Even the Married Woman stereotype is red hot.
The pallu that, in one strategic slip, changes gears from bashful to boastful. That oomph that comes from experience. That smile which knows which men to fend off and which to encourage. That wrist, miraculously flexible by years of egg-whisking. That silently leonine air that comes of controlling a pride, a brood, a household. That grace under unending pressure. That self-assuredness. That way she can always tell when the milk’s gone off. And, without question, that sheer and complete unattainability. Do we not always want who we can’t have?
Why, then, the asinine assertion that actresses in India remain desirable only till they tie the knot? As a culture that has always fetishised the married woman — from Bhabhi to Boudi, the aforementioned stereotypes abound — how does it make sense for us to suddenly get prudish about ogling actresses who just so happen to be wives?
As theories go, unavailability is as daft as can be. Nobody sitting in a movie theatre imagines they have a shot with Priyanka Chopra simply because she whines about being single in interviews. And what dreamy delusion stops short of fantasy because of a mrs-shaped technicality, a mere squiggle before a name?
The people who do care about the unavailability of actresses happen, in fact, to be the same ones building up the ludicrous fallacy about how the public doesn’t want to see married women on screen. It is the heavy-bankrolling producers who insist strongest about casting single starlets simply because marriage does indeed make an actress less attainable to them, nudgenudgewinkwink. The public couldn’t care less.
Malaika Arora Khan. I’m no pollster, but that lady may well be the most blatantly lusted after woman in our cinema today. Does the fact that she’s married to a burly actor lessen her appeal when she grinds on screen? Does it lessen her appeal in any way at all when she grinds on screen with his brother? Nope, and that’s as it should be. Just like Marilyn Monroe’s marriages — or indeed, her many men — never dented our universal craving for her. Hollywood, in fact, makes it hard to keep score, but drool we do regardless of who’s-with-who.
And yet, Bollywood’s punditry wholly and unanimously subscribes to the theory that actresses lose their appeal after they get married: a statement that might have something to do with the fact that we constantly like casting younger girls opposite older men. Not that any sort of Bollywood formula is at all surefire: the actress with the most impact on Hindi film audiences this year is one significantly older than the Khan triumvirate, a married woman returning to the big screen after about a decade and a half.
The stubborn fatcats with the chequebooks, however, staunchly refuse to buy into fact, consider gamechangers anomaly, and continue to look askance at leading ladies with hyphenated last names. And we can editorially tut-tut all we like, but that won’t change things.
What could change things is a woman who isn’t content being a heroine.
Kareena Kapoor Khan — a 32-year-old who has just married into singularly unfortunate initials — wears the pants in her relationships. At least the ones with her filmmakers. As the country’s highest-paid leading lady, she commands both banknotes and box-office openings, and has the singularly incredible star power to remain unfazed by failure. Her films may tank in theatres, may be savaged by critics, but Kareena isn’t out to prove herself, or her stardom: she walks away from the debris with her memorable chin held up, her head high, her hips sashaying invincibly past the doomed rubble of a ruinous Friday. And when the films do click, she smiles like she knew they had to.
Kapoor is, thus, significantly less comparable to other actresses and more to someone like, well, Salman Khan. Regardless of the project, so firmly has the stardom been established that the cape will be worn (and paid for) even if the film doesn’t soar. Not just is Kareena most unlikely to slow down following her very recent nuptials, but she — the first Hindi film heroine to be blasé and candidly on the record about her relationships — may indeed storm more intensely in the months to come, and blaze a trail for actresses, and not just for married ones, but for older ones.
Because it takes one with the fierce incandescence of a star like Kapoor — starina, even, to rhyme with the csarina she doubtless is, a star driven amazingly enough by her own staggering sense of entitlement — to redefine the age-old presets that continue to handcuff our films. To effectively force the powers that be to sit up and take notice. To keep the fire burning. And a slower flame might well prove to be the most scorching.
Congratulations, Kareena Kapoor Khan. May even your bhabhidom dazzle us all.
First published (but in a very sloppily edited version) in Femina magazine, November 2012
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