The Hindi film industry, for all its powdercaking and blockbusting, cannot disguise its utter disregard for lead female roles and the actresses that play them. It’s not just about the difference in pay, it’s about the industry’s attitude towards filmmaking
Rubina A. Khan | 19 Jun, 2009
The Hindi film industry cannot disguise its utter disregard for lead female roles and the actresses that play them
Madhur Bhandarkar calls her the Meryl Streep of India, but that’s not altogether accurate. Tabu is probably the best Indian actress around but the parallel ends there. If Streep gave a hit, she wouldn’t be out of work. Tabu’s doing Telugu movies in Hyderabad despite her last movie Cheeni Kum doing fairly well. In a career which spans over 60 movies, Tabu has played, at some risk to her image, an older woman, a terrorist, a suicide bomber and a bar dancer, but unlike Streep who’s choosy about her roles, Tabu’s 60-odd movie career is riddled with absurd movies. You wouldn’t see Streep doing a Biwi No 1.
Tabu even has Biwi No 2 (the Hindi version of a Telugu film) to her credit. Tabu’s career began in the early 90s with the three Khans—Salman, Aamir and Shah Rukh. Clearly, they’ve left her far behind. And there was nothing she could have done about it, it seems. When Hindi film industry’s biggest banner Yash Raj Films cast her, it was in a role nobody recalls in Fanaa. “If she were in Hollywood,” says Bhandarkar, who made the hit Chandni Bar with her, “her career would have undoubtedly scaled new heights.” Unfortunately for Tabu, she happened to be a woman in Bollywood, India’s Hindi film industry.
Last week, a leading Mumbai daily, quoting sources, reported on a movie called 7 Days in Paris to be directed by Sanjay Gadhvi. It was to star Imran Khan and Katrina Kaif. Now, Imran Khan has so far acted in two movies, Katrina’s been the heroine in about 15. Both had rehearsed for the role and shooting was about to begin on 25 June. But when Katrina saw the final version of the script, she noticed her role had become considerably less than what was first narrated to her. Imran Khan, unnerved by the failure of his Kidnap with the same director, had suggested some script changes which the director just had to accept. The report quoted Katrina as saying that she “was still in talks”. Film articles in newspapers are unreliable, but this is an eminently plausible scenario. It seems the Hindi film industry has only one god: the male star.
When Bipasha Basu’s name wasn’t announced in Raaz: The Mystery Continues, the sequel to her film Raaz, she didn’t mind. And now when she’s been left out of the Race sequel, Bipasha Basu isn’t surprised. She knows that’s how things go, around here. “In Bollywood, the heroines are never signed for sequels. It’s a tradition. Just check the sequels. The guys get repeated. The girls don’t. It’s a man’s world. I don’t feel like a second citizen for that. When Raaz 2 was made, everyone kept asking why I wasn’t in it. But I never worried about that. No point in crying about it,” Bipasha Basu has been quoted as saying.
“Heroines are art direction,” says Paromita Vohra, a documentary filmmaker and writer, using a nicer expression for prop. “It doesn’t matter in many cases who the actress is going to be. The narrative is built around the star hero. The heroine could be anyone.” And because the women don’t matter, their characters become shallow, subservient stereotypes. Vohra remembers once sitting with a director to plan a scene. It was a typical one—smart alec boy pursuing pretty girl. There were a number of options being discussed. In one, the boy accosts the girl, and keeps guessing her name and then hits upon the right one, surprising her. And in the other, which Vohra liked, the girl volunteers her name, startling the boy. When she finished narrating the second version, the director told her, “I will not have immorality in my movies.” When she tried to reason with him, he added, “I also don’t approve of one-night stands in my movies.” She gave up arguing then. “Where was he jumping to?” asks Vohra. “The girl was just telling the boy her name.”
The flip side to the argument is that actresses like Priyanka Chopra and Kareena Kapoor have pulled off successes scripted around their roles, perhaps even around them. Fashion and Jab We Met are the oft-quoted examples. “I think Indian cinema has changed tremendously in the last ten years,” says Priyanka Chopra, “Fashion is again proof of that. Also, I do think that the role of women in films has been enhanced, and quite often, they are central to the storyline.” But (or the flip side to the flip side) this is what happens when Kareena Kapoor makes a Jab We Met: it’s so rare that her mother breaks into tears on seeing it (as revealed by Ms Kareena in an interview last year). And every Jab We Met is surrounded by a sea of Golmaal Returns, 36 China Town, Tashan, and so on right up to Refugee, the movie which launched her in 2000 where the Refugee is, not surprisingly, a man. Likewise with Priyanka Chopra. True, Fashion was about her. In fact, she took it on with apprehension. “She had to portray a model who does drugs and has a one-night stand which she feared would go against her public image. It took me some time to convince her, but it turned out well for both of us,” says Bhandarkar, who directed the movie.
But in which other movie does Priyanka Chopra have a defining role? “Our industry has some very talented actresses waiting for good acting opportunities to come their way. We have spent far too many decades writing silly parts. We are literally wasting actresses,” says Jaideep Sahni, who has written movies like Chak De India and Aaja Nachle which were about women.
The heroine is also an interchangeable prop. Towards the end of last month, one of the big headlines in the movie pages was how Shah Rukh Khan had apologised and patched up with Aishwarya Rai Bachchan at Karan Johar’s birthday party. This was what he said sorry for: during the shooting of his home production Chalte Chalte (released in 2003), Salman Khan, with whom Aishwarya Rai had broken up, came to the sets and, playing himself, created a ruckus. Shah Rukh asked her to leave and very kindly offered her a multiple choice of going “in Salman’s car or in my car or in any combination possible”. He then dropped her from the movie. Aishwarya was the biggest heroine in the industry then, but that was just not enough to prevent a lay-off. Would anyone do that to a Salman Khan? “He has even hit a director on the sets once,” said one producer. He completed the movie.
THE GREAT IRONY
The great irony of the Hindi film industry is that when it started out silently in the 1920s and 30s, the heroine was the superstar. There were scenes in which women worked out in gymnasiums, made out with boyfriends. The first double role was played by a heroine, Patience Cooper. Movies had names like Telephone Girl. There was even a letter to a magazine which complained that filmmakers were casting any useless male actor because they knew films ran on the popular appeal of actresses. Heroes didn’t matter.
Devika Rani was one of those superstars and there’s a little story about her. After returning to India from Europe, she, already a star by then, and her husband Himanshu Rai set up Bombay Talkies. While shooting a murder mystery called Jawani Ki Hawa, she got involved with the hero Najam-ul-Hussain and both ran away to Kolkata.
“Himanshu Rai tracked them down and got her to come back. They could dump the hero but they needed her. Bombay Talkies depended on her. She was bigger than the hero,” says Karan Bali, a filmmaker who is working on a project on early Indian actresses.
Rai needed another hero, though, and that was when his eyes fell on a laboratory assistant. Ashok Kumar thus became the lead actor of the movie. That was how Bollywood was then. A laboratory assistant could fill in for the hero, but the heroine was indispensable.
The heroine hung on even as the age of male superstars began with Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand. In a 1949 movie Andaz which starred Nargis, Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor, guess who was paid the most—Nargis, who was just 20 years old at the time. Right up to the 50s, heroines were billed on screen ahead of the heroes. In the 60s, when Shammi Kapoor and then Rajesh Khanna brought in the great romantic wave, they were still relevant. If the hero had to go chasing a girl in Kashmir, there must be a girl to chase. It was Amitabh Bachchan’s angry young man who finished off the heroine. Romance had marginal interest for him. He had bigger things to chew, like smugglers, estranged fathers and crooked politicians. Even in the 1990 release Agneepath, by when the angry young man is pretty old, there is only a token actress, Madhavi. It is not surprising that you finally got an aberration—Madhuri Dixit, who often surpassed the hero of the film—only after the Amitabh era got over. “But the heroine never recovered from being pushed to the side in the late 70s,” says Bali.
THE HEROINE AS MEAT
In a recent television chat show, Hema Malini and Zeenat Aman were reminiscing about the good old days, when the former narrated an incident which is pretty much how Bollywood portrays women: as objects of fantasy. She had been shooting a scene which required her to bend forward. Each time she did so, her sari pallu slipped. She noticed the angle of the camera, realised where this was heading and asked for a safety pin. After a couple of retakes, the director looked very displeased. He then asked her to remove the safety pin because it was interfering with the shot! “I know who you are talking about,” said Zeenat Aman and then the two broke into a giggling fit.
Hema Malini refused to take off the offensive safety pin because by then she was big enough to say no. But when you are starting out, Bollywood can be crude to heroines. One filmmaker, who for a long time couldn’t make a flop and now cannot make a hit, is known to have a newcomer in his movie to supply the meat quotient. What follows is a composite of all his observations in various private forums:
“She will be far more adjusting with my camera angles and revealing costumes. She will do as I say more willingly whereas the other one (established actress) will make me dance to her tune and in the end, there will be no sex appeal or raunchiness in the performance. And that is what the film needs. I am not here to make art, I am here to make money and when an actress becomes a big star, she forgets why she became one in the first place. To be fantasised and loved by millions all over. Then they start covering up like it is going out of fashion and making silly clauses in their contracts about no exposure and all that rubbish. Whatever had to be seen by the public has already been seen—so what is the need to be a prude now?”
Then there’s this story about Shilpa Shetty, as related by a witness. Once, when she arrived on the set to shoot her scene, the director was mortified. “Chhati kahan hai? Chhati kahan hai? (Where is the chest?),” he shouted at his assistant, referring to the absence of breast padding. He was frantic. “Get it immediately for her. I do not have time for all this delay.”
AN MCP INDUSTRY
“For the last two years, I’ve having been meeting so many male stars that I sometimes joke to my wife that I am turning into a homosexual,” says an aspiring director who has been on the circuit trying to make two movies. “I haven’t been meeting female stars because they are not important at this stage.”
According to him, when Bollywood sees a name, it sees a figure. A rupee figure. A combination of these names in a movie adds up to a profit and makes Bollywood put money on a project. The big figures are all against male names. “Though Priyanka, Kareena and Aishwarya have shown that they can carry a movie on their own, you could collect a maximum of Rs 5 crore on their name. Bollywood is an MCP industry which thinks the heroine is only padding,” he says.
Says Vohra, “As a writer I can tell you, if an actor has not said yes to your script then there’s a 95 per cent chance that your film will not get made. It’s all lies that the script is the most important thing, it is still the least important thing. Actors matter.”
If you cannot make a movie unless a big-figure actor agrees to play in it, the natural fallout is that scripts will be written with the actor in mind. “It’s true that filmmakers write movies with actors in mind,” says Dinesh Raheja, executive editor of Bollywood News Service, who’s written two books on the Hindi film industry. “But that’s because they have written scripts with women in mind and they have not done so well.”
In 2007, Bollywood’s best known production house Yash Raj Films made two movies which revolved around women. One was Laga Chunri Mein Daag with Rani Mukherji and the other was Aaja Nachle, the comeback vehicle for Madhuri Dixit. Both were resounding flops, but how much of it was because women played the central character is open to debate. Says Jaideep Sahni, the writer of Aaja Nachle, with admirable candour, “The movie not doing well at the box office had nothing to do with the subject being women-oriented. We could have done better, but we were not good enough.”
But he does think that there is some truth to the traditional wisdom that women centric films don’t sell. “It is not entirely a fraudulent notion. It’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy in a patriarchal world. I feel the mainstream effort in this direction has somehow been oscillating between being ignorantly exploitative and ploddingly sympathetic . We have been living in a state of confusion for the last 15 years or so.”
If it’s any consolation for actresses, a hardnosed analysis would reveal that even men don’t sell. Despite all the calculations involving multi-crore figures against names, over 90 per cent of what the industry churns out are flops. But the mindset that women equals to flop has become a truism. “Bollywood only understands men because at the level where characters and plots are decided, it’s only men who do it,” says Vohra, “All the top directors, barring Farah Khan, are men. All the leading screenwriters are men.”
So far, that is.