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Bollywood Ageism: Were Taapsee & Bhumi In Their 30s Really The Best Choice To Play 60 y.o. Women?

Posted: September 25, 2019

Saand ki Aankh ageism debate – just because earlier movies had actors playing roles different from their age/gender/race, does it mean it should continue?

In response to the Saand Ki Aankh ageism allegations, Taapsee Pannu has defended herself by listing a number examples of actors playing roles different from their age/gender/race, and asking why they weren’t questioned, but she is. But just because we let something wrong happen before, does that mean it should be continued even when we know better?

As far back as April, upcoming movie Saand Ki Aankh a biopic of Prakashi and Chandro Tomar, India’s ‘shooter dadis’, was receiving criticism for casting Taapsee Pannu and Bhumi Pednekar in the role of older women.

Saand ki Aankh ageism debate on Twitter

That debate flared again today after the release of the trailer for the movie. Even as many appreciated the trailer, others noted that Taapsee and Bhumi are not convincing as 60 year old women. One Twitter user, urv3, tweeted, saying that she would have preferred to see older actors cast in these roles.

Actor Neena Gupta, currently basking in her win for The Last Colour, retweeted this saying, “Yes i was just thinking about this hamari umar ke role toe kamsekam humse kara lo bhai” (At least cast us for roles that match our age.)

However, it was Rangoli Chandel’s reponse to this that really set the debate going. Rangoli said that Kangana Ranaut had been offered a role in the movie, but she turned it down and suggested the names of Neena Gupta and Ramya Krishnan instead, but that ageism and sexism till ruled Bollywood.

She went on to say that India would never have a Meryl Streep, if younger women continued to take roles meant for older women.

In reply, Taapsee shared two images with a detailed response. Alleging that Kangana had an ulterior motie in wanting to “attach herself” to this, she wrote, “Did we ask the same question when we all loved what Anupam Kher did in Saaransh? Did we question when Nargis Dutt played mother to Sunil Dutt? Did we question John Travolta for playing a woman in Hairspray? Did we question Eddie Murphy for playing a white Jewish man in Coming To America? Did we question when Aamir Khan played a college kid in 3 Idiots? And in the future are we going to question Ayushmann Khurrana for playing a gay man in Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan? Or are these lovely allegations and questions reserved only for us?”

A larger debate on inclusion and representation

However, whether or not Kangana/Rangoli have an ulterior motive, it cannot be denied that they do have a point. Just because something was done in the past, it is no reason to keep it continuing in the future.

Actors from Amitabh Bachchan, to the Khans (Shah Rukh, Salman, Aamir) to Rajinikanth have all been criticized for playing much younger men who romance women half their age on screen, but on many other aspects there has been a silence around the sexism, ageism and homophobia in Bollywood.

Not just Bollywood, in fact. Hollywood too, has been accused of “whitewashing”, i.e. casting Caucasian actors as black/brown/Asian people. Recently, actor Scarlett Johansonn, who had been previously criticized for playing an Asian character in Ghost In The Shell, received more backlash for saying that she should be allowed to “play any person, or any tree or any animal.” Hollywood is just not inclusive enough of different races, genders and sexualities.

Coming back home, there has been a long, murky history of misrepresentation on Indian screens.

A 34 year old Shefali Shah shouldn’t have had to play mother to a 39 year old Akshay Kumar. Priyanka Chopra should definitely not have played Mary Kom. A cisgender Kubra Sait should not have played Kukoo, a transwoman, in Sacred Games. And yes, it would have been great if actual lesbian women would have played the roles of Sonam and her love interest in Ek Ladki Ko Dekha To Aisa Laga, and if gay actors would play the lead roles in Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan.

One reason why misrepresentation is a problem is because it breeds stereotypes. Secondly, it lacks authenticity. And most importantly, it takes roles away from the people who can play only those roles.

Not to take away from Taapsee or Bhumi, but…

Taapsee and Bhumi are wonderful actors, But they have the advantage of being younger, and can play a range of roles. But for Neena Gupta, or Ramya Krishnan, or Shabana Azmi, given Bollywood’s ageism problem, the number of roles available are already fewer. When younger actors take over these roles as well, it deprives them of good opportunities, and us of the pleasure of watching them on screen. On the one hand, we need better roles written for older women, and on the other we need older women being cast in these roles.

In fact, Kangana herself can do better. She will be playing actor and politician Jayalalitha in an upcoming movie. While she is not a bad choice for the younger Jayalalitha, she is not well suited to play the plus sized older Jayalalitha, and has had to use prosthetics for the same. Wouldn’t it be better if they just chose an older, plus sized actor play the older Jayalalitha?

There is a precedent, and a recent one. In the Netflix series The Crown, based on the life of the reigning Queen Elizabeth, the younger Elizabeth was so far being portrayed by Claire Foy. Now that the show has taken a time jump, the older Queen is to be played by Olivia Colman, and the transition has been managed beautifully, without making the viewers feel that they are watching a different person on screen.

Tushar Hiranandani has said that only Taapsee and Bhumi had the ‘guts’ to play older women, when no other actor was. The question is – why did he approach only younger women?

Sonam Kapoor has been lauded for playing a lesbian and I am sure Ayushmann will be too for his ‘bravery’ in playing a gay man. Doesn’t this do a disservice to the real men and women who cannot simply take off their age/ sexuality and the attached ageism/ homophobia like a costume? Isn’t it better to give them space on the screen and behind it, so that they can tell their truth the way only they can tell it?

It is true that these arguments haven’t been raised before. But that does not mean that now that we know better, we should continue being silent. I don’t expect that things will change overnight – change is slow. But only if we start asking questions now, can we hope for change later.

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