Bold & beautiful, they all set for challenging roles

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Bollywood actresses say they are always worried about reactions to strong roles. There is a good chance portrayals of “modern-day” women with attitude will not go down well with audiences. Yet, their new found appeal is a sign things are changing, much to the relief and joy of the industry’s leading ladies.

By shama bhagat

Get set for tinseltown’s newest turn. Over the next few months, a host of top actresses are set to be featured  in roles that challenge the stereotype of the traditional Indian woman like never before. Rustic, real, flawed and shocking in equal measure – these roles are more than mere cinematic novelties; they are representations of how far the Indian woman has come.

With cinema so ingrained in our daily consciousness, it is among the best indicators of our development in a cultural sense. For this reason, there’s cause for cheer for more than mere movie buffs.

Consider what’s in store. Vidya Balan’s highly sexualized, expletive ridden performance in Ishqiya has already set tongues wagging, as has (traditionally chic) Katrina Kaif’s portrayal of an iron-willed female politician in Rajneeti. Even a naach-gaana masala pot boiler like the recent Kambakth Ishq had Kareena Kapoor play an upwardly mobile urban woman, who is uninhibited about her sexuality, desires and wants.

On the other end of the spectrum, upcoming art house flick Rang Rasiya will show Nandana Sen’s character — An 18th century rural Indian woman —provide a wake-up call to a regressive society by challenging the archetype of women at the time.

Bipasha Basu’s role in the upcoming Lamhaa is based on Kashmiri separatist leader Asiya Andrabi, Kangna Ranaut is set to play Haji Mastan’s love interest in Once Upon a Life Time, while Priyanka Chopra will be seen as a sexy femme fatale who seduces seven husbands in Vishal Bhardwaj’s next.

Breaking stereotypes

Bollywood actresses say they are always worried about reactions to strong roles. There is a good chance portrayals of “modern-day” women with attitude will not go down well with audiences. Yet, their new found appeal is a sign things are changing, much to the relief and joy of the industry’s leading ladies.

Nandana Sen has been very picky about her roles, and looked for strong characters to play. She has an affinity for heroine-backed stories. Be it the action-packed heroine in Prince or the role of Sugandha, who is Raja Ravi Varma’s muse in Ketan Mehta’s Rang Rasiya, the actress says that the fascination and complex roles drew new challenges for her. “Hardcore action is great fun. I play a fearless undercover cop who shoots straight from the hip, jumps off high rises, leaps through flames on a super-bike and knocks men out with impunity (and kicks/punches) between romancing Viveik Oberoi. At the same time, I loved playing Sugandha – Ravi Varma’s ethereal muse and love, who was also a fearless trendsetter in her time, the original Indian pin-up girl. But the challenge to play a tough action chick so diametrically opposed to an angelic muse was just too hard to resist. I give myself fully to every role, but when you do such roles there is more to look forward to than one film’s achievement. I always go by my instinct and avoid playing the same type of role in film after film.”

Nandana terms her choices of character portrayals to be an endless process of self-discovery, and her acting a blend of homework and spontaneity. She says, “Cinema is a medium of expression, a very powerful art form. The best cinema, in my opinion, is the cinema that entertains and moves a person, that makes us more aware, that brings to us a new perspective of our reality,”

Vidya Balan, who has been known for portrayals of coy, demure, “traditionally Indian women,” plays a raunchy, in-your-face character in Vishal Bhardwaj’s Ishqiya. Vidya says she didn’t identify one bit with her character’s overtly sexual nature, intimate scenes and foul language. “I play this rustic, voluptuous woman. It was completely different and beyond the purview of the image that I have. The role exposed me to a new way of interpreting a liberated woman. My character in Ishqiya may not know about feminism, but she’s truly liberated,” said Vidya.

National Award-winning Kangna Ranaut says her role as Haji Mastan’s love interest in Milan Luthria’s Once Upon a Life Time was a challenge. “It is in my nature to dare to try things that others don’t,” she states. Meanwhile, Priyanka Chopra is reveling in the freedom to express herself afforded to her by the success of Kaminey. “After that film I realized what a high a role can give you. So now I choose scripts accordingly. I realized that I have more potential than I had imagined,” said Priyanka.

Glamour be damned
Filmmakers are over the moon with the chance to explore more complex female characters, even if there is an element of risk. Earlier, they bemoan, they’ve often had to portray women as caricatures within closed ideological constructs – not always by choice.

Madhur Bhandarkar, who has never been afraid to portray his women in stark light, welcomes this change. “Why not,” says the filmmaker, “Stars are all set to experiment now. They are eager for change. I feel that there are certain issues in films where the female protagonist can drive the narrative in a much better way than the male hero. I’ve been lucky in that way, and my women too – it’s worked wonders for them.”

Lamhaa director Rahul Dholakia concurs. “Actresses these days want to do something beyond the norm. They are all out to experiment. When you watch Lamhaa, you will realize that Bipasha has done a wonderful job. She has really worked hard on it,” he said.

Ishqiya director Abhishek Chaubey says it is still a hard task to get actresses to shed their inhibitions by playing strong characters. Yet he is glad he managed to convince Vidya Balan to do the same.

Bipasha Basu will shed her glamorous, sexy image to play a burqa-clad Kashmiri girl in Lamhaa. She plays Asiya Andrabi, head of outlawed extremist organization Dukhtaran-e-Millat. “She is a strong-minded, intuitive and aggressive girl who has been the champion of the Azad Kashmir movement from a very young age. When you think of a Kashmiri girl in our movies, what comes to mind is a fair-skinned, light-eyed girl. But I want to disprove that myth. These pre-conceived notions have to be overcome,” says Bipasha.

To get into the skin of the character, Bipasha told her producers to invite a born-and-bred Kashmiri girl to Mumbai to study her body language, speech patterns and mannerisms. “The role requires me to be someone else altogether. I had to change my entire personality. And for this I needed help. I wanted to play the character the way girls really are today in Kashmir. I enjoyed it thoroughly,” she adds.

Box office queen Katrina Kaif sets aside her glamorous image to play a khadi-clad politician in Prakash Jha’s Rajneeti. She says, “I don’t have to  wear make-up all the time to be successful.”

She also says, “As far as the characterization was concerned, we worked on it a lot – like what she would wear and how she would walk or talk. The kind of stubborn streak that the character has when she has to do something was a trait I could relate to.

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