India is home to 100 million elderly, says the 2011 census. But you’d never know it, at least not from mainstream Hindi cinema, which should mirror society but stays safely away from simple, realistic stories exploring middle-age and old-age issues.
The result — actors playing roles way younger than their age. Are they refusing to age gracefully because there are no takers for stories on the old and middle-aged? Or is it that there are no audiences because there are no films with realistic, ‘old-age’ themes? The latest Hollywood offering Last Vegas, a comedy about three friends in their 60’s planning a bachelor’s party for the fourth in the gang, stars Oscar winning stalwarts Michael Douglas, Robert De Niro, Kevin Kline and Morgan Freeman. It once again brings into sharp focus how Bollywood simply refuses to come of age.
“In India, and particularly in Bollywood, superstars carry such a hangover of their stardom that they only agree to projects where they can hog the footage. Unlike Europe or Hollywood where the character is king and the script is sacred, here big stars will actually get the script written to showcase them or worse even get it tinkered with if they feel something is going against their image,” explains film historian Mukund Joshi. “It is embarrassing to see some of them don wigs and weird costumes to play action heroes with heroines young enough to be their granddaughters,” he adds.
There are exceptions of course — actors like Amitabh Bachchan, can get roles tailored to suit their talent, and films like Mahesh Bhatt’s Saaransh. But those are few and far between. Critic Amit Bhandari feels leading men are worse offenders than women. “But this I suspect has more to do with society and its double standards with women. Whether it’s laugh lines, bags under the eyes, flabby arms, a paunch or love handles, men always have it easier.” He calls films like Saaransh and Shyam Benegal’s Mammo as well as Nishabd, Shirin Farhad Ki Toh Nikal Padi, Joggers’ Park and Jahnu Barua’s Baandhon, the exceptions.
So how does Hollywood get it right? Robert De Niro who has seen the industry change over his four-decade long career should know. “In my 20’s, there weren’t many independent films. Now there are a lot more so it gives more opportunity for actors and everybody else to try different things. It’s different and very exciting for an actor,” he told dna.
Michael Douglas, who fought oral cancer to make his comeback on the big screen with Last Vegas, seems to agree. “I had a little break with stage IV cancer for about three years. It’s a point where you think you’re never going to work again,” he said. “Then, lo and behold, I’m getting some of the best material I’ve ever been handed in my life, between Candelabra and Last Vegas. It’s the magic of our business that actors between the ages of 66 and 76 can still work and enjoy it.”
De Niro’s okay with ageing, despite what he calls “intense competition” in Hollywood. “When you get older, you have a different attitude about certain stuff. There are things I might’ve been concerned about then that I’m less concerned about now. You relax and back off a little and you might actually get more, and better, of what you’re looking for, with lesser effort,” he said. In mainstream Indian cinema, high-on-form-low-on-content aged characters seem to be the norm.
Joshi compares the superlative elder don played by Kamal Haasan in the Tamil film Nayakan to his lead role in Indian. “You compare the portrayals and you will realise what exactly we are doing wrong.” According to him, audiences today are ready to accept out-of-the-box plots and characters.
“If only filmmakers and actors got out of their comfort zones and applied themselves to their craft more sincerely,” he observes. “With exposure to world cinema, people won’t keep shelling out money for trite work. So people who don’t change will be forced into retirement.”
Retirement seems a touchy subject with De Niro who brushes it off. “Some actors say they’re retiring and then they come back again in two years. I’d never say that because I might not want to do something for a while and then something would come up and I’d get excited again,” he said.
Douglas, too, feels it’s unfair to be asked about retirement when he’s getting the “best possible roles”. He insists, “I never planned anything and I never knew what my next move was going to be, even at the pinnacle of my career. Now I’m looking ahead.”
Indian cinema is the dream machine, churning out scores of films every year. Will actors finally start playing their age?
Old is gold
Jogger’s Park (2003)
Last Vegas (2013)
Micheal Douglas, Kevin Kline, Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman