ACTRESS Vidya Balan has broken every mould you can think of in the Indian film industry. She is daringly different. A woman who rejoices in her voluptuousness, in fact flaunts it with delightful abandon.
She is an uninhibited performer, unafraid to do the unconventional. Like playing the sensual siren Silk Smitha with such relish in The Dirty Picture, for which she won the Indian government's national award for best actress earlier this month. Or taking on the role of Amitabh Bachchan's mother in Paa.
In her latest Bollywood film Kahaani, which has already become a huge box-office success, she plays a heavily pregnant woman in search of her missing husband. Once again, her performance is stellar.
What makes Vidya so special?
Is it her middle-class upbringing in a suburb of Mumbai? Her fastidious approach when choosing a film - she claims to spend months on a script before agreeing to do it? Or the honesty she displays in her craft?
The answer really is a blend of all these facets. And, importantly, the fact that she is courageous enough to be real. A breath of fresh air in an industry packed with plasticised size-zero beauties who are content with playing the typical Bollywood heroine - a glamour object with little substance. She loves her curves. Exults in her womanhood. And clads herself in luxuriant saris.
Vidya Balan pauses as she listens to a reporter's question during a news conference to promote her new film "Kahaani" in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad, February 29, 2011.
Yes, Vidya is different. There is no other actress who can do sleaze with such dignity (The Dirty Picture). Become the village seductress with such demure sensuality (Ishqiya). Or play a heavily-pregnant woman with such conviction (Kahaani).
She draws the crowds. She fills the theatres. She wins the accolades. Without the support of the archetypical hero, the Bollywood superstar, the male lead. In fact, Vidya has become the hero. On whose performance a film sparkles, a film sells.
In Singapore, Kahaani is running to packed houses. The Indian community has turned out in large numbers to see Vidya at her best.
Mr Kirti Chopra, an analyst with a fund management company here, tells tabla!: "I watched the film on the day after its release here. Vidya was outstanding. She doesn't need any actor as a support. She is the superstar. Everyone in that theatre came out singing praises of the film and Vidya Balan."
Mr Chopra and his friends regularly watch Vidya's films.
Mrs Diya Somnath, a housewife, claims she doesn't have any problems taking her husband to watch Vidya's films here.
Mrs Somnath says: "My husband is so fussy about watching Bollywood films. Inevitably, I have to go watch them with my friends. But I think we have watched all of Vidya Balan's films together. He says her films are different and interesting. I agree of course."
In a recent media conference in India after the success of Kahaani, Vidya talked of how run-of-the-mill Bollywood movies didn't interest her right from the start. Her Bollywood debut was with Parineeta in 2005, an adaptation of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhya's novel of the same name.
She said: "Parineeta was an author-backed role. The way women were perceived then in the film industry didn't excite me ever. But now I am happy that our industry is at a stage where the change is happening. It is willing to take risks and it is getting bolder."
She added: "However, I never planned on doing just women-centric roles. But films like The Dirty Picture, No One Killed Jessica and now Kahaani inspired me to take up the challenge and put myself in the shoes of these real, ordinary women who have remarkable courage."
Vidya's story too is remarkable. Of a passion that was born at the age of seven. Of resolve despite years of rejection.
She claims she always wanted to be an actress and never had another plan. Born in a Palakkad Iyer family she grew up in Mumbai and would spend hours in front of a mirror, mouthing dialogue from her favourite films.
This passion took her down to south India where her first big break came when she signed a film with Malayalam superstar Mohanlal. But the film was shelved and she was labelled jinxed.
This resulted in her being dumped from 12 other Malayalam and Tamil films she had been signed for. Vidya then went back to Mumbai and acted in a few ad films, music videos and television shows. Despite the rejections and insignificant ad shoots, she persisted. Till she bagged the Bengali film Bhalo Theko in 2003.
Then came Parineeta in 2005 and Bollywood took notice of her talent. Commercial success followed with Lage Raho Munna Bhai.
She tried her hand at the regular Bollywood masala films. But a string of flops in Salaam-e-Ishq, Heyy Babyy and Kismet Konnection jolted her.
Ms Sunanda Gopalan, a media professional in Singapore, says: "She isn't the typical Barbie doll Bollywood heroine. She cannot play a bimbo. She is far too intelligent and talented to do that. I guess that's why the public rejected her in those roles."
So, Vidya took the risks. She changed the rules of the game. She became Sabrina Lal in No One Killed Jessica. The single unmarried mother of Auro in Paa. And seductively whipped herself as Silk in The Dirty Picture.
Man, she has guts.