“Don’t dare touch a woman without her consent, be it a prostitute, someone less than a prostitute or even your wife.” When Swara Bhaskar, playing the eponymous role in her latest release Anaarkali of Aarah says these lines to the antagonist—a lecherous university VC played by Sanjay Mishra—she’s not making history per se as far as portrayal of female characters in Bollywood is concerned. But she is definitely making a point: heroines are no longer content with playing the second fiddle to their male counterparts in Hindi cinema.
The days of the macho hero high on testosterone may not be over yet but actresses are definitely holding their own these days, asserting their rights, commanding their market price and playing title roles like never before. Gone are the days when an actress had to prance around trees as a customary glamorous prop in silly yet indispensable song sequences to justify her presence in a film. Now, roles are being specially written for them and producers are no longer fighting shy of investing in female-oriented movies. Above all, the audience is beginning to troop into theatres to cheer them as loudly as they did for the male leads in the past.
Sonakshi Sinha in Noor
With every alternate movie revolving around a woman character, feminism is being redefined in the hitherto male-dominated industry these days. And if any year has to be called the ‘year of woman’ in Bollywood, it has got to be 2017. Just three months into the year, and actresses are already making waves not only for spearheading the star casts but also because of the unusual content of their movies. No longer does one see any female protagonist fitting into the stereotypes of Mother India with no grey shades whatsoever in her character, nor do we encounter any damsel-in-distress waiting for her prince charming to rescue them. What the audience, instead, has today is a surfeit of powerful roles played by young actresses from the millennial generation who have no qualms in wearing their attitude or sexuality on their sleeves with aplomb.
The glass ceiling has finally been smashed, as heroines have evolved into the new heroes (no sexism intended!) in new-age Bollywood. In Anaakali of Aarah directed by a promising debutant, Avinash Das, Swara Bhaskar plays a singer-dancer of an orchestra party from a small-town in Bihar who makes a living by performing to raunchy numbers. She is a woman with no pretentions of being a paragon of virtue and gives a piece of her mind to anybody, howsoever mighty, who tries to act fresh with her. “Lagta hai hum gaanewale log hain toh koiyo bajaa bhi dega, par ab aisa nahin hoga (It seems anybody can make advances to me just because I happen to be a singer but this will not happen now),” Anaarkali says after she staves off a brazen bid by the drunk VC to molest her during her live performance.
Although the context of Anaarkali… is entirely different, the film’s emphasis on the consent of a woman and the choices she makes resonates with the acclaimed Pink (2016). But while Pink had the redoubtable Amitabh Bachchan fight for the three harassed girls in a metropolis, Anaarkali... depicts the struggle of a small-town ‘item girl’, who is perceived as a woman of easy virtue by the high and mighty of society because of her profession and is left to fend by herself.
The film has opened to rave reviews with eminent film makers such as Chadraprakash Dwivedi, Imtiaz Ali and Subhash Kapur showering encomiums on it. “The audience has become receptive to women-centric films these days. They are not bothered whether the film has a Shahrukh Khan or a Deepika Padukone in the lead,” says noted Bollywood analyst Komal Nahta. “All they are interested in is the entertainment quotient of a film.”
Taapsee Pannu in Naam Shabana
Nahta says it was unthinkable to have so many films with female protagonists ten to 15 years ago. “Then film makers considered it suicidal to invest in a woman-centric project. But times have changed now.”
A cursory look at the number of such films lined up for release in the next few weeks bolsters his contention. The day Anaarkali… was released, Phillauri, another woman-driven project helmed by A-list actress-turned-producer Anushka Sharma, saw the light of the day. Neeraj Pandey’s Naam Shabana, a prequel to Akshay Kumar’s 2015-hit Baby, which features Taapsee Pannu of Pink fame in the title role as a feisty secret service agent, is due for release this Friday. Although her new film also stars Akshay Kumar and Manoj Bajpayee, the focus is primarily on Pannu, who had played a cameo in the original.
Also releasing the same day is actor Rahul Bose’s directorial venture, Poorna, a biopic of tribal mountaineer Malavath Poorna, who became the youngest girl at 13 to conquer Mount Everest despite facing great odds. The film stars Aditi Inamdar in the title role.
In April, Vidya Balan’s Begum Jaan and Sonakshi Sinha’s Noor, both films revolving around strong female characters, are scheduled for worldwide release. In Begum Jaan, directed by the award-wining Srijit Mukherjee—a remake of his Bengali hit Rajkahini—Balan portrays an indomitable brothel keeper who refuses to vacate her place, home to 11 prostitutes, in the wake of Partition.
Anushka Sharma in Phillauri
Noor, based on Saba Imtiyaz’s novel, Karachi, You are Killing Me! which depicts the misadventures of a young journalist, has no big name other than Sonakshi’s to draw the audience to the cash counters. Balan and Sonaskhi have been no strangers to playing such charcaters. Sonakshi had a powerful title role in Akira, directed by A.R. Murugadoss last year, but it is Balan who is widely credited with having ushered in the new, post-multiplex wave of female-dominated movies with No One Killed Jessica (2011). Playing a slew of strong characters in subsequent successful movies such as The Dirty Picture (2011), Kahaani (2012) and Kahaani 2 (2016), she has led from the front to galvanise film makers for backing such movies.
Balan, along with Kangna Ranaut, has been the driving force behind women’s cinema in Bollywood. “Their status is now akin to any big male star whose box office standing is not affected by hits and flops anymore,” says film writer R. Mohan.
He has a point. Ranaut—who has delivered big commercial successes such as Tanu Weds Manu (2011), Queen (2014) and Tanu Weds Manu Returns (2015) without the prop of a big hero—today commands a bigger price than many top heroes. For Vishal Bhardwaj’s Rangoon (2017), she is learnt to have received a bigger remuneration than co-stars Saif Ali Khan and Shahid Kapoor. Although the movie sank at the box office, it has apparently made no difference to Kangna’s perceived pull, with producers still making a beeline for her with bound scripts. The success of the ‘Queen of Box Office’ who returns to screen later this year with Hansal Mehta’s Simran exemplifies woman power in the film industry.
In recent times, superstars such as Deepika Padukone and Priyanka Chopra have proved their credentials with movies like Bajirao Mastani (2015) and Mary Kom (2014). Padukone, in fact, received a fatter pay cheque than Amitabh Bacchahn for Piku (2015). Sonam Kapoor also hit the bullseye with Neerja last year while Alia Bhatt impressed with Dear Zindagi (2016). Shraddha Kapoor is also seeking to break free from romantic musicals by playing fugitive gangster Dawood Ibrahim’s sister in an action-thriller to be released later this year.
Not all woman-centric movies end up as money-spinners though. Anaarkali of Aarah’s box-office collections did not match up to the rave reviews it earned. Actress Swara Bhaskar, who dubs the character as the most challenging in her career, says that the advent of multiplexes has created a niche audience for films like Anaarkali, but the number of screens remains limited across the country. “Every film maker, big or small, has to fight for screen space,” she tells Outlook. (See Ara Diary, page 74)
Vidya Balan in Begum Jaan
Director Shefali Bhushan, who made the acclaimed Jugni (2016), says her film did not get an all-India release and had limited number of screens at the multiplexes, which hurt its commercial prospects. “Even people who wanted to see the film could not,” she says. “However, online viewing mediums such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Google-play, iTunes are helping small-budget movies in a big way and so are airlines, DTH platforms and cable TV channels.”
The trend appears to be irreversible regardless of the box office fate of many of these films. It is probably this changed scenario that prompted Aparna Sen to wield the megaphone once again. The acclaimed director is all set to return with her next venture, an English film called Sonata. Sen, incidentally, is widely considered to be a pioneer of making woman-centric films, thanks to her 1981-classic 36 Chowringhee Lane.
In her new film, set for an April 21 release, Sen has teamed up with Shabana Azmi, another long-standing champion of women’s cinema whose Arth (1982) had redefined women’s characters in the Hindi films long before the Pinks and Anaarkalis happened. There could not have been a better timing for the release of their joint venture.