The film industry has for long reinforced the conventional gender roles that men and women are expected to play in our society. In particular, look at how film grammar describes gender, identifying linguistic and structural differences in gendered pairs. Why do keep calling heroes male lead, for instance, even when they are featuring in a women-centric film?
The point was put forth by comedian Aditi Mittal who quote-tweeted in response to an announcement post of Ishan Khatter being cast as ‘male lead’ in Farhan Akhtar’s film Jee Le Zaraa. This upcoming Hindi film features Katrina Kaif, Priyanka Chopra, and Alia Bhatt, and is touted be a road trip film that revolves around women. Mittal’s contention was that one doesn’t need to keep mentioning gender while making film announcements. The tweet further reiterates that for a movie with Chopra, Kaif, and Bhatt, there is nothing like a “male lead.”
Why do we keep calling heroes male lead?
“Hero” is a noun that means a brave person who is “noted for courageous acts or nobility of character.”
The hero can also be defined as “a person who, in the opinion of others, has special achievements, abilities, or personal qualities and is regarded as a role model or ideal.”
But a hero can also refer to a story’s principal male character (and traditionally, the heroine for a main female character). But why can’t we call them protagonists?
It matters because while “hero” gets all the glory, the term “heroine” despite having the same meaning, only referring to a woman instead of a man, somehow is robbed of characters like strength and leadership during interpretation. Those traits are mostly reserved for its male counterpart.
It is not as if cinema worldwide hasn’t tried to get rid of gendered nomenclature that is used off-screen. While award shows like the Oscars, Emmys and Tonys have stuck with the traditional male and female-designated categories, a growing number of other ceremonies have shifted to gender-neutral awards. The Berlin Film Festival in March 2021 handed out its first non-gendered awards. The Grammy Awards ceased separating male and female artists in 2012.
While we can’t expect Bollywood to radically change its gendered approach to cinema and dismantle the dynamics that have been into play for decades now, the industry can take little steps which ensure that it is going in the right direction. One such move can be shelving terms like “male lead” or, if it could ever dare- hero and heroine. Let the viewers decide who led the film, whose performance stood out and who deserved to be applauded.
However, this is easier said than done, especially when the film industries across India rely heavily on male stardom and fandom to rake in money. One of the biggest roadblocks in levelling the playing field for women and men on and off the screen is the very audience that sits in front of it. In case of Jee Le Zaraa too, the “male lead” comment didn’t come from the makers but a media house. So perhaps, the change needs to start with us.
Are we the viewers willing to invest time and money into good films and not the massy ones that are nothing but a celebration of masculinity’s most toxic form? While films led by women are finding more takers with each passing year, can we say that they are as popular as films led by male superstars? You know the answer.
So if we want a film led by Bhatt, Chopra and Kaif to be known and celebrated for its woman star power, the first thing we need to do is to recognise the femme-force behind this film and root for it. Only when women-centric film find support from the masses, will they gain the same from media and the industry.