Much like other film industries, Bollywood, too is male-dominated. Amidst daunting heroes, there are some female characters, which have made their mark in tinsel town. National award-winning film critic Deepa Gahlot’s latest book, Sheroes, chronicles 25 such characters. Deepa, the head of Theatre & Film, National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai, is known for her books such as The Prithviwallahs (co-authored with Shashi Kapoor), biographies of Shah Rukh Khan and Shammi Kapoor and Take 2. Excerpts from an interview with the author, columnist, editor and blogger.
What motivated you to write this book on the leading ladies of Bollywood?
The constant irritation while watching films, that the leading lady seldom does anything substantial. And when the industry says a film is ‘heroine centric’ it is always almost a role in which the woman weeps and makes sacrifices, and certainly not one in which she achieves something great.
How did you zero in on 25 such characters?
It had to be a leading role in which the heroine is strong. As I have written in the intro of the book: If one excludes the conventional, that is the suffering mother, supportive sister, dutiful wife, sacrificing courtesan, wily vamp and bandit (or criminal), then finding 25 empowered women in the vast canvas of Bollywood cinema is a daunting task. Women who played exciting roles and fought their battles without depending entirely on the men folk are not that many. It was also essential that these warriors win, so films with downbeat endings are not included, and the reason some, who may seem out of place but are in the book, are included only because they succeeded in raising the bar for themselves. They are also all leading ladies, not cameos or part of an ensemble or omnibus films. The book covers a period spanning half a century from 1960-2010, since the sixties can safely be considered as the time when in the aftermath of pre- and post-Independence turmoil, India stepped into modern times.
Who is your favourite character in Bollywood and why?
My all time favourite is Rosie of Guide: she is talented, ambitious, self aware and not a total emotional fool.
Do you see a change in the way heroines are being portrayed in Bollywood now?
Just a bit now: films like Kahaani and Queen where the leading lady is a well-rounded and independent character. I would like to see what Rani of Queen does with her life and definitely a return of Vidya Bagchi of Kahaani.
Who are your favourite female actors in Bollywood?
I admire Shabana Azmi, but generally, I don’t have favourite actors, but favourite characters. Apart from Rosie, I love Saudaminii of Lal Patthar, Aarti of Andhi and Malti of Mujhe Insaaf Chahiye.
Films are both fictional and derived from reality. Do you think the right portrayal of women in films will help society?
It might be inspiring for young women if the aspirations and accomplishments of today’s women were reflected on screen. Not just biopics like Mary Kom, but also the fact that so many ordinary women are achievers.
What are you writing next? Is it also inspired/based on Bollywood?
I am mulling over a few ideas. I would like to work more on cinema, theatre and a gender-issue based book because these subjects interest me.
If you were to write a script for a Bollywood film, what would the woman character be like?
I would never write a film. One terrible experience put me off for life. But hypothetically speaking, she would be strong, independent, self-respecting and dignified.
Your favourite book?
I read like a maniac so it can’t be one book, but Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, Susan Faludi’s Backlash and Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth have had long-lasting impact
All-time favourite film?
Writing to you is?
When not writing, what do you do?
Read, watch plays and films, work on NCPA events
Number of books in your collection?
I had thousands, but I no longer collect. I gave away books I know I will never reread and only kept reference books. The books I buy or receive, I pass on to friends.