In Bollywood, as in Hollywood, women are taking center stage and managing to run the whole show single handedly, finds Yogesh Pawar
What do the following have in common? – Lucy, starring Scarlett Johansson as a superhuman; Gravity, the space age drama with Sandra Bullock in the lead; Maleficent, featuring Angelina Jolie as the eponymous Disney villainess; The Hunger Games, the post-apocalyptic saga with Jennifer Lawrence; Divergent, the movie that placed Shailene Woodley firmly centre stage; closer home, Bobby Jasoos, which sees Vidya Balan as an unusual spy and Queen, the Kangana Ranaut starrer that became a hit.
All are box office hits and all have female protagonists. When it comes to movies, NOTHING (not even critics, as a certain Rohit Shetty never tires of pointing out) speaks as loudly as cash registers ringing at the box office.Why are women of the silver screen shedding the glamour quotient when called to do so, to carry a film entirely on their shoulders? Scarlett Johansson says the lure is stronger female characters. "I was uninspired by my job for a period of time. I didn't really understand what the purpose of it was, other than to stay relevant, which is so not what it's about. I don't want to be the ingénue anymore. It's nice to be glamorous, but I don't want to always be an object of desire. Because it doesn't last...," she was quoted as saying.
She should know. After all, her sci-fi thriller has made over $45 million! It not only topped the American box office, but beat Dwayne Johnson's epic Hercules too.
Riding a similar high—with both critical acclaim and box office earnings of `970 million worldwide—was Queen, which made a mark with its sincerity and simplicity. "Queen worked because many saw themselves in Rani and her struggle. For me too, the film was a learning curve on being in control of oneself, which can be quite empowering," said Kangana.
Angelina Jolie, whose Maleficent rocked the box office, is ecstatic too. "It thrilled me that people enjoyed this female-protagonist backed story and it was a success. I wanted to not do something where I'm taking myself so seriously, and trying to do something for myself and my art. I wanted to remember what it is to play and entertain, and try something bold," she told a reporter.
When it comes to bold, no one knows better than Vidya Balan, who has proved herself by portraying strong, independent women characters in films. After all, this 35-year-old has broken several Bollywood stereotypes with her powerful performances in films like Paa, Ishqiya, No One Killed Jessica, The Dirty Picture (which got her a National Award), Kahaani and the recent Bobby Jasoos. "The ease with which one can slip into a character's skin depends on whether the film and the character is powerfully written or not. If you talk of films which made a mark with me as the female protagonist, you shouldn't forget the fact that I also did others like Parineeta, Lage Raho Munnabhai and Ghanchakkar," she says. "I am very happy and comfortable in roles that give me scope to perform without the pressure of labels."
Another person averse to labels is Rani Mukherjee, whose end-of-August release Mardaani is a hard-core action film that has her in a never-before-seen avatar taking on the bad guys. "Calling a film woman-centric is strange. Do we call other films male-centric? Instead of such labels, why can't we simply go by whether it's a good or a bad film," she says.
Interestingly, both Bobby Jasoos and Mardaani don't have A-list stars as male leads. The former movie stars Ali Fazal and the latter, Jisshu Sengupta. "Today, people want to come to see these films, writers are willing to write such plots and characters, but how many A-list stars will be willing to play second fiddle to a powerful woman character?" asks actor Shabana Azmi, who has to her credit the 1999 biographical Godmother, based on the life of female underworld don Santokben Jadeja. "I feel till such a time that this masculinist construct in the minds of our male stars doesn't change, we are not going to be able to change the way things work in the Hindi film industry."Cultural historian Mukul Joshi agrees. He laughs, remembering the song 'Raja ki Kahani' (see lyrics below) in Godmother. "Even with Rekha, so strong was her screen presence—thanks to the powerful characters she played, that even in family melodramas, many leading men refused to be cast opposite her."
Shabana is quick to point that "filmmakers naturally keep revenue at the centre of every decision they make" given how much is riding on a project these days. She warns younger actors who are taking on these roles about the pitfalls. "Repeatedly taking on intense strong women characters exposes one to being typecast. If I've done some really meaningful parallel cinema, I've also done Manmohan Desai's Parvarish and Amar Akbar Anthony, which I enjoyed."
Juggling between career choices and life decisions, women clearly have a tough balancing act. Scarlett is particularly exercised about the bias when it comes to impending parenthood. "There must exist a world in which I can balance those things, be able to raise a family and still make a film a year, or work on my own. I want to be able to have it all. I know there will be some sacrifices. That's the struggle with working mothers and successful careers. It happens. With male actors it just doesn't happen that way. You can be every woman's fantasy, and nobody thinks twice about the fact that you have eight kids or whatever."
Bollywood or Hollywood, women in the movies clearly have to fight the same set of biases.
Raja ki Kahani lyrics
raja ki kahani purani ho gayibholi thi jo rani sayani ho gayiaha raja ki kahani......... rajaji toh rangareli karte hain ghar se baharpar chahe ke rani jhadu mare ghar ke andarrajaji padanewali hai jhadu tumhare sar par maarbade dinon tumhari manmani ho gayibholi thi jo rani........ hai rajaji yeh chahe rani mane unki baatraat ko chahe din keh dein woh chahe din ko raathai rajaji padanewali hai rani ki ik laatrani bigadi hai toofani ho gayi, raja ki kahani