A leading lady has always been a bit of a misnomer in big-budget Bollywood. Whenever top heroes are either greenlighting their own productions, or signing on with studios for their heavily publicised in-anticipation projects, that’s where things end. A heroine is almost always an afterthought, and almost always replaceable by another.
Stories are written for stars. And a mass audience comes to see a Shah Rukh film. Or a Salman film. The heroine could be Priyanka or Kareena or Katrina: same difference. What does she have to do anyway? She never gets an entry (the classic “arrival of hero” shot which introduces the leading man to roars and yells and claps from fans). She never gets to grab screen space by herself: sharing it will be the hero or the villain or the comic or the sidekick. The only time she gets everyone’s eye trained on her is when she is poured into a bikini, and climbs out sloooowly, glistening rivulets dripping tantalisingly down her body.
What I am waiting for is this bikinied lass to sashay past the hero whose gaze we have been forced to share, as it bores into her delectable soft parts, and plant herself in front of a full-length mirror. And blow herself a kiss, reserving a raspberry for the guy she’s left behind. Yes, that would be a thing.
But who knows when that will happen? For the moment, we’ve had to be content with one, ONE, sequence that a leading lady has solely inhabited fully in 2013. With great gusto and appetite. And made us suddenly aware of her as her, not just as someone with a set of curves to be whistled at. That’s when Deepika Padukone gets up from a bed in Chennai Express, kicking and thrashing (her hero, Shah Rukh Khan utters a few mock-panicky lines and then gamely gets out of the way), and throws herself into a paithyam punna (batty girl) act.
She pulls a series of faces, without really caring how she’s looking. She flails her arms. She thrums her feet on the bed. She uses her voice. Not just to simper. I mean really use it, making us aware of volume and timbre. Suddenly, she is not an appendage, whose role is to bring up the rear, walk two feet behind, and say and do the right thing. Suddenly, she is Deepika, who is there.
I’m not saying that this little two-minute skit is the best thing that has happened to the A-List Femmes in Bollywood. All this means is that heroines who have made space for themselves have had to be visible to count. Madhuri, Sridevi, Juhi, Kajol all danced and pranced, and played second fiddle when they had to. Which was a lot of their screen time. But they also had the power to commandeer our gaze when they wanted to. And when they were given a chance to do so.
This could be Deepika’s turn in the sun. She’s already turned the light on herself in this year’s hit rom-com Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, where her thumkas matched that of her hero, Ranbir. That film was shared between the two of them, if not equally, then significantly. She was easily Shah Rukh Khan’s equal in Chennai Express (is he the one superstar who lets his ladies have some space, the hardest thing to do, in films made for blockbuster status?): she gets the lines and the laughs, too.
It may be a small thing. But look at what Sonakshi Sinha is made to do in film after film (we’ll leave aside her Lootera for a moment, because it was not this kind of big-budget massy entertainer) — be sassy but demure, sexy but contained, and most importantly, biddable. She is the one chosen to play foil to the much-older Salman and Akshay as they paw and claw through the film. She is capable of much more, but will she be given her head? Fat chance.
Priyanka Chopra maxed out inanity in last week’s Krrish 3. There was nothing she did on her own: superhero Hrithik was top rung, she was below. No different from the old-style bechari heroines, who waited to be rescued. The spirited Anushka Sharma is stuck with the bubbly girl roles, just the way Preity Zinta was. Vidya Balan is the only one who has escaped the superhero clap-trap, but she is about the only one.
That leaves Deepika. She showed up in a double role in her first film, with a neat ankle and a pretty dimple. Then she did nothing much at all, except occasionally drawing attention to the litheness of her limbs: I had pretty much arranged her alongside her contemporaries in my head, as those who were decorative, merely.
But this year, I’ve had to sit up and look. Could it be that Deepika Padukone is readying for the next level, and will attain it in her new film, Ram-Leela, out next week?