As one of Bollywood’s most talented actors ever, Vidya Balan turns 40 today, we cannot help but look at her power-packed filmography. Not many actresses can command the respect that the No One Killed Jessica actor does from her audience. Whether or not her movies do well, when Balan is on screen, you sit up and take notice. But that’s not just because she fits the quintessential Bollywood heroine mould to the T, because she doesn’t. Right from her debut in  Pradeep Sarkar’s Parineeta, Balan has had our attention because she is a terrific actor.

She knows her craft and her confidence as a performer adds to all that she brings to the silver screen. It is not a surprise then, that the actor has dared to take up unconventional roles all along her career. Barring a few films like Heyy Babyy, Kismet Konnection etc earlier in her career, Balan has challenged the stereotypical representation of heroines in Hindi films. Here’s wishing her a very Happy Birthday as we look at her five most powerful performances.

Paa: Balan essayed the role of a single mother whose only child has a rare genetic disorder called progeria. Playing her son in this R. Balki film was Amitabh Bachchan. Now when an actor as popular as Bachchan does such an atypical role, the focus is naturally on him. Yet as his determined mother, who balances professional life with her duties towards a son with special needs, Balan gave a touching performance. We see love, fear of impending heartbreak, reluctance to let in the estranged partner back in their lives, and empathy in Balan’s performance. So despite it being marketed as a father-son film where senior and junior Bachchan reverse roles, Balan managed to hold her own ground, and that is quite remarkable.

Right from her debut in  Pradeep Sarkar’s Parineeta, Balan has had our attention because she is a terrific actor

Ishqiya: This 2011 film is memorable for its unconventional setting, dialogues laced with the choicest of Hindi cuss words and a soothing soundtrack. Here, Balan was pitched against actors like Naseeruddin Shah and Arshad Warsi. The former is known for his nuanced portrayals while the latter we have always associated with impeccable comic timing. What was the chance that Balan could leave an impression on us, including Gulzar’s writing. But put Balan in the skin of a character like Krishna and you’ve hit the jackpot. Krishna is deceptive, raw and out for a revenge. She is a widow who owns up to her sexuality. Balan not only made her character likable but added a certain sensuality to it.

The Dirty Picture: A biopic on life of southern actor Silk Smitha who was (in)famous for doing erotic roles. Who would’ve thought that Bollywood would dare to make such a film, paying homage to the loud and boisterous ’80s and all its eccentricities? To top that, the role fell into Balan’s lap, whom we had never seen in such an avatar. But she became Silk Smitha – flamboyant, unapologetic, self-destructive and hungry for love. Balan has given one of her best performance in the career, moving, gyrating, heaving and dressing like Smitha. She gives viewers a taste of Smitha’s life without making it look like a mockery or lacking conviction to endorse the choices she made. No wonder it earned her a National Award.

Kahaani: Where does a female actor go from sweeping all the awards on offer in a season, on a possible career high? She grabs you by your neck and shoves you into enigmatic bylanes of Kolkata during Durga puja, as a pregnant woman in search of her missing husband. While you spend most of the film sympathizing with this resilient, yet visibly pregnant woman in a strange city, the last few minutes of the film turn the story on its head. Without giving away any spoilers (if you still haven’t seen Kahaani yet), one can only say that there are two Vidya’s in this film (also the name of her character). One needs help, is worried and scared and yet not willing to back down, while another is cold-blooded and clever. And Balan makes that switch in one scene. Besides, not everyday do we see a film become a blockbuster, simply on shoulders of a female lead and a great script.

In The Dirty Picture, Balan became Silk Smitha – flamboyant, unapologetic, self-destructive and hungry for love

Tumhari Sulu: We  have seen Balan essay the role of a radio jockey earlier in Lage Raho Munna Bhai, hence many wondered what new could Balan bring to the table now. But this isn’t a film just about a radio jokey. It is about a middle-class poorly educated woman who dreams big. In the hands of any other actor, Sulu could have been an irritating character, who is too persistent for her own good.  But Balan makes it lovable and you cannot help but root for Sulu. She portrays the role of a home-maker with oodles of self-belief so real, that you end up thinking you’ve run into a Sulu at least once in your life. Main kar sakti hai (I can do it) is what Sulu believes in. And when it comes to Vidya Balan, the actor has proved she can do it all.
Happy Birthday Vidya Balan!
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