Where have the heroines gone?

Unlike heroines of the 80s, those of the last two decades haven’t really returned as character artistes. I talk to people in the industry to find out why…

The spotlights on heroes in Tamil cinema remain aglow even as they age, bald, lose their voice and go frail. The ones trained on heroines, however, don’t last too long, forcing them to evolve into character artistes. Almost all the top heroines of the 80s — Radhika, Revathi, Ambika — had to undergo this transformation in order to keep the actresses in them alive and breathing. However, none of the top actresses of the following decades — Devayani, Rambha, Meena, Sneha, Laila, and until very recently, Simran and Jyotika too — underwent this changeover. What gives?

Kushboo is one of those who stayed away. “I’ve moved on. Acting doesn’t interest me any more. Motherhood and my political career keep me busy,” she says. There is something else. “After having my name appear right at the beginning of the credits, I can’t digest the possibility of seeing it appear sixth or seventh.” Director Mahendran laughs this off. “The audience doesn’t care where your name appears, as long as you do a good job of your role.”

But is he too fast to dismiss the addictive allure of fame and power? The prolific Radha Ravi thinks so, and that’s why he is almost relieved that his attempts to turn hero failed (he was one of the three heroes in the 1987 film, Veeran Veluthambi.) “Maybe that’s why I am not really troubled by my pictures appearing as stamp-size photos in the posters. I’ve been a character artiste for four decades, and in our job, we learn very early that it doesn’t pay to be narcissistic.”

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Even houseflies get more prominence in posters

About heroines, Radha Ravi says, “Good looks may be enough for a heroine, but to become an artiste, you need at least a working knowledge of the language.” That’s why he wonders if an actress like Hansika will be able to stick around after her run as a heroine.

Gautami, whose Namadhu (the Tamil-dubbed version of Manamantha, the Telugu-Malayalam bilingual with Mohanlal) released recently, could speak none of the four South Indian languages when she stepped into cinema. “But I learned them; it was my commitment to my job.” She returned to Tamil cinema after 19 years with Papanasam last year, but hasn’t been too active since. “If more interesting roles were written, I’d be doing a lot more work.”

However, it almost becomes the classic chicken or the egg problem, when Kushboo reveals a conversation she recently had with husband, director Sundar C. “Sundar and I are huge admirers of Manorama aachi. He told me he misses an artiste of her stature, and is unable to write the sort of strong roles he’d usually write, keeping her in mind.” Gautami doesn’t think it’s a fair comparison to make. “All comparisons with Manorama are unfair. She delivered consistently for six decades, and is a legend.”

Mahendran lays the blame squarely on directors and writers. “They lack imagination. Can you imagine how deficient a family would be without a woman? Isn’t that what many of our films are?” He likes Hindi cinema for this reason. “They are doing great work—did you see Court, Neerja? A mainstream heroine like Deepika Padukone is doing a Piku. We have become a smug island, impervious to healthy influences from outside.” He is sad that Tamil cinema hasn’t made better use of Simran. “She’s an outstanding character artiste; why are we unable to give her good roles?” he says. “I have done my bit. Till I made Johnny with Sridevi, she was known for glamorous roles. Can the young directors now step up?”

Karthik Subbaraj, whose Iraivi was appreciated for its feminist ideas, thinks that some top heroines decide to quit while they’re still ahead. Kushboo agrees. “The girls who come into Tamil cinema today are educated and from well-to-do families. Unlike the actresses of my generation, they do not need cinema for survival.” Karthik adds, “We cannot write a small role — dead cast, as I call it — and expect them to be excited.” This explains why actresses like Jyotika and Gautami, since their return, have done only strong roles. Karthik worked with Ambika in Jigarthanda, and reveals that she was originally mean to be Assault Sethu’s love interest. “There was no place for Lakshmi Menon in the first draft. But it was my second film, and I had to compromise.”

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This could’ve been Bobby Simha and Ambika

However, yesteryear heroes like Sathyaraj, Prabhu and Karthik have had a great run. “Thereby making it hard for artistes like me to get good roles,” laughs Radha Ravi. “Maybe actors are more passionate about cinema than actresses. Many heroines today seem unable to look beyond glamour. Item song dancers like Silk Smitha and Jayamalini have become irrelevant. The heroines are doing those dances themselves.” He questions the limited ambition of actresses. “I want to act with Rajini. I want to act with Kamal,” he says, imitating heroine-speak. “Why can’t you talk about the roles you want to do?”

Kushboo disagrees. “In many films, all they are asked to do is to look good. They also have to vie for screen time with comedians and villains.” Mahendran asks, “If all they have to do is look good, how will they hone their talent and move on to character roles?

An edited version of this story can be found here: The Hindu. All copyrights belong to the organisation. Do link to this page if you’d like to share it.

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