In Bollywood, beauty is everything. Film is a visual medium and film industries around the world are notoriously focused on youth and desirability. But Hindi cinema seems to have an even more virulent attack of the Poo syndrome – do you remember her memorable line in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham? Mere saath prom jaane ke liye tum sab ko teen departments mein brilliant hona chahiye and that is, good looks, good looks and good looks.
Bollywood's brief isn't very different – especially for women. Which explains why so many beauty pageant winners and models see acting as a natural extension of their career, why the Instagram handles of most actors are a series of photos of them pouting and preening into the camera (most have a social media team and even Insta posts are done professionally like they would a photo session) and why, in the last few years, there's been a mushrooming of 'glamor and style' awards – is there any other film industry in the world that rewards artists simply for looking good? At a recent such event, Anushka Sharma won Most Glamorous Star, Alia Bhatt won Most Stylish Star while Kartik Aaryan walked away with Hotstepper of the Year – I'm still trying to figure out what that means.
In this context, consider Chhapaak – the story of an acid attack survivor, played by one of the most beautiful women in the business. Hollywood has a history of actors deliberately downgrading their looks for a role – most notably Charlize Theron's Oscar-winning turn in Monster. But Hindi cinema, not so much. Over the years, actors have donned the problematic brownface to signify poverty and disenfranchisement – the awful stereotype that still prevails is rich equals fair while poor equals dark skin. This year, Hrithik Roshan became many shades darker to play the mathematician Anand Kumar in Super 30 and Bhumi Pednekar darkened her skin in Bala. Ayushmann Khurrana bravely went bald for Bala. For the short film Chutney, Tisca Chopra made herself a dowdy housewife with buck teeth. For Dangal, Aamir Khan gained 25 kilos to play an ageing wrestler. But Deepika Padukone has gone one step further – she plays a character whose face is disfigured. For most of Chhapaak (I'm assuming), the face that launched a battle in Padmaavat and that has been celebrated in innumerable films and commercials, will disappear under prosthetics. Chhapaak is also her first outing as a producer. The risk includes money.
No matter what the eventual quality or fate of Chhapaak is, Deepika's courage needs to be lauded. Cinema is the repository of our fantasies and we are all equally seduced by good looks. But it's time for actors and filmmakers to break out of the Poo trap. At least onscreen, vanity should be disbarred. There's enough room for it on Instagram.