(This is the English version of an article published on bbc.com/hindi/ on October 21, 2015.)
MOMS MUST BE MOMS BUT DADS WILL BE BOYS
Though Bollywood is marginally less resistant to married actresses now, it still insists on giving only certain kinds of roles to women post-marriage and post-motherhood
By Anna MM Vetticad
A decade back, chances are she would have been the hero’s or heroine’s mother. Today, she is the heroine herself.
As trade analysts collate the collections of Aishwarya Rai Bachchan’s Jazbaa, there is more to discuss than money. In an industry that is notoriously disinterested in women post-30, post-marriage and post-babies, Jazbaa – terribly flawed though it is – is a milestone of sorts. After all, how often does Bollywood give the central character in a mainstream film to a 41-year-old married actress returning after a five-year hiatus during which she had a child? This is particularly heartening, coming as it does after a then-49-year-old Sridevi hit the box-office bull’s eye with English Vinglish in 2012 following a 15-year break, and Madhuri Dixit had a moderate success with Dedh Ishqiya last year.
All three stories revolve around their female protagonists. There is a catch though. While an increasingly experimental Bollywood has become marginally less resistant to married actresses in the past decade, it still gives these women limited choices.
For instance, the industry seems determined that real-life mothers must play mothers on screen if they want to be leading ladies. Ash in Jazbaa, Sri in English Vinglish, Kajol in her post-baby films and Madhuri in Aaja Nachle have all been mums in roles that have given centrality to their motherhood. Dedh Ishqiya had an explanation for why Madhuri’s character was childless.
This is not to say that these have been inadequate roles or that on-screen motherhood is undesirable. Quite to the contrary. But where is the variety? Where are the frothy romances starring these actresses, the comedies or stories of feisty older women who are not married and not mothers?
Meanwhile, their male peers are picking from a range of genres and roles, singing and dancing as singletons and husbands, sometimes fathers but most often not, usually laughably younger than their real-life age and courting actresses two decades their junior. With older heroines though, care is taken that their characters match their real-life age, have significant gravitas and that actors around their age play their romantic partners.
Producers insist this is what viewers want. The truth though is they don’t give viewers an alternative, the biggest budgets are still earmarked for male-centric entertainers, major male stars usually don’t want to act with women even close to their age (49-year-old Shah Rukh Khan’s repeated pairing with Kajol, 41, being an exception) and the options offered to older actresses reflect Bollywood’s own narrow-mindedness.
The prevailing mindset is best illustrated by a conversation I had with director Deepak Shivdasani before the release of his film Yeh Raaste Hai Pyaar Ke (2001) starring Madhuri, Ajay Devgn and Preity Zinta. When I asked if Madhuri’s role in the film suited her stardom, he misunderstood. “Don’t worry,” he assured me, “I’ve given her a role that suits the dignity of a married woman.”
Fourteen years later, at least two critics last week felt the need to assure us in reviews that Aishwarya’s role in Jazbaa is “age appropriate”. Yet the press barely protests when men touching 50 play 20- and 30-somethings.
Well, Bollywood producers, writers, directors and journalists are not living in a social vacuum. Like the rest of us, they emerge from our patriarchal society that by and large believes marriage elevates a woman’s stature and expects wives to subordinate their dreams to their spouses’ and children’s needs. It goes without saying that in such an industry, women will have limited options.
They deserve more, but until they get it, every baby step Bollywood takes towards Aishwarya, Madhuri, Sridevi and their ilk is a step worth toasting.
(Anna MM Vetticad is the author of The Adventures of an Intrepid Film Critic. Twitter: @annavetticad)
BBC Hindi link:
Photograph courtesy: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aishwarya_Rai_Bachchan
Note: This photograph was not sourced from BBC Hindi