Vidya Balan’s back in Oz

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For India’s sweetheart, her annual date with Melbourne goes off beautifully. ASHISH CHAWLA and RAJNI ANAND LUTHRA report

As he introduced his viewers to Vidya Balan, Michael Rowland of ABC TV’s News Breakfast observed, “She’s known for her portrayal of strong female characters in Indian cinema.”

He then proceeded to show a montage of Vidya’s jhataks and mataks from your typical Bollywood masala potboilers.

Oh, the contradictions of being Vidya Balan…!

She’s your typical Bharatiya nari, but can also be a feisty feminist. Your typical Lalita, yet a convincing Silk.

Perhaps that’s why everybody loves her.

India’s sweetheart was back in Oz this past week, for her annual assignment with the Indian Film Festival of Melbourne (IFFM). For five years now, she’s been the Ambassador for the film festival, at which the local Indians get together to see movies they’ve all seen before, and the local politicians hobnob with some of India’s most beautiful people and take in some of the stardust.

Vidya’s duties as Ambassador include announcing the dates of the festival, meeting representatives of the Victorian Government that underwrites a substantial part of the event, exchanging some gifts with the bigwigs, taking to the mainstream media to spread the word about the festival and about “Indian cinema and Indian culture”, answering inane questions from the local Indian media, and posing for some pics with the fans. This year, for the fifth time, Vidya performed all her duties diligently and with appropriate enthusiasm – almost as if she was doing them for the first time. She met with the new Victorian Minister for Creative Industries and Equality, Martin Foley, who sadly, did not turn up in traditional clothes like his Liberal predecessor Louise Asher did each time she fronted up for her date with Vidya. The traditional exchange of gifts, however, took place with the same level of bonhomie. (He gifted her with a work of Aboriginal glass art from Melbourne’s Kirra Gallery, and she gifted him a copy of Vir Sanghvi’s book India: Then & Now).

Vidya had morning tea with select members of the Indian community and those from the mainstream, organised by Festival Director Mitu Bhowmick-Lange, and then graciously did the rounds of interviews, not only for ABC TV but also for the Sydney Morning Herald and for Radio National and the like. She also pretended, like always, to enjoy herself at the interviews with the local Indian media.

At the interviews, she did the usual spiel about how cinema is bringing our two great nations together, and how it can help build awareness and create cultural and social change. She also answered some tough questions, perhaps not as well, about the quality of life for India’s women in contemporary times. This however, reminded her to mention that the theme of this year’s film festival is “Equality” – among the races and the sexes and the social classes. This is also the theme of the Western Union Short Film Festival that is run as part of the festival.

Fun-loving Vidya also manages to squeeze in an entertainment event as part of her itinerary in Melbourne each year. While one year she helped start off an AFL game at the MCG and cosied up with Eddie McGuire afterwards in a bright red sari, another time she had dinner with “her favourite TV personality” Matt Preston. This time round, she picked something more sombre – a visit to the Royal Children’s Hospital’s Newborn Intensive Care Unit.

The IFFM has associated itself with the hospital this year, hoping to raise funds with a fashion show featuring leading Indian designer Anamika Khanna. Indian and Australian celebrities will walk the ramp. The fashion event will also showcase the works of eight Australian designers inspired by what India means to them. Their creations will be auctioned off to raise funds for the RCH.

The festival will run from 14 to 27 August. Given that India’s Independence Day falls at this time, the Festival will also include a flag-hoisting event at Federation Square.

The usual Bollywood dance competition, masterclasses with film celebrities and Awards Night, are on the agenda again this year.

For the local Indian community though, the question at the top of their heads is, who are the Bollywood celebrities visiting this year?

Organisers are not giving much away at this point in time, but are certainly throwing the right baits: Amitabh Bachchan has been asked, they say… meanwhile there was some chatter about Salman Khan but of course he can’t come because of his ongoing court case.

Anyone willing to bet that Malaika Arora Khan will be back?

Meanwhile, Minister Foley announced that his government will most likely support the festival again in 2016. And so we’ll see Vidya back in Melbourne same time next year, doing the same thing all over again.