Holding out for a hero: Why do actresses still need to depend on who the male lead is? Why can't they be the heroes?

Taapsee Pannu's recent revelation that other actresses rejected Haseen Dillruba because they were not sure of 'the hero' only exposes the gross dependence of leading ladies on how 'saleable' their male counterparts are.

Sneha Bengani January 10, 2022 16:40:20 IST
Holding out for a hero: Why do actresses still need to depend on who the male lead is? Why can't they be the heroes?

Taapsee Pannu in Haseen Dilruba

In the column Let's Talk About Women, Sneha Bengani looks at films, the world of entertainment, and popular media through the feminist lens. Because it's important. Because it's needed. And because we're not doing it enough.

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On Netflix Actors Roundtable for 2021 hosted by Rajeev Masand recently, Taapsee Pannu revealed she was not the first, or the second, choice for Vinil Mathew’s Haseen Dillruba. It was after multiple heroines turned down the film that she was roped in. Pannu said that despite being offered the central role, the women were concerned about who the hero was.

In another recent interview with Film Companion after the release of her latest film Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui, Vaani Kapoor said she did Bell Bottom because she wanted to cash in on Akshay Kumar’s mass appeal and fan base. Despite an insignificant role, she said she wanted to be a part of a film that she knew people would watch.

Holding out for a hero Why do actresses still need to depend on who the male lead is Why cant they be the heroes

Akshay Kumar and Vaani Kapoor in Bell Bottom

It is 2022. We are experiencing discernible shifts in the kind of cinema that is being made and appreciated. Take last year for instance. Several films fronted by women, such as Rashmi Rocket, Pagglait, Mimi, and Haseen Dillruba, released. With no daily box office collection report to judge them by, courtesy shut theatres, they were measured against the one true yardstick — merit. Needless to say, all of them scored gloriously.

Now, the big question is — would theatres have given these films the same level-playing field as streaming platforms did? Would their slow-burning success even be possible in a climate that celebrates Rs-100-crore clubs, bumper openings, and weekend collections? Despite them being fantastic stories showcasing strong performances, despite the revolution brought in by streaming platforms, the sad truth remains unchanged. We still need a hero to get the box office rolling.

Remember the first-look poster of Jagan Shakti’s 2019 film Mission Mangal? It starred Kumar, Vidya Balan, Pannu, Sonakshi Sinha, Sharman Joshi, Nithya Menen, and Kirti Kulhari in important roles. However, Kumar’s face was given more prominence than everyone else combined, leading to much controversy. Balan addressed the furor in an interview with Firstpost. She said, “I don't think it's unfair. Finally, it's the business of cinema. Because Akshay Kumar is the biggest star of us all, if it means giving him more space on the poster is going to get more people to the theatre, I don't mind. It'd be a huge risk otherwise. The producers would rather do it than take any risk. And I'd definitely use Akshay Kumar's stardom to my advantage.”

Holding out for a hero Why do actresses still need to depend on who the male lead is Why cant they be the heroes

First look poster of Mission Mangal

It is heartbreaking that a star with a filmography as credible as Balan’s has to rely on a hero to get people to watch her films. She has been in the movies for longer than most of our leading men today, be it Ranbir Kapoor, Ranveer Singh, Ayushmann Khurrana, Vicky Kaushal, or Varun Dhawan. None of them need a heroine to sell their film. But Balan still needs a hero. Not just her, all our heroines do.

Kaushal was initially being considered to play Ratan Singh in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s 2018 period drama Padmaavat, in which Deepika Padukone essayed the titular role of Padmavati. However, despite it being a Rajput warrior queen’s story, a bigger star, Shahid Kapoor, was ultimately chosen over Kaushal to play her husband. The disparity does not end at heroines needing heroes for big-ticket collections. It also manifests gloriously in heroes being noticeably missing from women's stories.

Holding out for a hero Why do actresses still need to depend on who the male lead is Why cant they be the heroes

Deepika Padukone and Shahid Kapoor in Padmaavat

In an interview with Karan Johar, late filmmaker Yash Chopra revealed that he wanted to cast two newcomers opposite Sridevi in his 1991 film Lamhe. Anil Kapoor came on board perchance. Even Sooraj Barjatya had a hard time finding a superstar to cast opposite Madhuri Dixit for his 1994 blockbuster Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! He finally chose Salman Khan, who was still finding his feet at the time.

In fact, of the four films from last year that I mentioned above, none has a 'hero.' Moreover, if you look at Balan’s filmography closely, you will realise she has never worked with any of the three Khans in a career spanning over 16 years. Neither has Kangana Ranaut. Nor has Konkona Sensharma.

The way Pannu’s career is shaping up, it is very likely that she, too, will find it increasingly difficult to get a hero to star opposite her in the times to come. Wait. She already does. Her last four Hindi releases are a testament to it.

In the recent Actors Adda on Film Companion, Kaushal was asked whether he considers the length of his role when signing a film. He said he had been part of movies such as Raazi (2018) and Manmarziyaan (2018) in which the women’s roles were meatier than his. Kaushal is right. But when he did these films, he was not the star that he is today. Would he do a Raazi or a Manmarziyaan now?

In Bollywood, it is a rarity for a hero to star in a heroine’s film. Even if they do, it is rarer still for them to do it without inflating the film’s budget a few times over or trying to market it in their name. Gauri Shinde’s Dear Zindagi (2016) is arguably the lone example in recent times in which a Shah Rukh Khan played his part without much fuss in an Alia Bhatt film.

Holding out for a hero Why do actresses still need to depend on who the male lead is Why cant they be the heroes

Shah Rukh Khan and Alia Bhatt in Dear Zindagi

Despite all talk of gender equality and inclusivity, a Taapsee Pannu still needs a Judwaa 2 for a career boost. As much as I am looking forward to all the women-led big releases of 2022 — Gangubai Kathiawadi, Shabaash Mithu, Dhaakad, and the others — we are still miles away from a time when a Vidya Balan or a Taapsee Pannu’s face is as big on a film’s poster as Akshay Kumar’s. Or even bigger.

When not reading books or watching films, Sneha Bengani writes about them. She tweets at @benganiwrites.

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