Vidya aspired to a career in film from a young age, and had her first acting role in the 1995 sitcom Hum Paanch. She pursued a master's degree in sociology from the University of Mumbai and simultaneously made several unsuccessful attempts to start a career in film. She subsequently featured in television commercials and music videos. In 2003 she made her feature film debut as the protagonist of the independent Bengali drama Bhalo Theko. In 2005 Vidya garnered praise for her first Hindi film, the drama Parineeta, and followed it with a leading role in the highly successful 2006 comedy film Lage Raho Munna Bhai.
In addition to acting in films, Vidya promotes humanitarian causes and supports the empowerment of women. She initially drew criticism for her fluctuating weight and "questionable" dress sense, but was later credited in the media for "not morphing herself to fit into any conventional slot". She became a member of the Indian Central Board of Film Certification in 2017. Vidya is married to the film producer Siddharth Roy Kapur.
Vidya Balan was born on 1 January 1979 in Chembur, Mumbai, to parents of Tamilian descent. Her father, P. R. Balan, is the executive vice-president of Digicable and her mother, Saraswathy Balan, is a homemaker. According to Vidya, they speak a mix of Malayalam and Tamil at home. Her elder sister, Priya Balan, works in advertising. The actress Priyamani is her second cousin.
Vidya grew up in the suburban neighbourhood of Chembur, Mumbai and attended St. Anthony Girls' High School. From a young age she aspired to a career in film and was inspired by the work of actors Shabana Azmi and Madhuri Dixit. At the age of 16, she starred in the first season of Ekta Kapoor's sitcom Hum Paanch as Radhika, a bespectacled teenager. Following the success of the show, Vidya refused director Anurag Basu's offer to star in a television soap opera, as she wanted to concentrate on a film career. Her parents were supportive of the decision but encouraged her to complete her education first. She attended St. Xavier's College to pursue a bachelor's degree in sociology and later earned a master's degree from the University of Mumbai.
While pursuing her master's degree, Vidya was cast as the female lead in the Malayalam film Chakram, opposite Mohanlal and was subsequently signed on for 12 other Malayalam language films. However, due to production difficulties, Chakram was shelved. The postponement of a film starring Mohanlal was an unheard of occurrence in Malayalam cinema and producers blamed Vidya for bringing "bad luck" to the project; labelled her as a "jinx"; and replaced her in the films that she had been contracted for.
She shifted focus to Tamil cinema. In 2001, she was cast as the female lead in N. Linguswamy's Run (2002). However, after completing the first shooting schedule, she was unceremoniously dropped and replaced by Meera Jasmine. She was signed up under false pretences for a sex comedy, a genre she was uncomfortable with, and decided to leave the project. Thereafter, she signed on for a third Tamil film, Manasellam (2003), but was replaced by Trisha as the director was dissatisfied with her work. Kalari Vikraman, another Malayalam film that she completed work for in 2003, failed to get a theatrical release.
After failing to start a film career, Vidya appeared in approximately 60 television commercials and in music videos for Euphoria and Shubha Mudgal; a majority of these were directed by Pradeep Sarkar. In 2003, she was signed on by Goutam Halder for his independent Bengali drama Bhalo Theko: her first film release. Her portrayal of Anandi, a young woman reminiscing about her past, won her an Anandalok Purashkar for Best Actress.
In 2005 Vidya made her Hindi film debut with Pradeep Sarkar's musical drama Parineeta. Before being cast, she had to undergo extensive auditions for six months. The film, an adaptation of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay's novel of the same name, narrated the love story of an idealist Lalita (Vidya) and a musician Shekhar (Saif Ali Khan), the son of a capitalist businessman. Her performance in the film was praised by critics; Derek Elley from Variety wrote, "An acting revelation is Tamil newcomer [Vidya] Balan, whose devoted but dignified Lalita is the picture's heart and soul." Parineeta fetched her a Best Female Debut award and a nomination for Best Actress at the annual Filmfare Awards ceremony. The following year, Vidya appeared opposite Sanjay Dutt in Rajkumar Hirani's comedy film Lage Raho Munna Bhai. She portrayed the role of Jhanvi, a radio jockey and the love interest of the protagonist Munna Bhai. To prepare for her role, she met with a couple of radio jockeys and watched them at work. Her performance was critically well received, and the film emerged as a blockbuster with earnings of ₹1.19 billion (US$19 million).
In 2007 Vidya featured in a supporting role in Mani Ratnam's semi-biographical drama Guru as a woman suffering from multiple sclerosis. The film, which starred Mithun Chakraborty, Abhishek Bachchan, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, and R. Madhavan in leading roles, performed well at the box office. However, film critics Khalid Mohamed and Raja Sen noted that her "talent was wasted" in a "minuscule role". Her next release was Nikhil Advani's Salaam-e-Ishq: A Tribute To Love, a romantic comedy featuring an ensemble cast, in which she was paired opposite John Abraham. The film, which narrated six love stories, saw Vidya play the role of a television reporter, Tehzeeb Hussain, suffering from a memory loss condition. The film, which was a critical and commercial failure, generated positive reviews for Vidya. Sukanya Verma of Rediff.com wrote, "Vidya's transformation from a self-assured working woman to a helpless, vulnerable person is superb."
Vidya then took a supporting role in Vidhu Vinod Chopra's drama Eklavya: The Royal Guard, alongside Amitabh Bachchan, Boman Irani, Sharmila Tagore, Saif Ali Khan, and Sanjay Dutt. The film, which failed commercially, met with positive critical reviews and was selected as India's official entry to the Oscars for the 80th Academy Awards. She was later cast as Isha Sahni, a single mother, in Sajid Khan's Heyy Babyy, alongside co-stars Akshay Kumar, Ritesh Deshmukh, and Fardeen Khan. The comedy was a box-office success but garnered negative reviews from critics, as did Vidya's performance; CNN-IBN's Rajeev Masand criticised her wardrobe and make-up, and considered her the "sore thumb" of the film.
Vidya's fifth and final film of 2007 was Priyadarshan's Bhool Bhulaiyaa, a remake of the Malayalam film Manichitrathazhu (1993). Vidya featured as Avani Chaturvedi (a character played by Shobana in the Malayalam original), a woman suffering from dissociative identity disorder. Co-starring Shiney Ahuja, Akshay Kumar, and Ameesha Patel, Bhool Bhulaiyaa was a commercial success with a worldwide revenue of over ₹830 million (US$13 million). Reviewers, while being generally negative of the film, were appreciative of Vidya's performance. Writing for Hindustan Times, Khalid Mohamed described her as "bankably likeable" and Bollywood Hungama's Taran Adarsh labelled her as "splendid". The role earned Vidya a second Filmfare nomination in the Best Actress category.
In 2008's Halla Bol, Vidya played a supporting role alongside Ajay Devgn and Pankaj Kapur. The story was based on the life of activist Safdar Hashmi, who was killed by political rivals while performing in a street play (Halla Bol) in 1989. The film was a critical failure. Later that year, she co-starred with Shahid Kapoor in Aziz Mirza's romantic comedy Kismat Konnection. Faring poorly at the box office, the film and her performance generated a negative response; critic Sonia Chopra commented, "[Balan] is made to look downright drab. The haircut is unflattering, the make-up too plain, the clothes usually in off-white or brown. Plus the character is repetitive and reminds us of the one she played in Lage Raho Munna Bhai."
In 2009 Vidya played the role of an unwed gynaecologist struggling with her 12-year-old son's progeria syndrome, in the R. Balki-directed dramedy Paa. Amitabh Bachchan played the role of Vidya's son and Abhishek Bachchan played the title character. A critical and commercial success, the film has been described as a major turning point in her career. Sukanya Verma compared her acting style to that of Dimple Kapadia and noted, "Balan is poignant yet restrained and projects an impressive figure of grace and integrity"; Nikhat Kazmi from The Times of India further argued that Vidya was successful in lending a "rare dignity to the image of the Bollywood mom." Her portrayal garnered her several awards, including a Filmfare Award for Best Actress and a Screen Award for Best Actress.
Vidya followed the success of Paa with the Vishal Bhardwaj-produced Ishqiya (2010), a black comedy directed by debutant Abhishek Chaubey; co-starring Naseeruddin Shah, Arshad Warsi, and Salman Shahid. Vidya's role was that of the sexually manipulative Krishna Verma. Vidya described her character as "an epitome of grey" and a departure from the conventional portrayal of women in cinema. In preparation for her part, she undertook professional training to speak in the local Uttar Pradesh-dialect. The feature as well as her performance received critical acclaim. Anupama Chopra of NDTV stated, "Vidya Balan's smoldering looks scorch the screen even as her eyes hint at tragedy. She proves that she is miles ahead of the cookie cutter Barbie dolls that clutter Bollywood and that sensuality has very little to do with showing skin." Her work in the film earned Vidya a Filmfare Critics Award for Best Actress, a second consecutive Best Actress award at Screen and a nomination for Best Actress at Filmfare.
Raj Kumar Gupta's semi-biographical thriller No One Killed Jessica with Rani Mukerji was Vidya's first release of 2011. The film, based on the Jessica Lal murder case, saw her portray the real-life character of Sabrina Lal, Jessica's reticent sister. While preparing for the role, Vidya did not meet Lal on the insistence of Gupta as "the Sabrina [...] today is different from the Sabrina a decade ago, [when] the story begins". No One Killed Jessica met with contrasting reviews from critics, but Vidya's performance was particularly praised. The Hindu remarked on Vidya's ability to be "in sublime control over her emotions" and Savera Someshwar of Rediff.com added that "her hesitant body language, her faith, her helplessness, her rage, her sorrow and her gratitude all come across beautifully". The film had earnings of ₹490 million (US$7.6 million) and was noted for being a commercial success despite the absence of a male lead. Vidya earned another Filmfare nomination in the Best Actress category for the film. In March 2011, a retrospective of Vidya's films was held in Australia, as part of the Bollywood and Beyond festival. That same year, Vidya featured in a guest appearance in Santosh Sivan's Malayalam language fantasy film Urumi.
Vidya's next appearance was in Ekta Kapoor's production The Dirty Picture, a biopic based on the life and death of the controversial Indian actress Silk Smitha. Vidya was cast as Silk, who was—in Vidya's words—"known for her brazenness and in-your-face sexuality." She described the role as the "boldest" she had ever played, one that "required a lot of mental preparation." To look the part, she gained 12 kilograms (26 lb). The film opened to major critical acclaim, and Vidya received unanimous praise for her portrayal which several reviewers regarded as her best performance to date. Khalid Mohamed observed, "She's extraordinary: gutsy, consistently in character and unafraid of exposing her darker side. Here's the kind of complex performance which you haven't evidenced in years and years." Her director Milan Luthria described her as the contemporary claimant of the "sex-symbol" title and compared her "voluptuousness" to the likes of yesteryear actresses Sridevi and Vyjayanthimala. The film was eventually declared a blockbuster, earning ₹1.14 billion (US$18 million) worldwide. Vidya won a second Filmfare Award, a third consecutive Screen Award, and a National Film Award for Best Actress.
For her next feature film, Vidya starred as Vidya Bagchi, a pregnant woman in search of her missing husband in Sujoy Ghosh's Kahaani (2012). The thriller, set in the city of Kolkata during the Durga Puja festivities, met with wide critical acclaim. To lend authenticity to her part, Vidya met several pregnant women and learnt about their lifestyle. She generated public and media attention by wearing a fake baby bump during the film's promotional activities. Vidya received further appreciation for her performance in Kahaani. Subhash K. Jha praised Vidya's portrayal of "grace under pressure" as "measured and skilled"; Pratim D. Gupta of The Telegraph added that she "gets into the physicality of a pregnant woman with unfailing mastery". Kahaani emerged as a major commercial success both at the domestic and international box office, with revenues of over ₹1.04 billion (US$16 million). Vidya won a fourth consecutive Best Actress Award at Screen and a third Best Actress Award at Filmfare.
After completing the duties of a jury member at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, Vidya starred opposite Emraan Hashmi as a boisterous Punjabi woman in Ghanchakkar, a comic-thriller from director Raj Kumar Gupta. Critics were unenthusiastic about the film and it earned little at the box office. Vidya then provided the voice of Draupadi for Mahabharat, a 3D animation film based on the Indian epic of the same name.
The romantic comedy Shaadi Ke Side Effects was Vidya's first film release of 2014. Directed by Saket Chaudhary and co-starring Farhan Akhtar, the film tells the story of a married couple who face a series of comic events after the birth of their first child. Critics found the film to be a "bit overstretched", but praised both Akhtar and Vidya's performances. Also that year, Vidya featured as the host of No More Kamzor, a television special on women empowerment. She then starred in the comedy-drama Bobby Jasoos, which saw her play the eponymous role of a Hyderabadi woman aspiring to be a detective. Vidya was drawn to the idea of playing a detective and identified with the character's struggle to "do something unusual" in life. The role required her to sport twelve elaborate disguises, and she trained with a language coach to adopt a Hyderabadi accent. Saumil Gandhi of Mumbai Mirror wrote that Vidya's "effervescence rubs off on the proceedings and gives it an energy that drives the film". However, both Shaadi Ke Side Effects and Bobby Jasoos failed to find a wide audience.
In 2015, Vidya reteamed with Hashmi in the Mohit Suri-directed romantic drama Hamari Adhuri Kahani. Penned by Mahesh Bhatt, the film tells the story of Vasudha, a single mother trapped in an abusive marriage, who has an extra-marital affair. Shubha Shetty-Saha of Mid Day reviewed, "Vidya Balan, a fine actress with thousand emotions fleeting across her lovely face, has shown us what she's capable of in her earlier movies. But here, saddled with a boring, outdated, weepy character, there was nothing much even she could do". Vidya next took on the part of a police officer in Te3n (2016), a thriller inspired by the 2013 South Korean film Montage, co-starring Amitabh Bachchan and Nawazuddin Siddiqui. She was attracted to the idea of playing a "no-nonsense police inspector who commands much respect" and was particularly drawn to her character's "silent aggression". NDTV's Saibal Chatterjee criticised the decision to bill Vidya's pivotal role as a special appearance and noted how much her presence benefited the film. Rajeev Masand was critical of the film's predictable denouement, but wrote that Vidya "is reliably solid each time she’s on screen, raising her brow, curling her lip to effectively communicate more than words can". She then portrayed the actress Geeta Bali in multiple songs for Ekk Albela, a Marathi language biopic of the actor-director Bhagwan Dada.
Vidya's final release of the year was Sujoy Ghosh's Kahaani 2: Durga Rani Singh, a sequel Kahaani, although it narrated a different story. The film was highly anticipated, and critics believed that Vidya's recent spate of poorly received films would come to an end. Kahaani 2, however, was not as well-received as the first film, although Vidya received a Best Actress nomination at Filmfare for her portrayal of a child sexual abuse survivor in the film. Raja Sen thought that despite being an engaging thriller the film's denouement was predictable, but added that "with tremendous commitment to the part, [Vidya] gives us a stirring performance free of vanity or obviousness" and praised her "knack for winning the audience over; when she gasps, we gasp".
Srijit Mukherji's period drama Begum Jaan (2017) saw Vidya play the role of the titular procurer. A Hindi language remake of the Bengali film Rajkahini (2015), Begum Jaan tells the story of how the lives of prostitutes living in brothel are affected by the partition of India in 1947. In preparation, Vidya worked with Mukherji to provide a backstory to her character, and she researched on the era by reading Urvashi Butalia’s novel The Other Side of Silence. Filming in the barren landscape of rural Jharkhand proved to be a challenge for Vidya, and she said that the experience taught her that "if push comes to shove, I can brave scorpions, snakes and whatever else". Anna M.M. Vetticad of Firstpost disliked the film, and wrote that "[Vidya] – who has been so wonderful in the past – is unable to dig deep and summon up a relatable human being, because there is nothing in the writing that she can dig into."
As of April 2017, Vidya has committed to play a radio jockey who anchors a relationship advice talk show in the romantic comedy Tumhari Sulu.
The mass media has often speculated about a romantic relationship between Vidya and her co-actors, but she has strongly denied these reports. In 2009, Vidya was involved in a controversy when she mentioned a previous relationship in which "caustic remarks" were made at her due to her weight. She said, "If someone who matters to you takes you down, it can break you. That someone whose approval mattered to me started to constantly find faults with me. At that point of time, it was important to walk away from that relationship." Though she refused to name the person, tabloid reports suggested that she was referring to Shahid Kapoor (her co-star in Kismat Konnection). Kapoor, however, denied the allegations. During an interview in May 2012, Vidya announced that she was dating Siddharth Roy Kapur, the CEO of UTV Motion Pictures. On 14 December 2012, the couple were married in a private ceremony in Bandra, Mumbai.
Vidya is trained in carnatic music and briefly studied the dance forms of Bharatnatyam and Kathak. Regarding her religious affiliations, Vidya said, "I am a person with a lot of faith and I have conversations [with God] all the time but I am not so religious in the conventional, organised sense". She practices vegetarianism and was listed as "India's hottest vegetarian" in polls conducted by PETA in 2011 and 2012. Her weight fluctuations over the years have been the subject of substantial media coverage in India.
Besides acting in film, Vidya promotes humanitarian causes and supports charitable institutions. In March 2011, she endorsed World Wildlife Fund's Earth Hour campaign in India. She campaigned for the cause of nutrition in India for Child In Need Institute (CINI), a non-profit organisation based in Kolkata. In September 2012, Vidya visited a village in Mirzapur, Uttar Pradesh, where she participated in a campaign to promote children's education and the empowerment of women. For her attempts to empower women, Vidya was awarded The Prabha Khaitan Puraskar 2012 by the Calcutta Chamber of Commerce; she was the youngest recipient of the award. Vidya has also been appointed by the Government of India as their brand ambassador in the drive to improve the country's sanitary condition. In August 2013, she served as the grand marshal of the India Day parade held in New York City. In September that year, she launched a technology-based learning platform for underprivileged children in the Thanapur village of Uttar Pradesh. On the occasion of International Women's Day in 2015, Vidya wrote an opinion column in Hindustan Times on the issues faced by women in India. In August 2017, Vidya was made a member of the Indian Central Board of Film Certification, to certify films for theatrical exhibition.
Following the success of Parineeta and Lage Raho Munna Bhai, Vidya's film roles were subject to wide critical analysis. Vir Sanghvi noted that the films Heyy Babyy and Kismat Konnection were "strange films [...] in which she tried to pretend to be what she is not — a Bollywood bimbette." Vidya described that particular phase in her career as a "struggle to be someone else". Due to the criticism that her film choices evoked, Vidya decided to choose roles that she "believed in" rather than choose by convention. Members of the media have subsequently labelled her as "bold" and "daring" in her choices.
Her starring roles in Heyy Babyy and Kismat Konnection also led to considerable attention in the media for her "questionable wardrobe". Several publications listed her as the "worst dressed actress" and her costume designers attributed her failure to carry off western clothes due to her weight and body structure. She was later praised in the media for wearing saris at public events; designer Niharika Khan explained, "Vidya's beauty lies in her curves. She's comfortable in her voluptuousness, and therefore in a sari." Vidya has since been identified as defying "an anglicised idea of sexuality" and embody the idea of "raw Indian sexuality".
After portraying strong protagonists in Paa, Ishqiya, No One Killed Jessica, The Dirty Picture and Kahaani, Vidya was credited in the media for pioneering a movement that breaks the stereotypical portrayal of heroines in Bollywood. The major commercial success of the latter two earned her the title of a "female hero" and Kalpana Nair of First Post noted that with these two films Vidya spearheaded a change in the roles that were offered to actresses over 30. Critic Mayank Shekhar predicted, "Just a few smart male actors can completely change the face of a commercial, star-driven film industry. Looking at [...] Vidya Balan [...] it appears, that change could well originate from the leading lady instead." India Today featured her in their listing of the "25 Power Women" and noted that "she has toppled the all dominating hero, reducing him to a supporting role in a male dominated film industry".
Vidya occupied the top slot in Rediff.com's annual listing of "Bollywood's Best Actress" for two consecutive years (2010–11). She also featured in the list for the years 2005, 2006, 2009, and 2012. In 2010, she featured in Filmfare's listing of the "Women we love". In 2012, the magazine Verve listed her as one of India's "Young Power Women" and wrote, "In a reel world peopled by size zero-toned bodies and pretty-as-a-picture heroines, Vidya comes across as completely real and natural – a woman who has followed her own instincts and dared to live her destiny by being her own person and not morphing herself to fit into any conventional slot." In 2014, Vidya was awarded the Padma Shri, the fourth highest civilian award in India, for her contributions to the entertainment industry. The following year, she received an honorary Doctor of Arts degree from Rai University; the university also named a scholarship program for underprivileged girls after her. The chancellor of the university, Harbeen Arora said, "Among the league of iconic actors, Vidya is a pioneer in every way. Her films epitomise a distinct Indianness and a powerful womanhood".
Among Vidya's film awards are a National Film Award for Best Actress for The Dirty Picture (2011), and five Filmfare Awards: Best Female Debut for Parineeta (2005), Best Actress for Paa (2009), The Dirty Picture (2011), and Kahaani (2012), and Critics Award for Best Actress for Ishqiya (2010).