Bollywood Barbies Come Into Their Own

Has the day of the female superstar finally arrived in the Indian film industry? Advertisers, fans, and movie producers desperate to hire them suggest that for the dozen or so women discussed here, Bollywood is no longer a boys’ club.

Whether it’s promoting brands or selling movies with glamorous signature tunes–which are to Bollywood what car chases are to Hollywood–women have never had it so good in male-driven Bollywood. A place where all they did previously, says one snide director, was audition for marriage. Women now have a bigger share of celebrity television endorsements than their male counterparts, according to Tam Media Research.

Kareena Kapoor tops the wish lists of filmmakers. At 31, Kareena knows all about numbers: of her 10 films since 2009, four have crossed the Rs 100-crore ($20 million) mark. At the Imperial hotel in Delhi, she looks dew-fresh from a 20-day vacation in a Swiss chalet with long-time beau Saif Ali Khan. Smartly attired in red J Brand trousers, blue Ralph Lauren jacket and black Prada boots, she sounds exhilarated after her “first real holiday in a year and a half” when all she did was drink red wine and eat fondue. She needed a break. She has three big films this year: The globetrotting Agent Vinod with Saif where she plays a Pakistani spy; Talaash, where she is a prostitute who tempts Aamir Khan, a married policeman investigating a superstar’s death in Mumbai; and a star in spectacular decline in Bhandarkar’s Heroine.

What’s more? She has a Sanjay Leela Bhansali movie lined up, with rising star Ranveer Singh. Fourteen brands to endorse. A beautiful Bandra apartment she shares with Saif and just enough money to shop (her mother invests the rest). Kareena is now where she’s wanted to be since her debut. “I never had the best of an education, although I did pass Class X from Welham Girls’ School with 75 per cent. I couldn’t have done anything else. There was no fallback,” she says. But as she points out, “I never gave up. I was always ready for war. I had faith in my talent.”

In 2011, Katrina Kaif, 27, was the darling of the endorsement world. No self-respecting movie is without an item bomb [signature tune]to propel it. It helps the film and the star. Not only does the star pocket a fee for the song, she also earns from repeated stage performances where the fee could go up to Rs 1.5 crore ($275,000). As Kareena says, “I am very clear. It’s a circus. Either give me an award or give me a packet. Four years ago, I decided I wouldn’t do private weddings.”

No apologies. No excuses. As Priyanka Chopra says, “This is the best time to be a female lead in Bollywood.” She’s on the phone from Hyderabad, having joined the Rs 100 crore super women’s club with the success of Don 2 and Agneepath. She is “doubly happy” because it comes after disappointment: in 2011 her ambitious seven avatars in Seven Khoon Maaf failed at the box office despite a brave performance which had her being sexually roughed up onscreen by Irrfan Khan and being subjected to Annu Kapoor’s orgasm.

With the business of cinema expanding to smaller towns as well as new overseas destinations, the Rs 100-crore box office mark is becoming easier to achieve. Siddharth Roy Kapur, CEO of UTV Movies, points to three key factors.

First: penetration into smaller towns has helped new revenue flow into the industry, and with cinema having gone digital, costs of production have been reduced. There are about 11,000 screens across India of which approximately 1,500 are multiplexes.

Second: ticket prices have increased. They rose 5 to 7 percent in 2011, and tickets can now cost anywhere between Rs 150-250, with big films commanding as much as Rs 350 in Mumbai and Delhi. They’re expected to rise by another 20 percent this year.

Finally: the nature of audiences is changing. Sunil Punjabi, CEO of Cinemax, gives the example of two [malls]in Mumbai, Versova and Malad, where 80 per cent of the audience that came to watch The Dirty Picture was women.

The women on screen are trying to be more deserving of this new audience. Kareena is hoping to forever leave behind the sweet, bubbly straitjacket of [her character]Geet from Jab We Met with the edgier Talaash and Heroine. After playing a sex kitten in The Dirty Picture, [Vidya] Balan has transformed herself into a harried seven-months-pregnant woman in search of her husband in what turns out to be very twisted story indeed. Priyanka is playing an autistic character in Anurag Basu’s Barfee, where the hearing and speech challenged Ranbir is a thief, kidnapper, hustler but also a romantic. The film has hardly any dialogue, with its empty spaces filled with contemporary music playing in the background. As Basu says, “Priyanka’s character sees the world so differently that to her, everyone seems to be from Mars while she is the only normal one around.”

Priyanka has been working hard, taking time off only to tweet about her parents or her shoot locations. Between visiting Berlin Film Festival for a screening of Don 2 to attending the Grammy music awards in Los Angeles to signing a music album with Universal Music to working on three films, Priyanka has no time to dawdle. Just like Katrina [Kaif]. Not only has Katrina just two weeks to go on Kabir Khan’s Ek Tha Tiger with Salman, she is also in the epic romance with Salman’s arch-rival Shah Rukh. She has a third film with the secretive Yash Raj Films, Dhoom 3 with Aamir that is slated to release next year.

Female courage is being rewarded. Ask Balan. She’s taking quick bites of her lunch at The Trident in Mumbai in between day-long interviews for her forthcoming film, Kahaani. She’s just had three hours of sleep and is wondering whether she will be on time for an award function in Goa at 8.30 p.m. “I feel like a bird in the sky. To the rest of the world, it seems like the bird is really high but the bird knows that the sky is actually much higher,” she says. “The Dirty Picture shot through the roof to the extent that now there is a Bhojpuri film called Dirty Pichkari,” she laughs. Suddenly, everyone wants a piece of her. She can’t help recall the dark days after Heyy Baby (2007) and Kismat Konnection (2008), though. “I remember reading on a website that ‘she is so badly dressed I don’t know why she would even want to step out of home’. I think that killed me.” Now she doesn’t read news or watch television. The breakneck promotional rounds will cease only after March 9 when Kahaani releases. Then she gets a much-needed three-month break and a long overdue family holiday before shooting begins for her first comedy, Rajkumar Gupta’s quirky Ghanchakkar, with the star of the crass and underclass, Emraan Hashmi.

Women are vital even to conventional Bollywood “projects” which revolve around heroes. When [Deepika] Padukone walked out of Race 2, the value of the project being sold by producer Ramesh Taurani to UTV dropped from Rs 87 crore ($16 million) to Rs 65 crore ($12 million) even though it has Saif, Anil Kapoor and John Abraham on board. Producer Ramesh Taurani was understandably frantic and after a very public spat, Padukone is back, though dates are yet to be allotted.

There are other women who have infused attitude into the industry. There’s the outspoken fashion icon Sonam Kapoor who had the courage to make a chick flick with sister Rhea Kapoor as producer in Aisha (2010). There’s Kangna [Ranaut], who has taken her image as trauma queen by its spaghetti straps and done a series of mindless male-dominated comedies like Double Dhamaal and Rascals in a bid to become more market-friendly. It’s paid off. She has landed herself a role as a mutant in Krrish 3, but not before she tries to recapture the magic of the manic Tanu in the sequel to Tanu Weds Manu. Then there is Priyadarshan’s action thriller Tezz where she is paired opposite Ajay Devgn as his wife, and Sanjay Gupta’s Shootout At Wadala where she will step into a role vacated by Balan.

None of this would be possible without the rise of the auteur directors. Like Dibakar Banerjee, who has just completed Shanghai, pushing his cast and crew to the limit to finish filming his political thriller in one month. He often shot till late into the night, making his homesick team hate him at times. They were already cranky at being deprived of non-vegetarian food in small Maharashtrian villages that served only vegetarian food. The frantic pace continues even in post-production. He is still screaming at someone as he answers the phone from a Mumbai studio. “Sorry. I just came out of the final edit of Shanghai,” he offers by way of an explanation. Inspired by Z, a book by Greek writer Vassilis Vassilikos, Shanghai brings together his Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! actor Abhay Deol, Kalki Koechlin and Hashmi, whose popularity as a serial kisser created a crowd control nightmare as they shot in Baramati and Latur. He also turned the petite Kalki into an extremely passionate young girl Shalini who assaults people when she is angry, making her whack an actor with a vessel for an entire day to get a shot that looked adequately convincing to him.

Filmmakers are driving their heroines harder than ever before. In Barfee, shot across Darjeeling, Kolkata, Mumbai and Bengal, Basu incorporated guerrilla shooting to make the film look as real as possible. “There was this particular scene Ranbir and I shot at 6 a.m. at Howrah Bridge sabzi mandi[vegetable market],” recalls Priyanka. “We rode across on a cycle all decked up as our characters. The reactions we saw from people were really funny.” In Kahaani Balan’s baby bump is prosthetic, which would put pressure on her back when she sat or got up, making the strain on her face look all the more authentic. Kabir Khan, director of Ek Tha Tiger, said Katrina worked extra hard during 100 days of shooting that took them from Dublin, Ireland, to Havana, Cuba, and Istanbul and Antalya in Turkey. She was also recognised wherever she went. Even in Havana, says Kabir Khan, where Pakistani medical students would drive for nine hours and queue up outside Katrina’s hotel, the iconic Nacional, to catch a glimpse of her and Salman.

Nishat Bari
With Kruttika Kallury