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The Feminine Mystique

Women are taking center-stage in Hindi cinema, with many A-list actresses leading the way

Competition has made us very blinkered, where we train our focus solely on commercial films that bring in the big bucks. Indeed, filmmaking is a risky, whimsical and expensive business but isn’t there more to it than churning out popular, mass-oriented films? Don’t we have a duty to go beyond the call of the ticket counter? Shouldn’t we be contributing cinema that is also appreciated?

This is a male-dominated society and industry, and female-oriented films are often shunned for the fear of them bombing at the box office. Still, when you think about it, from the inception of our industry, women have played a vital role in the growth of Hindi cinema. In contrast, regional cinema has realised the power of the woman and they make women-oriented films at regular intervals.

In the ’50s, when legendary filmmakers like Guru Dutt, Raj Kapoor and Bimal Roy set the trend, they gave women due prominence in their movies. Can one ever forget that in Saheb Biwi Aur Ghulam the story revolved around Meena Kumari and Waheeda Rahman? When you think of Pakeezah, Meena Kumari immediately springs to your mind. And in Vijay Anand’s Guide, Waheeda Rehman’s character was the strongest and most interesting.

There’s no question that the audience then accepted these films and it is nothing but a misconception that people today are reluctant to accept women-centric cinema. Then, in the ‘80’s, Indian cinema went through a bad patch, where actresses were
looked upon as mere ‘add-ons’ in the movies.

In the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, actresses ruled the ticket counter and filmmakers wrote roles for them, keeping their fan following in mind. Madhubala, Meena Kumari, Nargis, Waheeda Rahman, Sharmila Tagore and Nutan were as big as the male stars of their day. They played a variety of parts and, sometimes, they went through two generations of male actors.

We sorely missed this in the ’80s and ’90s but, thankfully, all that’s changing now, and we have Vidya Balan, Kareena Kapoor and Priyanka Chopra, who have proved that they don’t need somebody else to carry a film to success. Although new to the industry, Richa Chadda and Huma Qureshi have managed to leave a mark with Gangs Of Wasseypur.

Just as in the ’60s and ’70s, filmmakers today are writing scripts with some of these actresses in mind. And, why can’t we make blockbusters that pivot around a female lead? Why can’t we do action films with actresses? I think all this will unfold; we just need to give it time. For me, this is one of the high points among the many changing trends in the 21st century Hindi cinema.

Returning to the ’70s and ’80s, while we focused on our heroes, we forgot actresses like Tanuja, who was mischievous and natural; and Mumtaz, who was sweet. Their movies did well and they used to play powerful roles. Mr. India was carried by Sridevi while Madhuri Dixit too carried many films. I am glad that woman power is back but I do wish that our actresses realise this and choose their films carefully.

In the ’70s, Jaya Bhaduri did films like Guddi, Mili, Abhimaan and Zanjeer, where she essayed strong roles. Rekha too did films that were not exactly commercial, like some Shyam Benegal films. Unfortunately, it was still all about heroes.

Today, filmmakers like Madhur Bhandarkar are changing the mindset of the people. Page 3 (Konkona Sen Sharma), Fashion (Priyanka Chopra and Kangna Ranaut), and Anurag Basu’s Gangster (Kangna Ranaut)  are examples of such films. Priyanka Chopra’s Saath Khoon Maaf (SKM) didn’t work but it was a woman-centric film. She did Fashion and SKM at the peak of her career. And look at the successes Vidya Balan has been delivering  -- Ishqiya, The Dirty Picture and Kahaani. Thankfully, we have filmmakers who are making good cinema and are enthusiastic about women-centric films.

Although Rani Mukerji is a fantastic actor, no one wanted to take a risk with her but she’s done Aiyyaa, which is all about Mukerji. Despite the presence of South superstar Prithviraj in the film, it’s Mukerji who comes across as the ‘hero’ of this film.

Look how Kareena Kapoor is promoting her next film Heroine. And why just the top actresses? Even Mahie Gill left a mark in Dev D and Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster. Both the films were a success and Gill played a major role in making them a success. I enjoyed watching Dev D because of Kalki Koechlin and Mahie Gill.

And it’s not only the lead actresses. Character actors too are following this trend. Take Gangs of Wasseypur, for instance. Every character in that film was well executed by the casting director. In Vicky Donor, the interesting characters were the two women –  the daughter-in-law (Dolly Ahluwalia) and the mother-in-law (Kamlesh Gill). The most-talked about scenes were the ones where they were drinking together and where they shared a great rapport.

People often ask me why I only work with Chitrangda Singh and I tell them she has that same potential. In my own film, Hazaron Khwaishein Aisi, Chitrangda has a lover in Kay Kay Menon, and a friend in Shiney Ahuja, who is in love with her but marries someone else. Women today are expert at multi-tasking. They look after home and hearth, work and also chase their dreams. Chitrangda has portrayed today’s woman, in all her avatars with elán.

So today, with actresses like Vidya Balan, Priyanka Chopra, Kareena Kapoor, Mahie Gill, Huma Qureshi, Richa Chadda and Konkona Sen Sharma, we can look forward to a good future for women in films.


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