Married And Owning It: How Lead Actresses Are Calling The Shots In 2018
2018 has been an eventful year for the Hindi film industry. While it may look like any other year on a superficial level due to the usual gamut of film promotions, film releases and the never-ending cycle of media-fueled gossip, there is a particular reason why 2018 stands out above other preceding years. This year saw not just one, but THREE major industry weddings take place, with a major wedding also having taken place in 2017. While it may not seem like anything out of the ordinary for a film star to marry (because, hey, it’s their personal life, and a lot of people do get married), these weddings were special because they’re concurrent with an increasing tectonic shift in the very fabric of the culture of the film industry. Not only were the brides current leading actresses, but they were also leading actresses at the peak of their careers.
Traditionally, marriage for an actress would spell the sunset of her career. In a patriarchal, orthodox society like India’s, women pursuing careers in acting would only be considered lead role material as long as they were perceived to be young and attractive (which also ties in with the culture of actresses starting their careers at very young ages) and this became synonymous with being single (or maintaining the perception of it). Marriage not only indicated that they were above a certain age, but also implied a professional slow-down; stepping back and focusing on raising a future family. While these patriarchal and misogynistic beliefs about women go beyond the film industry and are entrenched throughout society as a whole, the effect of marriage on an actress’s career was the most obvious due to the high visibility that film stars enjoy. The common career trajectory for an actress after tying the knot used to be getting offered less films and having a lesser number of releases per year. Think of actresses like Juhi Chawla, Karisma Kapoor, Raveena Tandon, Madhuri Dixit, Sridevi et al whose workloads were severely cut down after getting married. Slowly, the roles would transition from lead to supporting (playing the benevolent Bhabhi or the special didi to the lead characters) and then, the actress would completely disappear off the silver screen and maybe (or maybe not) play a mother/grandmother role twenty years down the track (actresses like Jaya Bachchan, Jaya Prada come to mind). In stark contrast, male actors have always continued working and maintained their stardom regardless of their marital status, moving on to romance younger and younger leading actresses.
The inequality and unfairness of this culture has only recently started being questioned with conversations around pay parity, a change in scriptwriting with stronger roles for women, and more films centred on women such as Piku and Raazi. The industry has slowly started respecting their female talent more and offering them broader control over their film opportunities, thus allowing them greater agency over their careers. And this agency has not only been exercised by actresses towards their careers, but also their personal lives.
Anushka Sharma famously got married to Virat Kohli without so much as a whisper to the media in a very intimate ceremony in Italy in December 2017 and then delved right into work in 2018 by starring in Pari (which she also produced), Sanju and Sui Dhaaga, and will round out the year with Zero. Sonam Kapoor, after appearing in Padman, wed Anand Ahuja in a very public wedding in May 2018 which involved the entire industry (her wedding in Mumbai was akin to a wet dream for the Indian media with unprecedented media access) and immediately jetted off to Cannes for the Cannes Film Festival for her duties as L’Oreal ambassador, following which, had a release within a few weeks in Veere Di Wedding (which was a co-production with her sister Rhea Kapoor), followed by Sanju (which also starred Anushka Sharma). 2019 beckons with Ek Ladki Ko Dekha To Aisa Laga where she co-stars with her father, Anil Kapoor, for the first time in what appears to be a pathbreaking role as a lesbian struggling between societal expectations and her love for another woman and The Zoya Factor, where she’s paired with Dulquer Salman for the first time, and all while splitting time between London (where her husband Anand lives) and Mumbai. Deepika Padukone had a major release in 2018 with Padmaavat (which, as everyone knows by now, was a harrowing time period for the actress as fringe groups protested against the film and shockingly threatened violence towards Deepika, placing a bounty on her head and swearing to cut her nose off) after which she went on a hiatus, the reason being to plan an elaborate, extravagant-yet-intimate wedding in Lake Como, Italy in November 2018 where she wedded Ranveer Singh. But work beckons for Deepika and after the wedding celebrations, Deepika will take on the gargantuan task of producing and starring in Chhapaak, a biographical film on acid attack survivor Laxmi Agarwal and is rumoured to be developing a female superhero film. Priyanka Chopra, after announcing a book deal and two Hindi films in 2018 in the form of Bharat and The Sky Is Pink (one of which she infamously walked out of), got married to American pop star Nick Jonas in Jodhpur in December 2018 and while she has not made any film announcements yet, is rumoured to be in talks with Sanjay Leela Bhansali for Heera Mandi and will most likely resume starring in previously-stalled Cowboy Ninja Viking (a Hollywood film with Chris Pratt). 2018 also saw Priyanka co-producing a Sikkimese language film called Pahuna, an Assamese language film called Bhoga Khidikee, and announcing two Marathi films, Paani and Firebrand through her production house Purple Pebble Pictures, which she helms with her mother, Madhu Chopra.
While seemingly commendable, all these actresses staying busy professionally post-marriage is nothing short of remarkable as well. With work opportunities just as abundant post-marriage as before tying the knot, the industry is showing major signs of progression for its female talent and these actresses are paving the way for the future generation of actresses like Janhvi Kapoor, Sara Ali Khan and Alia Bhatt to have long, fruitful careers regardless of their marital status. A huge part of this acceptance is due to the changing attitudes of the Indian public as well. In today’s age of immersive social media which allows greater personal engagement with stars and their films, fans feel a greater connection, a sense of apnapan with stars, which transcends beyond their films and also their personal circumstances. With the rising visibility of the women’s empowerment movement, and the very recent #MeToo movement starting in India, attitudes towards women are also experiencing a shift and slowly changing.
What’s even more remarkable is that actresses are not only getting more opportunities, but also creating more opportunities for themselves. Of all the actresses on this year’s wedding list, each and every single one of them has either already produced, or is about to produce their own film. Sonam and Rhea have produced Aisha and Khoobsurat previously while producing this year’s Veere Di Wedding (with an all-female lead cast, too). Anushka has previously produced NH10 and Phillauri and in 2018, produced Pari, which garnered very positive reviews. Priyanka has been pushing the envelope ever since starting Purple Pebble Pictures and lending greater visibility to films in other Indian languages and has built up an impressive production portfolio. Deepika is about to be a first time producer with Chhappak and there is talk of her teaming up with husband Ranveer to develop and produce films and launch new acting talent into the industry, while also potentially creating a female superhero film. While producing films may seem like a strategic professional move for each actress’s own personal benefit, the net effect is that the traditionally skewed power imbalance between male filmmakers/actors and actresses, where actresses could be replaced at the whim of a producer or an influential actor, is slowly shifting in favour of women. On a holistic level, this has long-reaching effects towards the #MeToo movement as well by having more women handling the reins of film production and potentially creating a safer environment for other women and men to work in.
The opening up of opportunities regardless of marital status isn’t just being restricted to newly married actresses. Other married actresses such as Kareena Kapoor Khan, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Madhuri Dixit Nene, Rani Mukerji, Kajol, Radhika Apte and the late Sridevi have had fantastic opportunities come their way over the last few years regardless of their personal circumstances. Kareena Kapoor Khan is arguably the one actress who has continued to steadily keep working post-marriage without taking, or being forced to take, a hiatus. In many ways, the establishment of Kareena Kapoor Khan, the married working actress, is what has propelled more married actresses to be given good opportunities. Kareena partnered with Sonam and Rhea in Veere Di Wedding and had the entire film centred around her character. She has recently been signed by Karan Johar for his upcoming directorial Takht for a plum role. Aishwarya Rai Bachchan has had four film releases over the last two-three years, two of which centred wholly around her character (Jazbaa and Sarbjit). Madhuri Dixit Nene has been a fixture on the Indian television scene as a reality show judge while also starring in Dedh Ishqiya, Gulaab Gang (with old rival Juhi Chawla, no less) a few years ago. 2018 saw Madhuri producing and starring in Marathi film Bucket List. In 2019, Madhuri will be stepping into the late Sridevi’s shoes for Kalank, a period film centred around Partition. This is a remarkable move in itself considering Madhuri and Sridevi were both fierce rivals back in their heyday, but also because of the implication of a strong role for an older woman (a demographic which is woefully underrepresented in Hindi cinema). Madhuri will also feature in Total Dhamaal, and while the film promises to be a run-of-the-mill comedy, an interesting point to note is that Madhuri is paired with old co-star Anil Kapoor, with whom she formed a hit pair throughout the 80s and 90s. Madhuri is also paired with Sanjay Dutt in Kalank, another old co-star with whom she formed a hit pair. The jury it out on whether this is the start of actors being paired with age appropriate female actors, but this is definitely a step in the right direction. Rani Mukerji universally wowed everyone in 2018 with her performance in Hichki playing a teacher with Tourette’s syndrome, which also marked her first release after the birth of her daughter and after her stellar turn as a no-nonsense cop in Mardaani in 2014. There is also reportedly a sequel to Mardaani in the works. Kajol was the lead in Helicopter Eela in 2018, and while the film didn’t do well commercially, it was Kajol’s first solo release in a long while. Preity Zinta prominently featured in Bhaiyyaji Superhit, where she was paired with Sunny Deol (again, the age appropriate pairing being an anomaly), and also played herself in a short cameo in Welcome To New York. These two films came after a break of four years, with Preity’s last film being in 2014. Radhika Apte has had a phenomenal 2018 with Netflix originals Ghoul and Lust Stories, commercial blockbusters Andhadhun and Padman (which also starred Sonam Kapoor) and is all set to usher in 2019 with a mix of Hindi, English and Tamil films.
Perhaps the most bittersweet trajectory to follow is that of Sridevi’s. After taking a self-imposed sabbatical in 1997 after getting married to producer Boney Kapoor and having two daughters, Sridevi had chosen to revive her career with the very sweet English Vinglish in 2012, which led to much appreciation for her performance and an audience clamouring to see her again in more films. English Vinglish was followed up by Mom in 2017, which also marked her 300th major film appearance after an incredibly illustrious career spanning fifty (yes, 5-0) years in the Hindi, Tamil and Telugu film industries. As everyone knows by now, audiences were sadly robbed of seeing Sridevi again in a full-length role due to her life being cut tragically short in February 2018. Her death sent shockwaves throughout all the three industries she’d worked so diligently across and sent an entire country into mourning over the loss of one of India’s biggest luminaires in the field of entertainment. In a strange twist of fate, the fact that Sridevi allegedly plays herself in her last and final appearance in Anushka (and Shah Rukh Khan and Katrina Kaif) starrer Zero, is perhaps an apt, if not heartbreaking, goodbye to an audience that stood captivated by her for over fifty years. This, however, was not meant to be Sridevi’s last appearance. Sridevi had also signed on the dotted line to star in a major role in Kalank opposite Sanjay Dutt, which Madhuri Dixit Nene gracefully stepped in to do after Sridevi’s passing (with the announcement being made by none other than Janhvi Kapoor, Sridevi’s daughter).
Looking back, 2018 has been an eventful year for actresses in the industry as a whole, but it has been even more eventful for women with circumstances which would have traditionally excluded them from career progression and success. While there is a lot more to be done in order for women to fully thrive in the Hindi film industry, one can’t help but appreciate the long strides that have been taken to pave the way for future generations of women. Here’s to 2019 only making life better for our female talent!