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Age is Just a Number

Friday, February 23, 2018

Hindi cinema is slowly creating more space for women, even though pay parity is a long way off. But they are still making films with young women. Thirty may no longer sound the career death knell for Bollywood actresses and forty may be the new thirty for stars like Aishwarya Rai and Rani Mukerji, with industry connections, but not for others like Preity Zinta and Urmila Matondkar.  And after fifty, offers dwindle to a trickle of cameos.  Sridevi can choose, because she has a husband who is a producer, but how many great roles do Madhuri Dixit and Juhi Chawla get?

So it’s interesting to see, that even in the highly competitive and youth obsessed Hollywood industry, three of the actresses nominated for the Best Actress Oscar are over 40, and none could be described as gorgeous or sexy.  Still, they carried these marvelous films on their shoulders to critical and even commercial success — maybe not to match the millions made by supehero franchises, but respectable enough collections. Meryl Streep at 68 is one of a kind — a cinema treasure, who will never be out of work, and never run short of award nominations.  In 'The Post', for which she is nominated, she played Katherine Graham, publisher of ‘The Washington Post’, who took over the reins of the paper after the suicide of her husband. In 1963, women did not have this kind of power, and so, when she stood up against a bunch of men and went against court orders to publish the scandalous Pentagon Papers, and uphold democratic values as represented by a free press, she became a strong role model for women of the time. Meryl Streep, of course, played her part to perfection, and Hollywood gave her the opportunity to do so, instead of casting a young star and aging her with prosthetics.

Frances McDormand, 60, is another awards magnet. ‘In Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ (winner of five BAFTA Awards, including Best Actress), she plays the grieving mother of a murdered girl, who mocks the town’s cops by renting three billboards, that ask why they are not being able to catch the killer. Her Mildred Hayes is a fearless woman, and McDormand plays her without a trace of embellishment.

In 'The Shape of Water', Sally Hawkins, 42, plays Elisa Esposito, a mute cleaning woman in a high-security government laboratory, who falls in love with a strange humanoid-amphibian that has been captured from a South American river and is to become a subject for research, even if that kills him. It is an unusual and moving story of compassion winning over cruelty and greed. It shares its spirit with The Beauty And The Beast, but Elisa is a simple-looking woman, who risks her life to save the creature.

It will be a while before Bollywood even attempts the kind of subjects that would give its very talented older actresses something worthwhile to do, instead the usual weepy mother roles.

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