That the leading ladies of Bollywood get an unfair deal compared to their male counterparts has been an established fact for decades. Male superstars have longer career spans and work with female actors much younger to them, starting from Amitabh Bachchan to Shahrukh Khan, Salman Khan and even Aamir Khan. While time seems to stand still for male stars in Bollywood, the clock ticks louder for the ladies on the silver screen, their popularity automatically assumed to be dwindling with age.
One of the most popular examples was that of Smriti Irani, who played a mother (aged about 50) after the 20-year leap in Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi in 2006. Irani started as a lead in the show at 24 years of age in 2000.
Is the differentiated dealing an outcome of lack of suitable actors in the senior age group?
Definitely not! Fine actors from the yesteryears play some significant roles on television, including Meghna Malik (42) who plays Ammaji in Na Aana Is Des Meri Laado; or Dadisa in Balika Vadhu, played by Surekha Sikri (68); Sarita Joshi (71) in Baa Bahoo Baby; Vibha Chibber (50) in Mrs Kaushik Ki Paanch Bahuyein; Neelu Vadhela (43) in Diyaa Aur Baati Hum; and Farida Jalal (64), who was loved as a naughty grandmother in Shararat a few years ago and appreciated in the more recent Ammaji Ki Gali. There is certainly no dearth of talent of a suitable age group.
J D Majethia, chairman and managing director, Hats Off Productions, laughs out, "Ask for a shoot-date for Sarita Joshi or Swati Chitnis, it will be hard to get." Nonetheless, he agrees that younger actors are playing most of the older female roles and the audiences seem to accept it.
Gayatri Gill, creative director, Swastik Productions (Amita Ka Amit, Navya and Fulvaa) reveals that shrunken ages are a norm across shows. Actors who opt for the lead female roles now are very young. "So, if the lead actress is say 20 years old, her mother cannot be over 30 years of age, considering the screen ages are as it is shrunken," she adds. Now, when this show takes a 20 year leap, the 20-22 year old woman gets converted to a mother of, say, a 10-year old or a 15-year old child, since one prefers not to change the face.
All dolled up
Glamour sells, admits Majethia. A wrinkled face is not accepted nowadays and hence, the mom remains as charming and glamorous as her daughter or daughter-in-law. "Because the lead actress is 20, a mom has now got stuck at 30-35 years (blame the glamour!)," he adds.
He further adds that television has become a tricky medium. "The moment an actress puts on weight and the glamour quotient is down, it's gone."
The long durations of the serials are also to blame, claim insiders. Familiar faces carry the baggage of their previous roles, which are still fresh in public memory. To avoid this association, producers opt for newer fresh faces and end up casting younger actors.
Unlike the silver screen mothers played by Nirupa Roy or Dina Pathak, young and stunning moms are virtually flooding television screens, starting from 22-year old Akanksha Singh (of Na Bole Tum Na Maine Kuchh Kaha), who plays a mom to a 22-year old daughter, Jayshree Venkatramanan, in Season 2, to Mouli Ganguly and Mona Singh in Kyaa Hua Tera Vaada, who played moms to 20-22 year old daughters.
Markand Adhikari of Sri Adhikari Brothers says, "Nowadays the soap operas are stretched way too much. So when you are producing 500 episodes or more, you ought to take leaps and the life span of the characters is stretched. Ultimately, one year in reality is 15 years in the story."
Aging with grace
The silver lining is offered by certain exceptions, like that of Tina Dutta of Uttaran fame. Dutta wanted to avoid aging in front of the nation, and so started playing her own daughter in a rare double role on television.
Also, Sakshi Tanwar, who aged with time in Kahaani Ghar Ghar Ki, did Bade Achhe Lagte Hain as a younger lead.
While most actors don't mind aging if they have a meaty role to play, some leading ladies prefer longevity without aging on national television. Talent notwithstanding, fresh faces who have just started their careers run the risk of getting stuck with their screen images once they accept roles of older women. Gill explains, "It is true that after playing the role of, say, a mother, very rarely do they get accepted as a young girl."
Contrary to popular perception, channels do not lay guidelines that make it obligatory for production houses to cast younger actors. "The channels don't shy away from taking older actors anytime, but ultimately they are also targeting their core audiences who lie in the 15- 50-year age group," Majethia explains.
Gill, however, concedes that one always wants good looking people on television, especially for the younger or current generation in the story.
In contrast, Adhikari suggests that channels, at times, do specifically ask for younger faces. "Ultimately, the characters of these shows represent the channels outside the show, too. Glamour quotient of the award functions and reality shows is very important."
So, who's to blame for this chauvinistic approach for female roles on television? Experts in production houses squarely lay the blame on the leaps taken by serials.
As Majethia explains, a serial begins with the protagonist's mother's age at 30-35 years on-screen. Even a small leap in the storyline, say when the protagonist gets a baby, ages her as she now becomes a grandmother. Also, there is an earlier generation created originally as grandmothers, who age, too. Portrayal of several generations thus makes it necessary to shrink age and age gaps.
Gill opines that there can't be any other stronger reason (than leaps) for younger actors playing older roles. "But we have had leaps since the days of Kahaani Ghar Ghar Ki and Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi and audiences have never questioned a younger actress playing a grandmother."
However, Majethia clarifies that the chances of getting typecast are lower now. "Things are very suggestive in the television space today. If the audience is told that the actress is a mother-in-law, they believe it and even the whitener (in the hair) isn't required," he adds. Make-believe strategy works on television. So, the ladies can still look glamorous and perform at award functions, or for that matter, participate in reality shows!
Apparently, the strategy works both ways. While the channels get fresh faces and glamour quotient, the young ladies get the ageless appeal of meaty roles and instant stardom!