Author: Kadapa-Bose, Surekha
Date published: March 5, 2012
Mumbai (Women's Feature Service) - It's been raining awards nights on Indian television recently. Hindi film stars have been miming, singing and dancing for prime time viewers in glitzy ceremonies being beamed into living rooms, weekend after weekend. But this season, there's really been just one star who's been feted, praised and envied - actress Vidya Balan. Her crtical and commercial success of her film, 'The Dirty Picture' has given the indestructible Bollywood hero some serious competition. In fact, recently when the reigning superstar Shah Rukh Khan commented that it was time for male actors to start experimenting with their image just like the handful of female leads, he was simply reacting to the slowly but surely changing scenario in the Hindi film industry.
The mainstream 'heroine' of today is transforming. She is going for unusual on-screen looks and roles - sometimes becoming a temptress, sometimes an activist and sometimes even a serial killer. Acts like Balan's uninhibited portrayal of south siren Silk Smitha in 'The Dirty Picture' or Rani Mukherjee's interpretation of the gritty journalist in 'No One Killed Jessica' or Priyanka Chopra's femme fatale Susanna in '7 Khoon Maaf' have truly marked the resurgence of female histrionics and women-centric roles.
Yes, you read right... it is indeed a strong resurgence. Because it's not like Indian audiences have not given a 'thumbs up' to women-based stories in the earlier decades. Remember Nargis Dutt's 1957 classic 'Mother India', where she plays a poor farmer and mother who kills her own criminal son for the greater moral good? Or Meena Kumari's portrayal of a desperate alcoholic Chhoti Bahu, in 'Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam', released in 1962?
In fact, Delhi resident Ranjana Suri, 55, remembers queuing up at theatres in the city's commercial hub, Connaught Place, to watch films like the Smita Patil-starrer 'Mirch Masala' and Rekha's 'Umrao Jaan'. "When 'Umrao Jaan' was released I wanted to catch its very first show. As a courtesan retracing her roots and looking for love, I think it's one of Rekha's best performances," says this mother-of-two, who is a big movie buff.
The only point of comparison between female actors of then and now is the frequency with which this kind of variety is reflected in their repertoire of work. While earlier author-backed female-oriented roles were few in number and appealed mostly to the serious cinema-goer, today mass audiences are on the look-out for stuff that they consider 'kuch hatke' (a little different).
Last year, in particular, saw the release of a plethora of women-centric films, most of which made big bucks at the box office. Of course, 2011's 'Actor of the Year' has been the talented Vidya Balan. Not only did she earn accolades for her acting as the spirited Sabrina Lal in 'No One Killed Jessica', her role in 'The Dirty Picture', released later in the year, changed the way a female actor's body and sexuality is portrayed on the big screen. In fact, in a recent media interview, Balan has been quoted as saying: "As an actor and as a woman, it ('The Dirty Picture') was a liberating experience. If I was unapologetic about my sexuality before, I'm now unapologetic to the power of infinity."
Fans have, of course, heaped high praise on Balan for her 'bold' performance. Delhi-based Pinky's post on a popular magazine website reads something like this: "Bravo vidya and ekta (the producer of 'The Dirty Picture') for giving cinema its missing soul, the character, pivotal to any story. Vidya deserves a lot of support for her courage to live the character she portrays, extraordinary for India(n) cinema."
But it isn't as if Balan hadn't dabbled with unusual roles earlier. She did 'Ishqiya' in 2010 where she brought the sharp and shrewd village belle Krishna to life and, in the process, she almost towered over a stalwart like Naseeruddin Shah. Then again she played mother to veteran actor Amitabh Bachchan, whose character suffered from the rare ageing disease, progeria, in the 2009 release 'Paa'. And early 2012 sees her starring in another no-hero flick, 'Kahaani', where she plays a pregnant woman in search of her husband.
Balan's co-star in 'No One Killed Jessica' and her senior, Rani Mukherjee, too, shone in her act as the strong and foul-mouthed journalist on a mission to put a murderer behind bars. This effortless actress also has some great films to her credit, including the soul-stirring 'Black', where her performance as a girl who is deaf, mute and blind left an indelible mark on viewers. This year, Mukherjee returns with the psychological thriller, 'Talaash', where she stars alongside Aamir Khan.
Another mainstream leading lady, who has been adventurous on-screen is Priyanka Chopra. Be it her action sequences in 'Don 2' or her interpretation of writer Ruskin Bond's complex heroine Susanna in '7 Khoon Maaf', Priyanka's characters have gone down well with audiences. This year, she stars in Anurag Basu's 'Barfee', in which she is playing the character of a mentally challenged girl.
Chopra's co-star in the National Award winning 'Fashion', Kangna Ranaut, has also had the opportunity to prove herself. Her recent act as the spunky Tanu in 'Tanu Weds Manu' was preceded by the portrayal of a supermodel who loses everything to drugs in 'Fashion'.
Of course, even today, there are many who may not like the idea of labelling some of these films mentioned as 'women-oriented'. Fact is that in over a hundred years of Indian cinema, the heroine has mostly had a cosmetic presence. She was usually someone who looked pretty, who didn't mind wearing saris and getting drenched in the rain; she was forever that sacrificing ideal - a 'bharatiya nari' (Indian woman). In a film of about 120 minutes, she hardly got 15 minutes to showcase her acting prowess.
While these quintessential 'expectations' from a leading lady still haven't changed all that much today, increasingly there have been occasions when known male actors - like a Naseeruddin Shah or R. Madhavan - have, for a change, had to play the supporting role.
Roles apart, female actors have also started taking home better pay cheques. According to trade reports, women are not only demanding a higher remuneration, they are getting it too, although of course it's still nowhere close to the price that the Khan trio commands in the industry.
Interestingly, financial strength has ensured that prominent female actors are no longer compelled to take up just any role that comes their way. As Balan, a self-confessed fan of Shah Rukh Khan, said in a recent interview, "Though I love him, unless I have a well-etched character, I will not accept a role in his film." That one statement indicates the confidence level of today's women actors.
Commentators believe this trend reflects today's society where women are, at last, getting their due. They are competitive, ambitious and don't mind toiling late hours to achieve their goals. Even story lines are being written to fit this image of a modern Indian woman. Anushka Sharma, in her debut film 'Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi', is shown as a small town girl willing to enter a reality dance show without her husband, played by Shah Rukh Khan, and she doesn't shy away from practicing steps with other male dancers. In 'Band Baja Baarat', once again, Sharma competes against her business partner, played by newcomer Ranveer Singh, to succeed in her wedding planning business.
Change is definitely happening and Balan got it right when her personality comments in 'The Dirty Picture': 'Filmein sirf teen cheezon ki wajah se chalti hain. Entertainment, enternainment, entertainment. Aur main entertainment hoon. (Films only work because of three things. Entertainment, enternainment, entertainment. And I am Entertainment!'
(© Women's Feature Service)