Women Actors Over 40 Need Bigger And Better Roles: Is Bollywood Listening?

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Actor Dia Mirza recently spoke about how she is playing some of the best roles in her career post turning 40. According to her, while ageism is something that every women actor has to contend with she was glad that opportunities were now coming her way and that had, in many ways, fixed the problem. Like Mirza, we have witnessed many women actors over 40 getting bigger, better and meatier roles in the later innings of their careers, this has specially picked up over the past few years, perhaps with the rise of OTT.

Dia Mirza on ageism

In an interview with Press Trust of India (PTI), Dia Mirza said that ageism “is something that we (women) have to contend with and I am glad the opportunities that are coming my way today in so many ways have fixed this problem.” The actor further added that each time she gets to play a powerful character in a good film, she is challenging that norm, resetting the big gap and divide that the industry had created for women post the age of 35 and limited them only to playing certain kinds of parts.

Mirza described this as “resetting the big gap and divide that the industry had created for women post the age of 35 and limited them to playing certain kinds of parts.”

She then went on to add that it was “powerful recognition and intervention” that she is playing “the best parts of my life” now that she is 40 years old. She called it “amazing, liberating, empowering, and wonderful” and said it reflects that people within the industry are “evolving”.

Ageism in Bollywood

As soon as women cross the age of 35, their entire personality reduces to being a mom . A Twitter user found copy of a Filmfare magazine from 1984 that asked a very important question about actor Rekha. “She’s thirty, where does Rekha go from here?”. In 1984, Bollywood believed that turning 30 years old was the end of a woman’s acting career. Even now, while male actors over 40 continue to romance women half their age on the silver screen, women in that age brackets are largely reduced to playing supporting roles. In the film Zero, Sheeba Chadda played the role of Shah Rukh Khan’s mother when she was 46 years old and Khan was 53.

One would argue that reaching 30 years of age isn’t even close to reaching a person’s mid-life, yet Rekha turning 30 meant her career was close to falling apart. Rather than taking assurance that Rekha was a seasoned actor with a solid reputation, Bollywood was ready to discard her talent. However Rekha being Rekha, went on to challenge Bollywood’s aversion to older actors by giving hits like Khoon Bhari Mang well into her 30s, but she remained an exception. And older women were duly replaced for younger faces in lead roles, which continues to happen even today.

Suggested Reading: From Badhaai Ho To The Last Color, Five Hindi Films That Celebrates Older Women

The remake of the song “Tip Tip Barsa” is an example of women being discarded as soon as they are “too old” to be desirable to the masses. The original song in the movie Mohra featured Raveena Tandon and Akshay Kumar. In its 2021 remake, featuring in Sooryavanshi, Kumar remained in the song but Tandon was replaced by the much younger Katrina Kaif. Replacing Tandon but keeping Kumar in the remake follows the trend of female actors losing their roles while men can continue playing the same type of characters they did decades ago.

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A still from Samrat Prithviraj. Image Credit: YouTube screenshot

In Samrat Prithviraj, 54-year-old Akshay Kumar was paired off with the 25-year-old Manushi Chhillar. Kumar had already starred in 28 movies by the time Chhillar was born. However, this pairing didn’t go down with the viewers and was rejected both on social media and at the box office- yet another sign that viewers want a change.

When experience shines in the light of opportunity

Even the roles of female characters in their 60s are played by younger actors. In the film Saandh Ki Aankh, Bhumi Pednekar and Taapsee Pannu were cast to play the role of Chandro and Prakashi Tomar respectively. Their characters were in their late 60s when they began sharpshooting and both lead actors were in their early thirties when they played these roles.

Actor Neena Gupta responded to a tweet about Saandh Ki Aankh that said “I kinda wish older actors were cast in these roles” and gave examples of older actors such as Gupta, Azmi Shabhana, and Jaya Bachchan. Gupta responded that “Hamari umar ke role to kamsekam humse kara lo” (at least gives us roles when the characters are our age’).

Things are changing, with the likes of Gupta, Tandon and Sakshi Tanwar leading their own web series and older women being given bigger roles in films like Badhaai Do, Lipstick Under My Burkha, Ramprasad Ki Tehrvi. Actors like Katrina Kaif, Kareena Kapoor Khan and Deepika Padukone continue to be the most sought after leading ladies in the Hindi film industry, well above the previous age bar of 35. But that is not enough.

As a way to empower older women in the industry, Bollywood must continue on this path to defeat agesim and reducing the age gap between its lead male and female actors. A 56-year-old Shah Rukh will be seen opposite a 36-year-old Padukone in his upcoming film Pathan. Aren’t there any heroines in Khan’s age bracket who could have been cast opposite him? This question needs to be posed to all the leading men of the industry. When will they act their age? And when will women be allowed to embraced their age on the silver screen without being sidelined to supporting roles?

Views expressed are the author’s own.