A monthly eye on all things women in the entertainment business.
At least since 2010, this is an annual ritual. When the year winds into the season of nicer clothes and family time, it is time for a feature writer to write a story on the Hindi film's interest in women-centric projects. Consider the evidence. Rani Mukerji and Vidya Balan battle the "system" alone in No One Killed Jessica (2010), Vidya Balan takes an industry by storm in The Dirty Picture (2011), Balan searches down a festive city singlehandedly in Kahaani, Kangana Ranaut handles heartbreak and a solo honeymoon in Queen (2014), a double role in Tanu Weds Manu Returns, and the first female freedom hero project in Manikarnika. In fact, much of the interest in women is thanks to the film choices of Balan and Ranaut, and their solid showing at the box office.
A sharper way to consider the status of women in Bollywood is what I call the DEX index—what are the films released during Diwali, Eid and Christmas (truly, Bollywood is secular when it comes to earning money), and what is the real estate women occupy in them. For nearly the entire decade, these festival releases have been dominated by the Khans, Akshay Kumar and recently, by Ranveer Singh and Ranbir Kapoor. Look it up yourself to check?
But this year, there is something—even though Diwali is no longer what it once was in the Hindi film industry, actresses Taapsee Pannu and Bhumi Pednekar headline Saand ki Aankh, a film that appears to have no major male stars. The other Diwali release is Housefull 4, the Eid release was Bharat with Salman Khan writ large in every era of independent India and the Christmas releases are Dabanng 3, featuring Salman again, and Good Newzz led by Kumar. However, Ranaut has staked claim to the 2020 Diwali weekend, with a sexy teaser for an action film titled Dhaakad.
Saand ki Aankh is a broad, simplistic film where feminism means a few riffs on an electronic guitar to underline the "badassness" of the women. (In fact, the feminism here is the equivalent of Bollywood's understanding of rock music—wrist bands, dark glasses, hair bands if Farhan Akhtar is on screen and some riffs—zero music.) But there is a look that Pannu and Pednekar exchange again and again through the film—let's play these idiot men again, it says—that is worth savouring. Housefull 4 is estimated to have earned Rs 51 crore on the opening weekend, Saand ki Aankh Rs 2.5 crore and the third film that opened, Rajkummar Rao's Made in China, earned Rs 3.5 crore. Perhaps that it is the only thing that matters—the distance between Rs 50 crore and Rs 2.5 crore.
Why am I looking at the DEX index? The obvious reason. Holiday weekend films are major investments, looking to capitalise on the mood for indulgence. They rely on stars with proven box-office appeal. They tend to be big on action, and in this respect, Dhaakad's trailer looks typical of Ranaut's ambition—a full-throated actioner in the Lara Croft video-game mode. Until Saand ki Aankh, not a single big holiday release in the Hindi industry relied solely on its heroine(s). In other words, the major female stars were not seen as money spinners on their own.
The conversation about the pay gap in Bollywood has slowly begun to surface in the public domain. Most recently, it was Kareena Kapoor Khan who spoke about the pay gap within the A-list at the MAMI film festival opener. Perhaps this is the reason: if women are not trusted to deliver on major investments, it follows that they will not be paid the same as the men who are seen as surefire investment bets.
The Calcutta film industry is slightly less male-dominated in this respect. The major holiday here is the weekend closest to Durga Puja, and this time, there were three releases. One starred Prosenjit Chatterjee, the biggest male star in Tollywood after Uttam Kumar. A second starred Dev Adhikari, the contender to Prosenjit's mantle, and Parambrata Chattopadhyay, an influential actor –director known to the Bollywood audience for his appearance in Kahaani. And the third starred Koel Mullick, a popular mainstream heroine and the daughter of yesteryear Bengali film star Ranjit Mullick.
Mitin Mashi features Mullick in eponymous role of a private detective, who is the female equivalent of Feluda in every way—30-something, fit, proficient at a mixed martial art and wholly capable of beating up at least four men by herself, held in high esteem by the Kolkata Police, with a good independent income, an intelligent, spry niece assistant called Tupur and a nice nickname like Mitin. In fact, she has one more thing than Feluda—a spouse. Mitin whose legal name is Pragya Paromita Mukherjee (the initials P and M match Feluda's Pradosh Mitter) is married to an independent publisher called Partho. In the film, Mullick is the only major star. And it seems the gamble has paid off. The box office reports available suggest that Mitin Mashi has earned the highest of the three films, collecting Rs 4 crore on a budget of Rs 1.4 crore.
This is not the first Bengali Puja release to be headlined by a woman. In 2015, Srijit Mukherji's Rajkahini led by Rituparna Sengupta, a story about a brothel set in time of the Partition, was so successful that Mukherji was invited to remake it in Hindi as Begum Jaan. Before that, Rituparno Ghosh released Chokher Bali, the Tagore novel about a widow, with Aishwarya Rai in the Puja of 2003. The film also starred Prosenjit Chatterjee but the film's star was undoubtedly Aishwarya Rai. It's not much, but it is that important thing—a few years headway on the bigger, brasher, "national" film industry.
Speaking of Bengali women, the first winner of the Dadasaheb Phalke award, known as the highest career achievement prize given in India for cinema, is the actress Devika Rani in 1969. This past month, Amitabh Bachchan was declared the winner for 2018. He is the 18th male recipient in a row since 2000, when Asha Bhonsle was accorded the honour. Devika Rani came with impeccable credentials: she headlined the anti-caste blockbuster Achhut Kanya, she ran away with the actor Najam-ul-Hassan, and in a world where privilege and pedigree mean everything, she was directly related to the Tagore family.
Despite the award's feminist beginnings, only six women have won in its 49-year-old history. Of those six, four are superstars from the 1930s and 1940s—aside from Devika Rani, there is Sulochana or Ruby Myers, Durga Khote and Kanan Devi. The other two are the Mangeshkar sisters.
This past month, Amitabh Bachchan was declared the winner for 2018. He is the 18th male recipient in a row since 2000, when Asha Bhonsle was accorded the honour.
Consider the roster of male actors who have won: If Vinod Khanna, Shashi Kapoor, Manoj Kumar, Dev Anand, Dilip Kumar, Pran can win the lifetime achievement prize, why not their female contemporaries with equally lengthy and illustrious careers? I can certainly think of many women whose careers are as productive as Manoj Kumar's. Vyajayanthimala has had as long an innings as Dilip Kumar, possibly longer. And Rekha, she has been there, doing her thing superbly forever now.
Neena Gupta, who got herself back a career with an Instagram post seeking work, responded to the trailer of Saand ki Aankh with a tweet about age: "Yes i was just thinking about this hamari umar ke role toe kamsekam humse kara lo bhai (At least give us the roles of older characters)." It made me realise that it's not just Amitabh Bachchan and Rishi Kapoor who have busy careers, Sanjay Dutt, Mithun Chakrabarty, Jackie Shroff and Anil Kapoor are routinely cast as older characters with major roles. How many of their female contemporaries do you see in substantive "senior" roles? (If you said Juhi Chawla and Manisha Koirala in answer, you know as well as me that they have barely done a couple of projects each.)