Babedom can be a dangerous career choice in the badlands of Bollywood. Unless the babe can graduate to being a bahu, or at least show the promise of being able to, it’s touch and go — within the span of a movie as well as her career.
For, there’s that indefinable Laxman rekha beyond which lies the point of diminishing returns. Mallika Sherawat, poor dear, has left that boundary far behind. Bipasha Basu, smart girl, has been there and back, hanging in gamely. Shilpa Shetty, strangely, is upping the ante late in her career, going by her colourful bikini in Dostana. Actresses like Esha Deol and Minissha Lamba have given shots in bikinis, but where has that got the girls?
All this while the savvier Preity Zinta, Kareena Kapoor, Katrina Kaif and Priyanka Chopra stopped just short of the line — and look where it’s got them.
Indian audiences have always found it difficult to accept the undiluted babe as heroine; she must, she must, cover up (even if metaphorically) at some point in the storyline. And that point usually comes when she surrenders to her man. Whether it is Madhuri Dixit’s Madhu in Raja Hindustani, Kareena Kapoor’s outrageous Poo in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham who switches overnight to Pooja in a salwar-kameez; or Priyanka Chopra’s Neha, who goes gradually from golden swimsuit and sexy shorts to glam saree and desi girl in the unconventional Dostana.
Only Aishwarya Rai has got away with being an unconverted babe in Dhoom 2. Perhaps because she is the paradigm of the bahu that India would love to bring home; an image too strong to be destroyed by a couple of short skirts. And perhaps because she promptly returned to type in Guru and Jodhaa Akbar.
That’s what works in the long run. Hindi cinema’s most powerful heroines have been the archetypal traditional Indian woman. Think Nargis, Hema Malini, Madhuri Dixit, Sridevi, Aishwarya Rai (the grand exception to the rule being Rekha). Even in skimpy clothes, seducing the hero or doing a sizzler of a dance, they never go all out; you even get the feeling they’re not entirely comfortable doing all those things.
They don’t have the abandon of the natural-born babe like a Bipasha or Shilpa Shetty — and that’s exactly what works in their favour. The Hindi film heroine cannot survive entirely in the screen space once occupied by that now-mythical creature, the vamp.
Yes, the boundary lines have blurred and heroines are wearing costumes Helen might have hesitated to, but the leading lady and the vamp can never merge. Not in Bollywood.
As for the behenji, she’s been dead a long time ago ... haven’t you noticed? When was the last you saw a true-blue behenji in a Hindi film?
And in any case, what defines a behenji? Not her dressing style surely; it’s all about attitude, body language and that X factor, whether babe or behenji.
And the Hindi film heroine has to tread the safe path betwixt the two. She, simply, has to be the friend/girlfriend/bahu you can bring home in the largely unreal world of Hindi cinema.
That sounds sexist, but if it’s any consolation, the men have it no better. Unless the hunk can also exhibit a softer, family-oriented side on screen and he can act, his chances are pretty limited (as Akshay Kumar realised after many years). But if the hunk can display a tender, vulnerable side — just as the babe needs to — he’s home. Ask Salman Khan.