Mumbai: Everybody knows that in the movie business, script is king. What then about the queen?
Actresses and audiences have a see-saw relationship; we can’t imagine the movies without female stars, but we don’t always reward the ones that are all about women. Actresses have always known their place in a movie—usually next to the hero, but always a few steps behind—but every now and then, the trade is challenged by a release whose story revolves around a woman.
The year has seen quite a few author-backed roles for actresses in movies, some of which can be counted among the year’s successes. March saw Vidya Balan’s winning streak extend to the thriller Kahaani; Bipasha Basu had a big hit after years with Raaz 3 in September; Kareena Kapoor helmed Madhur Bhandarkar’s latest city-in-peril drama Heroine later in the month; and October marks the comeback of Sridevi in English Vinglish and a new lease of life for Rani Mukerji in Aiyyaa.
English Vinglish distributor Eros International is upbeat about the 5 October release, and not just because of Sridevi, the company says. “We would have been interested in the film on its own merit,” says Jyoti Deshpande, managing director and group chief executive officer at Eros. “There is a market for all types of films. There is place for a big hero-oriented film as well as for a Kahaani or English Vinglish.”
Kahaani may have earned Rs.65 crore, but its achievement indicates that a woman-powered picture needs ancillary support. “I personally don’t believe that a woman can’t open a film at the box office, which is why I put my heart and soul into Kahaani,” says the film’s director, Sujoy Ghosh. “Having said that, every movie, even a heroine-oriented subject, has to work at the commercial level.” A woman-specific movie needs many hooks—such as an unusual story and an extra strong script—and it helps if the leading woman is newsworthy. Balan had raised eyebrows and raked in the rupees in The Dirty Picture, which released in December. Actors don’t seem to face the same challenges if the box-office killing of the badly scripted movies Ready and Bodyguard is anything to go by. The secret of their success: Salman Khan.
“Women-oriented films are periodic milestones at best,” says The Dirty Picture’s director Milan Luthria. “They need a lot of crafting to pitch them right.” The Ekta Kapoor production, which reinvented Balan’s career, almost didn’t get released, he adds. “We got buyers only two months before the release,” Luthria says. “Nobody wanted to touch it. We wanted to shut the film down before we even began because the budget wasn’t looking healthy and there wasn’t enough interest from the market. We almost succumbed to the pressure of changing the title because it was felt that women will not go near the cinema. I remember saying to Ekta, this film will become a smash hit because women will see it in large numbers, but that won’t happen until the Monday after the release.”
It is no myth that an actress-led movie has a tough time at the box office, says Rakesh Sippy, managing director of Raksha Entertainment, which released Kahaani in Mumbai in March. “Very few women-oriented films have performed,” Sippy says. “For a film to work, the actress has to be someone who is associated with huge films at the moment. Kahaani got its push because of The Dirty Picture, plus it was sold very reasonably.” It works differently for men, Sippy says. “Actors like Hrithik Roshan and Aamir Khan do one film a year, but the gap only increases the audience’s appetite for their films.”
Male and female viewers tend to gravitate towards actors over actresses, says Shailesh Kapoor, co-founder and CEO of media and entertainment research company Ormax Media. “Male stars track much better than female stars across metrics,” he says. In Stars India Loves, an Ormax survey that tracks the popularity of Hindi movie celebrities every month, 74% of the respondents cite a favourite male star as opposed to 26% who mention actresses, he adds. “However, when it comes to drivers towards watching a film, it is a function of how big the star is,” Kapoor says. “For Mere Brother Ki Dulhan, Katrina Kaif created far more pull than Imran Khan, but for Raaz 3, it was primarily Emraan Hashmi, even though Bipasha Basu was promoted actively in the campaign.”
The Rani Mukerji-starrer Aiyya a, directed by Sachin Kundalkar and releasing on 12 October, is about a woman’s romantic desires, but it’s being sold as a comic entertainer by its co-producer Viacom 18 Motion Pictures. “Audiences watch films on the basis of the promise of entertainment,” says Rudrarup Dutta, the company’s head of marketing. “The pitch of the film is a ‘wakda (twisted) comedy’ in which audiences will enjoy this amazingly funny world that Sachin has created.”
Perhaps banking on Kareena Kapoor’s stardom, Heroine was one of the widest releases for a woman-centric story, according to a September report in Mint. The Disney UTV production about the decline of an actress released on 21 September across 2,400 screens. Most big-name movies usually target between 1,500-2,000 screens. Heroine earned Rs.42.33 crore against a production budget of Rs.20 crore, according to industry estimates. It’s difficult to isolate the reasons behind the movie’s less-than-sensational reception. Could it have been because of its sorry script? Are audiences bored of Madhur “Muckraker” Bhandarkar? Or could it be that viewers don’t want to watch a whole movie about one woman’s decline?
Every now and then, however, viewers will throng the theatres to watch a woman’s story—it usually helps if the story is weepy. Ramesh S. Taurani, whose company Tips Industries produced the 2000 hit Kya Kehna, a melodrama about a young unmarried woman who gets pregnant, says the script makes all the difference. “It’s the script that matters in the end,” he says. “Look at Raj Kapoor—so many of his films were women-oriented, and they all did good business. It really depends on what the picture is about.” Last year’s release No One Killed Jessica, which starred Balan and Rani Mukerji and was completed on a production budget of Rs.9crore, earned Rs.50 crore worldwide, according to an industry insider.
“Women have less to do in the general scheme of things, but I blame the writers,” Ghosh says. “You can’t say that a woman has nothing to do in a movie—that’s because you didn’t write anything for her.”