The trailer of 'Saand ki Aankh' ignited the debate in Bollywood about the lack of roles for older women; here's what actors in the south said about it.

Whys nobody writing roles for us Older women actors speak on industrys ageism
Flix Gender in cinema Tuesday, October 08, 2019 - 12:12

The trailer of the Bollywood film Saand ki Aankh, starring Taapsee Pannu and Bhumi Pednekar, released recently and the young actors who are playing the roles of 60-year-old women shooters, became embroiled in a controversy in no time. 

Veteran actor Neena Gupta in a tweet questioned why roles written for 60-year-olds were not played by women of the same age but instead given to women who are barely above 30 years. 

Many on social media echoed her sentiments, some even coming up with alternative suggestions of older women actors who could fit the bill.

Neena Gupta's point was that substantial older women roles are seldom written, and that it's a pity that when such roles do get written, they are still not offered to older women. The situation is no different in the southern industries where women who are much younger than the heroes end up playing their mothers because there is barely anything else that they get. 

TNM spoke to women actors from the south who have been in the industry for a while, about the kind of roles that they are offered and the need for better scripts that justify their talent and age.

Movies are made not just for the love for cinema

Many women actors with whom TNM spoke echo the fact that cinema is a market-driven industry where it is the director’s prerogative to decide who should be cast in the lead role of a film. The industry has mostly men writing scripts about men, catering to a primarily male audience. 

Shanthi Krishna, who made a terrific comeback with the 2017 Malayalam movie Njandukalude Nattil Oridavela, opines that not all producers make movies for the love of cinema or its aesthetic beauty. Casting women who are in their 50s is not considered commercially viable, which is not the case with men who belong to the same age group but are still considered superstars.

“For women in movies, 20s is the peak time. After that, if you are good, you might get lead roles in your 30s, but it is not much. Men, however, become more popular, get better roles in their 30s and afterward. Society has that in mind. They are used to seeing it that way – where the lead roles are always done by men. For producers, it is mostly a business. All producers may not make movies for the love of cinema or its aesthetic beauty. They might feel that casting 50 plus women as central characters – like they do with Mohanlal and Mammootty -- needn’t be commercially successful,” the actor says.

Shanthi Krishna played the role of Sheela Chacko, a cancer survivor in the film Njandukalude Nattil Oridavela, which also starred Nivin Pauly as the male lead. It was one of the rare films, where a yesteryear woman actor was cast in a pivotal role, the entire story revolving around the life of Sheela, who battles and survives cancer.

The last time Malayalam cinema got such a movie was Manasinnu Akkare, in which veteran actor Sheela made a comeback, playing the role of a woman well above her 60s who is neglected by her children.

“Women who once played lead roles and make a comeback in their 50s know that they are not going to be the heroine. But somehow for me, I could call myself the heroine in the movie in which I made a comeback although it is not the typical younger heroine version. I had accepted it for my comeback because the role was fantastic. I don’t think I would have come back just for any Amma role,” Shanthi Krishna says.

Actor Rohini Molleti says that women need to be really choosy when it comes to picking roles after a certain age. The actor, who was very popular during the '80s for her lead roles in Tamil and Malayalam movies,  has mostly been seen playing mother roles, beginning from Baahubali to Guppy and Chi La Sow. In the recently released Telugu film Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy, too, she plays mother to two small children. However, Rohini notes that she accepts the role only if they are interesting in some way.

Rohini in Guppy

“I have been getting a lot of offers in the past few years. But I am very picky about the roles I accept. Since I work across three industries, there are a lot of characters that come my way. But not all roles offered are exciting or substantial. I'm happy for six months if I do one good role in any language. For example, my character in the Telugu film Awe, was small but was something out of the box. I played mother to a young woman who comes out in the open about her sexual orientation. Malayalam films have a lot of young script writers who are writing relevant roles for older women. My character in the movie Guppy was something I really enjoyed. Having said that, Telugu is one industry where women need to flesh out the characters they are offered. As women actors, I think we need to wait for better scripts and meaty roles and not just accept whatever the filmmakers offer us,” Rohini says.

'Women are commodity in cinema'

Malayalam actor Mala Parvathy, known for her roles in Koode, Godha, Game Over, and Take Off says that women have always been considered a commodity unlike their male counterparts in cinema.

“It is true that it's disheartening when a senior actor or anyone who is passionate about acting is sidelined. Why it happens mostly to women actors is because they are most often presented as a commodity in cinema, and everyone wants to see a fresh face. There was a generation of talented actors that came in the times of directors like Shyam Benegal. Now, however, it is an amalgamation of art and commercial cinema,” Parvathy says, adding that Malayalam cinema is now undergoing tremendous change, with a lot of movies being made for the younger generation.

“It is a lot of school stories now in Malayalam, and movies where younger people have prominent roles. The casting is entirely dependent on how the filmmaker perceives characters. Cinema is a market driven industry. There is something called USP, and filmmakers are quite aware of what sells in the theatre and what doesn’t,” she adds.

Mala Parvathy in Koode

Can a woman still be a star after her 30s?

There are a few exceptions in the south film industries where women in their 30s and 40s have still retained their star value and are offered roles at par with men. Anushka Shetty, Nayanthara and Trisha are examples.  

A few others may no longer play the glamorous female lead, but they still get roles written for them.

Manju Warrier, who made a comeback with How Old Are You in 2014, is still considered a prominent face in the Malayalam industry, and she recently made her Tamil debut with Asuran. Asha Sharath, who is in her 40s, also gets substantial roles in Malayalam cinema. 

Veteran actor Lakshmi, who is remembered for her role in Chattakari in Malayalam (Julie in Hindi), was last seen in the Telugu films Gang Leader and Manmadhudhu 2. Though the 67-year-old actor played mother to a 61-yr-old Nagarjuna, she is among the few women actors of her age who are offered unique characters and not generic ones. Lakshmi also delivered a terrific performance as Bebakka in Oh! Baby.

Ramya Krishnan at 49, too, has been bagging meaty roles in films across languages, Sivagami in Baahubali being one of her most popular characters played till date. The actor also received praise for her character in the Tamil film Super Deluxe, a Thiagarajan Kumararaja directorial. Ramya played a mother and a porn actor in the film.

The characters played by award-winning actors Sarasa Balussery and Savithri Sreedharan in the Malayalam film Sudani from Nigeria are offers that come by once in a blue moon, where women actors get to play their age without being sidelined as just the male protagonist’s mother .

Though the film proved to be a critical and commercial success, it's a long way to go before older women actors get interesting roles written for them. 

“When we make a comeback, we are not expecting to be heroines of Mohanlal and Mammootty any more. But if women-oriented subjects come, why don’t the filmmakers think of us too? Can’t you write films for us too? We now don’t have an image problem. We won’t wonder if it will it be flop. We are established actors and we can experiment,” Shanthi Krishna says, adding, “I am ready to do a negative character – I have done a character with a negative shade in Pakshe. Then they wondered if I could do comedy. But my character in Kuttanadan Marpappa proved that I could. It is just that filmmakers should be confident to write different characters like that.”

(With inputs from Anjana Sekhar and Cris)

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