TOO OLD TO BE SEEN WITH?
Age remains a dirty word for women in commercial cinema worldwide, despite occasional flashes of liberalism
By Anna M.M. Vetticad
In an ideal world, being a Bond ‘girl’ would not be seen as a fillip to the filmography of an established, talented actress. This is not an ideal world though. Today’s reality is that mass-targeted cinema is still largely focused on male characters and while age is not a disadvantage for major male stars, even the fittest of fine actresses are sidelined much earlier in their lives than men.
In this scenario, the next James Bond film Spectre and Dil Dhadakne Do (DDD) merit a discussion. Hollywood sprung a surprise on us just months back with the announcement that Monica Bellucci will play Bond’s romantic interest in Spectre. At 50, Bellucci is the oldest actress to get that role, according to Western media reports, and she is even four years older than her co-star Daniel Craig, which would not be news-worthy information but for the fact that a premium is placed on female youth in glamour industries worldwide.
Here in India, it should not have made news that Bollywood star Anil Kapoor was playing a grey-haired, 50-plus father of grown-up children in DDD. But it did, because senior male actors in India tend to play characters much younger than their real age. While Kapoor deserves the kudos he is getting for evolving beyond that, it’s telling that nary a whimper has been raised about the casting of a much younger Shefali Shah as his wife.
Because Team DDD seems to be a progressive lot, it is more important than ever to ask: was no actress of Kapoor’s age found suitable for that role?
Allow me to get briefly literal and mathematical to illustrate my point. Shah is 42 and Kapoor is 58, according to various online sources. In the film, they are parents to a girl and boy played by 32-year-old Priyanka Chopra and 29-year-old Ranveer Singh. If Shah was really their mother off screen, she would have been 10 at her daughter’s birth and 13 when her son was born. Biologically you know that’s a stretch, legally of course this would mean kids born out of wedlock or in a child marriage. You could have dismissed these calculations as fussy and silly if it weren’t for the fact that the screenplay writer is clearly not oblivious to this matter and makes a subtle effort to justify the casting by pointedly assigning the following ages to the four principal characters: Dad 52, Mum 48, kids mid-20s.
When reports earlier emerged that 48-year-old Madhuri Dixit-Nene and 51-year-old Sridevi had turned down Shah’s role, the media was critical of them. The two “got queasy” and Shah “has taken up the challenge”, said a report in a leading national daily. A dear film critic friend is of the view that “Madhuri was being un-adventurous” with her decision. But no one has asked if any Bollywood director would have dared to offer the role of Priyanka and Ranveer’s father to John Abraham (who is the same age as Shah), Akshay Kumar (who is less than a year younger than Dixit-Nene) or the three Khans who all hit 50 this year.
Longevity for female stars is not a favour being granted to them, but every major film industry in the world is guilty on this front, though some are worse than others.
In India, not only are older actresses given limited roles by producers and writers, but older heroes want to romance heroines young enough to be their daughters. It’s as if actresses their age are not worth being seen or worth being seen with.
In his last three films, Tamil legend Rajinikanth has starred opposite Sonakshi Sinha, who is 36 years his junior, Anushka Shetty (31 years younger), Deepika Padukone (age gap: 35 years) and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan (age gap: 23 years).
In interviews I’ve done with them over the years, both Kamal Haasan and Salman Khan insisted they are merely giving in to audience demands by acting with younger heroines. But how can you claim viewers have made a choice, when you almost never give them that choice? And if the audience does indeed make a regressive choice, could you at least have the courage to claim helplessness rather than endorse their illiberal view?
Unlike several Hollywood heavyweights, Indian actresses have rarely been critical of this phenomenon, partly because not every woman is convinced of the need for gender justice, but mostly because it is risky for them to question the status quo in their respective male-dominated industries (which are, let’s admit it, even worse than Hollywood).
Not that gentleman feminists have it easy. It has been four years since Prithviraj Sukumaran, then 29, gave an interview to Asianet in which he bravely called on his senior colleagues in the Malayalam film industry, Mohanlal and Mammooty, to “start playing their age”. Fans of both stars, gender chauvinists and status-quo-ists are still skewering him for the comments.
Speaking up is always a lonely business at first. It is time more men and women slammed film industries worldwide for turning age into a dirty word for actresses but a badge of honour for men. No, it is not a big deal that a 50-year-old woman will romance Bond. And no, Madhuri was not being “un-adventurous” by rejecting DDD; she was simply doing what any sensible male star of her stature and age would do.
(Anna MM Vetticad is the author of The Adventures of an Intrepid Film Critic. Twitter: @annavetticad)
(This column by Anna MM Vetticad was first published in The Hindu Businessline newspaper on June 20, 2015)
Photograph courtesy: (1) Spectre – Sony Pictures Entertainment (2) Dil Dhadakne Do – https://www.facebook.com/DDDTheFilm
Note: This photograph was not sourced from The Hindu Businessline