtful adaptation of Sarat Chandra Chatterjee’s 1914 novel (Jha: 2005; Raheja: 2016). Despite the new film star’s earlier appearances in a TV comedy series, like Hum Paanch, as well as some advertisements and music videos, notably those by the 90s pop band, Euphoria, Vidya Balan at once gained recognition as a relative ingénue in the Mumbai film industry and as an actor—the tam-bram[1] [open endnotes in new window] girl from Chembur, Mumbai—who brought a certain middle-class femininity to the big screen.

Balan as the nerdy Radhika in Hum Paanch (The Five of Us) 1995 popular comedy show on Zee network. Balan in a Euphoria music video, “Kabhi Aana Tu Meri Gali” (“Come by my street someday,” 2003).

With her filmic debut in Parineeta, where she plays Lolita, a charming orphan living with her cash-strapped uncle, Balan received praise as an actress whose “old world charm” was intertwined with the film’s nostalgic temper as well with cinematic nostalgia in general (Ojha 2016). After Parineeta, Balan routinely played roles that evoked the chaste and passive heroine of the 1950s-80s Hindi films, the contra-vamp; this was before the boundaries between the self-effacing heroine and the spectacularly hyper-sexualized vamp significantly blurred in the 1990s. In contrast, later media debacles surrounded Balan’s poor film choices, fashion failures, and body-type issues, and these further served, albeit adversely, to constitute her as a heroine who was a little ‘too Indian.’

From 2006 to 2008, Balan starred in a series of mediocre films which consistently cast her as the stereotypical love interest. In this image, we see Balan as Janhavi, a radio show host in Lage Raho Munnabhai (Keep at it, Munnabhai, 2006). Balan as Isha Sahni in Heyy Babyy (2007).
Balan as Tehzeeb Hussain in Salaam-e-Ishq: A Tribute to Love (2007). Balan as Rajjo in Eklavya: The Royal Guard (2007).

With successes, such as Bhul Bhulaiya (2007), Paa (2009), Ishqiya (2010), No-one Killed Jessica (2011), Dirty Picture (2011),and Kahaani (2012), which garnered both critical and popular praise, Balan’s star-text became even more complex. On the one hand, Balan was termed Bollywood’s “fourth Khan,” suggesting both her ability to carry a film on her shoulders as well as her massive star power that drew audiences to film-theaters (India Today 2012). She was hailed as the “leading lady with balls” (Banan 2012), as “Vidya Balan, the hero” (Jhamkhandikar 2011): metaphorically then, Balan did not fit into the mold of the typical “love-interest” in Hindi cinema; she became masculine or trans-woman. On the other hand, she became the bearer of “Indian” femininity countering western influence, a woman of substance who made the saree seem sexy again (Gupta 2010).

In this essay, I examine how Balan’s star-text comes to be increasingly shaped by a multitude of cultural discourses expressing nostalgia for the ‘Indian’ womanhood of the past. This happened precisely because of the various, often incongruent discursive formations of nostalgia around and about her. For this reason, Balan’s star-text becomes a productive site that allows a critical examination of the interpenetrations of nostalgia and femininity in Hindi cinema and associated media discourses. In these intersections of Balan’s stardom with cinematic (diegetic and extra-diegetic) nostalgia for the pre-1990s heroine, her star-text generates critical dissonance. That is, it evokes cultural and cinematic nostalgia for ‘Indian’ femininity of the past, but it also subversively fractures nostalgia, sometimes in the same film, making room for revisionist gender politics. Through its dissonance, Balan’s star-text makes viewers more aware of the historical trajectories and the constructed nature of and gaps between star, actor, and filmic femininities. In this essay, I engage with key films from Balan’s career as well as her media persona (interviews, film reviews, articles, and magazine covers) to explore how her star-text utilizes cultural nostalgia for traditional femininity while increasingly making room for more radical subjectivities. However, within these overlaid contradictions, the syntax of Balan’s understated rebellion eschews western, liberal modernities. Instead, the non-normative aspect of her star-text is mostly drawn from counter-cultures present within the Indian ethos.

The polyphony of Balan’s nostalgic ‘Indianness’

In many discussions of the past, or rather how past is imagined, referring to nostalgia becomes a dominant modality. And, even though that concept appears ubiquitously, appearing everywhere from the popular lexicon to scholarly expositions on culture, nostalgia is not an easy idea to pin down.[2] There were pathological associations to the term that changed over time to emphasize nostalgia as an affective state of longing for the past. The ‘cure’ or the promise of the ‘home’ now gave way to the understanding that the longed-for past was essentially irrecoverable, that the desire or ache of nostalgia was for time elapsed that could not be recovered. As Linda Hutcheon notes,

“The aesthetics of nostalgia might, therefore, be less a matter of simple memory than of complex projection; the invocation of a partial, idealized history merges with a dissatisfaction with the present” (Hutcheon and Valdes 2010).

The tendency in nostalgic thought to simplify the past or to obscure certain undesirable, complex elements of it that do not fit an idealized version of the past fuels nostalgia’s reactionary and/or conservative temper (Stewart 2007; Jameson 1993; Grainge 2002; Hutcheon and Valdes 2010).[3] Recent scholarship, however, has sought to recuperate nostalgia from the conservative turn by locating potential critique in nostalgia’s dissatisfaction with the present (Pickering and Keightley 2006). Specifically, film and media studies have offered several important interventions by theorizing nostalgia as something more productive than a vacuous imitation or parody of the past. The “return of the image”—to use Vera Dika’s phrase—also offers the possibility that spectators might acknowledge the textualized nature of representation (Dika 2003; Dwyer 2015; Sprengler 2011; Silverman 1994). Scholars also point to how the affective power of nostalgia, its emotionally charged nature, becomes the reason for its perceived ‘low-brow,’ populist, uncritical character (Thomas Kulka 2002; Amelia DeFalco 2004).[4]

In this vein, I wish to explore here how the nostalgic resonance of Balan’s star-text moves between different registers and enables a multitude of ideologically distinct and varied spectatorial positions, potentially including ways for active spectatorships. However, before I unpack that assertion, I would also like to address the intersections between stardom and nostalgia as apparent in Balan’s star-text.

Richard Dyer’s fundational work identifies star image as

“[…] a complex configuration of visual, verbal and aural signs. This configuration may constitute the general image of stardom or of a particular star. It is manifest not only in films but in all kinds of media text” (1998, 34).

As a mediated, textual, semiotic construct, the star-image has a significance that is not intrinsic to the individual actor but pertains to larger cultural concerns. According to Dyer,

“Stars represent typical ways of behaving, feeling and thinking in contemporary society, ways that have been socially, culturally, historically constructed” (2011: 17).[5]

Within Indian film studies, Neepa Majumdar has notably complicated Dyer’s model of a public/private dichotomy in the star persona (2009).[6] Majumdar notes that in the 1930s and 40s, stardom did not take recourse to the duality of a public profile and a private life of gossip and scandal. In fact, as the Hindi film industry tried to define its identity against international cinema, especially Hollywood, and combat the disrepute of cinema within Indian society, publicists placed an emphasis on the stars’ personal profile of education, cultural refinement, and moral rectitude, especially for the female actors. In their reading of Filmindia in the 1940s, C. Yamini Krishna & Emilia Teles Da Silva also point to how this major film magazine propagated normative gender roles for film fans and the film industry alike (2015, 183-198).

However, as Rosie Thomas’ work has shown through a reading of Nargis’ star image, stardom in the Bombay film industry even as early as the 1950s could also display a dialogue between the star’s filmic and private identities:

“These stories [gossip] are consumed almost as avidly as the films themselves, and in recent years, many publications have been regularly produced devoted exclusively to such narratives, which become tacitly —and at times, even quite overtly—interwoven in the Indian audience’s readings of the films” (1995, 22).

Indeed, one may posit that with the emergence of film and video magazines, such as Filmfare, Stardust, Cineblitz, Filmiduniya, and Lehren in the 1970s and 80s, which covered celebrity life, gossip, and other events, stardom in Hindi-language cinema does display an increasing congruence with Dyer’s model for Hollywood stardom.[7]

When it comes to star-texts of female actors, Indian film scholars generally agree that an essentially different cultural paradigm fuels stardom in Hindi cinema as compared to Hollywood. While Majumdar has noted how the 1930s “Indian cinema found its model for liberatory, modern (female) identities in nationalist discourses,” scholars working on more contemporary, post-liberalization-era cinema still note cultural configurations of femininity that maintain gendered social spheres and roles.[8] As one of the most influential forms of mass culture, Hindi cinema has also continued to conflate ideal femininity with “Indian-ness” and “tradition” (Thomas 1995; Virdi 2003). With the influx of foreign money and international cultural influences, the increased visibility and appeal of the Hindu right, as well as the growing influence of the Indian diaspora in post-1990s liberalized India, cultural discourses consolidated traditional gender roles, sometimes to reactionary proportions. While Ashish Rajadhyaksha (2008) has noted the “Bollywoodization” of popular Bombay cinema as the Hindi film industry capitalized on the nostalgia for traditional roots, Jyothika Virdi (2003), Leela Fernandes (2001), and Jenny Sharpe (2005) among others have commented on how the Hindi film heroine became a site of identity politics that took specific shape in post-liberal India. As Fernandes observes,

“The potential disruption [of globalization and cultural hybridity] is managed through a remapping of the nation’s boundaries through a politics of gender which center around conflicts over the preservation of the purity of women’s sexuality, a process which once again conflates the preservation of nationness with the protection of women” (2001, 157).

Within the ideologically-charged context of post-liberal India, where identity, especially femininities, carry the burden of balancing tradition and modernity, Balan’s star-text becomes a critical instance of how nostalgia for the past and stardom can have a mutually constitutive relation. Moreover, one may argue that the tensions between nostalgia and the present, between traditional and transgressive femininities become the defining feature of Balan’s star-text and fuel her stardom.[9]

On the one hand, nostalgic formations of femininity, such as the ones shaping Balan’s star-text, are rooted in renascent nationalism that appropriates the past, even the cinematic past, as a mythical and simplified commodity. At worst, these discourses can be reactionary and conservative, conjuring up an ideological past that erases the contradictions and historicity of femininity as cultural construction. The nostalgia for 1950s and 60s heroines also attempts to recuperate an idealized femininity, founded on notions of modesty and sexual chastity; in film, ‘purity’ was underscored by the presence of the hypersexualized and morally questionable vamp figure.

On the other hand, those very nostalgic underpinnings of Balan’s “Indian” femininity positioned her as a misfit in a film-industry that wanted to cater both to the Indian diaspora as well as to the global sensibilities of audiences at home. With several beauty pageant winners-turning towards Bollywood for film careers in the 1990s, most notably Aishwarya Rai, Sushmita Sen, and Priyanka Chopra, femininity, especially in terms of body type and fashion, was defined according to norms driven by western, specifically white femininity. One might even say that the discursive continuum, which constituted international beauty pageants as sites where India showcased its presence and influence in the global scheme of things in the 1990s, continues in the cultural work of contemporary lifestyle and fashion magazines like Vogue India and Elle that routinely feature fashion-forward, physically petite actors like Sonam Kapoor and Alia Bhatt on their covers. Media sources constituted Balan as a heroine who was not quite contemporary, who did not fit into the mold of the glamorous, size-zero stars, such as Kareena and Deepika.

For example, to indicate a highly visible example of the harsh critique directed at Balan for her fashion sense, at the 2008 Filmfare awards the hosts, Shahrukh and Saif Khan, gave a visibly uncomfortable Balan the Na-real (not real) award, a mock trophy, for being the worst-dressed actress of 2007, mostly based on her wardrobe in Hey Baby. This moment—in itself, a significant confirmation of the Hindi film industry’s patriarchal and clannish—also marked Balan as the vulnerable outsider who could be openly mocked and ridiculed for her wardrobe decisions. In the media furor that followed, the costume designer for film, Manish Malhotra, not only called the star’s fashion sense outdated but also placed the blame on Balan’s body-type, which did not conform to Hindi film industry’s standards of feminine beauty: “How can she speak about fashion sense with her fantastic figure? Who is she?” (Upadhyay 2017) Media coverage of the Filmfare event and of the celebrity squabbles that followed were also heavily biased against Balan.

Three years later even, in 2010, the MSN Fashion section featured a snarky attack on Vidya, which was representative of the persistent industry and media narrative about her overly traditional, non-western ‘look’:

"Vidya, you exhaust us. The second we see your name in our inbox, we go running for a tall glass of Bournvita just to prepare ourselves for whatever you might be planning to attack us with" (Chaudhary 2012).

Yet, following the commercial and critical success, such as Dirty Picture and Kahaani, the configuration of ‘Indianness’ around Balan becomes much more laudatory, with critics seeing her as a successor to the Hindi film heroines of the 1950s and 60s. In more than thirty magazine covers featuring Vidya, such as in Filmfare, Cineblitz, FHM, Stardust, and Femina, Vidya’s attire and style is overwhelmingly traditional. In fact, 2013 covers for Filmfare India and Filmfare Middle East present Balan in a throwback, retro mode. In the former, Balan appears on the cover with hairstyle, make-up, and saree reminiscent of the 1960s heroines, like Asha Parekh and Sharmila Tagore, while in the latter, the cover photograph recreates the look of heroines such as Meena Kumari and Madhubala, complete with the sepia tones of the photograph. In its 2013 collector’s edition, which was put together as a homage to actors of the yesteryears, Cineblitz featured Balan on the cover recreating Nargis’ iconic scene with the plough in Mother India. Balan inhabits star personas of the past, thus establishing a continuum between the expression of complex femininity on-screen and the stardom of actors, such as Meena Kumari, Madhubala, and Nargis, with her own star-text.

Balan projects traditional Indian identity on magazine covers: Balan on a Filmfare Magazine Cover, March 2010. Balan on FHM Magazine Cover, November 2010, which was touted as ‘making the saree sexy again.'
Balan’s look is reminiscent of 1950s heroines in this Filmfare Hindi Magazine Cover, Februrary 2013. Black and white photo of Balan from the same photoshoot for the January 2013 cover of Filmfare Middle East magazine.
Balan recreates the iconic pose from Mother India for the April 2013 cover of Cineblitz magazine. Balan channels the 1960s and 70s heroines, such as Sharmila Tagore and Asha Parekh, for the July 2013 cover of Filmfare magazine.
Balan in traditional attire being addressed as “Wonder Woman” on a Filmfare Magazine Cover, November 2017. Balan wears a saree at the 2013 Cannes while several of her peers choose the more western option of evening gowns.

Moreover, as critics compared Balan’s cinematic performances to powerhouse actresses of the past, like Waheeda Rahman and Shabana Azmi, their language demonstrates nostalgia functioning in empowering ways. For example, in an interview, Waheeda Rahman identified Balan as an actress who could—in Rahman’s own words—“be the next Waheeda Rahman,” highlighting by that comparison Balan’s acting prowess (Indian Express 2015). Along similar lines, Balan becomes the “classical actress,” her “brand of acting” reminiscent of actresses known for their author-backed complex roles and compelling cinematic presence and performance, such as “Shabana Azmi, Smita Patil, and Nandita Das.” As critics place Balan in that venerable lineage, they find her superior to “glam gals,” who function mostly as eye candy in popular hero-oriented films (Telegraph 2006; Times of India 2010; Facetime 2016). This nostalgic evocation of cinema thespians creates a historical trajectory within Balan’s own body of work, her performance, and breaks the vacuum that enables the perception of the female actress as commodity in Hindi cinema.

In recent years, Balan has embraced this identity, which sets her apart from the more physically normative and fashion-forward contemporary female actors, and interestingly she uses a narrative of self-discovery to explain her difference. In an interview with Anupama Chopra, Balan laughs at her unsuccessful attempts to fit into the mold of the contemporary glamorous actress. However, in that self-ironizing moment, it is also apparent that she chooses to see herself as a ‘serious’ actress who expects challenging roles; she observes that she “sleepwalks through the movies” where she is cast as the passive love-interest (Chopra 2016).