There’s one thing that the three reigning superstars of Bollywood have in common. And no, it’s not that they all rejoice in the surname Khan, though God knows that has been commented upon a million times. What binds Salman, Shah Rukh and Aamir together is that they are all 48 this year.
Go a little further down the rung of super-stardom and it is pretty much the same story. Saif Ali Khan is 43; Akshay Kumar is 45; Ajay Devgn is 44; hell, even Hrithik Roshan is nudging 40 (he hits that milestone next January). And all of them are doing very well indeed at the box-office, singing and dancing, romancing the ladies, and beating the bad boys to a bloody pulp, thank you very much.
Now, here’s a challenge for you. Can you name a single Bollywood actress who is still a top star past the age of 38? Yes, take your time. Scroll down the list of all the usual suspects. Use that old search engine thingie. Phone a friend. Found anyone who is still a significant player past that magical figure? No? I thought not.
Something mysterious seems to happen to our actresses as they creep – ever so slowly and oh so unwillingly; but honestly, given what awaits, can you really blame them? – towards their late 30s. One minute they are flying high on the helium balloon of success and the next, they have crash-landed on hard ground. And no amount of botox, Juvéderm or plastic surgery can ever make them whole again. Well, not in the eyes of film producers and directors anyway.
When it comes to female stars, ageing seems to be calculated in dog years where 16 equals 25; 25 equals 30; and 38 equals death (at the box-office, at any rate).
No matter how brightly their star may have shone before, it tends to fizzle out around the mid 30s mark. Sridevi last big release was Judaai in 1997 and she effectively retired from the business at 34. And it is telling that she only put one cautious toe out to test the waters once she was pushing 50 and unambiguously past leading-lady age.
It is no secret that Madhuri Dixit struggled to find a decent role in her last years in the business. Or that Karisma Kapoor never managed a comeback after marriage and kids, even though she has never looked better. Rani Mukerji tries hard to stay relevant with releases like No One Killed Jessica, but we can all see that this is a losing battle. And even Aishwarya Rai, delivered her last big movie, Guzaarish, in 2010, at the venerable age of 37 (though if anyone can make a sizzling comeback, it is her).
And these are the stars who have actually been on top of the heap for most of their time in moviedom. Those who were lower down in the pecking order fare even worse. Preity Zinta struggles on gamely at 38, but even she has to produce the movies she stars in (and it doesn’t help when they are like Ishkq in Paris). And Bipasha Basu seems to have slipped completely off the radar at a youthful 34.
But while the women fall by the wayside like so many dominoes, the men just go on and on. It’s almost as if with male stars, the ageing process has been halted by some ancient alchemical process. Ever since Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar canoodled with actresses half their age, Bollywood heroes have seen it as a badge of pride to be paired with heroines who could well be their daughters. In fact, some of the heroines Amitabh Bachchan, Shashi Kapoor, Dharamendra have romanced on-screen could well have been their granddaughters.
And over the years we have become so inured to this December-April pairing that we see nothing incongruous about Salman Khan playing the romantic lead against Sonakshi Sinha who was two years old when he became a star with Maine Pyar Kiya. Or when Shah Rukh Khan sings and dances around the trees with Anushka Sharma, who was five years old when he was stammering K K K K Kiran in Darr (Deepika Padukone was seven years old at that time, in case you are interested).
I wondered about this as I watched Madhuri Dixit (Shah Rukh’s co-star in Dil To Pagal Hai) play judge on the TV dance reality show Jhalak Dikhhla Jaa, biding time, no doubt, till she is old enough to play the glamorous yummy mummy or the beatific badi bhabhi (given that her comeback vehicle Aaja Nachle didn’t exactly set the cinema screens on fire). Is this the way the cookie will always crumble for our Bollywood heroines? Or will the film industry change its sexist, ageist ways?
The way I look at it, Kareena Kapoor Khan will be the test case. At 33, she is veering close to the danger mark. Will she be able to change the rules? Well, I am sure we wish her the very best but if I were you, I wouldn’t hold my breath.
From HT Brunch, July 28
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