Women have been struggling to get their due space both on screen and off in Bollywood for years. Films are largely driven by the star power of actors, who are considered a safer bet at the box office. Irrespective of age or genre, male stars have the upper hand in terms of longevity and appeal in the industry. While a Salman Khan is still ‘dabangg’ at 50, his contemporary actresses hardly enjoy the same following. An actor can easily move on to a younger heroine, while ageist and sexist Bollywood will struggle to find lead pairs for middle-aged actresses.
Producers continue to bet big bucks on Salman Khan, Ajay Devgn and Akshay Kumar, whose star appeal has remained strong for over three decades. They command the biggest releases every year and generate immense business at the box office. Irrespective of scripts or directors, their faces on a poster are enough to sell tickets.
Ruling the ’90s alongside these male stars were the likes of Madhuri Dixit, Shilpa Shetty, Karisma Kapoor, Kajol and Raveena Tandon. They have delivered stellar performances, danced in countless hit songs and kicked off fashion trends with their movies, but they were always relegated to second class citizens in B-Town.
While their big screen appearances have gotten fewer, television has embraced the charm and nostalgia of the ’90s to sign up these actresses. Almost every reality show has an actress from that era on its judging panel.
Madhuri has been a powerhouse performer as well as a dancing diva driving several notable films. Khalnayak, Tezaab, Beta, Saajan, Dil Toh Pagal Hai, Anjaam are among films that bear testament to her superb talent and popularity. She took a break from acting after her marriage with Sriram Nene, and moved to the US. She made a comeback with Aaja Nachle, which, despite the popularity of its music, wasn’t a box office success. She has since starred in Dedh Ishqiya, Gulaab Gang, Kalank and Total Dhamaal. Her big screen appearances have gotten fewer, while she has judged four seasons of the dance reality show Jhalak Dikhhla Jaa. She currently appears on third season of the reality show Dance Deewane.
Shilpa Shetty ventured into reality television in 2006 with the dance reality show Jhalak Dikhhla Jaa. In early 2007, she won international fame with the fifth season of the UK reality show Celebrity Big Brother. This was followed by her hosting the second season of the reality show Bigg Boss. Shetty has since taken on the role of judge on several Indian dance reality shows such as Zara Nachke Dikha (2010), Nach Baliye (2012–20) and Super Dancer (2016–present). Her last acting role was in 2007’s Apne; Shilpa is set to make a comeback with Nikamma and Hungama 2.
Raveena Tandon, who starred in several top grossing films in the ’90s, got married in 2004 and had a daughter two years later. She took a break from films and some of her delayed films were released during this time. Raveena ventured into television as a judge on several reality dance shows and hosted her own talk shows Isi Ka Naam Zindagi (2012) and Simply Baatien With Raveena (2014). She judged Sabse Bada Kalakar in 2017 and Nach Baliye 9 in 2019. Her next film release is KGF Chapter 2.
There was a time when an actress’ career was considered over once they got married. New-age actresses like Anushka Sharma and Kareena Kapoor Khan have broken that myth. You do not have to necessarily choose one over the other. Kareena also broke the stereotype that ‘reality show judge’ is a tag for out-of-work actresses by featuring on one season of Dance India Dance.
Filmmaking in Bollywood has also changed, scripts are now being written with middle-aged actresses in the lead as storytelling expands beyond genres of boy-meets-girl and masala entertainers. You do see the audience cheering when Rani Mukerji beats up goons in Mardaani, or be part of Kajol’s dysfunctional family in Tribhanga. But the gap between the scale of their projects and that of their male contemporaries is so huge that it is hard to say if it will ever be bridged.