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Ashutosh Gowariker’s What’s Your Raashee? isn’t the first adaptation of the Gujarati novel Kimball Ravenswood. However, the 25 September release can claim credit for going where no Hindi movie has gone before. By casting Priyanka Chopra in 12 roles, Gowariker will find out how much screen time audiences are willing to grant to a single actress.

Gender bender: Rani Mukherji in Dil Bole Hadippa!

The movie’s hero (Harman Baweja) chooses his bride from among 12 women, representing the 12 zodiac signs. The 1980s television series, Mr Yogi, which was also based on Madhu Rye’s novel, had 12 different actresses, and the major attraction of watching Mr Yogi week after week was finding out which woman Mohan Gokhale’s hero would be meeting next. Gowariker believes that things have changed in the last two decades to allow a single heroine to hog almost every frame of a movie. Probably without meaning to, Gowariker’s romantic comedy has become 2009’s first (and probably last) woman-centric movie.

Testosterone continues to be the key ingredient in the Bollywood formula. Film-makers and scriptwriters constantly fuss over male stars and sweat to present their skills in new and different ways. Actresses, on the other hand, have to fight to be noticed and then battle some more to remain relevant beyond two releases. Actors in their 40s make sheep-eyes at actresses patently younger than them. Actresses have to beat the laws of ageing and shrink in size as they grow older. Yet, Hindi film heroines may be better off in the hands of mainstream directors. Old-school film-makers like to please every member of the family unit, which is the single most important section of the movie-going audience. Few film-makers will want to alienate the “do" in “hum do hamaare do".

Women may be incidental to some of the biggest hits in recent times (Partner, Heyy Babyy, Namastey London, Singh is Kinng), but it is difficult to imagine a mainstream movie without a heroine (Chak De! India is a rare exception). The vanilla upgrades of the spoilt daddy’s girl from the 1960s and 1970s are keeping their pretty selves occupied. Some work in high-profile jobs (Vidya Balan in Lage Raho Munna Bhai, Priyanka Chopra in Krrish). Some walk on the dark side (Aishwarya Rai in Dhoom 2, Rani Mukherji in Kabhi Alvidaa Na Kehna). Others save the nation even if it means sacrificing their loved ones (Kajol in Fanaa).

Some actresses are decorative even when the movie is supposed to revolve around their characters. Dostana is about John Abraham and Abhishek Bachchan. Rab ne Bana di Jodi is about Shah Rukh Khan and Shah Rukh Khan. Yet, it’s hard to imagine either movie without its female leads. This is not always the case with Hindi-indie cinema, which is often more enervating than exhilarating. The Hindie gang is so busy stuffing movies with references to world cinema classics that it forgets to write memorable roles for women. Too many Hindiewallahs are trying to imitate the ideas of their idols without providing local contexts. If you are a fan of Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Guy Ritchie or John Woo, you’re likely to import wholesale the all-male subcultures that these film-makers explore. Lost in transportation is the complexity that a director like Scorsese brings to his adventures in alphaville. Rather than insights into traditional masculinity versus modern femininity, you get hissy fits about harridans.

Hindies like to be seen as edgy and cool, so their heroes will be marginally dysfunctional and their women will be pseudo-intelligent. Apart from exceptions such as Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi, Manorama Six Feet Under and Dev D, Hindie women are demanding and dim. Think of the female characters in Bheja Fry, Mithya, Khosla ka Ghosla, Dasvidaniya, Missed Call, No Smoking, Via Darjeeling or 99. These so-called independent-minded films have women who’re either inconsequential or are part of the problem.

Kamal Hassan’s Dasavatharam, in which he performs 10 roles, indicates the perils of histrionic hubris. What’s Your Raashee? will prove the extent to which viewers like to watch 12 avatars of Indian womanhood. Rani Mukherji has the best of both worlds in her latest release Dil Bole Hadippa! She plays a woman who dresses up as a man. Her reward: a place in the masculine world of cricket and Shahid Kapur.

Nandini Ramnath is the film editor of Time Out Mumbai (www.timeoutmumbai.net).

Write to Nandini at stallorder@livemint.com

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