BY PULARI MEERA BASKAR
It’s time to allow actresses to show you everything a woman can be
Following up her debut, Kumbalangi Nights (2019) with two more hit films, Helen (2019) and Kappela (2020), Anna Ben has very quickly become the talk of the town among Mollywood film watchers. From the fiery, independent and witty Babymol, to the strong-willed and intelligent Helen and then transforming herself into a completely naive, wide-eyed small-town girl in her latest film, Anna Ben has managed to own each of her roles, leaving all traces of her previous characters behind as she takes up a new one.
Malyalee actress Anna Ben
Adding to her performance is the manner in which she carries herself on and off-screen. Anna Ben does not give off the glamorous, turn-heads vibe that most famous actresses do. She does not conform to the most commonly occurring heroine tropes either- she doesn’t take up roles that are “complementary” to the men on screen. Anna Ben takes and shapes her own space. It has been extremely refreshing and comforting to see a woman become a force to be reckoned with, without necessarily adhering to the mainstream qualities possessed by the most talked-about actresses in India, especially Bollywood.
This is not to say that the actresses of Bollywood are less talented by any measure. In recent years, we have seen them take up complex, beautifully written characters. However, most often, their aura is one of infallible goodness and beauty, an unattainable ideal that makes them less relatable to those of us watching them on screen. These women are transformed into beings whose flawless personalities are attributed to their “flawless bodies”, with unchanging virtuosity.
Priyanka Chopra in a still from an 'item number'
The Tamizh movie industry is no less guilty of having reduced actresses to their looks on multiple occasions. It has practically been ingrained in the minds of the audiences that when a man is captured by a woman’s beauty on screen, he can take for granted that she will also have a kind heart, and be the right fit for him. The woman’s physical appearance - in terms of their bodies and skin colour - becomes an indicator of the nature of her character. Films such as Kaththi (2014), Mersal (2017) and Pariyerum Perumal (2018), all deal with complex social problems. But the personalities of the female characters in these films extend very little beyond the fact that they are all beautiful.
Some actresses are trying to challenge those ideals of beauty emphasized on screen. Sai Pallavi (who appears in Tamizh, Malayalam and Telugu films) has repeatedly refused to use makeup in her films. In an interview with The Hindu, she said, “When people accepted me for who I was, a girl with acne (rosacea), I learnt that confidence was the real beauty”. Aishwarya Rajesh does not tick all the boxes of the beauty ideals advocated by mainstream trends but has shown audiences that beauty exists outside those narrow streams that are propagated by popular media. Moreover, her role in Vada Chennai (2018) proved to the audiences and to filmmakers that a woman can occupy a captivating presence on screen without being reduced to their bodies.
Today, though the world is the most progressive it has ever been, there is still tremendous scope for expanding the nature of the representation of women on screen. By directly or indirectly cultivating the idea that a woman’s status is based off her appearance on screen, where women are objectified in name of virtuosity, it sets extremely unrealistic standards for the women of the audience. We see well-rounded male characters in mainstream films- flaws, virtues, dynamically developing. But the heroines, who mostly appear as counterparts to the men (i.e. with no independent identity), are expected to be beautiful and unshaken upholders of morality. With the constant reinforcing of both these (and often the only two) aspects of these women together, moreover, in a manner in which their good natured-ness is revealed after their physical attractiveness, the impression is created that a woman’s virtuosity is the product of her beauty. Since cinema is said to be an alternate, artistic representation of reality, in a world which is still fighting systemic patriarchy, this notion places further constraints on the agency of women.
Though we cannot blame entertainment media entirely, it certainly has played a major role in enforcing beauty (and therefore, co-related) standards upon women. The unrealistic unblemished portrayal of their characters in films, backed by a history of entertainment that caters to the male gaze, places unresolvable anxiety on the shoulders of women. Perhaps the simplest realization that would, with a little nudge from a more inclusive and weighted representation on screen, ease the burden on women is that not only is there no such thing as a perfect body, but that a women’s body is unnecessarily given precedence out of all the factors that determine one’s identity. Such an improved representation will help women realize that their bodies are not indicators of who they are and what they can be. The actresses mentioned in this piece are paving the way for the onset of this change across film industries in our country, without compromising on the success of the films they appear in by any means. We have our potential-filled trendsetters and the launchpad for change. What are we waiting for?