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Graceless Unaging

Gautam Chintamani on why men never age and women are easily replaceable post their 30s in Indian cinema.

brunch Updated: Mar 23, 2012 14:20 IST
Gautam Chintamani
HIndustan TImes
Madhuri-looks-like-perfection-personified

Dream Girl. Diva. Icon. Legend. These are some of the words that best describe the greatest Hindi film heroines like Hema Malini, Rekha, Sridevi and Madhuri Dixit but try as hard it'd impossible to see them get a half-decent role after a few years at the top. Bill Gates once famously suggested that life's unfair yet no amount of getting used to it can explain how its curtains for any leading Hindi film heroine once she hits mid 30s.

It's surprising that in a cinema that relies so heavily on the love-shuv, gaane-shaane, the men aren't expected to grow and the women are merrily replaced once they age. For the viewer Aamir Khan was as convincing as a college kid at the age of forty-four in 3 Idiots (2009) as he was two decades earlier in Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (1988). The more Salman Khan ages, the younger he plays it with a little help from the likes of Sonaskshi Sinha, who grew up in front of him, and Shah Rukh Khan might try playing his age in films like Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi (2008) but his heroines are only getting younger. These three Khans have been box-office magnets for the last two decades and it's impossible to think of anyone else commanding the same draw so hardly surprising that 'Bollywood' can't seem to look beyond them. But compare that to the leading heroines these guys worked with and many of them would seem to be from a different generation. The names of Juhi Chawla, Madhuri Dixit, Manisha Koirala, Kajol, Rani Mukherji, and Priety Zinta aren't mentioned in the same sentence with them anymore.

There has always been an age difference between leading men and their ladies in commercial Hindi cinema. Dev Anand-Waheeda Rehman, Dilip Kumar- Vyjayanthimala, Dharmendra-Hema Malini all had at least a decade and a half separating them but things were slightly different then. For starters the average age of the country wasn't as young as it is now and because of this huge demographic group our films are only getting younger compelling heroes to stop aging. In the past the same successful pair went on making films for the longest period and no one really bothered. Also unsuccessful attempts at being young forever in the form of Lal Badshah (1999) and others wised up the leading men like Amitabh Bachchan enough to start acting their age. This epiphany ended up providing extended employment to his on-screen partners such as Rakhee in Ek Rishta: The Bond of Love (2001), Zeenat Aman in Boom (2003), Hema Malini in Baghbaan (2003), Veer-Zara (2004) and Baabul (2006) and Jaya Pradha in Khakee (2004).

The big difference between then and now is that with the passage of time the so-called reign of the leading ladies at the top is getting smaller. Hema Malini and Rekha enjoyed a clear run for at least fifteen years when they were at the top but for both Sridevi and Madhuri Dixit it was just a decade in the real sense. When I say at the top I just mean that probability of an actor being considered for a big project. It's in that context that while Aamir, Salman and Shah Rukh are the naturally the first choices for every big budget film, it's the Priyanka Chopras, Katrina Kaifs and Kareena Kapoors as opposed to the Rani Mukherjis, the Preity Zintas, or the Kajols who become the automatic options to co-star.

Things are changing for the commercial Hindi film heroine but not at the pace that would make a remarkable difference and sadly things are remaining the same for the heroes. The bigger a male star becomes the more things center around him. The last few films of the three Khans have been only about them. Ghajini (2008), Dabangg (2010), and Ra.One (2011) were driven by a common single-point agenda to such an extent that you take out the women from these films and chances are nothing would change. On the other hand it's heartening to see Vidya Balan transform into a refreshingly successful business model unto herself. The success of Kahaani (2012) across cities and audiences gives hope that in spite of bigwigs claiming limited appeal for women-centric films, there is a thriving audience for such products. More crucially Kahaani gives a feeling that people somewhere are actually looking forward to her aging and continuing with such characters. We might not have a Meryl Streep doling out strong characters with each passing film yet, but perhaps we might be getting ready for our version of the Streepesque- women characters who'll be regular and whose films won't be treated as comebacks vehicles or event every time they don the make-up.

Gautam Chintamani is an award-winning writer/filmmaker with over a decade of experience across print and electronic mediums.

(The views expressed by the author are personal)

From HT Brunch, March 18

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