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Although born in Palakkad to Tamil parents in Kerala, Vidya Balan grew up in Mumbai and attended St. Anthony's Girls High School, St. Xavier's College, Bombay and later the University of Mumbai. She graduated from college with a Sociology degree. She speaks several languages including Tamil, Malayalam, English, Hindi, and Bengali.
Vidya Balan was signed to appear in the Malayalam film Chakram, but the film was abandoned mid-way through production. She then turned to television advertising. From 1998 onwards, she appeared in numerous television ads, many of which were directed by Pradeep Sarkar. She also took supporting roles in music videos, appearing with singers and bands such as Euphoria, Shubha Mudgal, and Pankaj Udhas, and acted in Hindi soap operas like Hum Paanch.
In 2005, she finally made her appearance on the big screen, in two movies. She appeared in a Bengali film, Bhalo Theko, for which she won the Best Actress Anand Lok Puraskar award in Kolkata. Also in 2005, Balan made her Hindi film debut in Parineeta. The film was very successful at the box office. Vidya was soon a hot commodity in Bollywood and was asked to sign film contracts by many of the town's leading directors.
Vidya was recently seen in a supporting role in Mani Ratnam's Guru; she played a woman with a physical disability and she played a woman with amnesia in the multi-starrer Salaam E Ishq: A Tribute To Love. Her latest release is Eklavya: The Royal Guard which got mixed reviews, though her performance has been appreciated.