Heroine in Hindi cinema

Last week, the HT hosted the second edition of the Brunch Dialogues in Bombay. This is a series of events focussing on conversations about Indian cinema. The first one, held some months ago, was on gangster movies. This one examined the role of the heroine in Hindi cinema.

I am the moderator for the Brunch dialogues and last week I spoke to Siddharth Roy Kapoor of UTV, Madhur Bhandarkar, the director who has never hesitated to make films that revolve around women, Raj Gupta, whose films Amir and No One Killed Jessica rate as two of my favourite Hindi movies, Karisma Kapoor, who has seen Hindi cinema change, Sharmila Tagore, one of the best actresses in the history of Indian cinema and Kareena Kapoor, who is probably today’s top heroine (along, perhaps, with Katrina Kaif).

The press coverage of the event has focussed largely on the gossipy sidelights, mostly to do with the upcoming Saif Ali Khan-Kareena wedding. Yes, this was the first occasion where Kareena referred to Sharmila as her mother-in-law. Yes, she did say that as far as she was concerned, she was married to Saif from the day she fell in love with him five years ago. And yes, Sharmila did say that Saif was very lucky to be marrying a girl like Kareena.

I love gossip as much as the next man so no complaints about the coverage. But I do think that the issues we discussed were also significant and some interesting points emerged from the dialogues.

The first and most important was the conclusion that the old chestnut that heroines cannot carry a film is now dead. Once upon a time, what they called a heroine-oriented film was relatively rare. (Though, to be fair, such pictures did get made.) But now, as Siddharth Roy Kapoor said, producers are increasingly enthusiastic about backing movies where the story revolves around the heroine. If they were not, then such movies as No One Killed Jessica and The Dirty Picture would never get made. Nor for that matter would most of Madhur’s films.

But, as Siddharth conceded, the big numbers are still reserved for movies made by the boys. No heroine-oriented film can hope to replicate the success of a Salman-Shah Rukh-Aamir blockbuster. The closest any heroine-dominated movie has got to the magic Rs 100 crore collection figure is The Dirty Picture and you could argue that some of its box-office success was due to salacious interest rather than any empathy with the heroine. When it comes to huge collections, producers will rely on the Salmans and Hrithiks of this world not on the Kareenas and Katrinas.

This translates into lower pay-outs for the girls. These days the salaries of male stars have sky-rocketed to astronomical heights. The girls are paid better than before but usually they make only about a third (or at best, about half) of what the guys earn. There was a time when this was true of Hollywood as well but such stars as Julia Roberts and Angelina Jolie broke that glass ceiling. Siddharth says that it will take at least five years for Bollywood to get there.

What makes the difference? If heroines can carry a film, then why don’t they ever anchor super-hits? My guess is that the answer has to do with class. The great votaries of woman-oriented cinema come from the middle-class. Not only are we willing to see movies that focus on women, we don’t care about songs, fights or love stories, as the success of Raj Kumar Gupta’s off-beat films demonstrates. A film like No One Killed Jessica may have no hero and no love story but it still engages the middle-class.

Unfortunately, this does not extend to rural India or to what used to be called the B-class and C-class centres in the old days. Those audiences still want most of the elements of a typical Hindi movie. Only when that changes will women-oriented pictures begin to crash the Rs 100 crore mark on a regular basis.

Still, things are changing. Madhur gave the example of Chandni Bar, which many people regard as one of his best films. The total budget for that picture was Rs 1.5 crore because nobody was willing to put more money into that kind of project. On the other hand, Heroine, which is Madhur’s latest release, has a budget of over Rs 20 crore. Kareena’s costumes alone cost Rs 2 crore or more than the entire budget of Chandni Bar.

Both Kareena and Karisma agreed that there were better roles available to women in today’s cinema than in the past. As Sharmila Tagore said, in the old days female characters in Hindi movies were not allowed to have professions. Rarely did you see a woman doctor or lawyer. The only profession they were nearly always allowed, should they want it, was sex worker. Not only that: they weren’t even allowed surnames. They were always called Miss Maya or Miss Sheila.

On the other hand, Sharmila sounded a note of caution. While films about women did get made, they did not necessarily embody any modern values. Most movies reasserted the hold of tradition and old-fashioned values. By the end of the movie, the heroine was expected to conform to traditional middle-class mind-sets. If she did not, then they simply killed off her character.

For me, the best moment of the evening came when a man got up from the audience to ask a question. He had enjoyed Sharmila Tagore’s movies, he said. But now he found that Hindi cinema had changed so much that it was difficult to go to the movies with the family and to enjoy a film. Did Sharmila feel any responsibility for this trend given that she was head of the Censor Board for so many years?

Sharmila was unapologetic. If the man felt that movies were not suitable for his children then why didn’t he go and see them alone or with his wife? If he was looking for family activities, then why didn’t he try something else? For instance, he could take his whole family out for a picnic.

It’s rare to see a star making no apologies and telling it as she sees it!

An edited version of the Dialogues will be telecast on Star World next month. I think the telecast date is October 13 but that’s not final yet. And there will be more Dialogues on Hindi cinema in the months to come.

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