Life | The Heroine Habit

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The Heroine Habit
Text by Supriya Nair
Published: Volume 17, Issue 6, June, 2009

From goddess to girl-next-door to glamazon – how much has Bollywood changed from Sridevi to Deepika Padukone? Supriya Nair examines the changing power of the Hindi film heroine

She used to be the girl whose three major interests in life were music, dance and finding a husband her father would approve of. She was sometimes dreamy, sometimes bubbly, but her heart was in the right place even if her head was not. She could get magnificently angry about her circumstances. She was sometimes Madhuri Dixit, sometimes Sridevi, sometimes Kajol, and on occasion, Karisma Kapoor or Juhi Chawla. She used to be the Hindi film heroine of the 90s, and we’ve been seeing less and less of her as the years go by.

No matter how much Bollywood, like a Homeric epic, thrives on cliché and repetition for impact, a Hindi film will resemble its time, not its predecessor. This is also true of its characters. While the 90s’ penchant for family-oriented, traditionalist drama allowed female characters to rise above the macho masala-flick demands of a wet sari and ineffectual cries of ‘Bachao!’, the strong reformist strain that ran through commercial films which enacted gruesome, often impactful portrayals of dowry death, rape, and marital harassment, also died down. As old conflicts of rich and poor, urban and rural took a backseat, the man-woman onscreen equation also changed. The most memorable films of the decade were romances built around internalised conflict, dramatising the clash of personalities, of duty and desire, of families and friendships.

In this milieu, the female protagonist became all-important. The films that sat the fence between the 80s and 90s, like the Anil Kapoor-Madhuri Dixit social drama Beta, or the Sridevi vehicle Chaalbaaz, accommodated the best of both worlds, infusing the righteous anger and go-girl spirit of the 80s with some of the goddess-like unattainability and spiritual intensity of the 90s heroine.

In both those smash hits, as in so many of their other roles, Dixit and Sridevi dominated in terms of screen time, personality and audience attraction. Star quality illumines their highlight reels. They both played their fair share of duds and dead ducks, and relied on strong partnerships on screen with male co-stars, but at the height of their careers each of them could draw crowds to a cinema and keep them returning.

It also helped that their heyday was dominated by writer-directors whose view of women was at once empathetic and worshipful. The Yashraj banner’s two early-90s Sridevi vehicles, Chandni and Lamhe, are dominated by her limpid, fey approach to both comedy and melodrama. In the Barjatyas’ Hum Aapke Hain Kaun (1994) and the Chopras’ Dil To Paagal Hai (1997), Madhuri Dixit – memorably backed up by Renuka Shahane and Karisma Kapoor – is the beating heart of the film, the moral centre and the crisis point of the story. The audience for these films found themselves identifying with the heroes (themselves in landmark roles), hanging breathlessly on to the womens’ inner lives and domestic crises, desiring them, but within limits controlled by the women themselves.

As the baton passed, Kajol, in Aditya Chopra’s Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (1995) and Karan Johar’s Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1997) established a chemistry with Shah Rukh Khan that is now the stuff of legend. While the Khan connection was a significant leg for Kajol to stand on, she brought such a distinct ferocity to her roles – even at her quietest in DDLJ, she was a persuasive and subversive influence – that she exceeded the bounds of the slightly regressive characterisation of Simran and Anjali to become a virtual force of nature.

That ability for female stars to pull the crowds in has waned. As the Barjatyas ossified and the Chopra-Johar stable diversified, the intervening decade has seen the diva roost more or less permanently vacated. Some day, a retrospective of the careers of Rani Mukherji, Preity Zinta and Kareena Kapoor will throw up a slew of memorable and diverse performances – many of them in failed films – but it is debatable if even their meatiest roles evoke the same sense of dominance that a moviegoer of the 90s felt when looking at a screen and watching Pooja, Nisha or Anjali, much as an old-school Hollywood watcher might recognise the star power behind Shirley McLaine or Rita Hayworth in their studio hits.

The odd attempt to recreate old-school magic with updated, more liberal sensibilities in recent years, as in Dixit’s comeback in Aaja Nachle or Kajol’s pairing-up with husband Ajay Devgan in U Me Aur Hum, have met with only partial success in critical and commercial terms. Certainly the last ten years or so have seen the superstar subsuming herself to the character actress, and that’s not a bad thing in itself. As stereotypes and masala tracks shrink in the smaller, quieter mises-en-scène of multiplex cinema, all the variables in the equation have changed, up to and including the definition of what makes a ‘hit’ film. Says Baradwaj Rangan, film critic for The New Indian Express, “Hindi movies are no longer constructed along the lines of archetype and myth, by and large. There’s no one dedicating their lives to taking revenge for a dead mother or that sort of thing, except in a meta sense, as in Om Shanti Om, or Rani’s prostitute-with-a-heart-of-gold turn in Saawariya. As the scope of the film decreases, the roles get more grounded. While women are getting beautifully-written roles, whether smaller ones like Shahana Goswami’s in Rock On!!, or something major like Preity’s role in Videsh, no one really gets the chance to dominate the screen in a diva or goddess avatar in cinema now.”

This much is true: we are seeing our scripts toning down and getting more naturalistic, and adding fresh, unforeseen talents in screenwriting, direction and production behind the scenes. (Many of them are even female.) As Bollywood’s outrageousness streamlines itself, the demands made on women, as characters and as performers, become more rational.

However, it’s also true that Bollywood’s male divos, whom age cannot wither nor custom stale, seem perfectly capable of functioning in both worlds, taking on newer, more complex roles even as they sustain every ounce of their star power and screen time. It figures that in the midst of a half-dozen complex, compelling, well-acted female characters, Chak De India still becomes all about Shah Rukh Khan. Saif Ali Khan shows us new facets of his talent every time he appears on screen, but manages to inhabit the comfortable stereotype of the laidback gentleman-rake with perfect ease for most of his public image and branding commitments. Every part that Aamir Khan or Akshay Kumar have played in the last decade deserves the word ‘plum’ before it.

Perhaps the anomaly, then, is the big-budget, big-screen production that doesn’t recognise the effects of this change, and continues to put male stars in the sort of roles their female counterparts have been deprived of, or outgrown, long ago. There are occasional hiccups in the attempts to recreate the pixie-fairy-goddess-diva and put her on a pedestal – Kunal Kohli, who wrote the women of Hum Tum and Fanaa fairly carefully and well, did almost exactly this in Thoda Pyaar Thoda Magic and got it badly wrong – but it does not seem to be a trend that will resurrect itself in full force. While Pradeep Sarkar’s Parineeta gave Vidya Balan the opportunity to play the title role with pleasing delicacy, Sarkar’s Laaga Chunari Mein Daag, which put women characters in the foreground, was rather more hit-and-miss, possibly because Parineeta was a period film, strongly grounded in its time and place, and ...Daag muddlingly contemporary.

Part of this is because we really have leapt forward from a time when Bollywood heroines represented women whose lives were largely lived in private. Hindi cinema is still focused on that aspect of things, but you now see the effects of the assimilation of women into public life on the big screen as well, as women’s work and personal environments interact in interesting ways. In Fashion and Dostana, in Life In A Metro, in Sarkar Raj and Corporate, to name but a few, a new professional standard comes to influence character and destiny for female protagonists. It’s spilling over into their television endorsements, too. Where once the idea was to push a product that would bring its buyer close to becoming a Madhuri Dixit, there’s a strong sense now that ad narratives conflate stars with their consumers. So you have Balan read The Economic Times, Gul Panag control the TV remote and Priyanka Chopra (balancing out her knockout act in deluxe soap spots) kick-starting a scooter in a Punjabi village.

What does this mean in terms of the power of the woman on screen? Chopra, who had key roles in Dostana and Fashion in 2008, provides a representative example of current parameters of female stardom. In both those films, she is, by turns, frothy without being naïve, serious without being intense, and individualistic without being overpowering. With a significant number of well-written roles behind her (think Aitraaz) and more in the pipeline, Chopra’s half-girl-next-door, half-glamazon vibe seems to set a great career standard for aspiring heroines. Indeed, it’s a template that works for a significant subset of Bollywood heroines today, from Deepika Padukone to Katrina Kaif, all of whom have, in the last couple of years, played roles of varying length as smart, desirable, independent women – largely in support of their male co-stars.

Aishwarya Rai Bachchan has, to her credit, one of the two standout female roles in blockbusters of the last couple of years, the Jodhaa of Ashutosh Gowariker’s 2008 extravaganza Jodhaa-Akbar. As two suns in their own spheres, Hrithik Roshan and Bachchan’s characters achieved such independence that the film’s mushy bits - he eats vegetarian food, she studies Persian - worked best as historical events, and only secondarily in the unfolding of a romance. The other big moment belonged to Kareena Kapoor in Imtiaz Ali’s Jab We Met (2007), an unexpected little big film. Kapoor as the warm-hearted and whacko Geet chewed up the scenery and effortlessly dictated the tone and pace of the screenplay. In her daffier moments you saw echoes of Sridevi’s manic energy and timing as the Anju and Manju of Chaalbaaz, itself a throwback to the 70s Hema Malini-starrer Seeta Aur Geeta. Kapoor’s talents would make her the likeliest heir to the landmark nice-and-naughty double role, if the film were to be made a third time. But would it be? “It isn’t that you can’t find an actress who couldn’t do a Chaalbaaz today,” as Rangan says. “It’s that you can’t imagine those kind of films being made at all.”

There’s something exciting about the fact that in spite of the problematic fixation on model features and leggy lusciousness, many contemporary characters – recall Padukone’s character in Bachna Ae Haseeno – try to command respect on their own terms. Perhaps it is the backlash against the formerly passive deity, the keeper of tradition and the upholder of a restrictive set of family values, that today’s female characters resist outright worship from their men. Even the untried Taani of Rab Ne Banaa Di Jodi, played by débutante Anushka Sharma in a supporting role to the SRK spectacle, eschews the grieving goddess act after losing a fiancé and father, and tries to build a life for herself within and outside the confines of her arranged marriage. (It’s another story that her husband turns out to be the uxorious puppeteer who controls both without her knowledge.)

In the minimalistic streak blazing trails through Hindi cinema’s writing today, power is normalised for female characters in ways that they weren’t in the megahits of the 90s. In terms of raw data, though, what’s missing is the sheer presence of the women who held every frame in a film, who spoke every second line, and made us like it. And it’s unfair that the difference between the trends of the last decade and this one presents the idol/real girl dichotomy as an either/or choice. In a world where women are heard less and seen less, how can they really mean more?

A parallel but more starkly unpleasant trend in Hollywood is the new gender dynamic in American comedies, in which smart, capable women are completely leached of life and initiative, and need men (and by extension, marriage and a family) to unleash their inner selves. While character tropes like the hackneyed Cinderella/prostitute of Pretty Woman and the clawless towhead of You’ve Got Mail should not be much missed, it’s hard to see stars like Julia Roberts or Meg Ryan signing on for films like 27 Dresses, or You Me and Dupree. It’s harder still to forget that Ryan would be a legend of the rom-com genre even if she had been nothing but the clever, prickly foe to Billy Crystal in late-80s classic When Harry Met Sally, or to foresee anyone today evoking the same reaction to the anti-heroine of My Best Friend’s Wedding, played as she was for neither sympathy nor derision by Roberts, who added a sharp, unlikeable edge to her signature mix of charm and vulnerability.

In spite of the stupendous success of Angelina Jolie’s action divas in films like the Tomb Raider franchise, Mr and Mrs Smith and Wanted, and that of two big and even sort of feminist (gasp!) Meryl Streep productions of recent years, The Devil Wears Prada and Mamma Mia, few Hollywood film-makers seem to have realised that the formula for a successful ‘chick flick’ isn’t to make it all about shoes and emotional inadequacy – it’s to write it well.

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