Zoya Hussain: For decades, we’ve served the male gaze

22 May,2024 11:49 AM IST |  Mumbai  |  Mohar Basu

Asserting that the industry has to take strides to enhance the portrayal of female characters, Zoya Hussain on why it took her a while to return to screen with Manoj Bajpayee’s Bhaiyya Ji

Manoj Bajpayee and Zoya Hussain

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Four days after Zoya Hussain watched Sirf Ek Banda did she get a call to star in Bhaiyya-Ji opposite Manoj Bajpayee. Hussain made her debut with Anurag Kashyap's Mukkabaaz and then followed it up with Laal Kaptaan opposite Saif Ali Khan. "I was very intimidated when they called for this film. I wasn't sure I could match his prowess. But when I met him, I realised he is very funny. This film is the rare time that I was on a set that was so happy. I really got a dream team to work with," she tells us.

But in the past seven years, despite a shining performance in one of Hotstar's most-loved shows Grahan, Hussain has been branded as picky. When we sit down with her, we ask why it took so long to see her in a Bollywood film again. "It's not that I am so picky. I think because of Mukkabaaz, I got stereotyped. It was assumed I would only do these types of roles. I am not from Mumbai or industry or modelling. All my opportunities come organically. Apoorv and Manoj sir saw my film, thought I am good, and gave me a call. I have turned down some commercial films because in many of those offered to me, the female character is an accessory. There was literally nothing to do. I don't want to do such films because that's not a narrative I wish to contribute to. I am not saying stories have to be female-oriented. But why can't character driven good stories come to me. In this film, we haven't revealed my character yet. But when people watch, they will get to know why this movie was fulfilling for me. The film is set in a small town but this isn't an average subservient girl's part."

Hussain faults the writing of female parts in Bollywood and says the parts by and large are either sexy glam girl or helpless. "This is a casting problem as much as writing people. When you write these characters, you look for women to fit these moulds. Writing has to be diverse. For decades we serve the male gaze where the protagonist is a man, ensemble of men and the women are thrown in as an afterthought. They are not well rounded characters. Now we have an attempt to have more female characters but now we are falling into the opposite trope and now we have stereotyped the independent woman. It doesn't mean she is smoking, drinking and rebelling. Rebels can be conservative too. Writing and casting departments have a lot of work to do."

Hussain has been through her own share of personal struggles which has hindered her from getting bigger projects greatly. "I didn't make a big splash because all my work came out in Covid. I feel it all fell under the radar. It is taking a little longer than it takes for people who have a modelling background or industry support. They are more visible. It is tough to stay happy and motivated. In terms of casting, I faced a lot of struggles initially. A woman studio head told me in my first year - you are dusky, you are curvy, you'll be in indie type movies. It still makes me angry. Most actresses are tall and thin. In our industry - colour or size inclusion is still in its tokenist phase. That has to change. I am very rebellious about not wanting to change myself. I keep my head down and work. Now I am working alongside Manoj Bajpayee, and it is a reaffirmation that I am talented enough to work with him. Working with him helped my career, my confidence and my craft."

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