Fine comeback: Older women now getting roles that put them front and centre of narrative

Significant parts for women of a certain age are slowly finding their way back on to the screen, enabling some of Mumbai’s finest actors to stage a comeback.

Published: 07th March 2021 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 07th March 2021 07:54 AM   |  A+A-

Pooja Bhatt

Pooja Bhatt

Express News Service

They didn’t want me to go to a fat farm or get Botox done. Life has imprinted itself on me but they told me, ‘We want you to be you’.” Even if that shows the wear and tear of life. That is Pooja Bhatt, comeback star of a new Netflix series, Bombay Begums. Bhatt began her career in 1989, the year in which Salman Khan got his first role as leading man in Maine Pyaar Kiya and set everyone’s pulses racing.

While Khan has been swaggering through the decades, displaying the bags under his eyes with as much elan as the somewhat thicker middle, Bhatt’s last movie as an actor was Rahul Bose’s directorial debut Everybody Says I'm Fine!, which was shot 21 years ago. Since then she’s been a producer and director, launched actors such as John Abraham and Udita Goswami, but never felt the urge to act again.

Until now. Or rather until 2019, when she got an email from Bombay Begums’ creator Alankrita Shrivastava, about the role of Rani Singh Irani, a bank teller from Kanpur who rises to become the CEO of a Mumbai bank. Bhatt thought she could never take those eight steps forward from behind the camera again but she did. The result is a powerful performance as Rani, a somewhat devious, ambitious, yet always human, head of a bank, who reigns supreme in the boardroom but craves acceptance and love at home, from her stepchildren. “For me it was like starting all over again,” says Bhatt.

“I had to forget my fame, my faded stardom, and surrender to Alankrita’s vision. She gave me a one-line mantra: Power doesn’t need to scream and I followed that,” adds Bhatt. Bhatt is one of many women of a certain age who are making a mark before and behind the scenes in Bollywood currently. Sushmita Sen, 45, plays Aarya in the eponymous series on Disney+Hotstar, and Ram Madhvani, who has just started shooting its second season, says, “It’s not me who has the power to cast her. It’s she who has the power to say yes. I’m just happy Sushmita said yes to Aarya and wanted to be part of it.” Having worked together in an ad, he felt it in his bones that only she could play the steely-homemaker-turned-wily-gangster in his Rajasthan-based drugs and guns saga.

Raveena Tandon, 46, headlines Aranyak, a forthcoming Netflix series where she plays Kasturi, a policewoman investigating the disappearance of a foreign tourist in a remote Himalayan town. The series, directed by Rohan Sippy, is about what happens when a big city police officer, played by the redoubtable Parambrata Chatterjee, comes to the town and starts questioning her relationships and methods. Monika Shergill, Netflix Vice President, Content, says women like Tandon bring so much nuance into the characters they play, and have the ability to just slip under the skin of new personas. All these years, she notes, most of these women have been so underutilised and there is tremendous potential to do more.

Films like English Vinglish (2012) in the past and shows like Star Plus’s hit daily soap Anupamaa now with menopausal women enjoying a second innings at their core prove quite conclusively that it is not the audience that wants to see 50-plus men playing 30-somethings and romancing teenage girls, but the studios, says Anuja Chauhan, bestselling author and writer of Sardar ka Grandson, starring Neena Gupta. Women of a certain age who were made to feel like beggars, grateful for scraps from the ‘big boys club’, are now getting roles which put them front and centre of the narrative.

Writer Apurva Ansari says in Sen’s portrayal of Aarya, for instance, one can see years of pent-up talent exploding on screen. “It must be frustrating for actors like her to only be offered item numbers or arm candy roles when they have so much potential. With Aarya she had an opportunity and she gave it her all.” It’s partly because there are so many women now behind the scenes as well, writing, directing and producing entertainment. Directors like Ruchi Narain, who recently made Guilty for Netflix and Hundred for Disney+Hotstar, have been making films since 2005 when she made Kal: Yesterday and Tomorrow by writing a business plan and going to 14 investors with it—it’s another matter that it got a mere 26-print release. Narain has so many stories waiting to be told but it’s just that she didn’t get the opportunity until now to put them out on screen. Anvita Dutt Guptan, who made the gorgeously terrifying Bulbbul, has been writing songs and dialogues since 2005.

It took her several years to put the film together. But once she did, it stunned everyone with its fascinating story. Or take Renuka Shahane who nurtured the script of Tribhanga for six years before finally finding the perfect cast for it and the most appropriate home, Netflix. The women bring with them definite notions of who they want to cast. For Narain, Lara Dutta (who starred in Hundred) and she have a personal connection that goes way back. Narain says she, like the character of ACP Saumya Shukla, had been relegated to a certain kind of role because she is a good-looking woman, Miss Universe no less, as if that is her only quality. “But I knew her and felt she had much more to offer.

The character required a lot of bullish strength and a wicked sense of humour of someone who was brutally aware of how things were and yet, was ready to push her way through all the bullshit to realise her ambitions, smirking at the ironies all the way,” says Narain, adding, “I was 100 percent sure Lara was the right person and Hundred proved me right.”  With age on their side, many of these women are able to bring to the screen their own deeper understanding of life, its pains and pleasures. Earlier scripts didn’t give them a chance to stretch their acting muscles and if they did, perhaps some of the actors didn’t have the experience to show it on screen. OTT content has been a great equaliser.

Filmmakers who know how to tell stories will flourish, and actors who can act, or have very strong personalities to share, will rule. Women no longer need men to tell their stories, especially in streaming services such as Netflix which has powerful women executives such as Bela Bajaria right at the top, as Vice President of Global TV. Says Netflix’s Director, India Original Film, Srishti Behl Arya, a trooper who started as a 19-year-old assistant director on the sets of the family’s Angaaray, “Sometimes when I look around the table, I see as many women as I see men.” Women are demanding to be treated equally and seen. As Gupta did, when asking for work on Instagram in 2017, a social media event that was captured onscreen, in very postmodern fashion, in the scripted reality show based on her life with daughter Masaba. Gupta, 61, can now play her age with roles specifically written for her, whether it is in Badhaai Ho on big screen, or in Panchayat on OTT.

Similarly for Soni Razdan, 64, who finds herself cast in the Hindi version of the French hit show, Call My Agent. Or Deepti Naval, 69, last seen in Criminal Justice: Behind Closed Doors. Apurva Asrani, who wrote Criminal Justice, says Naval was very sceptical about accepting the role of Vijji Chandra. She insisted on a meeting with Asrani where he needed to assure her that they were not going to get her to play another evil mother-in-law. “I told her that there is understanding and redemption for her character in the script but she was still not convinced. She said by the time her character is shot and edited, the depth goes missing. Not on OTT, I explained. There is space for exploration of multiple characters,” says Asrani.

Chauhan says the resurrection of Gupta’s career is the stuff of professional fairy tales, and clear proof that the reason why female actors have shorter careers than their male counterparts is not because of lack of talent, or lack of interest from the audience, but because of lack of scripts and budgets. Given strong scripts and financial backing, older women can command as large an audience as older men, or even young men. Adds Chauhan, “Gupta has always been an amazing actor and it’s lovely to watch her sink her teeth into meaty roles—not just in Badhaai Ho, but also The Last Colour, Panchayat and Masaba Masaba.”

Now doors are indeed opening for women of a certain age. As in Bombay Begums, they can even have hot flashes on screen, or discuss menopause, or be seen in bed with their partners and others. Says Bhatt of her return to acting: “Fortunately life has not hardened me. I’ve been able to hold on to my vulnerability. It allowed me to give a wrong shot with the confidence that it would be fixed. I would come to set every day just so grateful. Actors are eventually like animals, they know when to take flight, when to tumble.” It’s true even of the work Neelam Kothari, 52, did in Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives, Netflix’s hit reality show. Kothari was cast in a film—ironically by Srishti Arya’s father Ramesh Behl when he saw her with his daughter when she was all of 16.

Throughout FLOBW it is her insecurity about a possible return to the screen that becomes her story arc. 
There is no surprise that there is more where this came from. Madhuri Dixit Nene will play a version of herself in a series titled Finding Anamika. Shefali Shah, so good in Delhi Crime (2019), returns to screen not merely in the second season of the International Emmy Award-winning series, but also in Netflix’s relationship anthology Ajeeb Dastaans. For women such as Tandon or Shah, the role has to be worthy enough to leave a comfortable existence earned after years of hard work. Shah has often talked of why her resume is not very long. She’s been choosy about the work she’s wanted to do and has waited for it, sometimes a year, sometimes more. But the result is some memorable performances, whether it was in Zoya Akhtar’s Dil Dhadakne Do (2015) or in Richie Mehta’s Delhi Crime. 

It isn’t easy to display your wounds in public, even if they belong to the character being played. To bleed on screen, to cry, to show fragility, to show some of the darkness within the soul. Bombay Begums opens with a scene where Bhatt’s character is asking the make-up person to hide the bags under her eyes. Says Bhatt, “I am not like Rani. I hold my flaws up to the world, every wrinkle, every bit of cellulite.” The urge for perfection is what has destroyed much of the current generation of heroines in Mumbai films. Most have succumbed to the dubious charms of plastic surgery with the result that their faces have frozen, rendered immobile. Faces which show character, strength, weakness even, stand out, and if they have a sense of the familiar, that is an added advantage. 

Streaming series have also ensured that the focus is not merely on the hero and heroine, as in conventional movies. The assorted characters also have time and space to be fleshed out, to be given story arcs that are compelling. It is also ensuring much more complex male characters. Take Sooni Taraporevala’s Yeh Ballet (2020), made 12 years after Little Zizou. As Arya points out, “The cast is almost all male but she brings so much tenderness and warmth to it.” 

Conversations about casting are now much more open than before. “OTT provides a quicker turnaround and provides a challenging atmosphere for big screen actors,” says Ekta Kapoor who runs ALTBalaji, which is also betting on more women-oriented shows. “Actors get excited about the creative liberty to portray different characters and be a part of unique stories,” she adds. As Bhatt tells her stepdaughter in Bombay Begums, “Risk your life for your art not for some stupid boy.” That’s what these women are doing.

Raveena Tandon
Flexing Her Acting Muscles

Debut In 1991, Pathar ke Phool, with Salman Khan
Last seen on big screen In 2017, Night, a film by Onir
Comeback In Aranyak, thriller on Netflix, where at 46, she plays a policewoman in a remote Himalayan town 

Pooja Bhatt
Daddy’s Girl Grows Up

Debut In 1989, Daddy; she was 17
Last seen on screen Everybody Says I'm Fine!, released in 2001
Comeback At 49, playing Rani Singh Irani, CEO of the Royal Bank, in Netflix’s Bombay Begums

Madhuri Dixit Nene
Superstar to Star Actor

Debut In 1984 in Abodh
Last seen in The terrible Kalank (2019) which didn’t know what to do with her
Comeback At 53, in the forthcoming Netflix series Finding Anamika where she plays a version of herself

Karisma Kapoor
Sexy Starlet to Soigne Mommy

Debut In 1991, Prem Qaidi, with Harish Kumar
Last seen on big screen In 2012, Dangerous Ishq
Comeback In 2020 at 45, in Mentalhood on ALTBalaji

Sushmita Sen
Miss Universe to Mob Momma

Debut In 1996, Dastak
Last seen on the big screen In 2010, in Anees Bazmee’s No Problem
Comeback In 2020, as Aarya in Ram Madhvani’s guns and drugs saga set in Rajasthan

Lara Dutta
Miss Universe to Ms Uber Chic

Debut In 2003, Andaaz, opposite Akshay Kumar and Priyanka Chopra
Last seen on big screen In 2018, Welcome to New York
Comeback In 2020, at 41, in Disney+Hotstar's Hundred, directed by Ruchi Narain

Neelam Kothari
Baby Doll to Bollywood Wife

Debut In 1984, Jawaani, opposite newbie Karan Shah
Last seen on big screen In 2001, Kasam, with Naseeruddin Shah, Sunny Deol and Chunky Pandey 
Comeback In 2020, at 51, in Netflix’s Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives

India Matters


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