Her acting career started when she signed up for the Malayalam film Chakram, alongside Mohanlal but the film was shelved. After that, she signed on for the Tamil film, Run, but for reasons undisclosed, she was dropped after a first schedule and replaced by Meera Jasmine.When Chakram was restarted with Prithviraj in the lead, Meera Jasmine was chosen ahead of Balan again.
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. Balan also portrayed the role of Radhika Mathur in a few episodes of the later seasons of Hum Paanch.
In 2003, she appeared in the Bengali film, Bhalo Theko directed by Goutam Halder for which she won the Anandalok Puraskar Best Actress award in Kolkata. Balan next made her Hindi film debut in Parineeta. Her performance in that film was acclaimed by critics, earning her a Filmfare Best Female Debut Award and a nomination for Filmfare Best Actress Award. After the success of her first two films, the producer who dropped her from Manasellam was keen to sign her opposite Kamal Hassan for Dasavathaaram but she rejected the offer and Asin Thottumkal was signed instead. In 2006, she appeared opposite Sanjay Dutt in the blockbuster film Lage Raho Munna Bhai. Once again her performance was well received by criticsand the film became the second highest grossing film of that year.
Mani Ratnam’s Guru was Balan’s first release in 2007, in which she played a woman suffering from Multiple Sclerosis. The film performed well at the box office. and her role was appreciated. Her next two releases were Salaam-e-Ishq: A Tribute To Love (2007) and Eklavya: The Royal Guard (2007) which grossed over Rs. 180 million; Eklavya was selected as India’s official entry to the Oscars for the 80th Academy Awards. Balan’s last two releases of the year, Heyy Babyy (2007) and Bhool Bhulaiyaa (2007), were both commercial hits.
In 2009, Balan played the role of Vidya, a young independent gynecologist who is also a single-mother struggling with her 12-year-old son’s Progeria syndrome, in Paa. Amitabh Bachchan played Balan’s son Auro. The film was received well by critics and so was Balan’s performance. Sukanya Verma from Rediff wrote, “Vidya Balan slips into the skin of a doting mom with such ease without the mollycoddling tone Bollywood’s young mothers often resort to. Balan is poignant yet restrained and projects an impressive figure of grace and integrity, reminiscent of Dimple Kapadia in the 1980s. Nikhat Kazmi from The Times of India noted, “Balan lends a rare dignity to the image of the Bollywood mom. With her quiet grace and controlled emotions, she is Mother Courage incarnate. Her portrayal ultimately won her a Filmfare Award for Best Actress and a Star Screen Award for Best Actress, among other awards.
Balan next acted in the 2010 drama Ishqiya, the first feature directed by Abhishek Chaubey and co-starring Naseeruddin Shah and Arshad Warsi. Balan’s role was that of Krishna Verma, a 30-year old widowed village woman. Her character was described as a femme fatale, and her performance was applauded by critics, with NDTV’s Anupama Chopra writing, “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.”
Balan’s first release in 2011 was Raj Kumar Gupta’s No One Killed Jessica alongside Rani Mukerji. Anupama Chopra wrote, “Unlike her glamorous, party-girl sister, Sabrina is painfully plain and sober. Wearing drab clothes and spectacles, Vidya is a portrait of anguish and strength.She has also said she will be appearing in Chenab Gandhi, directed by Vibhu Puri and produced by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, which centers around Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, also known as Frontier Gandhi. As of January 2011, Balan is scheduled to appear in The Dirty Picture, a biopic based on the life and death of Indian actress Silk Smitha