Kate Winslet, in one of her many interviews promoting Mare of Easttown, talks of the one item she took home from Mare's wardrobe. "I wear that barn jacket and get permission to not care what people think". Kate Winslet is 45, a woman at the top of her career, the winner of an Oscar, a CBE (Commander of the British Empire). Her first major work in Hollywood, Titanic, was the highest-grossing film ever when released in 1997. Her Wikipedia says she plays headstrong complicated women on screen - and she needs permission from a piece of clothing to be herself!
This week, though, I am marvelling at Vidya Balan's journey to Vidya Vincent, a District Forest Officer somewhere in the heart of India (the Madhya Pradesh Tourism tag line!) Balan's character in Sherni wears a frown and loose-fitting cargoes as she moves in a jeep, deep into the forest to save a tiger. Winslet's Mare does the same in a loose barn jacket, in an SUV driving deep into the woods, looking for killers. Some of the scenes shot around water bodies are uncannily similar, as are the two characters played by these two actors working across continents. Like Mare, Vidya Vincent is the only woman with all male co-workers, the threat of being replaced by one of them always looming, Like Mare, Vidya Vincent is struggling on the home front, constantly being reminded to have children. And like Mare, Vidya Vincent has no time for make-up/jewellery. Mare likes her beers while Vidya goes for whiskey. Two powerful actors, 40 plus, shorn of any shred of vanity, playing working-class women with real issues of identity, emotional alienation, battling internal demons even as they go about fighting patriarchy all in a day's work. Wow.
For someone like me, brought up on a weekly diet of movies, it's a moment. The film heroine (or movie star) was the gold standard we grappled so hard to match: flawless skin, perfect hair, gym-toned hourglass figure, the ideal mother, sister, girlfriend, all-forgiving, always-sacrificing...we always fell short. We dressed like them, bought beauty products they claimed to use, went on diets they were on. Once in a decade, a female actor would come along breaking the mould with an unusually textured character; in these cases, the heroine was not a prop, the critics would acclaim the performance, we would sigh and ask for more, but these characters, and so often the actors who essayed then, would disappear in the fringe.
Balan was the fringe until she became mainstream. She chose to get under the skin of her characters while dealing with body-shaming off-screen. Her size mattered more than her performances to those who can't think beyond the obvious. Vidya wasn't the only one suffering. Winslet talks about dealing with objectification in the early years of her career, being called 'Curvy Kate' when she didn't conform to Hollywood's size standards. Both pushed back and celebrated their lived experiences. As they accepted the fun bold women they played in the movies, the audience's perception of who and what heroines can be changed. More roles in films started looking like real women, honest and authentic. Winslet's Mare is comfortable with her wrinkles, paunch and playing a grandmom. Balan in Sherni drops all pretentions, even her trademark effervescence, to become the brooding, frustrated-with-the- system forest officer who's happy taking care of cats (wild and domesticated) instead of having children.
As I watch Sherni with my 15-year-old daughter, I see and feel the change. Two major Hollywood films nominated for the Oscars in 2021 were produced by women actors. Frances Mcdormand backed Chloe Zhao in Nomadland and actors Margot Robbie/Carey Mulligan share producer credit for Promising Young Women. It's been for the women, by the women, in Hollywood post the Harvey Weinstein bust up and the #MeToo movement. More women are joining the Marvel/DC pantheons of superheroes as directors and collaborators.. Like all other trends that travel from Hollywood to Hindi films, this is the one I am most looking forward to. As for Winslet and Balan, they are great role models and should be very proud of their 40 plus version.
(Sonal Joshi is a consultant with NDTV 24x7.)
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