With Saand Ki Aankh and Bala, young Bollywood stars are shrugging off their image-consciousness to 'look the part'
Actors like Ayushmann Khurrana and Bhumi Pednekar belong to a new breed that’s challenging the Bollywood stereotypes of what a hero/heroine should look like onscreen.
In the climax scene of his last release — Dream Girl — Ayushmann Khurrana delivers an impassioned speech, dressed as Sita, in an orange saree, with long, flowing hair and flower jewellery. To play 60-something-year-old sharpshooters from UP in Saand Ki Aankh, Taapsee Pannu and Bhumi Pednekar sat in the make-up chair for hours to get their wrinkles right. These actors belong to a new breed that’s challenging the Bollywood stereotypes of what a hero/heroine should look like on screen.
Even as our directors strive to make more realistic films, getting down and dirty was never our forte. The most recent example of this can be seen in The Sky Is Pink where Priyanka Chopra plays a 50-year-old mother dealing with the loss of her child, but her makeup and hair is always on point. It’s the one criticism the film has come in for amidst all that praise, but then it’s always been that way. It’s like a blind spot for even the most authentic of our filmmakers. Our heroes would fight twenty people, and come out with a distinct lack of bruises and maybe just a little blood trickling down the corner of their mouths to show they’ve been in a fight. You just didn’t sully your heroes, not even physically.
It’s not like we haven’t had actors going the extra mile to ‘look’ the part. It’s been done before, countless times by legends like Smita Patil, Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri and Amol Palekar amongst others. But fringe cinema has limited reach, and the rulebook for mainstream cinema has always been written by those at the helm of commerce. No matter what or whom they played, mainstream Bollywood always expected its actors to look perfect on screen.
The most famous example of actors shying away from a plum role was way back in the late 70s. Though Raj Kapoor was regarded as the industry’s biggest filmmaker then and Satyam Shivam Sundaram was a prestige project, actresses like Hema Malini and Dimple Kapadia refused the role because the protagonist was supposed to have a huge scar on her face. He found his Roopa only when Zeenat Aman famously turned up at the filmmaker’s Chembur home after her make-up artist had covered half her face with scars.
Decades later, in Ritu Nanda’s book Raj Kapoor Speaks, the filmmaker said, “I was projecting the philosophy that it is love and faith which sanctify a relationship and that beauty is only skin-deep.” The film went on to be a major disaster for multiple reasons but the legendary filmmaker always believed that the problem lay in his trying to project a philosophy that was ‘other’ to the prevailing notions of beauty.
This Diwali, when Saand Ki Aankh releases, we’ll have both Taapsee and Bhumi playing women more than double their age, with wrinkled and weathered faces. They’ve gotten their fair share of criticism for taking on roles that could have been played by older actors, but by the looks of it, it’s only made them stronger. It took Tushar Hiranandani, the director two whole years to put together his lead cast. While there were multiple rejections from leading female actors, he feels the unbridled excitement that he saw with Taapsee and Bhumi on hearing the script was probably the best thing that could have happened to his film.
There is a certain amount of “No guts, No glory” that drives these actors and vanity takes a backseat when it comes to their film choices. Bhumi put on a ton of weight for her first film, Dum Laga Ke Haisha, and has never looked back since. She’s gone on to do the kind of deglamourized roles most of our leading ladies would steer clear from, in movies like Sonchiriya, Toilet: Ek Prem Katha and Shubh Mangal Saavdhan. Does this mean, then, that she’s been slotted and stereotyped as an arthouse actress by our industry? A couple of decades back, she would have been.
What’s changed today is the commerce.
As most things go in this country, a lot of that credit goes to the changing face of the Indian male hero. Our box office is still largely driven by male actors, and someone like Ayushmann Khurrana has had a large hand to play in changing these perceptions. He’s played and looked the common man as he’s navigated roles of a sperm donor, one suffering from impotence and a blind man. He’s questioned some deep-set biases around what makes for masculinity in all these roles, but not so much the physicality of the ideal male. Up until now, that is. Ayushmann plays a follically challenged young man in his next film, Bala. You’d think it takes real guts for someone at the peak of his career, in this industry, to take on such a role. But it’s been a carefully laid path for the actor, leading up to this one over the past few years. Today, his fan following doesn’t care what he looks like or what he’s wearing — it’s all about the content, as it should be.
Bhumi’s in Bala as well, playing a ‘darker’ version of herself. This is the second instance of the kind we’re seeing this year after Hrithik’s brownface in Super 30, and it is problematic when it enforces a stereotype of what beauty should be, or how a certain class of society is represented. Bala’s yet to release, and it’s the narrative that will decide whether it’s justified or not, because it’s a very fine line to tread.
On the flipside, casting an actor who’s not ‘popular’ only because they meet a physical criterion might win you some woke points, but serves no higher purpose if the end product disappears with a whimper. When you’re putting out stories with the intention of breaking stereotypes, you want as many people as possible to watch it and take back a positive message. And, while I'm not for brownfacing and think that inclusivity is an important discussion to have, maybe it’s time to also think of the wider change a commercially successful film can bring about in society. Ayushmann plays a gay character in his first release of 2020, and if the film draws the kind of audience his films normally do, we just might cure a few homophobes out there. I can’t think of one gay actor in this country who can pull that off.
Bollywood today, is so far away from the conversation on inclusion that we just might need a period of bridging the gap till we have popular and mainstream actors who can suit these roles. After a century of hammering home a certain stereotype of beauty via our films and fairness cream ads, maybe it's not a bad thing for some of our heroes and heroines to lead the way. What some of our filmmakers and writers might need though, is a lesson in sensitivity when they carve out these roles.
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