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Return of the Divas

Earlier an actress's career was linked to her marital status. But now actresses of substance are making a comeback, write Meeta Mishra and Ruchira Hoon.
None | By Meeta Mishra and Ruchira Hoon., New Delhi
UPDATED ON JAN 16, 2008 06:04 PM IST

Zeenat Aman, Hema Malini, Dimple Kapadia, Sridevi, Madhuri Dixit, Kajol, Karisma Kapoor – they are all Bollywood divas who made a huge impact on us. Even when they quit the screen, their memories lingered. More than memories – we wanted them back where they belonged.

Popular demand had some victories. Over the last few years, we've seen the return of some of these divas. And the good news is, this year, more will make their comebacks.

Why are these divas ready to return?

"It's about what you really want to do," says Poonam Dhillon, who we'll soon see on screen again. "Ultimately, it's the one thing that we all know how to do and are good at."

Though Madhuri Dixit's comeback in Aaja Nachle was not as big a hit as Hema Malini's in Baghban, all these returning divas have one thing in common. They are tremendous actresses with the potential to do a lot more than a bhabhi or a mother's role.

"Earlier, filmmakers only capitalised on the names of big yesteryear stars when they signed them for movies. They believed that their screen presence was the only thing that mattered," says Rahul Dhalokia, director of Parzania. "It was never their talent that was utilised. Instead they were given mediocre, almost cameo, roles that never did any justice to their aptitude."

Back in the '80s and '90s, Bollywood had an unwritten rule: The moment an actress marries, her career dies. Because of this, many actresses often hid the fact that they were in a relationship till they were ready to call it quits. Juhi Chawla, for example, denied rumours of her relationship with industrialist Jai Mehta because she felt that she would not be offered any roles.

This was new. Earlier, actresses like Sharmila Tagore, Waheeda Rehman and Nutan had continued to act even after raising their families. But perhaps that was because they never quit the industry after marriage. They stayed on and continued with their careers.

For actresses who quit the industry entirely, the concept that they could return for another shot at stardom was out of the question. It just couldn't happen.

Then Dimple Kapadia did it.

Bold, brassy and with a mind of her own, Dimple made her comeback in Sagar in 1985. She played the lead role in a love triangle long after she quit films to raise her two daughters! "The big difference between then and now is that directors have realised that there are roles for mature women and are utilising that potential," says Dimple.

Once again, the rules have changed. An actress who quit to be a wife and mother can also be a star.

It is written...
Though international cinema is full of scripts written specifically to utilise the talents of a particular actress, Bollywood had never come to terms with it. But as films changed over the years, so did filmi mindsets.

"The script for Aaja Nachle was written with Madhuri Dixit in mind," says Anil Mehta, director of the movie. "And since dance was a subject close to Madhuri's heart, it made sense to design a script that revolved around it. Glamour doesn't appeal to an actor or an audience anymore. A good script matters."

Producer Boney Kapoor agrees with Anil's summing up of the ‘new' Bollywood, but adds that this happened because the audience has matured. "There's a new sensibility that can suddenly be seen in Hindi films. And even though there are certain formula films that do well, films like Bheja Fry and Aamir Khan's Taare Zameen Par show how we are ready for noveau cinema."

Small is beautiful

Multiplexes have changed the world of the filmmaker. With so many screens available all over the country, it's as easy for a filmmaker now to cater to a niche audience as the mass that he / she usually has to deal with.

That's why Boney Kapoor believes that age is no longer important in Indian cinema. "Since the mindsets of the audience and filmmakers have changed, actresses past a certain age are all ready to make a comeback."

Thanks to newly available niche audiences, filmmakers can make small budget films that will recoup the investment. That's why, says actress Shabana Azmi, there is enough scope for an older woman to play her age.

"It all boils down to economics," she explains. "If a producer can do business with a story that brings him / her money, then there is no dearth of stories. And that is why you see different kinds of films be ing made today. People are willing to write roles like the ones I did in Honeymoon Travels Pvt. Ltd., Rice Plate in Dus Kahaniyaan and Loins of Punjab. A senior actress need not be limited to holding a puja thaali or weeping into her pallu. The focus is not on age but on a story well told that can generate money."

While stars like Hema Malini and Kajol made successful comebacks, there are people who feel that their movies would not have done as well as they did if they hadn't had co-stars like Amitabh Bachchan and Aamir Khan to back them up.

But it's not just women who face such scrutiny; men too have gone through this phase. Shabana Azmi points out that when Amitabh Bachchan tried to make his comeback with action movies like Lal Badshah and Indrajeet, he flopped. "You need to move with the times," she says. Not just a number While directors are eager to cast the divas of yore in their films, there is a simple rule that they go by. The role should suit the actress who in turn should act and dress her age.

Director Ravi Chopra feels that Aaja Nachle would have done better if Madhuri Dixit had been dressed in clothes befitting her age. "She played the role of a 40+ woman but wore clothes that 20-somethings wear," says Chopra.

That's the key to comeback success, says Azmi. "Unless you are ready to accept and play your age, you are liable to make a fool of yourself because the audience will not accept it. Even a superstar like Amitabh Bachchan had to make peace with his age and act it to get a second lease of life. If Hema Malini had tried to play a younger woman in Baghban, it would not have worked."

Rahul Dhalokia, director of Parzania, agrees with Azmi. Forty-year-old actresses running around trees, pretending to be 22, will not do.

"They are talented actresses and if they act their age, then we've got a superhit formula. They are already a combination of beauty, talent and substance and can give the younger lot a run for their money," he says.

Hollywood dreams
While comparisons are odious, Bollywood still needs to do a bit more to make sure that roles are created for mature actresses.

"A new spectrum and bandwidth of films should be created to accom modate our actresses," says director Anil Mehta. "Just like roles were tailor-made for Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada and for Diane Keaton in Something's Gotta Give, there will come a time when Bollywood actresses will be kept in mind while new stories are scripted."

Sridevi also feels that Hollywood actresses get a better deal since life starts in phase two. "They get the opportunity to play different kinds of roles – roles which need their versatility, roles with substance and roles that suit them perfectly."

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