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These Bollywood films are breaking the 'beauty' code

As casting director-turned-actress Bhumi Pednekar marked her debut in with 'Dum Laga Ke Haisha', we focus on how the glamour industry is increasingly becoming receptive to "unconventional" heroines

Actresses who depend on their beauty are china dolls who will never succeed in the film business, former screen legend Sophia Loren had remarked at the Cannes film festival last year. While that is subject to debate, Bollywood has, of late, been graciously welcoming heroines who are not the typical pin-up beauties. As new narratives, experimentation with unexplored genres and content-driven cinema emphasise more on acting talent than glamour, the doors for “unconventional” leading ladies have opened wide.

Bhumi Pednekar
Bhumi Pednekar

Kalki Koechlin
Kalki Koechlin

Take the case of Bhumi Pednekar, a television casting director who became an actress by accident. She is the antithesis of the size zero look, and yet that did not come in the way of making her debut with a Yash Raj film, 'Dum Laga Ke Haisha'. Basically, that’s what the story demanded — playing an “unwanted” wife to a young man, who is embarrassed by her weight, although she is educated and can contribute to the family’s income with her teaching job.

Patralekha
Patralekha

The film’s director Sharat Katariya says, “Bhumi is so much more than just the heroine. She holds her own in the film with so many veteran actors, with only her acting prowess to pull off an unglamorous character. It takes an unconventionally brave actress to do that.”

Konkana Sen Sharma
Konkana Sen Sharma

Shanoo Sharma, her boss of six years, recommended her name as the female lead. “I broached the idea to Bhumi a year ago and asked her to start grooming herself for the role. She always wanted to become a director, but I was convinced of her acting prowess,” he states.

Hansal Mehta
Hansal Mehta

Kalki Koechlin, too, is not your typical celebrity. Described as Bugs Bunny meets Julia Roberts, the actress is as unconventional as it gets on and off screen. Apart from the diverse characters that she has played — from a sex worker ('Dev D') to social crusader ('Shanghai') to a spoilt brat ('Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara') —  she defied the industry trend of staying single to reign by getting married to filmmaker Anurag Kashyap just two years into her career.

Sanjay Chauhan
Sanjay Chauhan

Nevertheless, she seems to have struck a balance between doing her kind of cinema and regular Bollywood potboilers like 'Yeh Jawani Hai Deewani'. Her next film 'Margarita with a Straw' directed by Shonali Bose falls in the former category. Says Shonali, “I have always made films with unconventional women protagonists and am committed to that. I believe in challenging dominant patriarchal stereotypes that are depicted in films and which deepen what exists in society rather than challenging or changing them. Cinema is a powerful medium and how we represent women is extremely important. Fortunately, we have come a long way from the time when women were either devis on a pedestal or victims or vamps.”

The director further says in spite of the commercial success of films like 'Queen' and 'Mary Kom', it is a herculean task to get funding and distribution for women-centric films. “This is not just the case in India but in the West as well,” she suggests.

Another actress who is different from the usual B-Town actresses is Patralekha, who got her big screen break with Hansal Mehta’s critically acclaimed 'Citylights'. Her performance earned her rave reviews and she was counted among starlets with great potential and promise. Hansal, however, feels the Meghalaya girl is “proper” Bollywood heroine material who is waiting in the wings. He says, “She started with an unconventional role, but for me she was the hero of the film and that will work to her advantage in the long run.”

In an industry where success is gender-specific, one has to push the envelope, says the filmmaker. “And unfortunately, we have to depend on pretty faces to tell our stories. I would like to see more of Konkana Sen Sharma but that isn’t really happening. But, yes, this change that you are seeing is not driven by gender but content. There is hope though.”

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