Saturday 26 May 2018

Committed to the screen: Women, marriage and cinema

One of the first questions the press asked actor Anushka Sharma after her marriage to Indian cricket captain Virat Kohli was whether she will continue to act. It remains the standard query to every female actor if she chooses to walk down the aisle when she is still working in cinema. When it comes to heroines, this decidedly sexist theory has worked in almost all the film industries even as a male actor’s marital status never stands as a deterrent to his being the leading man. Bollywood, however, has been successful in breaking this glass ceiling to a large extent.

In fact, it began much earlier with Sharmila Tagore, Tanuja, Saira Banu, Dimple Kapadia - all of whom worked more after marriage and essayed some of the most memorable roles of their career. Probably because the media wasn’t that high-pitched, and no one really made a fuss about it, it wasn’t discussed. But it’s also true that the ratio is not in their favour with just too many actresses, across time, calling it a day post marriage—from Poonam Dhillon to Genelia Dsouza. But then slowly actresses also chose to make their respective comebacks post marriage and motherhood. Like with Sridevi, Kajol, Madhuri Dixit, Rani Mukherjee, Vidya Balan, Kareena Kapoor and Aishwarya Rai. "I think the definition of success with this film, for me, is the fact that it has broken the perception that married actresses, or actresses who are making their comeback after motherhood do not work and are a dead commodity. After this, I hope more women come out and work in movies," Rani Mukherjee was quoted after the success of Hichki.

Though it is not always hunky dory and there have been instances which made it plain that the marital status quo marred many a filmmaker’s casting choices. Sanjay Leela Bhansali reportedly dropped Kareena Kapoor from Goliyon Ki Raasleela-Ram Leela, as he felt “his Juliet cannot be a married woman.” There have been instances when actresses were forced to hide their marital status fearing exit from films. Juhi Chawla kept her marriage to Jay Mehta under wraps for a long time as was the case with Rani Mukherjee (who married Aditya Chopra).

In Tamil cinema, Jyothika waltzed back into screen in her late 30s after marriage and two children and got to pick her roles (her first comeback film coincidentally was the remake of Manju Warrier’s How old are you? and was produced by Suriya’s film production) while Simran struggled to find a place in Tamil cinema, making that odd appearance now and then. There was also the late Soundarya who stayed relevant even after marriage.

In Malayalam cinema, though Kavya Madhavan was able to make a comeback post marriage, it was really Manju Warrier who successfully broke the stereotype.  One reason could also be her overwhelmingly strong fan base who always missed her when she away. Her comeback films were all solid author-backed roles (save for a Villain) which required no starry heroes. “As a viewer I am not concerned about the heroines off screen marital status when I watch a film, nor do I personally think it affects her desirability quotient. But yes, for most part it also depends on the general desirability factor for the particular actress,” says journalist Krishna Kumar.

Thankfully, filmmakers seem to have taken a hint from Warrier’s success. Rima Kallingal, after her marriage to filmmaker Aashiq Abu, continued her acting career and was part of interesting films like Rani Padmini (directed by Aashiq Abu), Chirakodinja Kinavukal, Kaadu Pookkunna Neram to her latest release Aabhasam.

Drishyam had two married actors getting equal billing with Mohanlal—Meena and Asha Sarath (who later played lead roles opposite both the superstars). Mamta Mohandas also starred in several films where she was on equal footing with the hero and her last release was Carbon.

“I don’t think it has to do with the viewer’s intolerance. It can be attributed to the heroes who in their prime chose to act with fresh faces to retain their youth and refuse to oversell their pairing with any particular heroine, however talented they are. Since heroes remained the biggest selling point in cinema, they exercised that power to full use. And if some of the heroines decided to opt out of films after marriage it is more a personal choice I think. Just like in households where some women decide to stay back to look after family and children instead of going to work,” says journalist A Ranganath. The other big elephant in the room remain their spouses/families. The double standards which make Dileep admit that he cannot sit through his wife romancing another man on screen and he can very well do it and his wife wouldn’t mind. Aishwarya Rai’s intimate scenes in Karan Johar’s Ae Dil Hain Mushkil and lip lock with Hrithik Roshan in Dhoom 2 didn’t go down well with her seemingly progressive in-laws, the Bachchan’s.

 In the recent past, more and more married actresses are getting author-backed roles in Malayalam cinema. Anu Sithara was chosen to play Malini in Ramante Edenthottam, a complex human drama that touched on extramarital relationships and it also kickstarted the much-married actress’ journey in Malayalam cinema, which is on a roll now. “It never even crossed my mind that I am about to sign a married actress or that people might view her differently because of that or it might affect the film’s success. Anu was perfect as Malini and that’s been the only criteria. Then and now. Honestly, I don’t think such tags matter anymore,” says director Ranjith Sankar.

Others who have broken the status quo include Nyla Usha, who debuted with Mammootty in Kunjananthante Kada to the recent Diwanji Moola Grand Prix where she played a stunning character; Sshivada, who played the central character in Shikari Shambu; and Vinitha Koshy, who came up with a stellar performance in Ottamuri Velicham.

“In Manju Warrier’s case, it was as if she just took a break and Malayalam cinema was always waiting for her comeback and the years hadn’t taken a toll on her appearance or talent. No other actress could achieve what she did through her comeback. With Anu Sithara apart from her undeniable talent, there is also the matter of age by her side. As is with other said married actresses. Another pertinent point is that it also coincides with the decline of superstardom and the new wave fresh cinema where a lot of experimentation is going on. They would rather invest in talents than pretty young things,” says media analyst Preethi.

 True, this is a welcome change in Malayalam cinema, but it will remain consistent only if there will be writers and makers who recognise the importance of celluloid women rising above the male gaze, pitch in real and fleshed out characters where they get to share a space as relevant as the male and not just end up as superficial feminist icons. Only when that change happens will a lot of stereotypes and myths go for a toss.

(Source: Full Picture)

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