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Age is not just a number

Paromita VohraWhere do Dream Girls go when they grow old? If Sunset Boulevard is to be believed, into a nightmare. But alas, we do not wake from the pastel music video of a dream into an expressionist nightmare, but simply into the untidy narrative of daily life, sadly not available at this time in three neat acts.

Hema Malini

Images of Hema Malini’s hapless campaign in Mathura have aroused much sniggering in the press, some of whom felt she looked like she had wandered onto the set of a film whose script she hadn’t read. But she couldn’t have read it if she wanted because it simply hasn’t been written. That script about how older people actually experience life.

Looking at the tortured image of the still beloved actor struggling to operate a hand pump, I felt sorry that despite her Rs 58 crore assets, her honorary PhD from Sir Padmapat Singhania University, her two children and her unconventional life, Hema Malini had come to this. Why was this the only role she could get?

Much is made of the fact that we are a country of young people, with over 50 per cent of the population being under 25. It means we celebrate certain kinds of values — speed, brashness, cleverness, immediacy and physicality. These qualities, associated with youthfulness, are certainly invigorating and important.

But, meanwhile we devote little space to talk about what it means or feels like to be older. Older people are usually represented, and represent themselves in, the image of youthfulness, not for qualities that come with being middle-aged
or older.

For men, there may be some small space for reinvention — or maybe it's just for Amitabh Bachchan. But for women, especially those with a public face, it's far more fraught.

For one thing, they must look insistently young — their skin unlined, the blackness of their hair unmitigated by grey, their clothes the same as their daughters’. In soap operas, grandmothers, are played by women in their late 30s, making one wonder whether this is advocacy for plastic surgery or child marriage. At most, they may be allowed a little foray into new agey pursuits or the older idea of social work (now politics). Sometimes in movies, they show up, the leftover adolescent fantasies of laddish men, Mrs Robinson in Indian dress.

Rarely is the relaxed, thickened, life-lined beauty which comes with age celebrated in images of older people. As for values of consideration, re-consideration, slowing down, remorse, a sense of history and dare I say, wisdom, our public culture doesn’t seem to know what to do with them anymore.

We are doing away with the stifling hierarchies of age, where older people controlled the culture and younger people grew old themselves before they had a chance to do much. And maybe this youthful older person image is supposed to help erode the idea that the aged are a useless burden.

But if anything, it only increases that latter idea. What is the imagination of age we are going to provide in contemporary society? Will we only value older people when they are like younger people? And if they’re not — because in truth, age is not just a number but a reality, a whole different part of life — will we disregard and discard them like wicked children in films — such as those in Ms Malini’s last big hit, Baghban — or what her party recently did, all too publicly to its senior members?

Perhaps Hemaji too was thinking some of this as she heaved that hand pump with all the youth she could muster.

Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevi.com.

The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.

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