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Bollywood Is Realising That Hounding Out Older Leading Ladies Is Bad Business

Unlike actresses in the 90s who were hounded out of Bollywood the second they inched closer to being 30…the same Bollywood is now ruled by women who are well into their 30s and 40s.

Unlike actresses in the 90s who were hounded out of Bollywood the second they inched closer to being 30…the same Bollywood is now ruled by women who are well into their 30s and 40s.

So…it’s almost the end of August 2021 and I STILL get messages and snarky comments about my columns that pertain to women’s issues. Some folks toss major F-bombs at me when I write about women. Nope. Not fuck! The original F world has gotten so passé now. Nope. The F bomb that still sends men AND a significant number of WOMEN either scurrying away from me or makes them send me WhatsApp messages or email missives is the other F word.

FEMINISM.

“God! Not ANOTHER female rant from you!”

“Can you write about anything else?” (And this after they’ve just complimented me on my columns on grief, travels, money issues, short stories and more. Yes. Irony just died a slow death).

“Bro! One story…can you not write just one story that actually highlights something positive, some actual progress that women have made, instead of these gloom and doom articles you write? Can you not highlight one positive shit that’s happened to women?”

The last comment got me thinking. And I decided…OK. Challenge accepted.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s still SO MUCH to be done to get men and women on the same level-playing field. Uhh…Women in Afghanistan right now, anyone? But, I thought, maybe, I SHOULD write about a positive outcome that has happened within the women’s movement.

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But what to write about? What aspect to highlight? It was a bit of a conundrum. I could write about the world-wide phenomenon that is the Me-Too movement but then it’s been written about a lot already. I wanted to write about something else. That’s when it struck me…among the legion of issues that women face – sexism, abuse, equal rights – I always felt that the issue of ageism always gets lost. Maybe because while ageism is a relentless attack on women, most times, it hides behind a gentler façade.

Truth is we still live in a world where even the more progressive parents would like their daughters to get married between 24-28 and have kids by the time they turn 30. Everything should happen at the right age!

I’ve seen and heard 50-year-old shopkeepers refer to 30-year-old women as ‘Auntie’ with a straight face and the women accepting it.

Even the most modern of women get worried when they turn 30 and are single.

Because the world around us tells us, especially women, to fear ageing.

So…can you even imagine how bad it must be for women who work in the beauty industry? In the film business?

I’ll actually tell you how shitty it was/is for actresses

Nargis Dutt played a mother at the age of 27 (YES…27) in Mother India to her future husband Sunil Dutt.

Amy Poehler played Rachel McAdams’ mother in Mean Girls even though she is only 8 years older than McAdams in real life.

Melissa Leo was only 11 years older than her screen son Mark Wahlberg in The Fighter.

The sublime Shefali Shah played mother to Priyanka Chopra in Dil Dhadakne Do when she is only 10 years older than her screen daughter. She also played the mother to Akshay Kumar in Waqt: the Race against Time when she is in fact 4 years younger than him!

The list just goes on.

I still remember back in the late 90s when a 30-something Madhuri Dixit was hounded in the media for STILL acting at such an old age. They were relentless about her then single status. And the tragedy was that she looked stunning (still does). As an actor she was at the very top of her game. She still smiled and danced like a dream. But the only question she would get asked back then was about her marital status. Because she was 30-something and unmarried.

The likes of Madhuri Dixit, Sridevi, Karisma Kapoor, Raveena Tandon, Shilpa Shetty got relegated to the ‘mother’ and ‘auntie’ category of roles in films once they turned 30-something and most of these actresses just stopped acting instead of accepting these ageist roles. BUT their male counterparts like Shahrukh Khan. Salman Khan, Akshay Kumar, Ajay Devgan, Aamir Khan – marched on without questions and continue – till date – to romance girls young enough to be their daughters.

Well…I see/hear what you’re thinking. Where’s the good news here, Roopa? So far – it’s just bad, worse and worst news for women. Where’s the f…ing light at the end of the tunnel?

But…see…there is.

The good news… one baby step at a time

The really good news is that Hindi film industry has definitely changed. In 2021 it is DEFINITELY treating women a lot better than it ever did. Unlike the actresses in the 90s who were hounded out of Bollywood the second they inched closer to being 30…the same Bollywood is now ruled by women who are well into their 30s and 40s.

Take a look: Kareena Kapoor is 40. Deepika Padukone is 35. Kangana Ranaut is 34. Katrina Kaif is 38. Anushka Sharma is 33. Vidya Balan is 42. Shraddha Kapoor is 34. Taapsee Pannu is 34.

Not just has the industry gotten less ageist – it’s also accepted actresses and their personal lifestyle choices without any questions. Being married or being in a relationship is not even remotely an issue for actresses anymore.

Vidya Balan is happily married without a child. Kareena Kapoor took sabbaticals from her thriving film career to give birth to two gorgeous kids. She had film producers wait for her to bounce back after her pregnancies rather than go with other actresses. Producer Rhea Kapoor pushed her film by over a year for Kareena to headline Veere Di Wedding instead of asking her own sister Sonam to do the same role or ask someone else. That’s power for you. Kareena also redefined what ‘being sexy’ means when she flaunted her baby bumps instead of hiding her pregnancies.

Anushka Sharma – at the very peak of her career – took a break to get married and have a kid. Her acting sabbatical continues some three years and counting. But she also took the break to really get her production house up and running. These days – her company is credited with creating some of the most unique and path-breaking content in the realm of horror and gory realism with Bulbull and Pataal Lok hitting bullseye with audiences and critics.

Deepika Padukone is happy being Queen Bee of Bollywood and being married AND doing her bit to further women’s rights. Padukone was in the news recently for having the ‘audacity’ to ask for the same remuneration as her husband in a film where the length of the roles was the same for both of them. Quelle horreur!

Katrina Kaif is happy being single and acting and running her own wildly successful cosmetics company Kay by Katrina at the same time. Kangana Ranaut is picking up National Awards (4 so far) and chomping on them like they’re peanuts and diversifying into producing and directing films as well.

What’s even more commendable is that this new Bollywood is also welcoming and encouraging of younger actresses like Alia Bhat (28), Disha Patani (29), Jahnvi Kapoor (24) and more.

It seems like there’s a space for everyone now.

This change also means central roles

And guess what? The women in their 30s and 40s…they’re NOT playing a mother’s role. Or a sister’s role. Or an auntie. They’re the main leads in the films they’re in.

Actresses like Vidya Balan and Taapsee Pannu pretty much topline ALL of their movies. The others either headline the movies they’re in OR they’re the main leads. Deepika Padukone said in the actor’s roundtable series with Rajeev Masand a few years back that these days she never gets offered a part where she is just a pretty appendage (with the obligatory two scenes and four songs) to the male lead in a film. Her roles – irrespective of whether there is a male lead or not – is always author-backed.

Now, that is power. That is change.

May we hope… that the film industry is growing up?

Meaning…it’s now a mature film industry that understands that being 30 or 40 does NOT, in any way, lessen the importance or the necessity of a woman onscreen and neither does being 30+ take away from the visual and sex appeal of women.

These actresses are not relegated to supporting parts like the likes of Shefali Shah (what the film industry did to a towering talent like her is a fucking crime) and now walk hand-in-hand with their superstar male counterparts or walk alone by themselves.

Maybe it’s because the audience has had more exposure to content from all over the world and the narrow definition of leading women onscreen as nubile young 20-somethings is no longer the case. Or maybe it’s because there are so many platforms now with different audience tastes that catering to a cross-section of talent is a necessity du jour for filmmakers. Whatever the case maybe – it’s win-win for women in the Hindi film industry.

In a world where women still get shafted in the power structure and there’s still so much left to be done to bring equality and equity and make them stand next to men and not behind them – it does feel good that a small step against ageist practices towards women has been taken by the film industry in Mumbai.

It’s probably more of an anomaly than the normal.

But, heck…at this stage, women will take an anomaly over nothing.

And to the dude who wanted a feel-good story about women’s issues – you’re welcome.

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About the Author

Roopa Swaminathan - The Messy Optimist

Hi...I'm Roopa. I'm also a messy optimist! I'm an academic-cum-artist. I'm a writer, filmmaker and professor of creative read more...

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