One of the first Bollywood films I remember watching was Karan Arjun. It came out in 1995 and featured both Shahrukh Khan and Salman Khan, opposite Kajol and Mamta Kulkarni. Their ages then were 30, 30, 21 and 23 respectively.
The latest film I watched by either man was this year, with Salman Khan in 2016’s Sultan and Shahrukh Khan in 2017’s Jab Harry Met Sejal, meaning that both actors were 50 or above in the film. The love interest in both films was Anushka Sharma, who was under 29 years old at the time.
Unfortunately, the 20+ years age difference is not an isolated incident in Bollywood. It’s the norm. When an actor hits it big – and they always seem to hit it bigger than the actresses – he will spend approximately the next 40 years playing a dashing young hero, until he finally admits to himself that he is old enough to play the aged father role. Before that, however, he will spend years playing a supposedly charming love interest to a much younger woman. The curse of ageism may never strike him.
This problem is endemic to the Bollywood industry.
Women are shamed for everything, from their age to their weight, and it’s not fair. Marriage is the end of most actresses’ careers. Cinematic powerhouses, Aishwarya Rai and Madhuri Dixit have been reduced to being a rare on-screen treat because women sacrificing their careers for their family is just something that happens.
It’s not surprising.
In the rare case, that marriage is not the kiss of death for their cinematic careers though, once they cross the invisible age line that hinders their marriageability, it’s game over. Rarely do older women appear as the leads in commercial (especially romantic) cinema. Instead, they are relegated to doing more serious roles – whether they want to or not. As soon as an actress crosses 40, being a mother is basically the only avenue left open to her, never mind the ages of her sons. They can be the justice-seeking wives of wrongfully murdered men or the young mothers of film heroes, but never again are they the heroine again.
Meanwhile, age will rarely count as even a single nail in a male actor’s Bollywood career.
Actors like the two aforementioned Khans are presented as being as charming and desirable at 50 as they were at 30, while the women featured opposite them get younger and younger. It is rare for their contemporaries, like Kajol (currently 43), Aishwarya Rai (44), Juhi Chawla and Madhuri Dixit (both 50), to appear in films by now and rarer still for them to appear as romantic interests. It appears that for Bollywood, the expiration date for these powerhouse women has passed. On the occasion that they are allowed to appear as desirable figures, women past a certain age must be absolutely flawless, nary an ounce of cellulite in sight.
Signs of aging are simply not acceptable in women.
I grew up watching Bollywood films with my parents, and the main characters were about the same age as them. They belonged to the same generation and, in my mind, they were roughly equivalent to my mum and dad. The men still are, only they are far more buff and well-coiffed than your average middle-aged father. Women like my mum – average, middle-aged, working-class real women – just don’t exist in most films.
And it’s not that the industry is not aware of how deep the problem runs.
In regards to a film he did in 2016, where he was paired against the much-younger Sonam Kapoor, Salman Khan himself described the on-screen love story as “romancing Sonam Kapoor, [his] friend’s daughter.”
The public eye won’t allow actresses to age easily, but Bollywood doesn’t have a place for them either. Actresses like Anushka Sharma and Deepika Padukone (29 and 32 respectively) appear as often against their own contemporaries as they do against much older co-stars.
So what, exactly, is Bollywood trying to tell us?
That women expire early and become undesirable and matronly? Or that men are attractive at all ages, unlike women. Either implication is, frankly, really bloody gross and I’m done with it. Hey, Bollywood? You can do better.