It has been an undulating landscape for women in cinema through the years. From bold, woman-centric movies to decorative appendages, stereotypical good-girls-go-to-heaven-and-bad-girls-go-everywhere, women’s roles have been complex and varied through Bollywood history. Devika Rani kissed her co-star in Karm in 1933.
No one batted an eyelid. She and Fearless Nadia played pivotal roles in the silent era. Then came the 1960s when Nutan and Waheeda Rehman took centrestage in Bimal Roy’s Bandini and Vijay Anand’s Guide. Later, there were female-oriented films such as Seeta Aur Geeta and Chaalbaaz. Hema Malini and Sridevi played double roles and their A-list male co-stars, Dharmendra and Sanjeev Kumar for Hema; Sunny Deol and Rajnikant for Sri played the supporting companions.
In 1976, Raakhee Gulzar had the singular of honour of having an entire film called Kabhi Kabhie being written around her character’s beauty and personality. Her co-stars were Shashi Kapoor and Amitabh Bachchan. Recalls Rakhee, “When I married Gulzar, Yash Chopra became our neighbour. He then offered me Kabhi Kabhie after my marriage. Lyricist Sahir Ludhianvi, I think, wrote the songs keeping me in mind. Gulzar and I used to regularly visit Yash’s home. One day in the presence of Amitabh Bachchan, they played a song and Pam (Pamela Chopra) said, “This song is for Raakhee”. That’s how Kabhi Kabhie was offered to me.”
Since then, it has been a rocky road for actresses in Bollywood. Today when Rani Mukherjee does an Aiyya, her co-star has to be sneaked in from the South. Getting heroes to play supportive soul mates in female-oriented films has become progressively harder. All through the 1980s when Shabana Azmi played roles of strong, assertive women in films that revolutionised the image of the Hindi film heroine, she was paired with secondary heroes such as Navin Nischol, Vinod Mehra and Raj Kiran. Nowadays, finding the perfect male co-star for a heroine is tough if she is going to take centrestage. A few years ago, Ramesh Sippy planned a film with Tabu. It never took off. No leading man was willing to share the limelight with the heroine who had the author-backed role. Barring Revathi’s Phir Milenge where Shilpa Shetty played the central role and Salman Khan and Abhishek Bachchan took the backseat, no female-centric film in the past decade has featured top-notch heroes. Take the case of Sridevi. Today, there are far too many pre-considerations to be gone through for a film like English Vinglish and she has no Sunny Deol or Rajinikanth to prop up her heroine-giri -- just theatre actor Adil Hussain and French actor Mehdi Nebbou.
Women in Bollywood also have to play mothers at a young age. Even an actress of Waheeda Rehman’s calibre had to face that in 1980. Reminiscing about her premature switchover to mother’s roles Waheeda said, “I got the role of a lifetime in Rajinder Singh’s Phagun in 1973. I had to play Jaya Bhaduri’s mother. That did it for me. I was suddenly flooded with mother's roles. And I found myself playing Rajesh Khanna’s mother (in Dharam Kanta; 1982) just 12 years after I played his leading lady in Khamoshi (1970).” She blames the male-dominated film industry for the premature matriarchal status accorded to leading ladies. “The heroines for our established heroes are getting younger and younger. So the heroines who started their career with these established heroes are quickly promoted to senior roles. It’s the norm in cinema everywhere. Look at Meryl Streep. She contemplates quitting every year when Hollywood quickly offers her another role. Sadly, in our industry there’s no such remedial procedure. Once a heroine is beyond a certain age, she has to graduate to mother’s roles or quit.” And Waheeda doesn’t enjoy doing such roles anymore. The actress, who played a strong, assertive woman in Pyaasa, Guide, Khamoshi and Teesri Kasam, has finally decided to call it quits. “Where are the roles? It’s getting tiresome to play mother and grandmother’s roles. I don’t enjoy it any more. Bas, ab bahut ho gaya,” she says.
Shabana Azmi though, is more optimistic. She recalls, “Ten years ago it was pack-up time for heroines at 30. All you could do was hold a thali in a white sari. Look at poor Nirupa Roy. She got substantial roles. But at 30 they made her put grey in her hair. And Achala Sachdev was all of 16 when she played 60. Today I can play my age.” She feels indebted to all those filmmakers of parallel cinema who gave her meaningful roles. She says she has an “unconventional face for a Hindi film heroine” but “I played some very substantial roles in parallel cinema that won me critical acclaim. I developed a status that was equivalent to the most successful stars of those times such as Hema Malini and Zeenat Aman because I was not competing on their home ground, had I done that I'm sure I would have been on the bottom rung of the ladder.” Even later in her career, she got to play “well-structured nuanced characters” in Morning Raga, Saaz, Godmother, Fire, and Tehzeeb.
Tanuja Chandra's women-centric films with Kajol (Dushman) and Preity Zinta (Sangharsh) were the rare ones in which top actors, Sanjay Dutt and Akshay Kumar respectively agreed to play secondary roles. And these films came in 1998 and 1999. Chandra is still optimistic about the future of actresses in Hindi films. “Since I started my directorial career, I have been waiting for the kind of reception female protagonists are getting today. Audiences are embracing full-blooded, feisty heroines, actresses are immersing themselves into interesting characters, and producers are finally finding it financially viable to fund such stories. And with India changing dynamically as it is, this can only grow. It is only beginning here, but as on American television where some of the most brilliant writing is happening right now on female stories, I am hoping we see some fabulous cinema about women in India.”
Onir on the other hand, has a different take on the issue. “Today’s heroine does all that a vamp traditionally did: wear provocative clothes, dance item numbers, smoke and drink. Though we keep tom-toming about the emergence of the new age Indian heroines who are not just here to be decorative appendages to our heroes, it is by far too less. We conveniently forget that right from Nargis to Madhubala to Nutan to Waheeda Rahman to Shabana Azmi, Smita Patil or Rekha or Hema Malini.... all of them as heroines had much stronger screen personalities and were not negotiable personalities. They had much more to do than most mainstream cinema makes them do today.”
Chandra is more optimistic. “Women’s stories have always been forward-looking, dramatic and unconventional because there were so few in number. Whenever a filmmaker delved into this territory, it has been a new landscape. We cannot really claim that today’s characters or strong women 15 years ago when I made Dushman were ever bolder then Nargis’s in Mother India. But yes, they need not be just mothers or wives today. The shackles of ‘acceptability’ have somewhat loosened and female characters can be flawed, real, and ultimately human. That’s the ideal and we are reaching that happy place slowly.”
Two big steps taken in that direction were The Dirty Picture and Kahaani - both starred Vidya Balan and both were super hits at the box office. Today, Vidya is the only mainstream actress who can command box-office clout comparable with Shabana’s sturdy stance in the 1980s. And Shabana generously acknowledges Vidya as a honourable descendent. “ Vidya has made daring but right career choices. I see glimpses of my involvement with my roles in Vidya,” said Shabana after watching Kahaani. “If she continues to dominate her films, she might very soon face a scarcity of co-stars. Heroes might be apprehensive about being paired with her. Vidya should avoid the pitfall of only doing central parts. She must learn to also be part of a cinema that does not focus on her but has something important to say.”