In the last few months, two of Indian cinema’s leading leading ladies got married. They’re both talented, in great health, very attractive and at the peak of their careers. Will they fall prey to the accepted wisdom that marriage deals a death blow to the career of an Indian actress?
People in the know say it is inevitable. But really, is that true? And who’s to blame? Our audiences? Or are wary producers second-guessing what audience want and, more importantly, don’t want? Or, does the leading lady herself change her priorities?
First, let’s look at our country.
Women are marginalised in our society. And cinema, an art form, is a mirror to the larger world. A natural corollary is that our cinema—and film industry—are male-dominated. While the patriarchy is less overt in society at large, in Indian cinema it is blatant.
For those who like to argue that things are changing, all I can say is that the two or three women-centric films a year are the exception, not the rule. Instances of leading ladies playing significant characters are few and far between.
We depict, by and large, women as whimpering, simpering creatures, whose purpose is to be the love interest of the hero. And, of course, to titillate. A majority of films have a virile hero at the centre of the plot. He has a love interest, or wins the affections of a pretty young thing by any means, including, but not limited to, chasing her and interpreting her refusal as a challenge! The female lead role demands just a pretty face and a sexy body. And that is the extent of involvement of the actress in the larger plot of the film. Because of the nature of roles available, actresses are forced to bank on their sexuality and youth as qualifications.
As one producer explained, it’s simply because that’s what the audience wants. Ergo, the audience doesn’t want to see a woman depicted as being independent, having a personality. At some level they identify with the hero. If the hero desires the heroine, so do they. They see women as objects for sexual gratification. In their heads, they feel they too can ‘have’ the heroine. They definitely want to see her dancing in skimpy clothes.
If it’s fair to say that Bollywood objectifies women, then we must acknowledge that that is what our society does too.
Taking this argument forward, audiences probably feel that once a heroine is married, they can no longer get to have her; the sanctity of marriage probably spoils the fantasy. Whatever the reason, while they appear happy to accept leading men in their forties, married or otherwise, they don’t seem to accept actresses in the prime of their youth as heroines once they marry.
As a result, ‘traditional’ film-makers second-guess audiences, assuming they are not mature enough to distinguish between on- and off-screen personæ and will reject women who are no longer ‘single and available.’
This stereotypical notion is however being challenged by newer producers and actors. Another producer I spoke to felt that if actresses really want to work post-marriage, there is nothing to stop them.
Look at Suchitra Sen and Sharmila Tagore, who continued to work as leading ladies after they were married. Then there was Dimple Kapadia coming back to set the screen on fire, and Hema Malini. More recently, Kajol and Malaika Arora Khan continue to dazzle us, despite being married. There’s also Chitrangada Singh, a unique example of a leading lady who started her career as a married woman.
These exceptions apart, the ride for everyone else hasn’t been smooth. Once married, it is believed, actresses have to be content with character roles: Mothers, sisters or bhabhis. Look at Rakhi, who played mother to the very heroes she previously romanced!
And it must be said, that it is often the women themselves who voluntarily take time off from their careers, to have babies, or to just take a break. From the point of view of our Indian society, when she decides to get married she moves one step closer to playing one of the roles that only a woman can play: That of a mother. Why grudge her that? Especially in light of the biological clock. When she feels ready, she can choose to come back, as so many have done successfully. However, if she marries and wants to continue to work as before, there should be no perceptible change in her career.
Such actresses often come back to acting, like Sharmila Tagore did, or as Juhi Chawla and Kajol have. But the nature of their roles—in keeping with the sanctity of marriage, perhaps?—undergoes a change, both at their behest and that of the producers.