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Take older women, on the other hand. Till not too long ago they were busy being parent, mother, cook and grandmother. They were housebound and used to playing second fiddle. Some of them even had short careers which they gave up after marriage. If they continued with their careers it was at the risk of being judged harshly by society. The verdict was clear. Women wanting to be out amongst their own peers, doing things they enjoyed or earning an income and not slaving at home exclusively for husband and children 24/7 (even if said husband and kids weren't home for 10 of those 24 hours) was very odd behaviour and utterly selfish. That is what television and movies seemed to suggest too. It didn’t matter that the woman who played the typical sacrificial sati savitri on screen might be an alcoholic in real life or that she had a good head on her shoulders when it came to demanding a fee (as she should) for her role. She was venerated for her role and her real life persona was well hidden from public scrutiny. She was held up as an example for women to emulate. Just like those larger than life figures on screen, women were expected to contribute by running a home. They were forced to ignore their need to be out and about amongst peers, ignore the grey matter they were born with and ignore their need to feel self sufficient. Perhaps the poor were the exception as they were driven by other compulsions and needs.
That was then.
Today more women than ever before are in every field imaginable, contributing as much as men. Take the movies for example. Not only are women actors, they are also scene writers, directors, camerapersons, producers, distributors, editors, studio managers, research experts, location seekers and casting directors. Or they might own actor and actress agencies who supply these artistes to various producers and directors of the hundreds of movies produced each year in Bollywood.
Some women have welcomed the opportunities that have opened up for them eagerly. Yet others are perfectly happy being housewives and have no desire to change the status quo. What's different is that they have the choice. The decision is theirs.
Women who’ve occupied challenging roles in the past have done so, quite often, in spite of having no role models to look up to. The lucky ones have had men who are experienced in the fields they'd like to pursue, help them. I know of a woman who knows the workings of a cycle inside out. She learnt her skill thanks to help from men who learnt such skills from other men as women weren’t, in those days, allowed to have such skills. It was "no job for a woman" and so, no woman had ever thought of being a “cycologist” before.
But often, that hasn’t been the case. Men haven’t been forthcoming for various reasons. Some have felt threatened or insecure. Others have felt pressure from society to get their women to conform to their traditional roles. Whatever the reason, some men have tried to thwart women from reaching their highest potential in roles that were previously considered only for men.
Some women have felt intimidated by these opportunities. Yet others have felt the pressure to confirm to what others believe they should be. Yet others feel they would make a hash of things and are better off wherever they've always been. Whether women have availed of the opportunities that have opened up or not, the mix of compulsions that drove their lives have resulted in the next stage in growth.
The ones who took up the challenges are now able to use many skills to feel fulfilled. Many have an independent income and are capable of supporting themselves. They know how to look after their own finances and their own health. They are not beholden to or dependent on men and have meaningful and rewarding relationships which they enter into only because they really want to. They pick their partners with care - someone who believes in mutual support and understanding; someone who is their best friend just as they are his. They not only have the freedom to be whatever they choose to be, they have the resources. Having the ability to fulfil their own destiny and pursue their own happiness is empowering. This happens to young and old alike.
What's different is that the older women have the confidence to be comfortable with their looks, flaws and all. Their looks don't stop them from living life to the full. Best of all, they have wisdom gained from experience in more than one role. A hasty qualifier – there are always exceptions.
Now, thanks to millions of women in the work force or at home by choice, there are enough role models for the younger ones. They might feel the pressures to conform to what their own families expect of them but they have enough women who have preceded them into different and varied roles whose examples they can uphold and say, “If she could do it and meet with success, if she is perfectly fulfilled and happy, why not I?” The fear of the unknown put into them by others for whatever reasons is easily countered as there are enough brave and confident women who’ve preceded them, who've dared to forge a new path for themselves and come out not only unscathed but also, successful.
If someone had to ask me why older women aren't heroines in Bollywood I would have to say perhaps their time hasn't come and who knows perhaps it will. But in the mean time, they will not only continue playing the anti-heroines, the cruel mothers-in-law or other supporting roles, they will have paved the way for younger women to play a multitude of roles outside their homes with confidence in their creative flair and abilities. To my mind, that is the biggest and most important role they have played. To date.
Isn't that enough grist for the mill, movie makers?