GANGUBAI KATHIAWADI (2022) made more than `150 crore in the box office, but do you remember the name of the male star in that movie? There is none. It solely rode on Alia Bhatt’s shoulders and found the sort of commercial success that was earlier the exclusive preserve of men in Bollywood. The change in relationship between the audience and the actress is also a reason why at the peak of her career Bhatt decided to marry, and has just announced her pregnancy. In the film industry of yore, these were decisions only taken after the career span of an actress had run out.
There are a number of reasons why heroines have more purchase in Bollywood now. The nature of the star system, for one. The biggest factor in movie economics is the opening weekend, which makes for costs being recouped. The male star was the guarantee for those two days, the insurance against loss and, if the movie clicked, then extraordinary profits. All of them, therefore, had a long line of suitors of established producers and directors. But when a new breed of talented filmmakers entered the industry, they couldn’t afford these men. On the other hand, there were many talented popular heroines relegated to being arm candy. They were enthusiastic about low-budget movies if the script was good and the roles gave job satisfaction. Many of these movies, like Queen (2013) with Kangana Ranaut or Kahaani (2012) with Vidya Balan, became huge hits too. A new heroine-driven formula had come into being.
Why didn’t a fan accept a married actress, but had no such conditions for male actors? A Shah Rukh Khan, for example, entered the film industry when he was already married and it had zero effect on his appeal. An actress had no such hope because, in general, Bollywood didn’t want her to add anything to the movie, except glamour. Her job was to be part of the male audience’s fantasy. For the fantasy to be as true as possible, the fan shouldn’t think that the actress was in a relationship with anyone else. If an actress married, he would just take his fantasies to another. The commercial appeal of the actress went down the day she married. This would anyway happen when an actress entered her 30s, the age when most would be forced away from mainstream roles.
There is still a lot of that and Bollywood remains an unfair place for actresses but there is some progress. The rise of OTT platforms where the opening weekend is not the deciding factor of a movie’s viability is also giving more heft to actresses. Commercial viability of women-oriented movies is on the back of them being more than sexual objects. To be a full person in the eyes of their audience is a leap of evolution in Indian cinema. Very few are going to bet now against Alia Bhatt returning after her pregnancy with her stature and career intact.