The past few years have been phenomenal for actresses in Bollywood. From Piku, Kahaani, and Queen to Tumhari Sulu, Raazi, and Badhai Ho – we have seen a kind of diversity in female characters hitherto unprecedented in Bollywood, in such large numbers. The fact that women are headlining stories that are not only relatable but also doing well commercially is a sign of good things. But, despite this spate of success, some of our leading ladies continue to willingly play second fiddle to the big Khans, Kumars, and Devgns, which makes us wonder why they do it.
We get it, everyone needs to pay the bills. And if you happen to be an A-list star, your bills must be bigger than ours. So, picking up a big budget film which is low on content that’ll neither creatively satisfy you or your ardent fans is a small price to pay in exchange. The fact that some of these films help the actresses take up relatively riskier films, which are centred around them, is also a justified enough reason. But, why be a repeat offender?
In 2016, when journalists queried Anushka Sharma about choosing to play a regressive role like Aarfa’s in Sultan, she argued how feminism is about the freedom of choice. Aarfa gives up her life’s ambition of being an Olympic champion to become a mother. The love of her life Sultan (played by the baap of problematic Bollywood heroes, Salman Khan), of course, not only becomes an Olympic champ in a field he had only taken up in a bid to woo Aarfa, his entire character arc is centred around Aarfa’s ruin. But, once Anushka revoked the feminist card in this argument, journalists promptly shut up, because much like our Bollywood celebs, their feminism is also very flawed, if not entirely superficial. No one counter-argued, that a woman’s choice isn’t always fundamentally made out of free will, given how deeply entrenched our society is in patriarchal norms.
Cut to 2017, and Anushka did another big budget film, Jab Harry Met Sejal, with another big Khan – Shah Rukh. The less we talk about how misogynistic this Imtiaz Ali dud was, the better. This year, she had another outing with SRK in Zero, a film so messy and politically incorrect that most of us are still reeling from daring to watch it. While Aarfa was the all-sacrificing mother stereotype, Sejal could easily be diagnosed as a sufferer of internalised misogyny, but Zero’s Aafia is a hodge-podge of cringe and controversial. Here we have a woman, a scientist in NASA, who has literally discovered water on Mars and could be the messiah humankind needs to survive in a future that has potentially been destroyed thanks to global warming. But, still she values her physicality more than her brain. She is willing to settle for just about any man who shows interest in her despite her “flaws”, aka her cerebral palsy, a condition we only assume she has because the nearly three-hour-long Khan-fest doesn’t deem fit to mention it even once.
Anushka has actually been investing in her own production house on the side. In other words, she has been taking the fame and profits from her bigger budget films with the Khans, and investing in her own career. Take Phillauri, NH10 or Pari for example – all three films are all about her, with interesting enough male leads, and exponentially more enjoyable than any of her films opposite SRK or Salman.
Anushka isn’t the only A-list Bollywood heroine who has been playing these ridiculously overachieving women in male-centric “love stories”, settling for terrifically underachieving men in films that are ultimately more invested in the men. In 2016 Anushka’s Aarfa does it in Sultan, in 2017 Alia Bhatt’s Vaidehi does it in Badrinath Ki Dulhania, Bhumi Pednekar’s Jaya in Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, and in 2018 Katrina’s Babita Kumari does it in Zero along with Anushka’s Aafia. All these women have a little more agency than some of their other predecessors, but ultimately they get the short end of the straw, no doubt about it.
But, a key difference these films have with male-centric films is how they treat the partner’s character. The female leads in most male-centric films have less complexity than a bowl full of boiled carrots. In contrast, the male leads in most women-lead films are layered, complex human beings with a wide emotional range. Take Vicky Kaushal’s example in Raazi. While the film was about Alia’s Sehmat, Vicky’s Iqbal wasn’t depicted as a two-dimensional cardboard caricature. Same goes for all of Anushka’s films that were produced by her own production company as opposed to the ones which were Khan vanity vehicles.
It is evident that this is a pattern mostly in the Khan-Kumar-Devgn starrers. These are the bigger than big budget films that have huge box office openings and easily end up in the top ten highest grossers of the year despite being trashed by critics as well as audiences. This year has been particularly bad for the Khans with Race 3, Thugs of Hindostan, and Zero being rejected by most. Yes, they are still making big money because the stars still have bigger pull at the box office than the Kaushals, Khurranas and Sharmas of Bollywood. But, this will only last for so long. The big boys of Bollywood need to back and be in films where the story, and not them, are the heroes. And a good story will have meaty roles for everyone – including the women in the films.
The women can go out on their own and do their own thing in other films, where either they are the protagonists or have partnered with male leads whose stardom is at par with theirs. This is what boss women like Anushka, Deepika, and Priyanka have been doing for the past few years; playing the cards they’ve been dealt as deftly as they possibly can. But, as long as the Khans, Kumars, and Devgns are around, in order to have better roles for women in big budget, mainstream films, it’s the men who need to sacrifice egos and relinquish control… for the greater good. In the meanwhile, the women will keep the good fight on – both behind as well as in front of the silver screen.