By Sophia Ismaa
It is no myth that as Bollywood actresses age and get married, they are less likely to bag roles in big-ticket and mainstream films despite possessing the talent required for the roles. It is as if once actresses age and get married, an actresses visibility and worth decline in the eyes of the media and the film industry. But how do consumers feel about this? How do I feel about this? As a consumer, I am more likely to watch a film if a talented and competent actress is starring in it because good acting is a significant contributing factor in the quality of a film and the audience’s ability to connect and empathise with the characters. Audience’s do not care if an actress is married or 30+ as long as the actress possesses acting chops. Poor acting weakens the quality of films, and this is what directors and producers should bear in mind during the casting process.
How Does This Compare to Hollywood?
This issue is not strictly specific to Bollywood. In Hollywood, we are seeing strong actresses like Reese Witherspoon turning her hands to producing and starring in Big Little Lies due to a lack of availability of meaty, mainstream roles. Nicole Kidman is steering towards more character-centric and ‘mother’ roles as seen in The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017) and Lion (2016). Similarly, she will be seen in The Goldfinch (slated to release in 2019) as Mrs Barbour, the mother of the protagonist’s friend. This is not a jab against mothers, but an incredibly talented and versatile actress shouldn’t have to be limited and reduced to such a specific role.
Women in Film: Producing and Entrepreneurship; ‘When There Isn’t A Way, Make a Way’
Likewise, in Bollywood we are seeing actresses such as Anushka Sharma turn her hands to producing with her production house: ‘Clean Slate.’ While Anushka possesses a clear understanding of the roles she wants to essay, her films with the likes of the three Khan’s provides the stardom needed to bring in the regional audience for the films she produces and stars in. This strategy in turn provides potential work opportunities for Anushka, maintains her stardom and, at the same time, allows her to push the envelope in her production ventures like NH10, Pari and Phillauri.
“I want to clarify this fact – it’s not that I’ve turned producer so that I can act in all my films. If I was making films for myself, then I would probably call my production house something else. It’s called ‘Clean Slate Films’ because it’s an ideology. ‘Clean Slate’ means to start anew without any prejudices or any so-called baggage of a hit. Right now, we are early players; we are like a startup. So maybe it’s easier to make films starring me at the moment. But when people will gain more confidence in us as a company, I am sure we will work with more and more actors.”
Anushka Sharma, 2017, Times of India interview – for full interview, click here
Concerns of the Bollywood Youth Reinforces Their Fear of Aging
In 2014, when, now relative, newcomers Parineeti Chopra and Alia Bhatt entered the Bollywood industry, they revealed, during Rajeev Masands’ The Actresses Roundtable (2014), a deep-rooted fear of the day that they no longer will be approached for roles. Priyanka Chopra, who also appeared on the same episode, promptly tried to dispel their fears and encouraged them to take a positive approach.
Parineeti at the time had received nominations and awards from the major film fraternities in the span of 3-4 years. However, after 2014, she was workless for three years (not counting her cameo appearance in Dishoom) until her role in Meri Pyaari Bindu (2017). Parineeti, compared to her competitors, Alia and Shraddha Kapoor, is not considered as traditionally beautiful in India. Alia, however, proved her acting chops in Highway and Udta Punjab cementing her place as a key player in Bollywood whereas Shraddha continued to receive roles despite a streak of terrible acting performances. Such is the nature of the Bollywood film industry where beauty is often prized over talent.
The Damsel in Distress and Do Audiences Care About Glamour?
‘Damsel in distress’ roles are frequently prominent in many mainstream films serving as an accessory to the hero and the romantic-angle to the hero-driven film. Take roles like Katrina Kaif in Singh Is Kinng or any early Katrina Kaif film and you will find that there has been limited substance in Katrina’s roles; ‘accessories’ are simply there to provide glamour. Additionally, the ‘glamour quotient’ is commonly perceived to only be achieved alongside an unmarried status of the heroine. However, we are seeing some changes in recent times with Deepika Padukone’s role as Meenamma in Chennai Express. Deepika managed to demonstrate her mettle in comedy, provide glamour and receive the audiences’ and critics appreciation. But if Deepika Padukone was not considered beautiful by many, would audiences still have flocked to the screen?
Yes, they would. Because, to reinforce, good acting (and a good script) makes a film much more enjoyable, a worthwhile experience for the consumer and also sells tickets.
The success of Kangana Ranaut’s Queen proves that glamour is not required to draw audiences. Kangana has confessed that she is not considered traditionally beautiful and before Queen, she was not considered a huge star despite winning Best Supporting Actress for her outstanding performance as a supermodel struggling with a drug addiction in the women-centric Fashion. So, why did the film do so well? Because of Kangana’s performance and the story itself. Both must go hand in hand. Audiences didn’t flock to the cinema because of Kangana’s beauty, marital status or age. They did so because of her performance and because of the quality of the film.
Granted certain films, regardless of their quality, may not reach spectacular or unexpected heights in the box office due to a less mainstream plot but audiences, nonetheless, clearly favour great acting and stories.
Poorly Cast Roles
What about mainstream films that genuinely require good acting to elevate the script? If we take a look at Katrina Kaif’s wooden and painful performance in Jab Tak Hai Jaan, her acting considerably weakened the chemistry making the romantic pair difficult to root for. Katrina Kaif is capable of acting well when cast in appropriate roles such as Dimple Dixit in Mere Brother Ki Dulhan but she was an unsuitable casting in Jab Tak Hai Jaan.
Another example of incorrect casting is Anushka Sharma in Jab Harry Met Sejal. The film itself was almost wholly terrible barring the music. Imtiaz Ali, director, admits that there was no intention to create an “intellectual masterpiece,” and had instead aimed at making a film for the masses with JHMS – the film grossed 150 crores worldwide) – which he clearly succeeded in. Shah Rukh Khan and Anushka Sharma have worked together before and ‘drawn in the masses’ with Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi and Jab Tak Hai Jaan which it seems might be what Ali was banking on. Anushka Sharma received a lot of praise for this role but I experienced a lot of discomfort with both the pair’s presence, Anushka more arguably so. I am a huge fan of Anushka and upon watching her interviews, it is evident that Anushka is a person of intelligence and good sense. It is due to this that Anushka’s performance of a scatter-brained Sejal made it appear as if Anushka was acting at acting. There was a visible absence of chemistry and forced attempts at intimacy that made me cower as if I was watching a horror film.
Now, I wonder what would have happened if Rani Mukherjee (39) had been cast as Sejal instead? Anushka Sharma is a powerhouse actress as seen in Jab Tak Hai Jaan where she plays a journalist and a wedding planner in Band Baaja Baaraat. The role of Sejal required a fine balance between nuance and powerhouse acting which Rani could have easily achieved as well as been able to lend credence to the romantic plot considering Shah Rukh Khan and Anushka Sharma share an age difference of 22 years.
Imtiaz Ali is one of the few directors who does not have a muse – thankfully! Nonetheless, there are two qualities that his lead heroines possess: youth and beauty. Ali is arguably my favourite director; his films follow a common theme of self-discovery leading to self-acceptance but his attitude towards gender and appearance in his casting process is regressive. In his chain of films, JHMS is the only weak link that with a more appropriately cast heroine (and an entertaining and intriguing plot) could have noticeably improved the quality and bearability of the film.
A Message to Directors: We, The Audience, Appreciate Good Acting
As an avid Bollywood fan and a fan of quality acting, I have been following Rani Mukherjee’s career graph since the early 2000s. It was around 2008 that Rani Mukherjee was seen less in star-studded casts after a series of poorly selected films. Nevertheless, her immense acting abilities itself did not see a decline and after four years, we saw her achieve box office success with films like Talaash (Filmfare nomination for Best Supporting Actress), No One Killed Jessica (Filmfare award for Best Supporting Actress) and Mardaani (Filmfare nomination for Best Actress). She will be seen in a lead role as a teacher with Tourette syndrome in her upcoming film Hichki slated to release on the 23rd of March 2018.
As a long-time admirer and fan of Rani Mukherjee, I, of course, intend to watch any film she stars in as such is my faith in her acting. Moreover, Rani herself has stated that she makes films based on what her fans will enjoy. Rani has the potential to be a legend in the film industry and has received a total of 17 Filmfare nominations, seven of which she won, in the span of 22 years.
Kajol Devgn, Rani’s cousin, recently starred in the star-studded box office success Dilwale. While the film was panned by audiences and critis alike, a salvageable fact is that Rohit Shetty respected the audience’s wishes and upheld some revered traditions by granting us a film with Kajol and Shah Rukh Khan as the lead romantic pair. Now fellow Bollywood directors and producers must take note that actresses who are married can act as one half of a romantic pair in a mainstream film and achieve box office success. A married Bollywood actress does not translate to married in reel life.
“Now fellow Bollywood directors and producers must take note that actresses who are married can act as one half of a romantic pair in a mainstream film and achieve box office success. A married Bollywood actress does not translate to married in reel life.”
Our Actors Aren’t Limited By Their Age, Marital Status and Physical Appearance and Neither Should Our Actresses Be
Directors must understand and learn that audiences appreciate strong acting and how it plays an essential component in a film which elevates the script. Actors and actresses must act foremost. A Katrina Kaif, Jacqueline Fernandez and Shraddha Kapoor for item numbers and roles that require less substance is completely understandable. But with films of higher calibre, audiences want actresses who can act. Our actors aren’t limited by their age, marital status and physical appearance and neither should our actresses be.