30's The New 20 For Bollywood's Leading Ladies
Bollywood, as we have always known it, has always been an industry unkind to women. For too long, women have only had roles to increase the aesthetic (or worse, sex) appeal of a film, not to mention a misogynistic portrayal of their sex in many films. Even though we live in the 21st century and are a supposedly more liberated society, the overall arching trend for heroines is still this: Entering the industry in their (very) early 20s, working every whitened tooth and manicured nail to attain public recognition in ‘garnishment’ roles (garnishing the audience with a smile) in mostly forgettable films (doing some ‘item numbers’ along the way), finally getting critical breakthrough in a strong role, working in some better films (by which time they’ve reached their late 20s), touching 30 and then usually getting married and starting to fade away from the public eye. As much as I dislike generalisation, this has unfortunately been the career graph of many a Hindi film heroine. (And let’s not even get started on the characteristic career graph of a hero in comparison. It’s only going to make me gauge someone's eyes out!)
So what exactly is it about this magical number 30 that inadvertently slows down an actress’s career? The answer lies in centuries of cultural and societal conditioning towards women in general. A woman at 30 is seen as ‘old’, ‘over the hill’, or ‘past it’ and *should* ‘settle down’ and ‘have a family’ before ‘it’s too late’ (the voices of several family members are running through my head right now as I type this). In a deeply insular industry like Bollywood, this conditioning still pertains, regardless of how progressive the industry seems to be. (To be fair, this is the conditioning that pertains in the world as a whole. Women all across the world and across different cultures are still seen as ‘old’ after a certain age. But I’m not going to get into that here.)
It makes me really happy, then, to see that despite the archaic view, the trend is slowly bucking in Bollywood. Not only are more female directors coming to the fore, but more and more films are being written keeping women in mind. There is an increasing trend of films with interesting female characters filled with depth, which are doing well not only critically, but commercially (Piku, NH10, anyone?). And the best thing about all of this is? Representation for women nearing 30 or older! Not only are women themselves being represented more, but female characters over 30 who used to be looked upon as being ‘old’ are now not only a regular part of mainstream cinema (sometimes even the central character!), but are also being portrayed as a multi-dimensional, captivating individuals (Piku, Dil Dhadakne Do, NH10 to name a few)! It’s good to see that mainstream Hindi cinema is finally catching up with a truth that most women in their 30s know already – that a woman in her 30s has wisdom, maturity and sufficient life experience on her side while still being in her prime!
Not only are the female characters far more interesting and representative of a hitherto underrepresented age group, but there are also actresses of that age group available to play these characters. If I sit back and think of the major actresses around today, several names come to mind: Deepika Padukone, Priyanka Chopra, Kangana Ranaut, Katrina Kaif, Kareena Kapoor Khan, Anushka Sharma, Sonakshi Sinha, Sonam Kapoor. What’s the common thread between these ladies? These women are all either nearing 30 or are 30 and over, at the top of their game and above all, are still being given the choicest of roles!
It’s not just Bollywood that’s serving these ladies, but Hollywood as well. Priyanka Chopra (33) and Deepika Padukone (30) are both Westward bound and all set to make their mark on the big screen in the movie version of Baywatch and the xXx sequel respectively. Chopra has already made waves with her lead role as Alex Parrish on American TV channel ABC’s show Quantico, which is rumoured to have been renewed for a second season after a very successful first season run. Additionally, both these actresses starred in and deservedly got awards for their respective performances in the blockbuster Bajirao Mastani at the fag end of last year while Padukone also had everyone raving about her performance in Piku and Chopra too got her due in Zoya Akhtar's underrated Dil Dhadakne Do. If that wasn't enough, Chopra also has Prakash Jha's Jai Gangaajal out next month, and a couple of rumoured projects on the anvil to keep things chugging along. Impressive indeed.
That’s not to say their contemporaries don’t have an impressive lineup themselves. Kangana Ranaut (28) has Rangoon and the Rani Laxmibai biopic releasing this year. Kareena Kapoor Khan (35) has Udta Punjab and Ki and Ka. Anushka Sharma (27) has Sultan and Ae Dil Hai Mushkil. Katrina Kaif (32) has Fitoor and Jagga Jasoos. Sonakshi Sinha (28) has Force 2 and Akira. Sonam Kapoor (30) has Neerja and Battle for Bittora. Jacqueline Fernandez (30) , another actress with her star on the rise, has Housefull 3 and Dishoom. The majority of these films promise strong female roles with solid character arcs, and regardless of the box office performance of these films, the capability of all these actresses to do full justice to their roles cannot be underestimated. In short, there don’t appear to be any signs of any of these actresses’ careers slowing down.
While the more ‘mainstream’ actresses have enough to keep them going for the rest of the year, ‘arthouse’ actresses like Richa Chadda, Kalki Koechlin, Radhika Apte , Nimrat Kaur and Huma Quereshi aren't far behind. These actresses are the darlings of the critics and the female figureheads of parallel cinema. And once again, these actresses are all either nearing 30 or 30 and over. Kaur (33), after initially gaining much acclaim for her performance in The Lunchbox (2013) has garnered appreciation for her turn as an ISI agent in the American TV show Homeland in 2014 and after the success of her latest Bollywood outing, Airlift, her stock is definitely on the rise. Apte (30) found success and critical appreciation in 2015 off the backs of Hunterrrr, Manjhi-the Mountain Man among others and I, for one, hope to see her in more Hindi films in 2016 (being a multi-talented actress, she juggles both Hindi and regional cinema, which is perhaps why the Bollywood audience hasn't seen as much of her as it deservers). Chadda (27) had a tremendous 2015 with Masaan and Main Aur Charles bringing her into mainstream recognition and for 2016, has Sarbjit and Aur Devdas to offer. Koechlin (32) chewed up the screen in Margarita with a Straw in 2015 and is currently in the midst of filming Love Affair and Death in the Gunj. Qureshi (29) also had a successful 2015 with Badlapur garnering her rave reviews (she also starred in X: Past is Present) and in 2016, we can expect to see her in Azhar and Viceroy’s House. Not only are these hugely talented actresses set to win 2016, but these women coming to the fore only points to the increasing crossover from parallel to mainstream cinema (but more on that another time).
Not only are the actresses in the near 30/30 and over age group having their heyday, but there appears to be a resurgence of actresses in the near 40/40 and over age group too. 2015 alone saw Tabu (44), Kajol (41), Aishwarya Rai Bachchan (42) and Vidya Balan (38, who’s been having a low key for the last couple of years) returning to make a mark on the big screen. While Kajol stood out as the redeeming factor in an otherwise forgettable Dilwale (ahem), Rai Bachchan made significant news for her return to films with Jazbaa (sadly, the film really didn’t impress). Balan had a solo 2015 release in Hamari Adhuri Kahani which completely fizzled out at the box office. However, it was Tabu that had the most impressive year with a solid performance as a cop desperate for news of her missing son in Drishyam. Coming off the back of an almost perfect performance in Haider as Ghazala in 2014, Drishyam reminded the public why they fell in love with Tabu in the first place. And there’s more where that came from – Tabu is all set to set the screen ablaze as Begum in Fitoor (co-starring Katrina Kaif) in 2016. Rai Bachchan also promises to make up for the lack of screen time she’s had in the last couple of years with Sarbjit and Ae Dil Hai Mushkil this year, both choices which promise a balance of commercial and critic-friendly cinema. Balan will next be seen in 2016 in another collaboration with Sujoy Ghosh (who directed her in the stellar Kahaani in 2012) called Te3n. Kajol has confirmed that she will be doing another film soon with husband Ajay Devgan – not much is known at this stage but I personally can’t wait to see her on screen again. Joining this group with a release this year is Juhi Chawla (48) with Chalk N Duster (also starring another amazing actress, Shabana Azmi). Sridevi (52) also starred in a regional film, Puli, in 2015, and hopefully we can see her in a Hindi film soon. Now if only Madhuri Dixit, Preity Zinta, Raveena Tandon (seen in a bit part in Bombay Velvet in 2015), Rani Mukerji (currently on mommy duty, but I’m allowed to be selfish!) and Karisma Kapoor joined this crew and signed a film, we'd have nothing to complain about!
With so many films seemingly promising so much from the female performers in them, I can’t help but feel that this trend of over-30 actresses headlining films is one that will stay. Women in Hindi cinema are emerging as a powerhouse talents in their own right, regardless of their age. They are headlining films and most importantly, the films too are making sufficient money to encourage the growth and production of more female-oriented films. The younger crop of actresses like Parineeti Chopra, Shraddha Kapoor, Alia Bhatt, Athiya Shetty are waiting in the wings to take the pool of female talent forward, no doubt, but it’s the more experienced heroines who’ve perfected their art over the years that I personally love watching on screen, with their mix of talent and maturity adding layers to their performances. Regardless of personal opinion though, I think there’s one point we can all agree on. It’s an exciting time for women in Hindi cinema!