New Delhi: Traditionally and historically, while women in Bollywood have been loved, adored and admired, it is the heroes who have always dominated the space. From the big three of the fifties (Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand, Raj Kapoor) to the big three of the day (Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan, Aamir Khan), it is the male mega stars who have scorched public imagination, seduced countless fans, pre-empted zillion footfalls in theatres and got financiers, production houses and the money-boys drooling and begging for their dates.
Sure, a Suraiya, Madhubala, Meena Kumari, Nargis, Nutan and Waheeda Rehman - even Sridevi and Madhuri Dixit- were names to reckon with but few films rocked the Box Office with their solo presence. For every 'Mother India', 'Sujata', 'Bandini'', 'Chaalbaaz' and 'Mr. India', there were tons of others that celebrated the hero as the mover and shaker. They were (and mostly remain, thanks to traditional, chauvinistic mindset, myopia and general Box Office History) eye and arm candy, inserted to provide the romantic, glamorous, sex quotient so critical for the distraction required for an audience looking for high-wattage escapist fare.
The Fee structure differentiation between our top male stars (the Khans) and Katrina Kaif, Kareena Kapoor or Priyanka Chopra gives a clear picture of where the buck starts and stops!
While it's both silly and unrealistic to loudly announce woman-power blitzing and threatening male dominance in B-town, it would be appropriate to recognise, acknowledge and salute the contribution of women in year 2012. Be it 'Kahaani', 'Vicky Donor', 'Ishaqzaade', even 'Gangs of Wasseypur' and 'Shirin Farhad Ki Toh Nikal Padi' and most certainly 'English Vinglish' and 'Barfi!', women overwhelmingly made a difference. Fittingly 'Talaash' ended a year that began with 'Kahaani'. In between, there was also 'Heroine' and 'Raaz 3' to lend more credence and legitimacy to this claim.
It would both make sense and be respectful to start this discourse with the directors and writers who first envisioned some of these films and navigated their journey with skill, sensitivity, charm and focus, seldom missing a beat.
Zoya Akhtar could have easily set the tone in her 2011 'Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara' where she defined what the female gaze was about. Her Laila (Katrina Kaif) was an elegant, wild child, free spirited and without inhibition, as cool teaching scuba-diving as meshing limbs with her lover, without the dreaded sound of mantras or shehnais! Reema Kagti, friend and collaborator, too displayed similar gaze in 'Talaash' where instead of showing unclad women and drooling aroused men in murky Mumbai's cages, she concentrated on the human angle.
Gauri Shinde also followed a similar trajectory in her moving and charming 'English Vinglish' where the language- challenged, laddoo-maker offers a dramatic flip that floors her family and gets them to realise her true worth. It is important to add that all the actresses involved in those projects essayed their respective roles with brilliant, intelligent and sharp focus. They were, spot-on, totally in-the-role. It was acting - not posturing - of the highest order, totally believable, credible and internalized. Katrina Kaif - long dubbed as the angelic, gorgeous, sexy, dumb actress who's riding a lucky wave - proved once again, why cinema is ultimately a director's medium and if the right inputs - script, encouragement, motivation and challenge - are provided to an actor, she can shine!
Rani Mukherji unfortunately is caught, presently, in the middle of the in-between because she can no longer play the romantic, cute, sweet roles she once specialised in and is not getting the kind of solid dramatic roles she desires and is ready for. 'No One Killed Jessica' revealed what new directions she's looking out for and though 'Aiyaa' misfired, her portrayal of a troubled wife haunted by the loss of her child and the goings-on of a moody, disturbed husband was truly outstanding.
Kareena Kapoor too - despite her glam image and 'Halkat Jawani' and 'Fevicol' item numbers - demonstrated fine understanding of her complex role in the Reema Kagti gem.
What can one say of Sridevi, except repeat what Javed Akhtar once told me a while ago. "For reasons that are totally commercial, both Sridevi and Madhuri Dixit were always cast and made to do only glamorous, sexy, jhatak- matak roles involving lots of typical filmy posturing. Fair enough, that's what they seem to have built their brand-value on and that's why they had the huge fan following they did. Ironically it's a pity, because in actual fact, both these actresses are also capable of wonderful acting and solid performances, but since their glamour quotient was so strong and audience-friendly, and since not challenging the status quo has always been the mantra of the mainstream, this part of their persona, unfortunately, has never been even remotely explored; and the loss, trust me, is entirely ours!" Returning to the screen after ages and in a totally de-glam and different role than anything she has ever attempted, Sridevi created magic! I am sure Akhtar would be delighted at her amazing portrayal of Shashi in 'English Vinglish'.
Glam girl Priyanka Chopra has attempted the off-beat earlier (Saat Khoon Maaf) but playing the autistic heroine in 'Barfi' revealed her intent, seriousness and talent in pushing the envelope and challenging the actress in her to scale new heights.
Bravo! As for her cousin; Parineeti Chopra, she is easily the find of the year! Be it her debut 'Ricky Behl vs Ladies' or her fiery role in 'Ishaqzaade', Chopra invests her role with a kind of astonishing spontaneity, reminiscent of Geeta Bali and Jaya Bhaduri. She is fabulous and a joy to watch.
Vidya Balan doesn't really need any more doses of praise since 'The Dirty Picture' and 'Kahaani' have proved, beyond doubt, when talent meets courage and conviction, success usually follows in grateful fashion!
Huma Qureshi and Richa Chadda in 'Gangs of Wasseypur' also demonstrated superb acting skills while director-choreographer Farah Khan's debut in 'Shirin Farhad Ki Toh Nikal Padi' added a nice warm glow to the list.
Oh, how can we ever forget Deepika Padukone's intoxicating 'Cocktail'? She was truly awesome and served notice as a potent force to look out for.
The name of scriptwriter Juhi Chaturvedi - 'Vicky Donor' - demands to be inserted too if only because the concept was so original, wacky, odd ball and written in such an endearingly, engaging fashion that we look forward to her next project (Madras Café) with enthusiastic excitement.
Women considered 'niche', issue-driven, feminist or too girly-girly and men, as a rule, stayed away from this genre! Director Leena Yadav (Shabd, Teen Patti) once confided to me that the main reason men don't see these films is perhaps because "it lacks the titillation, low-brow sexy angle and glamour that the mass audiences seek in the name of entertainment. Anything serious, deep or complex with a gentle, feminine touch is perceived as sissy, sentimental and boring. Where's the masala? When are the seety-driven directors and women-centric movies images and item songs gonna appear for that hormonal rush?!
"Such is the blanket conditioning that even large sections of the female audiences ignore both, these directors and women-driven themes and rush towards their favourite Khans, Kapoors and Khannas!
Not any more. Trade Analyst Taran Adarsh categorically states that in year 2012 change has arrived. "Making women-centric films may have earlier been deemed risky, but no longer more. 'The Dirty Picture', 'Kahaani', 'Talaash' and 'English Vinglish' have clearly re-written the script with the sacred box office smiling broad and long!" All the movies mentioned were both critical and commercial hits, generating revenues many times over their modest investment.
At the end of the day, these gifted directors, writers and actors are not confronting, challenging or defying the Bollywood males, only demonstrating their personal vision, talent and perspective of narratives articulated in their fashion and as every human being will agree, any communication that emerges from the space between the heart is almost always sure to find a warm and responsive taker.
In 1898 Charle Perkins Gilman, a female sociologist wrote with feeling, passion and searing truth, what must rate as some of the finest and most valid words on the futuristic screen woman: "Is it not time that the way to a man's heart through his stomach should be relinquished for some higher avenue? This stomach should be left to its natural uses, not made a thoroughfare for stronger passions and purposes; and the heart should be approached through higher channels. We need a new picture of our overworked blind god: fat, greasy, pampered with sweetmeats by the poor worshippers being forced to pay their devotion through degraded means. No, the human race is not well nourished by making the process of feeding it a sex-function. The selection and preparation of food should be in the hands of trained experts. And woman should stand beside man as a comrade of his soul, not the servant of his body!"
So here's to more of Woman Power in 2013. More wind beneath their wings!