Will Bollywood ever address issues of ageism, stereotyping and pay-disparity?

While Bollywood – masters of tokenism – has occasionally tried to counter ageism and stereotyping, it has mainly played safe, distancing itself with female oriented stories and roles

Konkona Sen Sharma
Konkona Sen Sharma
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Monojit Lahiri

This issue really was triggered by the super volcano of talent, Konkona Sen Sharma’s recent interview prior to her Mumbai Diaries 26/11 release. She didn’t play footsie but cut to the chase in a flash. “The gender gap is definitely there, even with me. It’s unacceptable but I don’t know what to do about it. What’s the solution? Refuse work? That can’t happen and most of the time I see men getting paid more ... and this is something the media really needs to investigate. This is a very serious issue because so many women are the sole bread-winners in the family and this is so unjust. Ageism, luckily, is a complete no-no in this platform. I am, for example, getting lots of interesting roles which I hardly ever got earlier in my career, MB 26/11 being the latest. That’s a positive and hopeful thing. Besides, if you don’t stick to a hero-heroine template, you get to experience a lot of very interesting stories, nowadays.”

Konkona is indeed spot-on. Whether it’s Nicole Kidman in The Undoing or Kate Winslet in Mare of Eastown, Rasika Duggal in Falling out of Love or Konkona herself in Ajeeb Dastans (among many others) the scope, scale and variety, in terms of histrionic bandwidth for senior actresses today is mind-blowing. This has provided receptive viewers of OTT a feast of stories and performances, filling them with large bounties of surprise & delight. To see brilliant, ignored and passed-over senior actresses display their histrionic artillery, full blast, is indeed fulfilling. This is a magical time and space where performance, not stardom, counts ... and age or stereotyping can go to hell!

While Bollywood – masters of tokenism – has occasionally tried to counter ageism and stereotyping, it has mainly played safe, distancing itself with female oriented stories and roles. Regarding Pay-disparity, it has and will always pay the heroes more. This happens in Hollywood too, so it comes with the territory. An eminent head of a reputed Production House (who wished to remain benaam) laid it on the line. “Koko is hundred percent right and her frustration is well-founded, but she must see the big picture. As a rule, mass audiences are averse to three specific themes: poverty, village life and the aged. Add, hard-core women-oriented stories that are issue-related. Exceptions accepted – Lagaan, Baghban – but most attempts in these spaces had to be peeled off the ceiling! It’s not about value-judgement but traditional viewing habits of the masses on the big screen. Where did the sexy, beautiful, hugely popular and successful Rani Mukherjee and Preeti Zinta go wrong to suddenly fall out of favour with the hydra-headed monster, the audience?

We live in nano-second times where instant gratification rules, dazzling looks count, youth rocks and age/wrinkles are signs of death! Also, unless really intelligently done, women’s roles are best placed where they belong – eye-candy. Regarding pay-disparity, it’s a different story and primarily has to do more with the ROI factor than talent. In recent times, with the exception of the late Sridevi & Madhuri, can any heroine carry a film on her own? Sure, there can be one-offs (Alia in Raazi, Kareena in Jab We Met, Deepika in Piku, Kangana in Queen & Tanu weds Manu) but overall, are they as consistently bankable as the male stars? Konkona’s contention of this system being unfair because many actresses are the sole bread winners too is respected but alas, must go for a toss because the humanitarian cause for Bollywood is demolished in the face of market forces. The message thus is simple: the day actresses are able to generate footfalls and make cash-registers ring, they square off with the male-stars & write their own cheques!”


Fact is, today movies are an expensive proposition and Bollywood is about business and not art for arts sake. Yesteryears parallel/art-house cinema was a glorious alternative space for all who desired cinema that embraced realism and celebrated actors, not stars. Ageism, stereotyping didn’t enter their frame and as for pay disparity, everyone worked for a pittance because they worked for a cause.

Today’s OTT, in spirit, follows that pattern, although the payments are much better, but home-delivery can never be compared to fine-dining in a 5-Star! Ultimately, it boils down to who is watching and what are their expectations? While there is truth in the saying that once audiences enter the darkened hall, they are willing to surrender all to the magic of the big screen and are ready for surprise & delight, unless the films are truly engaging and unique in content and treatment – Vicky Donor, Badhai Ho, Bareilly ki Barfi, Raazi, Mulk, Shubh Mangal Savdhan, Andhadhun, the masses watching will prefer tuning into the dazzling world of their glam stars. Also, truth to state, Bollywood doesn’t give a damn about celebrating real talent, because they are much more into bottom line market forces and Return on Investment. So, to imagine that they will ever introspect about ageism, stereotyping and pay disparity, be influenced by content celebrating these templates and take corrective measures is to expect moonshine from a carrot!

Remember, there is a world of difference between the merchants and the magicians!

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