Femmes at the fourfront

Aug 19, 2012, 08:16 IST | Jitendra Kothari & Itee Sharma

For the first time in years, male-dominated Bollywood will see the release of several mainstream films that are fronted by A-list leading ladies. Has the Hindi film industry finally warmed up to the big guns of the other gender?

Unlike last year, Vidya Balan is not going to have it easy at 2012’s Best Actress award sweepstakes. True, the Balan blitzkrieg has continued into this year with Vidya scoring big (pun unintended) with the role of a faux pregnant woman hunting down villains in Kahaani. But while Vidya had barely any competition worth its marquee name when her The Dirty Picture juggernaut swooped up all the trophies, it’s a crowded playing field this annum. 

Kareena Kapoor

For starters, there’s the redoubtable Kareena Kapoor, coming off several 100-crore grosses, eager to prove her credentials in Madhur Bhandarkar’s Heroine. Excited about her first performance-oriented role, Kareena says, “I always wanted to be a heroine. My Bollywood journey wouldn’t have been complete without this film. I have shot this film at one go.”

“For Kareena Kapoor, acting is a legacy. However, I have always felt that only 30 per cent of her potential was tapped in most of her films. With Heroine, I have tried to extract 100 per cent of her acting potential,” says Bhandarkar. Then there’s grand dame Sridevi (unarguably the last Hindi film heroine to remain No 1 for the better part of a decade in the ’90s) making her much vaunted comeback after 15 years. Recently, at the film’s launch, director Gauri called Sridevi the “hero” of her film.

The underappreciated darling of the early and mid-’90s, Preity Zinta is back to her romcom forte with Ishkq In Paris, after inexplicably dropping off the radar to dabble with art-house cinema and sports-team ownership. The film’s director Prem Soni affirms, “Preity carries the film on her shoulders completely.”
Then, Bipasha Basu sinks her sharpened talons into a meaty role in Raaz 3 as an on-the-skids actress who resorts to black magic to retain her slipping popularity. Mahesh Bhatt says pointedly, “Raaz 3 is about a girl who is already a star and petrified of losing her stardom; and the limits she stretches to stay there.”

This quartet of A-list leading ladies is bringing the Hindi film heroine to the forefront once again. Consequently, at a time when the tentpole picture starring a male superstar has become a  festival event, filmmakers and audiences are simultaneously rediscovering the women’s picture.

Success bolta hai
In Bollywood, as always, the bottom line is economics, and the upsurge in women-oriented films owes to the recent success of a clutch of such
films.  Siddharth Roy Kapur, Managing Director — Studios, Disney UTV, speaks from the point of view of the bankroller who has to make sure that creative decisions also ensure monetary returns. “In the recent past, the success of movies like Fashion, No One Killed Jessica, Tanu Weds Manu, The Dirty Picture and Kahaani, has shown that audiences are more than willing to embrace heroine-oriented films with great content and high entertainment value,” says Roy Kapur.

Kareena Kapoor, Bipasha Basu, Sridevi and Preity Zinta

These successes have galvanised filmmakers, as Roy points out. “Our movies have been traditionally dominated by heroes, while author-backed roles for heroines have been few and far between. But the greatest leveller in the industry is commercial success, so you can be very sure that with the superb box office performance of these movies, more studios and filmmakers will be emboldened to attempt movies that have strong female protagonists, because audiences are telling us that they are ready for a change.”

Roy Kapur’s prognosis is on the mark — on the anvil are several films with the leading lady at the vanguard — Anubhav Sinha production Gulab Gang and the Vishal Bharadwaj film, Ishqiya 2 both star Madhuri Dixit, Aiyya stars Rani Mukherjee in the central role and Kangana Ranaut presumably plays the title role in Queen.

Prem Soni, the director of Ishkq in Paris, agrees with Roy Kapur. “The Dirty Picture and Kahaani were great films; and the current scenario in the film industry evidences that if you have something entertaining and unusual, it will find a market. In Ishkq In Paris, Preity has the most important role in the film — of Ishkq. People have begun to accept a movie in which the girl plays the central character.”

Moreover, films that pivot around women lend filmmakers and writers a creative impetus too, as they are afforded a chance to attempt variegated themes with a protagonist of a different gender. Shagufta Rafique, the writer of Raaz 3, states, “Bipasha’s character is author-backed and I took great pains to write it. You can’t give all power-packed scenes to your hero and leave nothing for the heroine to do. Why is she in the film then?”

Heroines come of age
While monetary returns have motivated filmmakers to look for women-based subjects, heroines have been enthused by Vidya’s success trajectory. She became a box-office love object after she found her sweet spot in medium-budget films, largely fuelled by her own appeal. She has had a string of successes — The Dirty Picture, Kahaani, No One Killed Jessica and Ishqiya. Now, young heroines such as Sonakshi Sinha and Prachi Desai marvel at Vidya’s gumption.

At the same time, many established heroines have reached that stage in their careers when they want films that showcase their talent along with the blockbusters; now that they have the star power to greenlight these films. Kareena has had several hits but strong roles have evaded her in the half decade since Jab We Met. She will naturally gravitate towards a Heroine. Similarly, 33 years after her debut as a heroine, Sridevi has thought it best to turn down several big banner offers and instead support a subject that revolves around her. The current climate also seems to have prompted Preity to take the plunge and produce Ishkq In Paris, that puts her at centrestage.

Sridevi, often touted as the last Hindi film heroine to remain No 1 for the better part of a decade in the ‘90s, makes her comeback after 15 years in English Vinglish

This avalanche resulted in the unlikely scenario when three women-dominated films — Heroine, English Vinglish and Ishkq In Paris were all slated to release on the same day, till wiser counsel prevailed and a cannibalistic orgy was avoided. But this scenario itself seemed unimaginable a few years ago.
Of course, Hindi cinema has had several landmark films propelled by women power. In the 1950s and 1960s, actors such as Nargis, Meena Kumari, Mala Sinha and Vyajayanthimala could draw audiences even when they didn’t play second fiddle to heroes. After the advent of the superstar era in the 1970s, it was only the occasional Seeta Aur Geeta, Tapasya, Khubsoorat, Khoon Bhari Maang, Nagina or Chandni that kept the flag flying. Thereafter, all too often, a women’s film came to mean an art house small budget affair targeted at a select audience. It’s only now that audiences are once again receptive to the new woman in mainstream films.

It’s not all rosy, however. While male superstars can always count on A-list heroines to jump at glorified arm-candy roles when the actor has the title role (Robot, Singh is King, Don), heroines have little luck landing trophy heroes for their ventures. Kareena cannot hope for a Khan or a Hrithik Roshan to pair opposite her; Arjun Rampal and Randeep Hooda are cast opposite her in Heroine. Preity has a new hero, Rhean Malik. Similarly, in English Vinglish, the ’80s empress too stars opposite a new face — French actor Mehdi Nebbou.

Money matters
Heroines and filmmakers are unabashedly and guardedly (respectively) enthusiastic about such films. Aspirations have shot up, and budgets are keeping pace. Bhandarkar declares, “Heroine is the most expensive film that I have made so far. So the budget is definitely not a constraint for the
right subject.”

But while the monies spent have increased significantly, Bollywood is also a hard-nosed realist. Does it expect women-oriented films to race past the newly engendered Rs 100 crore milestone? Roy Kapur says, “Of course, the box office potential of such films might not be as much as with a top male superstar but if the film works, the return on investment can be on par or even higher.”

Preity Zinta
The underappreciated darling of the early and mid-’90s, Preity Zinta is back to her romcom forte with Ishkq In Paris

The lack of big budgets for women-oriented subjects does not indicate a lack of confidence in them but is due to the fact that these films are not action-oriented themes which require expensive explosions and special effects. We still await our A-list Lara Croft. Ask Sujoy Ghosh, who helmed Kahaani, about his experience of financing it, and he says bluntly, “If Kahaani had involved a lot of money, we wouldn’t have made it. If a heroine-oriented film is made on the right budget, producers will be ready to invest.”

Entertainment is king
Ghosh echoes most filmmakers when he opines that ultimately it’s not the gender of the protagonist but the quality of the film that matters. As filmmaker Vikram Bhatt declares, “The audience is repeatedly delivering the message — the star is not what will make a film work. Cocktail had a great opening, but Agent Vinod which featured the same star (Saif Ali Khan) didn’t do well. Content is king now and what better time for filmmakers to live it up?”  Filmmakers and actresses both assert that they have cottoned on — women-oriented films no longer need to be genre outings or preachy lessons in sense and sensitivity; instead they have to fulfil The Dirty Picture diktat — ‘Entertainment, entertainment, entertainment.’

Women on top in the ‘50s and the ‘60s
Nargis (Mother India),
Meena Kumari (Main Chup Rahungi, Aarti, Kaajal),
Vyjayanthimala (Kathputli, Sadhana),
Nutan (Sujata, Bandini),
Mala Sinha (Anpadh, Aasra),
Sadhana (Woh Kaun Thi, Mera Saaya) 

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