No longer just a pretty face

No longer just a pretty face

Vidya Balan’s critical and commercial success through The Dirty Picture has given the indestructible Bollywood hero some serious competition. The mainstream ‘heroine’ of today is transforming. She is going for unusual on-screen looks and roles — sometimes becoming a temptress, sometimes an activist, and sometimes even a serial killer. Acts like Balan’s uninhibited portrayal of southern siren Silk Smitha in The Dirty Picture or Rani Mukherjee’s interpretation of the gritty journalist in No One Killed Jessica or Priyanka Chopra’s femme fatale Susanna in 7 Khoon Maaf have truly marked the resurgence of female histrionics and women-centric roles.

Vidya Balan and Rani Mukherjee, in a scene from ‘No One Killed Jessica.’It is indeed a strong resurgence. Remember Nargis Dutt’s 1957 classic Mother India, where she plays a poor farmer and mother, who kills her own criminal son for the greater moral good? Or Meena Kumari’s portrayal of a desperate alcoholic Chhoti Bahu in Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, released in 1962? The only point of comparison between female actors of then and now is the frequency with which this kind of variety is reflected in their repertoire of work. While earlier, author-backed, female-oriented roles were few in number and appealed mostly to the serious cinema-goer, today, mass audiences are on the look out for stuff that they consider hatke.

Last year, in particular, saw the release of a plethora of women-centric films, most of which made big bucks at the box office. Of course, 2011’s ‘Actor of the Year’ has been the talented Vidya Balan. Not only did she earn accolades for her acting as the spirited Sabrina Lal in No One Killed Jessica, her role in The Dirty Picture, released later in the year, changed the way a female actor’s body and sexuality is portrayed on the big screen. But it isn’t like Balan hadn’t dabbled in unusual roles earlier. She did Ishqiya in 2010, where she brought the sharp and shrewd village belle Krishna to life and in the process, she almost towered over a stalwart like Naseeruddin Shah. Then again, she played mother to veteran actor Amitabh Bachchan, whose character suffered from the rare ageing disease, progeria, in the 2009 release Paa. And now, she can be seen in another no-hero flick, Kahaani, where she plays a pregnant woman in search of her husband.

Balan’s co-star in No One Killed Jessica , Rani Mukherjee, too, shone as a strong and foul-mouthed journalist on a mission to put a murderer behind bars. This effortless actress also has some great films to her credit, including the soul-stirring Black, where her performance as a girl who is deaf, mute and blind left an indelible mark on viewers. This year, Mukherjee returns with the psychological thriller, Talaash, where she stars alongside Aamir Khan.

Another mainstream leading lady who has been adventurous on-screen is Priyanka Chopra. Be it her action sequences in Don 2 or her interpretation of writer Ruskin Bond’s complex heroine Susanna in 7 Khoon Maaf, Priyanka’s characters have gone down well with audiences. This year, she stars in Anurag Basu’s Barfee, in which she plays the character of a mentally-challenged girl. Chopra’s co-star in the National Award winning Fashion, Kangana Ranaut, has also had the opportunity to prove herself. Her recent act as the spunky Tanu in Tanu Weds Manu was preceded by the portrayal of a supermodel who loses everything to drugs in Fashion.

In over 100 years of Indian cinema, the heroine has mostly had a cosmetic presence. She was usually someone who looked pretty, who didn’t mind wearing saris and getting drenched in the rain; she was forever that sacrificing ideal — a Bharatiya nari. In a film of about 120 minutes, she hardly got 15 minutes to showcase her acting prowess. While these quintessential ‘expectations’ from a leading lady still haven’t changed all that much today, increasingly, there have been occasions when known male actors — like a Naseeruddin Shah or R Madhavan — have, for a change, had to play the supporting role.
Roles apart, female actors have also started taking home better pay cheques. According to trade reports, women are not only demanding a higher remuneration, they are getting it as well, although of course it’s still nowhere close to the price that the Khan trio command in the industry. Interestingly, financial strength has ensured that prominent female actors are no longer compelled to take up just any role that comes their way. As Balan, a self-confessed fan of Shah Rukh Khan, said in a recent interview, “Though I love him, unless I have a well-etched character, I will not accept a role in his film.” That one statement indicates the confidence level of today’s women actors.

Commentators believe this trend reflects today’s society where women are, at last, getting their due. They are competitive, ambitious and don’t mind toiling late hours to achieve their goals. Even story lines are being written to fit this image of a modern Indian woman. Anushka Sharma, in her debut film Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, is shown as a small town girl willing to enter a reality dance show without her husband, played by Shah Rukh Khan, and she doesn’t shy away from practicing steps with other male dancers. In Band Baja Baarat, once again, Sharma competes against her business partner, played by newcomer Ranveer Singh, to succeed in her wedding planning business.

Change is, as always, round the corner. Balan got it right when her personality comments in The Dirty Picture: “Filmein sirf teen cheezon ki wajah se chalti hain. Entertainment, entertainment, entertainment. Aur main entertainment hoon.”

Women’s Feature Service