Is it Time up for our leading ladies?
What is common between the three Khans, Shah Rukh, Aamir and Salman other than their birth year, 1965? It is the heroines they have worked with, which ranges from the era of Sridevi, Madhuri and Juhi, through that of Manisha, Karisma, Raveena and Urmila to the
next generation of Kajol, Rani Mukherjee and Preity Zinta to the current chart toppers such as Katrina, Kareena, Priyanka and Deepika. The new generation of heroines has, on the whole, worked with the guys old enough to be their fathers. In Bollywood as an actor ages, his heroines just seem to get younger and younger.
This is not a new phenomenon, though. Even Amitabh Bachchan who started his career with the Jaya Bachchan, Hema Malini, Zeenat Aman and Rekha generation, went on to act with Meenakshi Seshadri, Sridevi and Madhuri, and finally did Nishabd with Jiah Khan, though admittedly that script needed a girl young enough to be his granddaughter. So, why is it that heroes can play the lead role for decades while the girls have a shelf life of just four to five years? Earlier, before the multiplex generation came along and changed the way we perceived filmmaking, there was the notion that the minute a heroine entered her 30s or got married, whichever was sooner, she lost her allure. “Women were to be fantasised about” was the explanation and the only way she fitted the traditional Indian (Bombay to Bihar) fantasy was if she was seen to be young, curvaceous and virginal, with particular emphasis on the last virtue. And so any girl who wanted to last longer made sure she was all this.
This often lead to the ridiculous situation where a girl who had debuted at say 18 suddenly claimed that she made her first film at 15, which soon became 12. That that kept her poised at 26 for many years was the idea and in most cases it succeeded.
To keep the virginal image intact was slightly tougher but they managed that too by making statements like “I’ve never been on a date,” or “Love? Never felt it. I’m dying to fall in love.” Sridevi, it is rumoured, was so unaware of things that when she got pregnant and felt the first stirrings of the child she thought she had gas.
Men, on the other hand could be married (SRK and Aamir both were when they entered the industry), committed (most present young heroes are), or be serial daters and ditchers (Salman is the most prominent member of this club) but this didn’t dent their popularity. Put it down to the patriarchy in our society and by extension in our film industry or just male chauvinism but that’s just the way it is. Perhaps the fact also is that women have a biological clock ticking and it is their own compulsions that lead to their exit.
One school of thought was that men mature while women age and so a boy who makes his first film at 20 grows into the man he is going to be at 27 and then stays that way for the next 20 years. A girl, on the other hand, needs to be propped up at 27 and put out to graze by the time she is in her early 30s.
There is also the bitter reality that this male-driven industry makes male-centric films in which the girl is little more than decoration, her role limited to being worthy enough for the hero to lose his heart to and sing a few songs with and be captured by the villain and scream for help. And yet the startling irony: despite there being so many more opportunities today for actresses, the advent of multiplexes, the myriad possibilities of making small-budget films where it is possible to experiment, a girl’s shelf life has diminished as compared to that of the earlier generation. If Hema Malini and Rekha ruled the roost for nearly 20 years, and Sridevi and Madhuri were at the top for 15, girls like Rani and Preity, who debuted about 10 years ago, are already fading from the public memory, to replacements such as Kareena, Deepika, Priyanka and Katrina. In Rani’s case it is her perceived association with the YRF banner that has kept other filmmakers away, marking a very premature end to what was an exciting career.
Preity, on the other hand, never really made it to the top, always being limited to ‘cute’ but never quite making the transition to ‘hot’ despite many attempts. Today, she has quietly lstepped over to alternative cinema, inducing instant amnesia in the mainstream audience. With the girls today in very public relationships, the ‘virginal’ tag has been done away with but the ‘young’ brand has gained much more importance. Whether it is the notoriously short attention span of the audience or the fact that a girl can act in three films in the time the hero completes one, these girls have a shelf life of not more than five years.
With competition always nipping at their stilettos, the rush is to make as much hay as possible while the sun shines. And so they do endorsements and dance at the drop of a hat, though it has to be a hat weighed down by many doubloons. It is all about visibility, and the old thought of an actor maintaining his/her mystique by not appearing before the public except via films has lost appeal. If that means getting PR handlers to call up newspapers to plant stories, they do it without batting a false eyelash. ‘Out of sight, out of mind’ has never had such a frightening connotation as it is in today’s times of very short but very visibilitydriven