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The Heroine Half-Revolution

This was supposed to be the year Bollywood finally placed the actress centrestage. But despite a string of female-led movies, Nidhi Gupta finds that the film industry still hews to subtle yet age-old expressions of patriarchy

NIDHI GUPTA  20th Oct 2012

ollywood is adept at owning cliches, and the one that revolves around this cinematic season is that this is the year of the Woman On Top. Media houses and film promoters have joined hands to mark out this new category, as a series of films suggest that Indian film audiences are now ready for "heroine-centric" films, films that claim to bring a bolder, more modern, stronger female lead to our silver screen.

If the hype is to be believed, no longer is the Indian heroine content with being the hero's side-kick, the gorgeous, simpering girl next door with no bigger aim than to land the neighbourhood hunk, or to be the object of his desires. Now she can be the bold seductive vixen, the unglamorous, pregnant woman in search of her lost husband, the underappreciated mother of two who finds her voice in an English learning class in New York, or the superstar whose rise and fall is an inevitable consequence of the vicious industry she works in. These are all plotlines of big, headlining films in the last year, examples of why the heroine is suddenly being celebrated: she is, all of a sudden, the hero, pulling in the crowds and the moolah on her own.

"With greater acceptance for different kinds of cinema, a demand largely coming from the urban middle classes, these movies are doing well. I feel that the genre of woman-centric cinema is here to stay," says trade analyst Komal Nahta. This does sound like a refreshing change in an industry dominated, and an audience star-struck, by the Khans and the Kapoor scions.

But has the Indian heroine, both on and off screen, genuinely come of age? "That may be a stretch of the imagination. Bollywood is still a hero-dominated industry. While producers and directors can bank on male superstars to get to the Rs 100 crore point at the box office, this still does not apply to films with women leads. In films led by women, the script and narrative become that much more important," explains Nahta.

Bollywood has a tradition of telling stories from a feminine point of view, as in Mehboob Khan’s "Mother India" and Shyam Benegal’s "Bhoomika" (below)

A case in point is the Rani Mukherjee film Aiyya, widely touted as her comeback film – the movie was marketed as the story of a Marathi girl who is fascinated with the glamor of films, eventually becoming entranced by the smells emanating from Tamil artist Surya's (played by Malayalam actor Prithviraj) body. Backed by indie darling Anurag Kashyap, this movie was purportedly driven by Mukherjee's "star power", yet it bombed quite dramatically, collecting less than Rs 7 crore at the time of writing. Critics have pointed to the insipid script as reason for its mounting losses. Another film that was hugely hyped but failed miserably was Madhur Bhandarkar's Heroine, which struggled to survive in theatres and has earned only about Rs 50 crore, which means it has barely broken even.

On the other hand, movies like The Dirty Picture, Kahaani and English Vinglish have all done remarkably well, with respective tallies resting at Rs 75-80 crore, Rs 65 crore and Rs 32 crore (in two weeks). "Every one of these movies has a stellar story to tell, narrated with finesse. You can't say that all the credit for their success goes to the actresses," adds Nahta.

Trade analyst and critic Taran Adarsh concurs, adding: "Ek Tha Tiger or Bodyguard or Enthiran did well despite no cinematic brilliance. Superstars like Salman Khan and Rajinikanth are beyond the power of reason. We cannot argue the same for our actresses at this point." In these cases, the value of the script becomes higher, allowing writers and directors to charge a higher salary.

So does taking on demanding roles increase the actress' leverage in the industry? "No, there's a higher chance that actresses will drop their price to work in what they see as "meatier" roles," observes Nahta. "That Kareena Kapoor charged Rs 8 crore for Heroine and got a share in film rights (a completely unprecedented move) is complete hogwash. No actress can get away with charging more than Rs 2–2.5 crore for any movie in our industry. Vidya Balan could've gotten a mark-up of Rs 75 lakh, but not more."

Clearly, making a film with a female lead is still quite the risk, and this translates into lower payouts for actresses. At a big-ticket brainstorming conclave earlier this year, Kareena Kapoor had been quite vocal about this inequality. "It's always between three or four Khans or other male actors. I guess female actors are there for just dancing with them. We have to stand behind SRK and Salman and say, 'Hey! I'm here too, give me something to do'. And the paycheques...what Salman gets and what I get...let's not even go there," she had said.

There also seems to be a hierarchy within the industry that doesn't allow younger artists to experiment with roles. "If they want to make it to stardom, there's a strict path to follow. They can't accept challenging roles right in the beginning of their careers," says Adarsh, adding that such a move would be to risk one's standing in the industry. They have to be the dream girl, the item girl, the girl-next-door — and once they've spent a suitable number of years doing all this, they can perhaps look at essaying 'stronger' roles, he says.

"Vidya Balan is an exception to this rule. She doesn't fit the mould of Bollywood's stereotypical heroine — frail, nearly anorexic, sometimes 'exotic' or fresh off the ramp. So she took the double risk of playing Silk Smitha and a pregnant woman. Had it been somebody with lesser talent, this could've gone horribly wrong," explains Professor Saumya Verma, who teaches Film and Cultural Studies at Jamia Millia Islamia University.

A star does not make a woman-centric movie. It is the plot that does. This narrative of exploitation that refuses to go away. Movies like Heroine, Fashion or Raaz 3 can do nothing to improve the image of the actress in the industry. — Saumya Verma

She also argues that 'woman-centric' has become a thoughtless hurrah word. "What do you mean by this term? Just because it is told from the point of view of a woman doesn't mean the movie is woman-centric. Is there a different image of the woman being portrayed, or are they just reinforcing stereotypes?" she asks.

To put it simply, having women in lead roles is not a new phenomenon. There have been a range of films – from Mehboob Khan's Mother India to Shyam Benegal's Bhoomika and Zubeidaa, from Gulzar's Aandhi to Ramesh Sippy's Sita Aur Gita – that have focussed on and been led by strong actresses in illustrious roles. "Madhuri Dixit was even called 'lady Amitabh Bachchan' at one point — people went to see her films for her. But a star does not make a woman-centric movie. It is the plot that does," states Verma.

n example of this is director Gauri Shinde's portrayal of Shashi in English Vinglish. "I guess it worked because people were able to relate to the character, which is loosely inspired by my mother. The viewers connected with her, and then were inspired by her," says Shinde.

Meanwhile, others like the Raaz series or any of Bhandarkar's staples are criticised heavily for depending on voyeurism and victimisation. "It is true that Bollywood's engagement with the female body is changing. But it is still this narrative of exploitation that refuses to go away. Movies like Heroine, Fashion or Raaz 3 can do nothing to improve the image of the actress in the industry," says Verma. This was true in the '90s, with movies like Rajkumar Santoshi's Damini, the story of a woman fighting against social injustice and rape, and it is true today, when The Dirty Picture makes big bucks largely because of a certain voyeuristic undertone.

Bollywood has a tradition of telling stories from a feminine point of view, as in Mehboob Khan’s "Mother India" and Shyam Benegal’s "Bhoomika" (below)

Mahesh Bhatt, who is known for making movies like Arth, a hard-hitting film about how a woman deals with her husband's infidelity, has a 'realistic', business-like take on this. "Cinema today is about the number of tickets you can sell and the number of eyeballs you can get for your movie. Even niche ideas can find explosive popularity with the right marketing, as we saw in the case of English Vinglish," he says.

Shinde is all for actresses going for stronger roles, but feels it isn't just a matter of their desire. "There has to be a larger consciousness around the industry to create that kind of space–to provide such roles and to let actresses take them on," she says. "But there's still hope. The success of recent films has been a reality check for our producers and directors, at least to the extent of letting an actress carry the movie," he says.

In a 1986 paper in Economic and Political Weekly titled Third World Women's Cinema: Notes on Narrative, Reflections on Opacity, feminist critic Susie Tharu wrote, with reference to the character of Sulabha (played by Smita Patil) in Jabbar Patel's Marathi film Umbartha, and heroines in Indian new wave cinema in general: "The filmic focus...establishes her as the central character as well as the problem (the disruption, the enigma) the film will explore and resolve...it is clear that to search herself is, for a woman, a tragic enterprise. An enterprise in which she is doomed to fail, but can fail bravely and heroically."

This treatment of the heroine is apparent even today, at least on-screen. Perhaps we must keep the fanfare at bay till the forces of true imagination can conjure up cinema more worthy of being put on the same pedestal as our glamorous actors and their fabulous other halves.

 
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