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Dress code: Sari

Deepa Gahlot

As another International Women's Day comes round, just a few impressions and questions about women in Hindi cinema.

This is 2001, but our filmmakers don't seem to have noticed. Abbas Mastan make Chori Chori Chupke Chupke (ill-fated for many reasons), in which a woman unable to conceive, forces her husband to go to another woman to produce the much desired heir.

Obviously, the writers and directors of this film have seen Doosri Dulhan, Bewaffa Se Waffa and the Korean film, Surrogate Woman, but have not heard of modern fertility treatments. Stars like Salman Khan, Rani Mukherji and Preity Zinta do such a regressive film without any qualms, presumably because they get paid good money.

Repeat, this is 2001. Actresses are still expected to retire when they get married or have kids. Everywhere in the world, actresses are seen as sex symbols and pin-up gals, but only in India does marriage erode their sex appeal.

So a doddering M F Husain appears on Shekhar Suman's show and both make tasteless comments about Madhuri Dixit's marriage. But did Julia Roberts, Catherine Zeta Jones, Demi Moore, Nicole Kidman, Meg Ryan lose their fan following when they got hitched?

The world's biggest sex symbols are well past their teens. Jennifer Lopez, for instance, is 30. But only in the Bombay film industry will producers say that an actress has lost her freshness at 25; at 30, she is over the hill; and at 40, she may as well be dead.

As Shabana Azmi remarked, "Because exciting roles don't come their way after a certain age, actresses start giving up. By the time they reach 40, they also stop aspiring. Very successful female stars are also so eager to establish that all that achievement is behind them. It is as if they need to show themselves as devoted wives and mothers, to want to be less threatening to their partner."

Why, at 40, do heroines seem to cease to aspire when they get involved with men? The industry is littered with beautiful and talented actresses, the latest being Aishwarya Rai, who think nothing of playing second fiddle to their boyfriends -- some of whom don't even last beyond a few months. Hema Malini, Rekha, Shabana Azmi

There is a desperation in proving to themselves, and to a world they imagine as disapproving, that this is not important, they are not ambitious enough to disregard their personal lives for their careers; that they are real women with ordinary yearnings, not glamour dolls feeding the fantasies of their male fans.

Naturally, producers are wary of singing these women in love, because they never know how much attention they will pay to their films. If the boyfriend snaps a finger, will they ditch a shooting schedule and run to him? Actors never let their girlfriends or even wives come in the way of their work -- when did anyone hear of a star cancelling a schedule because his girlfriend had a headache?

Perhaps because they know their career spans are so short, actresses don't look upon acting as a serious career. The number of those who did is dwindling -- Rekha, Hema Malini and Shabana Azmi are just a few who were not take-the-money-and-run, timepass actresses.

Filmmakers demand sex-appeal to draw in crowds. So actresses have to pad their blouses, wear skimpy, provocative clothes, get wet under waterfalls dressed in white saris and dance. But if they project too sexy or bold an image, the same industry drops them as unsuitable for conservative Indian audiences.

In spite of a few nods to openness, like acknowledging their affairs and not hiding their booze in steel tumblers, actresses still have to keep up a fašade of traditional values if they have to stay in the running. Too much flying in the face of the industry's MCPism and the poor gal is out.

The sex symbol tag and bold reputation may get an actress a few covers and centrespreads, but no lasting value, and no genuine respect. A lot of actresses will do the necessary amount of exposing at the start of their careers to get noticed. But once they have made it, they are in a position to dictate terms; that's when the clothes get more modest and less skin is revealed.

The peak of a heroine's career would be a female-oriented role, dress code: sari.

The actresses who last longer are the ones who hone their talent, go after great roles, keep their personal lives out of their work, maintain that impossible balance between sexiness and modesty, give diplomatic and tactful interviews, marry and retire while they are still in demand. In short those who don't rock the boat.

Karisma Kapoor, Tabu, Preity Zinta As for the roles they get, hardly any reflect the real Indian woman of today. Millions of urban women are working outside the house, running households and sharing the bread-winning role. But surprisingly, you hardly ever see a young woman like that in today's films. She is just the rich bimbo who needs to be tamed by the hero. Or a helpless creature who needs the man's protection.

Karisma Kapoor (Fiza, Zubeida), Tabu (Astitva), Preity Zinta (Kya Kehna) are lucky if they get roles in which the actress has something worthwhile to do.

In that sense, the older actresses were luckier: They sometimes got to play strong characters. Instead of progressing, female characters in films are regressing. (Maybe it's a kind of backlash, but that's another issue.)

It doesn't look like things will change in the very near future. At least women in the film industry have nothing to celebrate on March 8!

E-mail Deepa Gahlot

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