The newest power couple on the block, Deepika and Ranveer are proving to be quite a handful for the Indian media. First, despite their detailed itinerary being public, the glamorous #DeepVeerKiShaadi debuted on social media only once the couple decided to release photos. Second, this seems to be a couple that simply refuses to conform - from Deepika’s hearty laugh to Ranveer’s ripply kurta, they seem to be breaking the stereotypes that characterise big bad Bollywood.
In the India that I grew up in, female Bollywood actors in the 90s had to precariously toe the treacherous line between bold and demure. Too demure and you’re not desirable anymore. Too bold, well then, you’re only that. The female actor thus, was perpetually expected to be just the right amount of sugar and spice (and preferably not everything nice when in the bedroom).
The reel life for actors then was a reflection of what they were allowed in their real lives. They were allowed to love, but only if it were the Danielle Steel brand of true love, they were allowed to marry, all but once and preferably to this aforementioned true love. They of course, did not have sex, or drink or smoke. Naturally, whenever the ever-so-sneaky paparazzi managed to get a shot of one of them, drink in hand and glaze in eyes, scandal set forth in gossip-town. Oh, the loss of the sanskar, the collective sigh from the media would often be resonated by the Indian sanskari cinegoer. But the relationship between this sanskari junta and irony has been a long-standing one.
This idealised, damsel-in-perpetual distress image had to be maintained for erstwhile female actors to check the box that rendered itself applicable to the epicurean male fantasy. Inevitably, a personal life, replete with love, loss and lovers was out of bounds. Female actors hence had to put their life on hold, so that they could continue to be the right amount of demure yet desirable, shy yet sexy. Anything that contradicted this image - be that an advertisement, a divorce or a dress, had to be sacrificed at the altar of a pandering to an industry and subsequently an audience that judged them, less for their professional skills and more for what they chose to be. Every now and then though, there were actors like Parveen Babi, Zeenat Aman and Rekha who would refuse to conform to the rules of the game, though not without consequence.
This collective male conscience that volunteered itself as the sanctimonious public morality, would then categorically denounce these women only to return to the safety of their rooms and jerk off to the magazine spread that had the actor flaunting her flawless photoshopped body. Oh, India loves its idea of a non-conformist woman, if only, from the sanctity of their bedrooms.
We’ve come a long way since then, and while this sanskari audience has moved on to Twitter and Instagram, a new crop of female actors has taken over Bollywood. Unfortunately, for the guardians of sanskar, these women seem to have run out of f**** to give.
Like the time Priyanka Chopra was moral policed for wearing a knee-revealing dress while meeting the revered Prime Minister and she responded with a photo that had both her and her mother showing off their exquisite appendage. Or when Anushka Sharma was trolled for telling off someone for littering. These new bunch of women refuse to give in to the quintessential male fantasy and are asking to be treated for the professionals they are.
Actors like Priyanka Chopra, Radhika Apte, Deepika Padukone, have time and again refused to be judged by their bodies, tackled taboo subjects like periods and depression, and have asserted their choices, be it in the form of not playing the part of this persecuted maiden forever in the need of saving, or asserting their personal choices without consideration of how it plays into their public image.
Since last year, some of Bollywood’s leading female actors chose to marry at the peak of their careers - something that even a decade ago would have been the death knell for their acting careers. Ours is a country where women who prioritise their careers and women who prioritise their relationships are still mutually exclusive in “respectful” families.
Bollywood itself has reiterated this stereotype time and again, with powerful women characters who have in the scope of the screenplay given in to their maternal instinct and reclaimed their hallowed place in the kitchen, making healthy muesli breakfasts, if not sandwiches.
However, with Priyanka Chopra’s impending wedding, Bollywood will see an unprecedented situation where all its leading female actors will be married.
Earlier when women actors married at all, they would be pronounced incapable by the media of further carrying out their duties of rendering themselves as lascivious sex objects up for grabs. Women actors thus kept their relationships and marriages hidden from the public eye, lest it affect their desirability quotient.
After all, a married woman in India, is considered “taken” - her lustability sacrificed at the altar of patriarchal morality and the revered bro-code. The only escape was perhaps what we call “boudibaji” in Bengali (loosely translated as lusting after the sister-in-law) an idea that culminates in characters like Savita Bhabi.
Sunny Leone was the first woman to have exposed this hypocrisy through veritable search numbers. And while we can play the game of chicken and egg in the fervent search of whether it is the patriarchal audience or the patriarchs in the industry itself that have fuelled this system, we have to admit that we have all been party to the system at some point or another.
This new flock of women in the industry however, has turned this matrix on its head - they are refusing to cower under these expectations, urging both filmmakers and audiences to treat them as actors instead of an assortment of cleavage, kamar and legs.
They are getting married, all pomp and show, their high value weddings no less aspirational and with more dollars spent than the last Karan Johar production they starred in, denying the media its juice, and revelling while at it. None of them are likely to sacrifice their careers or selves for the sake of being the prototype of “the good Indian wife”.
In a country like ours, where Main Madhuri Dixit Banna Chahti Hun is a real phenomena, this has far-reaching implications! Bollywood has forever been the ally of men. In 2015, an Australian lawyer actually kept his client - a 32-year-old security guard of Indian origin, accused of stalking and harassing women - out of jail by using Bollywood as his line of defence - he argued that in his (client’s) culture, the aggressive pursuit of women was only a stepping stone to winning the woman’s heart.
While the accused got off with a meagre restraining order, maybe with this new bunch of assertive women being the face of the industry in and outside India, Bollywood could someday become a woman’s ally too? Who knows, with wonders like Kareena Kapoor hosting a show on feminism, gentrification, may not always be such a bad thing after all?
(Views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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