One of the most exciting casting announcements in recent times was that Khushbu and Meena were going to be part of Rajinikanth’s Annaatthe. Naturally, there was curiosity over the announcement. Two of Tamil cinema’s successful heroines from the 90s, Khushbu and Meena have played the female lead in several Rajinikanth blockbusters. Conventionally, older heroines do not get to play the female lead when they return to cinema. They turn into sisters, sisters-in-law, or even mothers of the same heroes they had once been partners of. Annaatthe followed suit: Nayanthara was paired with Rajinikanth, while Khushbu and Meena played Kalaiyan’s (Rajinikanth) hung-up ‘morai ponnunga’ in a ridiculously unfunny track that did no justice to both women. Pachakili (Soori) says, “Ivanga close panna account-a reopen panna vandhrukanga.” The film and the treatment stop that from happening.
The older hero-young heroine combination isn’t any exception for the male superstars; this is a norm across film industries. While men apparently are said to be desirable as they age, women get ditched after their ‘shelf life’. Recently, a photo of Vijay Sethupathi rocking the salt and pepper look went viral. But when Sameera Reddy flaunted her greys, we got memes trolling her! Akshay Kumar gets to recreate his own sultry song, ‘Tip Tip Barsa Paani’, 27 years later, retaining almost everything from the original except, of course, the heroine.
This ageism that targets women, is not restricted to India. Sarah Jessica Parker recently spoke about the misogynistic comments she received about her look in the Sex and The City reboot. Calling it ‘misogynistic chatter’, she observed that such things never happen with men. In an interview with Vogue, she said, “It almost feels as if people don’t want us to be perfectly okay with where we are as if they almost enjoy us being pained by who we are today, whether we choose to age naturally and not look perfect, or whether you do something if that makes you feel better. I know what I look like. I have no choice. What am I going to do about it? Stop aging? Disappear?”
That’s what seems to be happening here. Heroines have a dazzling stint of a few years, a whirlwind of films and fame. And then, they slip into the shadows, returning as ‘character artists’ if they do come back. They get replaced by the next set of young, pretty women who go through the same cycle. Even going beyond the problematic standards of female desirability, you can see that this is not just a matter of aesthetics.
Men can have long and sustained careers as leads, but women cannot have similar career graphs. Male actors are remembered by their films—their route to stardom begins with romantic roles, and then, they transition to action and more ‘commercial’ films. However, heroines are remembered for their hit songs, with their route to success depending on who they are paired with. The hero-centric culture also means that a lesser portion of the budget gets allocated to the heroines. If a female star gains stardom, they become ‘too expensive’ for films with budget constraints. Think about it. If women actors don’t get well-written parts at the height of their fame, how are they going to get it when they are older?
What about women-centric cinema? Yes, it is good that we see more female protagonists, but the budgets here are significantly lower than for their male counterparts. This is because we still haven’t cracked the market for these films. Of course, there are exceptions like Nayanthara. But even the Lady Superstar continues to balance women-centric cinema with her more ‘commercial’ heroine roles in films of stars who have a larger market. Or take a Jyotika who has to produce her films. This isn’t a necessity for our male stars though.
BR Ambedkar once said, “History shows that where ethics and economics come in conflict, victory is always with economics.” For a sustained change to happen, women actors need to open their accounts at the box office. This is slowly happening. Stars like Deepika Padukone, Nayanthara, Taapsee Pannu and others are forging paths to create markets for their films. The digital space helps, but there’s still a long way to go. As a first step, it’s important to collectively acknowledge and understand this systemic bias. We can only change something after understanding it.