Another Indian actress calls it a day. I feel a little dejected that one more bright female will bow out after tying the knot, or in this case, the thali (the symbol of marriage that Tamilian and some other South Indian women wear).
Of course, I respect her choice. It is, after all, her life. Whether she wishes to give it all up and settle down with hubby, kids and in-laws or continues to stay in the limelight, should entirely be left to her. But, then, why don't women in other professions do so? I have hardly heard of a female software engineer or professor or manager or doctor say, "Okay, now that I got hitched, let me hang up my dainty sandals and make babies and bountiful meals!"
These, I think, are commonly the reasons why women drop out, especially in films:
(a) Time needed to acquire basic qualifications: In other professions, such as medicine, law, management, software and pretty much anything else, it takes many years, probably even decades to reach a certain position. Most of the regular office jobs and especially professional ones, require special degrees. Thus, a doctor who graduates with a specialization, is already in her mid-20s at least. When she gets married, usually some time before or just after 30, she hardly has had any experience. And what is the point of slogging through medical college if you were not going to make medicine your lifetime vocation?
Acting, however, is a different ball game. There are no prior qualifications expected. If one takes even a cursory look at the current line-up of heroines in Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam or pretty much the film industry of any language in India, very few wannabes and established actors have undergone professional training in acting in the form of a full-fledged college degree.
(b) Premium on youth and looks: This, I think, is probably the most important reason of all. Some bloggers and writers have lamented about the fact that Hollywood actresses continue with their careers even after making babies, while the talented Indian ones bow out. In Hollywood, there are female leading characters in movies that are in their 30s and 40s. They may be crusaders like Julia Roberts in "Erin Bronkovich" or an FBI investigator such as Jodie Foster in "The Silence of the Lambs". Hindi cinema in the 50s and 60s had scope for such characters. Look at Nargis in "Mother India" or Waheeda Rehman in "Guide" or Sharmila Tagore in "Aradhana" or Rekha in "Ghar". These were strong, character-oriented roles that did not merely focus on the heroine's looks or lack of them.
Somewhere, in the 80s, Hindi cinema became the domain of the macho, can-achieve-anything man. The heroine was just a pretty girlfriend or dutiful wife or mistress or the loving, pitiable mother. In short, she had no identity of her own.
Then came the late 80s and early 90s with their teenage college romances and songs with lines that went something like "Main satara baras ka, tu solah baras ki" (I am seventeen, you are sixteen) - gosh! Hindi cinema was back to the "Sound of Music" days, only without the same charm. If most of the roles involved young people in or just out of college falling in love and battling the odds of conservative parents or villains or whatever-the-director-thought-of, then what hope could even a 30-year-old heroine have? Many actresses have expressed the same view.
Now, in the 2000s, we see hope in the form of fresh, young directors with new ideas. Thus, a much married young mom, Juhi Chawla, can get a role in a sensitive film such as "My Brother Nikhil". A refreshed Kajol, who embarked on a brief hiatus after marriage and motherhood at a young age, is welcomed back in "Fanaa".
But, in both cases, the said actress had built up a formidable reputation during the early days of her career. The same goes for men who come back at a later age. Would Amitabh Bachchan be praised to the skies even for the routine father roles he essays if it was not for the fact that he was India's superstar in his youth?
The Indian actress got the meatiest roles till she was about 30, or at the most, 35. So, the natural thing for her to do would be to make as much moolah and name as possible while she was in her late teens or twenties and catch a good husband and 'settle down' when she was considered "over the hill" (at 30/35, that is ridiculous!!). In Tamil cinema, I feel, that is still the case. We have new nymhettes for every other movie, but rarely, a strong female central character role, the likes of which Kamal Haasan or Vikram, essay.
(c) Stressful, time-consuming profession: This is what some actors seem to harp. As if there were no other vocations besides acting that had stress! In fact, I think actors have the liberty to choose to work fewer days in a year as compared to most other professions. If family was a concern, then an actress could sign one film in two years rather than three films in a single year. Granted, our films involve travel to exotic foreign locales for the dream song sequences, but then, can't a leading lady raking in lakhs of rupees afford to take along her kid on a flight with a nanny or, better still, a family member to help take care of the kid/s? And, there are enough films and scenes being shot locally, so what's so great? Women in other professions travel in overcrowded buses and trains for a few hours everyday and often put in more than the minimum 8 hours, then come home and spend time with their kids besides cooking and household tasks.
I think, the real feeling underlying all this is that, the woman must stay home and take care of the kids. It is the man's job to earn a living. Thus, acting when seen as a gateway to fame and money, not as a passion, is totally dispensable in favour of duty, i.e. being there for the family. But what about the actors who truly love their job and miss it?
(d) Taboo on the married woman's sexuality: This is what my mother would say to me : Women, after marriage, lose their sex appeal with the audience as the men in the audience tend to think of her as belonging to someone else.
A married woman belongs to her husband and must not be seen as attractive by other men. But, then, pray, what about the married man? If it is not okay to covet another man's wife, it should not be okay to covet another woman's husband, no? Nobody seems to have any problems with the fact that girls drool over Shah Rukh Khan or Aamir Khan or Hrithik Roshan, all married fathers. Ditto for the dudes down South, Ajeeth, Rajnikant, Mammootty or Surya. With more urban women thronging the theatres, this trend will hopefully slowly change.
(e) Cinematic relationships reflect society: The reason why even a 40-year-old Shah Rukh stays hot and romances heroines half his age whereas heroines, at the slightest appearance of lines and wrinkles, start to lose it, is because in real life, too, it is the husband who is older than the wife. Typically, the Indian woman who is in her 20s, usually gets hitched before she is 30, given all the matrimonial proposals she gets from her relatives and family (this is largely true for even the urban, educated woman who chooses her own mate from the pool of suitors). The divorce rate in India is very low as compared to Western countries. Premarital sex is still a taboo. So, there are rarely any interesting love stories of 45-year-old women in real life. So, what credibility will it have on screen? In the West, people divorce and remarry even in their 50s. Dating is encouraged. So, you have all kinds of permutations and combinations that can be depicted on screen.
If more and more women start marrying younger men, like a Demi Moore who wed Ashton Kutcher, around 15 years younger, then cinema will wake up, too.
(f)Older women need to maintain their appeal in a graceful way: If women in their 40s, displayed their sensuality in a graceful way, rather than trying to look like a twenty-something hottie, they would truly charm the audience member with taste. Earlier, the over-the-hill heroine would usually be overweight and wear only traditional clothes without any pizzazz (nothing wrong with traditional clothes, they can look gorgeous, but there is a certain type of traditional dressing, if you know what I mean). But, with greater awareness of fitness and nutrition, we can begin to see the middle-aged woman in a whole new light.