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Millennium Post

Heroine is the new Hero

It is payback time for Bollywood. After relegating female actresses to play the raunchy but redundant girlfriend or the widowed mother in white sari who cries forever while making rotis, the film industry has been finally forced to recognise their potential. So now we have the confident new-age woman all set to play the hero in the film. Patriarchy be damned! In Bollywood lingo — Phata poster, nikli heroine!

If you cared to look beyond her heaving bosom, there were four set roles an actress could play in a mainstream Bollywood film.  The lady in distress, the wailing mother, the seductive vamp and of late the navel-baring item girl. Not any more. As clichéd as this may sound, ‘meaningful roles’ are now being written for her to suit changing tastes and gender equality demands. There has been a spate of films in recent years with the scripts written for women, by women, for both men and women. And guess what? Some of those films have brought in the money as well.

Films like Gulaab Gang that has Madhuri Dixit and Juhi Chawla, Dedh Ishqiya starring Madhuri and Huma Qureshi in significant roles, Vidya Balan in Kahaani, Dirty Picture, No One Killed Jessica and many such films have brought women to the centrestage. But why this sudden shift? Has Bollywood embraced matriarchy or has society evolved?

Soumik Sen, director of Gulaab Gang, has cast women as pivotal characters in his film — be it the hero, villain and even supporting characters. Truth be told, there is hardly any space for men in his film. ‘In order to change the existing paradigm I wanted to create a world where men would be more or less redundant. The entire idea was to change the current equation in Bollywood films wherein you have the protagonist versus the villain like Salman Khan versus Prakash Raj or Amitabh Bachchan versus Amrish Puri,’ said Sen.

‘The heroine has always played the girlfriend, mother, wife, sister or such appendages to male characters. I wanted to reverse that. So in this film you have the hero who is a woman, the villain who is also a woman and the central characters also played by women. There are men in the film but they do not occupy primary space,’ he added.

Renowned director and also the producer of Gulaab Gang, Anubhav Sinha, told Millennium Post that women-centric films have always existed and it is not that ‘we suddenly start taking note of these things.’ He elaborated: ‘There have been films made in black and white featuring women. That goes to prove the audience has always been receptive to these films. Yes, maybe what is different in
Gulaab Gang
is that there no male support system in terms of star quotient.’

The past is not all bleak though. From the early years of Mother India and Aandhi to Mirch Masala, Arth, Damini, Pinjar, Astitva, Bandit Queen, Godmother, 7 Khoon Maaf, there have been women-centric films. But they were too few and far between.

Shilpa Shukla, who recently essayed the role of femme fatal in BA Pass and has acted in Chak De India! in the past, says this was long overdue. ‘I think it is the best thing when a woman is incorporated in a film as an equal participant. She brings more shades to the canvas. Women are a part of our lives. They are a part of our system and their representation brings forth the other side,’ said the actress.

Importantly, apart from shedding the dolled-up image, the heroine is not a victim of ageism any more. The audience is ready to watch their heroine in a de-glam look and even someone who has well crossed her thirties.

Earlier this kind of cinema was viewed as niche, but now the trend seems to be changing. The janata (masses) likes the new woman- powerful, focused, working or home-making- a choice she makes on her own. She is who she wants to be today, a home breaker or homemaker or neither, and is forcing society to play it her way. ‘Even in commercial cinema I think women would play lead more often. Vidya Balan and Rani Mukerji have set an example by doing such roles when most others would be happy playing the hero’s love interest. The whole notion that 30 or 35 plus women can’t be taken in films and they have a certain shelf life in Bollywood is fast fading,’ said Shilpa while talking about age as a deterrent in the industry for actresses.

Soumik seconds her. ‘For me it was the complete opposite of this notion because the characters in my film are all powerful women - one heads a vigilante group and the other plays a seasoned politician so obviously they could not be young. They couldn’t be girls out of college. The script was written with no particular woman in mind, but women who are in control of their destiny and occupy powerful positions in life. Also these positions of power very rarely come to you when you are really young.’

About women-centric films dominating tinsel town, Soumik said, ‘I don’t feel this is a change that is happening now. Films like these have been made in the past as well. Bimal Roy for example has made many such films.’

Veteran Bollywood actor Raj Babbar feels this is a phase but it is great that roles for women are being written seriously. ‘This trend keeps coming back as even in the 60s when it was all about the hero and not much else, there were women who did some very good roles. For example, K Asif sahaab made Mughal-e-Azam in which Madhubala was the strongest character.  I feel it mostly depends on the director to firstly have a good script and then execute it accordingly,’ said Babbar.

It is important to notice that the scripts are also giving well-defined roles to women as well. But still for the market-driven and business generating mindset in Bollywood, certain producers pumping in the money still don’t want to take the risk and lay their bets solely on a female lead.

‘Not that the audience disregards this idea of women in central roles. There are pressures on the industry on what would sell and everyone wants to play a safe game. Some directors though are still willing to go out there and take a risk,’ feels Shilpa.

Are industry managers scared to take risk with women still? Soumik said it like it is: ‘Yes absolutely. One guy who broke norms is Madhur Bhandarkar. He has made several films with women protagonists like Chandini Bar, Page 3, Fashion, Corporate. Despite that, there is still scepticism among producers and distributors on how the audience will accept the film.’

Anubhav queers the pitch by bringing in the small screen.  ‘It is true that industry managers are sceptical about investing money into women-oriented films. I find it very surprising because if you look at most TV shows which are good parameters of consumer tastes, then most of them are women-centric. But somehow in films we perceive that those women who watch TV don’t see films in theatres. Either it is expensive or they don’t get support from male members in the family to take them along to watch those films. Which I think is a myth because if we go back to the 1970s then Jai Santoshi Maa played in huge numbers. Who went to see those films? Having said this, I feel even a women-centric film now has to be packaged in the Bollywood recipe. If it pretends to be or manages to look serious or intellectual then the audience gets put off. They need entertainment. Just that.’

So where do we stand? The heroine today wants to do more than shake her booty before the hero. She is more than her body. And she wants you, the fan, to acknowledge that. This has brought in change in scripts as well. Though she has not given up on the song and dance routine and doesn’t even want to.

So while we have a Vidya Balan doing films like Kahaani and Dirty Picture we also have the Sheila ki Jawaani type numbers being performed by Katrina Kaifs.

But have we as viewers changed the way we look at women on screen? Not really. We want her to be stunning. We want her to have a hot bod. And, now, we want her to act also! Be in her shoes for a minute: it is nerve-racking pressure to be all of these at once! So some just take recourse to item dance!

And is that a problem? After all the big talk about women playing the lead and doing meaningful cinema, does our national obsession with item numbers bring it all crashing down?

Not really. Raj Babbar feels some actresses are genuinely fine doing item-numbers and it is their choice to do so. According to him, ‘The item-girl phenomenon works both ways as some actresses are fine being labeled as that and doing just that. On the other side, you see examples like Vidya Balan, Madhuri, Shabana Azmi and Sri Devi; they can’t be called mere showpieces in a film.’ At the end of the day, if empowerment is about the freedom to exercise one’s choice then doing an item number out of one’s own free will is a choice as well.

Sinha also feels item songs exist if the film needs it. ‘I think this item-girl issue is over-hyped and over-written. Look at our heroes — they have been taking off their shirts and showing off their six pack abs. Do they become item-boys? No. It is because that particular film or character they played required them to be that way. Similarly, that particular film or story required an item girl in it. It doesn’t mean that one looks at women only in that fashion.’

At the end of the day, Bollywood is about entertainment. And just that. And whether through item numbers or lead roles, women have a bigger say in the business today than ever before.
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