Shah Rukh Khan started his career in the late 80s, dominated the industry in the 90s, 00s and continues to rule the roost even now.
Some of his leading ladies -- Madhuri Dixit, Juhi Chawla, and Kajol to name a few -- were instrumental in propelling him to superstardom, but couldn't last as long as he managed to.
The simple explanation for this is Bollywood's patriarchal hangover and deep-rooted sexism that doesn't allow women who slip into their mid-30s and early 40s to continue as mainstream actresses.
While there have been exceptions, like in the cases of Tabu, Sridevi, and Shabana Azmi, the same cannot be said about a host of other talented actresses - say Urmila Matondkar, Preity Zinta, Shilpa Shetty, who have been reduced to judging reality shows, while Shah Rukh, Salman, and Aamir continue to romance women less than half their age.
When Femina magazine asked Khan what he thinks about this issue, he blamed it on 'market forces.'
"Films are an art; you can call it art that is tacky, fantastic, offbeat, edgy, superb, not-understandable - but it's art. Yet, this art is not based on how beautiful the outcome is, like how a Monalisa is judged purely on her smile. Market forces define the art of cinema. A majority of the audience wants to see younger people. People define what they want to watch and the filmmakers follow suit."
What Shah Rukh really wants to say but is shying away from saying is: A majority of the audience wants to see younger women.
Which in itself is debatable and is obviously not research-based.
Kajol, Preity, Rani didn't disappear from the screens because 'audiences didn't want to see them.'
They did so because filmmakers replaced them with Priyanka, Deepika, and Katrina while ensuring that a steady stream of work trickles down for the Khans.
Whenever these heroines were offered work, they stood out and the audience responded enthusiastically, whether it was Rani in Mardani or Madhuri in Dedh Ishqiya or even a Sridevi in English Vinglish.
Sounding awfully patronizing, Khan added in the same interview, "Madhuri, Juhi, and Kajol are such beautiful women and wonderful actors. I'm a star because of them; they've taught me all that I know. Whenever I can, I try to get them to act in my movies. But we have to realize that this is a business at the end of the day, however much you may think it's a creative field. It pays the bills. It's a dichotomy in many ways."
That isn't entirely true either. Juhi Chawla has repeatedly mentioned in interviews that she'd like to work with Khan again but her last appearance in an SRK movie was a fleeting cameo in a song (Deewangi, Om Shanti Om) that had 15 other heroines.
The power structure in Bollywood, as is the case with many other industries, is biased towards men as it rests with them. And that's precisely what leads to a career imbalance between genders. It's the decisions taken by the powerful men that end up deciding the shelf-life of an actress.
Shah Rukh Khan, a powerful star and a movie producer, is in a position to change that paradigm and perhaps, he should work towards being more inclusive.
But some of our stars remain blissfully unaware of the real issue or at least pretend to.
In an interview with this writer for the Wall Street Journal, Salman Khan, when asked what he thinks of the gender disparity in Bollywood, had said there isn't an issue of sexism in the industry. "I don't feel that the industry has treated anyone badly," he had said.
A good start in the right direction would be to acknowledge the problem where it lies instead of deflecting the blame and putting it on the audience or worse, pretending that it doesn't exist at all.
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