Tuesday, 22 May 2012

"He's old enough to be her dad!"

A friend recently asked what I thought of the song “Chammak Challo Chel Chabeli” from the upcoming movie “Rowdy Rathore.” My unfiltered reaction was something along the lines of “Ugh,” not because of any particulars of the music or choreography but because once again a mainstream Hindi film has given us a jodi in which the man is ridiculously older than his female co-star.

Heroine Sonakshi Sinha will be 25 when the film is released in June, while hero Akshay Kumar will be 45. Ms. Sinha’s debut film, the 2010 smash “Dabangg,” saw her paired with Salman Khan, almost 22 years her senior. Mr. Khan’s last big hits, “Bodyguard” and “Ready” (2011), coupled him with Kareena Kapoor and Asin Thottumkal, who are respectively 15 and 20 years younger than he is.

Last year Ms. Kapoor also starred in “Ra.One” opposite Shah Rukh Khan, who is the same age as Salman Khan. Ms. Thottumkal made her Hindi film debut in “Ghajini” (2008) opposite Aamir Khan, who is also two decades older than she is. The list goes on: Sonam Kapoor with Salman Khan in “Saawariya” (a gap of 20 years), Deepika Padukone with Shah Rukh Khan (21 years), Anuskha Sharma with Shah Rukh Khan (23 years).

All this makes the 10-year age gap between real-life romantic partners Saif Ali Khan and Kareena Kapoor seem downright miniscule, doesn’t it?

But enough arithmetic—you get the point. The Hindi film industry isn’t alone in routinely making such lopsided casting decisions. It happens in Hollywood all the time, even in the notable occasions when major stars actually express concern about it, as Cary Grant did about his 25-year gap with Audrey Hepburn in “Charade” half a century ago.

For me, the problem with May-December romantic pairings is not as much what it reflects and proscribes about gender roles — though I do wonder about films’ implicit messages about power dynamics and choice in these relationships (and that’s a question that deserves a much longer investigation than this column has room for) — as it is about the sidelining and downplaying of the talents of women in the film industry.

Male superstars play the hero year after year, but their female colleagues are left with fewer career options as they age. If they get married and have children, they tend to be ineligible for primary heroine roles because they’re viewed as unsuitable for portraying a complicated mix of romance, sex appeal, propriety and naivety.

An article in The Guardian last week used superstar and new mother Aishwarya Rai Bachchan as an example of the conundrum facing many female stars: they’re expected to have children, but they’re also expected to look like fashion models.  Toss stereotypes of wifeliness into the mix, and what’s a young actor to do?

Ignoring these talented women, either by not casting them or by putting them in secondary or tertiary roles, deprives audiences of great performers. I don’t resent men in their mid- and upper forties propelling an industry, but I resent that women don’t seem to have anywhere close to the same chance. Since performers are the people we literally see when we engage with films, this is simply the most visible face of the overall gender discrepancies across the industry: types of roles, work behind the camera, earnings, power and maybe even respect.

It’s the face of a system that rewards certain men who keep on going… and going… but does not provide many opportunities for women to even try.

The way heroes are constructed in films is also a telling component of these extreme age differences. The hero is someone who can save and defend, and maybe it’s easier to maintain the fantasy of a woman needing to be protected if she looks a lot younger. Does the casting simply reflect and reinforce what male-dominated audiences are assumed to want: youth in sexy and submissive permutations? Or maybe it’s just another part of the masala world, like songs that magically teleport characters to Russia or California, inviting us to suspend our disbelief.

My frustration with the actual age gap of actors is somewhat mollified by how seldom the characters are clearly marked as being of significantly different ages. And if the characters seem like a good match and the actors do a good job at creating and enlivening them, the details of their realities remain irrelevant.

To its credit, Bollywood has occasionally addressed the issue of older man/young woman romances head on. In those movies, casting people with big age differences not only makes sense but is called for. Two films from 2007 feature Amitabh Bachchan, perhaps one of just a handful of actors with reliable dignity, in such stories. “Cheeni Kum” depicts the complications in a romance with a 30-year gap played by Bachchan, then 65, and Tabu, then 36.

The poster of “Nishabd” states “He is 60. She is 18” and pictures the smiling lead actors (Bachchan and Jiah Khan, whose real-life 46-year age gap is slightly more than that of the characters). “Anoka Rishta” (1986) saw then-44-year-old Rajesh Khanna as the object of a teenage girl’s affection — and not acting on it, much to the relief of viewers.

I wonder what would inspire the industry to cast more age- and talent-appropriate romantic leads with the male superstars. If the cash registers ring for heroes old enough to be the fathers of their love interests, then surely the pattern will continue and talented women will age past their preserved colleagues from lover to mother, just for having the gall to grow up.

Does a 20-year difference between romantic leads bother you? If so, who would you rather see opposite box-office heavies like Salman and Akshay? Please share your thoughts in the Comments section.
- Beth Watkins


Watkins has been blogging for more than five years at Beth Loves Bollywood. She is an expert on Bollywood history and lore as well as contemporary movies and actors. You can follow Ms. Watkins on Twitter@bethlovesbolly.

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