(L to R) Angad Bedi; Mita Vashisht; and Anil Kapoor
The Hindi film heroine cannot look too intelligent or too sexy, said Subhash Ghai to Mita Vashisht once. The actress, trained at the National School of Drama, was in his 1999 blockbuster Taal, and he was, in his own way, explaining to her why she could never be cast as the lead in a mainstream Hindi film, despite her brilliant collaborations with directors as varied as Mani Kaul, Kumar Shahani and Shyam Benegal. Vashisht, who has nevertheless had a long and fruitful career across television, cinema, and now web series, recalls a particular incident during the shooting of Taal where Ghai made her change her costume during an awards ceremony in the movie so that she did not outshine the star, Aishwarya Rai. Vashisht remembers making a special effort to get a glittering gown made until she was told by Ghai to wear the clothes in which she had come for the film shoot. The Hindi film heroine also had to have a particular kind of ada, an inherent coyness about sexuality, because as Ghai told Vashisht, the heroine has to eventually become the mother of the hero’s child. Also, Vashisht had done a nude scene in her very first film, Siddheshwari (1989), which gave her a “bold” tag. Says Vashisht: “At that point, many magazines tried to sensationalise the scene and wanted me to declare that I had been coerced or tricked into it. When I refused to play the game, they lost interest in me.” In the new world where the heroine is also a marketable commodity, there is yet another rule, one explained by Kalki Koechlin recently. The heroine has to look the same for some years because that is what consumer brands expect when they spend money on promoting their product through a person. Too many drastic physical changes, or even fluctuating cinematic choices, can make the endorsement unviable—hence the race for surgical interventions. The rise of the woman writer and director ought to change these restrictive paradigms, but smashing the patriarchy takes time.
The Hero Trap
Women are not the only ones trapped in a particular image. Any reasonably good looking young man who enters the film industry is also expected to know the basics of playing the hero, which is dancing, fighting, riding, and in the era of epics, fencing. Not surprisingly, it helps to have a sporting background, like Angad Bedi had in cricket, or Aditya Seal had in taekwondo. The distinction between actor and star is still quite deep. So, while the actor hones his craft, reading and interpreting texts, spending hours doing theatre and taking lessons in diction, the wannabe star has to perfect his Bollywood dancing and fighting. And if he can’t make it as the hero, he can always play the villain, which requires him to look almost as dashing as the hero, up until the climax.
The Star Dad
There is so much talk about star children, spare a thought for the star dads and mums who suddenly find themselves relegated to senior citizen status. If they’re like Anil Kapoor, they keep alive the fiction of being the leading man by never seeming to age onscreen. Or, they can be like Rakesh Roshan, happy to sacrifice their eternal youth for the position of the main custodian of the offspring. Or, like Jackie Shroff, enjoy a second innings as a cross between a dirty old man, as played in Radhe (2021), or a larger-than-life villain in the forthcoming Sooryavanshi. Or, like Amrita Singh, who exercises considerable control over her daughter’s career but is out of sight. The subtle shift in the power dynamic is interesting to watch, especially in how they are addressed. The current crop of ageing stars should perhaps take tips from this generation as they prepare to launch their progeny.
Did You Know?
When Suresh Jindal, the veteran producer, was asked why Richard Attenborough made the multiple Oscar-winning Gandhi (1982), the associate producer of the movie said: “So that the world would know that Indira Gandhi was not Mahatma Gandhi’s daughter.” It’s a joke that Attenborough repeated with relish, writes Farrukh Dhondy in his latest book, Fragments Against My Ruin: A Life. And its postscript? That when Attenborough showed it to US President Ronald Reagan at the White House, the latter said: “What a great film, Mr Attenborough! And what a great job his daughter is doing in New Delhi.” Cinema, clearly, doesn’t always educate.