- Swara Bhaskar lies on a bed, covered waist down with a sheet of cloth, her right hand clutching the headboard, a rainbow of expressions on her face. The apparent movement of her left hand under the cloth is a clear giveaway: she is masturbating.
- Bhumi Pednekar walks into the doctor’s chamber with her reluctant husband in tow. She has a problem…no, he has a problem—she needs a cure for his erectile dysfunction.
Welcome to the brave, new B-town where a brigade of young actresses are smashing stereotypes and the old patriarchal order, setting the screen on fire with an array of out-of-the-box roles that few of their predecessors would have dared to pick in their heyday. Cool, confident and in sync with the times, they are agents of transformation, pushing the boundaries for women in Hindi cinema, and breathing life into the mannequins of old, whose job was only to prettify the celluloid screen.
This generation is steering clear of the image trap of its own volition. Nowadays, nobody wants to play the chaste angel or the good old damsel-in-distress, waiting to be rescued by her knight-in-shining-armour, or any such hackneyed character. The mere thought of prancing around trees with a macho man, lip-syncing to inanities, sounds uncool to them. The doe-eyed dolls of yore, draped in see-through chiffons and serenaded atop a silvery peak by a sadistic suitor in a pashmina poncho, are stuff of Bollywood fairytales. But we are now getting real.
Going by how the newbies on the block are clamouring for (and bagging) refreshingly varied, multi-dimensional roles, Bollywood seems to have woken up to a commercial potential here and thrown open a sluice gate of opportunities for actresses. Today, Alia Bhatt is spoilt for choices when it comes to selecting good characters—so are Radhika Apte, Taapsee Pannu, Bhumi Pednekar, Sonam Kapoor, Anushka Sharma and so many others.
A worthy flag-bearer of her generation, Alia, at just 25, is already perched on top with a handful of brilliant performances to her credit. Seven years ago, when she debuted in Student of the Year (2012), everybody had expected her to play a pompom-waving teenybopper in mushy musicals. But in less than two years, the much-lampooned Alia showcased her gravitas in films such as Highway (2014), prompting Javed Akhtar to hail her performance as “a milestone in the history of Indian cinema”. The veteran writer-lyricist even equated her with Nargis in Mother India, Meena Kumari in Saheb Biwi Aur Ghulam, Nutan in Bandini and Shabana Azmi in Arth—four all-time great performances.
She hasn’t since let Akhtar down, delivering many a riveting performance, notably Raazi (2018) and Gully Boy (2019)—and earlier, Udta Punjab (2016). In Raazi, she pulled off the complex role of a Kashmiri RAW agent who marries a Pakistani armyman as part of her espionage mission while, in Gully Boy, she sparkles as a Muslim girl who is fiercely possessive of her rapper boyfriend. Both these films reaffirmed her credentials as an actress with the Midas touch at the box-office.
Alia is hardly a solitary reaper. Taapsee, a Delhi girl who debuted in an eminently forgettable Chashme Baddoor (2013), is now known for her central roles in powerful woman-centric movies. After Pink (2016) and Naam Shabana (2017), Taapsee had her busiest year in 2018 with Soorma, Mulk and Manmarziyan, earning her the moniker of ‘a thinking actress’. In Mulk, she played a Hindu bahu who fights to retrieve the honour of Muslim in-laws charged with sedition. In Manmarziyan, her character of a sexually liberated, middle-class girl puts her male co-stars in shade and made fyaar (a Hinglish portmanteau of the F-word and love) a favourite neologism of millennial movie-goers.
Bhumi has had three consecutive hits—Dum Laga Ke Haisha (2015), Toilet Ek Prem Katha (2017) and Shubh Mangal Savdhan (2017)—and a widely-acclaimed web series, Lust Stories (2018), to her credit in the past four years. All her ventures have dealt with unusual or taboo subjects: body-shaming, cleanliness and erectile dysfunction (in Shubh Mangal Savdhan). Her latest release, Abhishek Chaubey’s Sonchiriya, a dacoit film set in Chambal, is another offbeat role in her oeuvre.
“It is time for actresses to experience the sensitive, brave, bold, rebellious and angry side of a woman. If such roles are being written, it is because women like that exist.”.
Actress Sanya Malhotra of Dangal (2016) and Badhaai Ho (2018) fame says young actresses are now able to play newer kinds of characters without any inhibitions because audiences are accepting them wholeheartedly. “In most hero-dominated movies, nobody cared for a heroine’s role. I am glad that phase is over now. People now want real characters, like the ones they see in real life,” she tells Outlook. Sanya was last seen in Badhaai Ho, last year’s sleeper hit that featured Neena Gupta as an elderly woman—the mother of the hero, in fact—who gets pregnant, much to the shock of her family. “It turned out to be a big hit because the audiences related to the strong character,” she adds.
Actress Radhika Madan, who made an impressive debut in Vishal Bhardwaj’s comedy-drama Pataakha (2018), co-starring Sanya, says she is lucky to have entered the industry at a time when people are ready to take risks with being different. “Audiences were bored with seeing the same characters. They don’t want to watch any predictable stories now,” she says. “As an actor, I am hesitant to sign any film if the script does not surprise me at the narration level,” she says.
Actually, the breaking of the mould started with the massive success of Vidya Balan’s Dirty Picture (2011) and Kahaani (2012), and Kangana Ranaut’s Tanu Weds Manu (2011) and Queen (2014), plus a few others who carried these films on their shoulders without needing the prop of a male superstar. Traces of a change can even be found a little before Dirty Picture, when actresses who came in as a total embodiment of the old Bollywood glamour queen trope—a Shilpa Shetty or a Mallika Sherawat—exhibited the new spirit with films like Life in a... Metro (2007), or Pyaar ke Side Effects (2006) and Ugly aur Pagli (2008). That two-sidedness can be seen even in Shraddha Kapoor today: she can do a nuanced Haider in 2014 and an ABCD 2 in 2015.
Today’s young actresses are putting in a lot of hard work to prepare for their roles. Madan, who will be seen next in Ronnie Screwwala’s Mard Ko Dard Nahin Hota, picked up cowdung, cooked food on a clay oven and even bathed buffaloes to get into the skin of the character of a village girl in her maiden film. “My co-star Sanya and I stayed in a Rajasthan village for a few days where we were told, ‘gobar se dosti karlo (get used to the cowdung)’ to prepare for our roles of quarrelsome sisters, which we actually did,” she says.
Filmmaker Rakhee Sandilya feels the willingness to present females as strong characters is a reflection of the changes in Indian society where women are playing diverse roles in real lives. “Like our society, Bollywood has been patriarchal over the years, having portrayed women either as objects of desire or epitomes of sacrifice,” she says. “But our society is opening up and so is Bollywood. There is a growing awareness, especially among working middle-class women, and the impact of this social change can be seen in today’s cinema.” Sandilya, who made the critically acclaimed Kalki Koechlin-starrer Ribbon (2017), says film-makers earlier shied away from depicting female leads in ambiguous shades where their hidden desires, sexuality or dreams could be explored. “Bollywood is only reflecting the transformation of the Indian psyche from the post-colonial era to the confident global Indian of the present century where women are not just objects of desire but are breadwinners. Today, sex is no longer a taboo in our cinema.”
“In movies dominated by heroes, nobody cared about the heroine’s role. Glad that phase is over now. People now want real characters like the ones they see in real life,”.
Nothing is taboo in the new-wave cinema, not even frontal nudity, topless scenes or subjects such as same-sex love and marriage, which were always considered contentious in the past. Aparna Sen’s Parama (1985) and Deepa Mehta’s Fire (1996) were a few rare movies where women’s sexuality was treated from their point of view. But now, films dealing with such themes are dime-a-dozen. Sonam Kapoor recently played a lesbian in Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Lagaa (2019), Swara Bhaskar did the masturbation scene without any inhibitions in Veere Di Wedding (2017), Radhika Apte gets into a physical relationship with her student in Lust Stories (2018) and Kriti Sanon’s new film, Lukka Chuppi, has her in a live-in relationship. Scores of other films like B.A. Pass (2012), Parched (2015), Angry Indian Goddesses (2015) and Lipstick Under My Burkha (2016) treated female sexuality as a central part of the narrative, not merely as a cynical, male-ordered prop to titillate the audience.
The advent of over-the-top (OTT) platforms, not yet within a formal censorship frame, has pushed the boundaries a step further. In the hit web series Sacred Games (2018), for example, Kubra Sait did a frontal nude scene while Rajshri Deshpande went topless for a love-making sequence. The jury is still out on whether these sequences were a seamless part of the narrative or a blatant bid to commodify women in a new way, but both these characters were, doubtless, of strong women with a mind and a body of their own. Sait, who shot into stardom with Sacred Games, says her role of a transgender changed her career graph in every possible way. “When I look back at it, it’s a role which is going to be remembered in the Indian entertainment industry forever,” she tells Outlook. “I feel so blessed to be part of that journey.”
“Audiences were bored with the same characters. Now they don’t want to watch any predictable stories...I am hesitant to sign a film if the script doesn’t surprise me.”.
The graphic sex scenes notwithstanding, Sait insists that her character should not be treated as too unconventional. “It was a pure and simple love story with an interesting twist,” she says. “It’s high time women are given freedom to play characters that don’t just require them to dance around the trees. It is time for them to experience the sensitive, brave, bold, rebellious and angry side of a woman. If such roles are being written, it is because women like that exist in real life.”
Sait, however, agrees that if such a character were created five years ago, the likelihood is it would have been completely trashed, and if it were to be created five years from now, it would possibly have been too late. “This is the right time when there is a shift in thinking,” she says.
Rajshri Deshpande, who went topless in Sacred Games for her character of a gangster’s wife, says she had never expected to receive such a positive response for her role. “I think if you do your job well, people do notice it,” she says. Deshpande, however, points out that women in strong, unconventional characters are not a new phenomenon, and recalls movies like Shaque (1976), Bhumika (1977), Chakra (1981), Mandi (1983)—but then, most of them came in the non-mainstream space.
“There are movies which still don’t get a proper release. The audiences don’t even know about them. S... Durga won many awards but I don’t know how many people saw it.” .
To be sure, several films featuring female stars in pivotal roles have been made over the years but their number was always minuscule. Besides, a woman-centric film rarely did extraordinary business in those days. But today, such movies are witnessing huge footfalls in the multiplexes. Veteran trade expert Atul Mohan says that the trend of casting actresses in strong, pivotal roles has caught on in a big way because today’s young viewers prefer realistic cinema about people around them. “They don’t distinguish between a male-centric or female-centric movie as such,” says Mohan. “What matters for them is an overall good film at the end of the day. Whether it has a male star or a female star in the main lead does not matter.” Mohan, the editor of Complete Cinema, says the success of woman-centric movies in recent times only testifies to this new taste for realism and gender is secondary (even if free from the old frames). “These days, the script determines everything...the taste of audiences has completely changed,” he says.
But film writer Vinod Anupam sees a real ‘womanisation’ of cinema. He says new actresses are getting great opportunities because a lot of films are being made to cater to the rising number of women audiences these days. “In an era of nuclear families, working women make for a sizeable section of the audiences, especially in urban centres,” he says. “It has led to a plethora of films based on themes around women empowerment. Kangana Ranaut’s Queen turned out to be such as an epoch-making film because many young women readily identified with her character of a spirited girl who refuses to give up after being ditched by her fiance.”
The National Award-winning writer says the shift is so pronounced that a beautiful actress like Alia has to consciously look ‘ordinary’ to suit the kind of characters she mostly plays these days. “In the past, heroines had to put in extra efforts to look glamorous in a hero-dominated movie, but now their characters require them to focus on their histrionics, not looks. It reflects nothing short of a paradigm shift, which augurs well for Indian cinema.”