The Actresses Roundtable 2017, and why we need more of this every year

What is the ONE time you get to see Bollywood actors/actresses baring their hearts open like it’s nobody’s business other than when they’re playing a character on the big screen?

When is the only other time you see a bunch of artists huddled together and bonding AND talking about cinema in a they-make-sense kinda way, a trait we as an audience seem to have dissociated from their seemingly gregarious, light-hearted onscreen and off-screen personas?

I’m not talking about glittery film fraternity parties, nor am I hinting at those carefully orchestrated charity/fundraising/book launch/other non-filmy events where more often than not much of what a celebrity says is PR-driven and meant to serve the script.

I am talking about the pepper-and-salt sprinkled, maddeningly interesting and evocative discussions one of the most charming and affable entertainment journalist in the country manages to engage the public in, year after year, and have a glimpse of the people behind the stars that we so adore and are intrigued by.

Stating the obvious but yeah, it’s Rajeev Masand, the man who can elicit a response from even the most somber, tight-lipped celebrity. The man you just can’t hate because despite the fact that he’s totally being nosy and in-your-face with his hundred and one personal and professional (bordering on personal) questions, he almost sounds and looks like the benign pastor at your Sunday church or that all-knowing, gentle, elderly uncle sitting in the park with lots of time to kill – who knows you have plenty of skeletons to fix in your closet, and he’s simply helping you take the burden off your chest by giving you a space to talk about it. Sometimes it is not as much a dirty secret as it is a constant annoyance, like flaky dandruff you would want to brush off your glossy black jacket before anyone else has a chance to judge you for it. Other times, like in Kangana Ranaut’s case, it’s a steely polite of conveying to people who matter and who’re definitely listening – hey, watch it before I take you down!

Every year Masand takes on the powerhouse performers and their standout performances of the year, and grills them (albeit with all smiles and a lot of heart) on a range of introspective questions – from how they prepared for a certain role to how they felt playing a role that was a contradiction of everything they were and stood for in real life, from how they felt about the changing perception of film fanatics to how society continues to be connected with this medium in a deeper way, as the years go on.

And while each year has a unique annual offering distinct in terms of the evolution cinema and artists are touted to have accomplished as the year wraps up,  2017, with its diverse range of performances and its clawing relatability to more humaneness, and less fiction indisputably comes out on top for being THE year where women in cinema took the spotlight for regaining their individual as well as collective voice – something they had found, lost, and then found again.

Now that I have gushed aplenty about Rajeev Masand and the reactions he routinely draws in these closeted, yet absolutely unscripted discussions, it’s time to explore why 2017 will be remembered as the year that shook us from within, as much as it did on the outside by making our cushioned butts squirm uncomfortably.

Below:

The most unmissable picks of year 2017 (from left to right): Zaira Wasim, Ratna Pathak Shah, Vidya Balan, Bhumi Pednekar, Swara Bhaskar

Stealing Masand’s words right off his mouth (but only because this is what I noticed too right at the beginning): “The most interesting thing about the line-up here today is the sheer spectrum that we cover…the range and the talent at this table is staggering.”

Hear, hear! He couldn’t have said it better.

From the newcomer (Zaira), to the veteran (Ratna Pathak Shah), to the experienced but-not-long-enough-to-be-called-a-veteran (Vidya Balan) to the ones still exploring the medium but not really struggling (Bhumi Pednekar and Swara Bhaskar), this table represents the range of aspirations and spectacular talent of young and old India as well as those who are middling it.

Not giving it all away because you must watch this intellectual, raw play of words and layered emotions among the ones who’re living it on and off the screen, but just so you know this roundtable is sheer gold, here are my top 6 favorite statements from the discussion.

  1. Ratna Pathak Shah (Lipstick under my Burkha): It’s good I hadn’t begun writing film reviews around the time this movie released, or else I’d never been able to hit full-stop. Can I just say Shah’s character in the film (as Usha Buaji) just knocked our socks off? Or hit the guys right on their balls, you know where it hurts the most (smirk, smirk)? Because an ‘old’ woman being so vulnerable about her sexual desires, so much so that she dares to make the mistake of falling for an attractive man years younger than her, can be termed as nothing but audacity and a huge blow to the ever-inflating unfounded male ego. I mean, how dare women acknowledge their own bodies and desires? To top it off, how dare OLD WIDOWED WOMEN even think they can get some action?!! I know I am digressing but coming back to the discussion, one of Shah’s first statements from the round table hit the nail right on its head, turning even Hollywood upside down on its heels.

““We don’t need to be Gal Gadot, who is doing everything that the guy would do, except that she is a pair of breasts. We are telling our stories, the way we see our world”

There, there Wonder Woman, our desi ladies might not be dressed in metal and leather and conquering battles alongside warring men, but they sure are turning heads and shaking up the quintessential Indian man’s ego simply by stating they have needs, even when they’re 50 plus. That they need sex. And they LIKE it. And slut-shaming or age-shaming them isn’t going to douse that fire of awareness anytime soon.

Our women have made people sit up and notice – even if to judge – merely clad in sarees, kurtis, burkhas and a touch of lipstick.

         2. Ratna Pathak Shah again (I’m being biased here right?) – 

“Every woman who decides to act in a film like ‘Dabangg’ where she is made a complete object of lust, they also need to stand up and say no.”

It cannot get more direct and hard-hitting than that. Sonakshi Sinha, are you listening? Thankfully, you have graduated to better choices, but we dearly hope, going forward, you will not make us cringe with the characters you choose to play.

Not related, but Shah’s candor in openly stating she never really fit the “heroine” bracket because she was no longer young, to saying “I never really got any work to start with, obviously I wasn’t good enough, I wasn’t the right choice, just never got any work” -as a response to why it took her so long to make a comeback to mainstream films, was a breath of fresh air. Plain, unvarnished truth, instead of beating around the bush and saying she wanted to take care of her kids and be a “family person” yada yada.

That touch of real “ness” in the make-believe world of cinema is so so rare to come by. Ratna ji, you have my heart ❤

3. Vidya Balan (Tumhari Sulu) – The industry is a place of flagrant irony. It thrives on objectifying and demeaning women and relegating even the top crop of female talent to the background by having them play shoddy characters that exist to support the inherent dominant patriarchal vein, but won’t let actresses love their bodies and themselves without being part of an external narrative.

And while every actress routinely gets under the scanner for a pimple here and a little flab there, Vidya Balan, going by the mass vitriolage and public scrutiny over the past few years until very recently, has sure had it worse than her contemporaries, all because people can’t get over how she continues to wow us with each power-packed performance despite not having washboard abs.

She asserts herself, and beautifully so, that she is content being who she is, and how she is and in case haters are wondering if it’s going to come in the way of a remarkable career she has built on her merit alone, no, she isn’t going extinct anytime soon.

“We don’t want to be shamed by our bodies anymore. We are proud of our bodies.”

More power to you Vidya. We know we’ve said it out loud before, but we need to keep hammering this in so patriarchy knows we don’t anybody’s permission to own our bodies, to shape our identities.

4. Bhumi Pednekar (Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, Shubh Mangal Savdhaan): Two of the perkiest movies this year with two much-needed but needlessly shushed subjects, Bhumi has scored a hat-trick with these two releases in 2017.

In one she plays the supposedly compliant village belle (Toilet) till the adventurous and abominably humiliating experience of shitting (literally) comes in the way of her basic rights, to being the confused and distraught yet progressive fiance who isn’t ready to back out on her man simply because he cant get it up (ahem), she has succeeded in tickling our funny bones, while slamming social messages right down into our bathrooms and bedrooms!

For someone who had to put on 30 kilos for her debut role in Dum Lagake Haisha to someone who has thankfully lost the drive to see herself in the mirror every now and then and fret about how she looks, she has traversed some philosophical journeys without having to painfully prolong the process of self-realization.

Here’s what she had to say:

“It’s liberating to not care about the way I look.”

5. Zaira Wasim (Secret Superstar): Since she graced the silver screen two years ago, the teen actress has been unstoppable. Quite literally. If there had to be a fledgling in this cinematic world to carry forward the baton of yesteryear’s’ legends, I dare say, Zaira could be on her way to greatness.

And while she continues to pop in and out of news headlines for reasons both good and bad, and I absolutely condemn the misplaced, unsubstantiated allegations of molestation she lately leveled against a poor, hapless chap flying in the same airline as her, I have to, and must laud her for her honesty, and willingness to delve into some areas of personal introspection even adults in this realm probably wouldn’t have dared to, at least not at her age.

So when asked about what she likes about acting and what she doesn’t, she revealed she might not yet be ready to face the big, bad world called Bollywood, reminding us of the chaotic dark mess the film industry can often be.

“I like that I can become somebody else, but I’m not ready for it, maybe because of the vanity that comes with it. I don’t think  I’m the kind of person who can handle it.”

Keeping aside her possible hunger for the arc lights (as I have ranted about at length in this piece here) though, the forthrightness and simplicity with which she responds to Rajeev’s questions is something I haven’t come across in a long, long time. Or maybe, she is just an actor par excellence, but let’s give her the benefit of doubt, shall we?

With that poise and sense of awareness of her very being and her surroundings, I would  not be surprised if she managed to take nepotism by its horns and twist them out of shape (Jahnvi Kapoor, Sara Ali Khan, and the rest of the nepotism clan, brace up!)

6. Swara Bhaskar (Anarkali of Arrah): Since the time I first watched her in Tanu Weds Manu, I have been an ardent fan of the actress. Despite having no connections, as well as not quite accommodating the typical Hindi film heroine image, she has managed to consistently climb the ladder with movies like Ranjhanaa, Tanu Weds Manu Returns, and most recently Anarkali of Arrah, which also happened to be the first movie she played the lead in.

The movie which largely revolved around a small-town erotic singer-performer being publicly molested by a powerful chap (Sanjay Mishra) and then fighting for her rights, borders on a heated debate which has consumed much of our spaces this year: sexual harassment in the workplace and/or sexual harassment because of the work women do (read actors, performers).

It was in this context that Swara give us a teeny-weeny glimpse into how life is like an actor, especially when you’re a woman, and how real even reel can feel at times.

“When the molestation scene was shot, the whole crowd was cheering and whistling. You get to see the sides of our society.”

This truly made my skin crawl, considering those men were undoubtedly partaking in some sort of vicarious pleasure, despite the fact that it was a movie and not real. I shudder to think what their reactions might have been had it been real life? Sad you had to confront that side of patriarchy Swara, but at least we know how much educating this country’s sinister male crowd needs.

Other reflections that made me nod my head going, “Yeah, I get you!” to grinning like a cuckoo

In a conversation spanning more than an hour involving the participation of five powerful, articulate women, and covering some very shocking to amusing stuff, it’s pretty darn difficult to pick favorites right?

And so I’ve listed some of the other things that blew my mind away. Truer words have never been spoken.

  1. Ratna ji on how Zaira shouldn’t think of acting as short-term and be bothered by some of the unwanted attention and other hazards she was currently faced with; expounding on this point, she truly embodies an artist’s spirit, stating in no uncertain terms that her desire for acting was not dependent on her success. I’m not sure if she has ever read the Bhagavad Gita, but she has beautifully rephrased the famous quote from the scripture, “Karm karo, phal ki chinta mat karo.”

2. Ratna ji again on getting comedy right, “If people on the sets are laughing, you’re making a mistake.”

Damn! We all knew pulling off comedy is tougher than bawling your eyes out on screen, we just didn’t know a good comic act had a yardstick it could be measured by.

3. Ratna ji, PHIRSE (okay, this blog post has started to sound like a seedy fan hyperventilating in the “Compose Mail” section of Gmail, except this “fan mail” won’t be mailed to the actress ever) –

“The nicest thing about growing old and letting your hair go grey is that I don’t give a shit about how I look now.”

Bhumi, you said pretty much the same thing, except Ratna ji said with it more aplomb and a dash of finesse, like a queen reining in her best years of her life after successfully navigating the fretting-and-feeling-depressed-over-how-I-look stage. There is something about life experience that you just can’t buy, or rehearse. And there’s something about a woman embracing her age and all the flaws that come with it.

4. Vidya Balan“Live life!” Well, want to be an actor, writer, performer? Go live life. Go watch plays, listen to music you love and even the kind you hate, meet people, fall in love, have your heart broken.

We have all been dished out this category of advice bordering on YOLO, but decades before YOLO even took birth, Vidya had the chance to imbibe her soul and spirit with this advice, imparted to her on a TV commercial set, and it seems to have served her well. It’s time those of us wanting to be honest to our craft do that. Live life. And draw from its infinite well of experiences. Accept the poison and the nectar, and retouch it with hand strokes of our own.

5. Zaira Wasim on conviction as a key weakness and strength she has discovered in herself in the last two years,

“If I’m not convinced about something, I’m not gonna do it. If I am, I am going to do my best.”

May not sit pretty on the expected narrative of an actor’s life and approach to roles, but hey, it is a good starting point for each one us dreaming of showing our art to the world one day. Let’s have faith in, and be convinced in the magic of our written and spoken words, music, art, sculpture before we try and make the world pull down its stubborn walls and let us in.

6. Swara Bhaskar on being real, and keeping it realistic

“Bollywood is just a small part of a really big universe, and if it doesn’t work out, then it’s not the end of the world.”

For an outsider who has made it here on her own and has a long mile to go, keeping one’s expectations free from the confetti-wrapped optimism an actor’s life is frequently prone to, is a no mean feat. Swara borders on cynical, but her feet firmly planted on the earth, acknowledging that even happy spells can cease to last and that there is a plethora of opportunities and experiences to be lived outside of Bollywood.

There. Just like that, some of the glamour has worn off hasn’t it, but does it make sense? Absolutely!

Is it a good way to keep one’s sanity intact? You bet.

It is no surprise then that we see her dabbling in a world devoid of Bollywood’s scripted mania, as is evident in her latest spoken-word performance titled Conceal, Remove, Repeat in association with TLC India.

That is some badass poetry, and the sass game perfectly on point! Not to mention, we hear the message loud and clear.

7. Zaira Wasim again, because I was saving the best for the last. Her parting advice for youngsters (and am sure even the older crowd out there):

“We are the sun and the moon and we have our own times to shine.”

Okay, honestly, this was so beautiful it made my hair tingle and my eyes tear up a little, because that sort of profound language shooting off a 17 year-old’s mouth is as common as the BJP acknowledging Muslims as human beings.

I envy her so much right now it’s not funny, but I am glad the Hindi film industry, amidst all the paid media and scripted answers and the pressure to entertain but not be contemplative or meditative, has this one gem. Predictably, all the other actresses at the table were in awe of her, just as we were. If only, she hadn’t jumped the gun and have poor Vikas Sachdeva publicly condemned for something he didn’t do.

Hits and Misses

From cackling wildly at Ratna’s sarcastic comebacks in Sarabhai vs. Sarabhai (as Maya Sarabhai) to actually listening to her talk in that fluid, un-self-conscious, organic way was an enriching experience in itself, one that had me consumed in the intensity and layers it unveiled. But what I was most bowled over was her voice. Her timber, tone, pitch are perfect; with an alluring voice like that paired with a feisty mind, who wouldn’t want to hear her talk for hours on end?

Speaking of voice, isn’t that what grabbed our attention through the run-time in Tumhari Sulu? Vidya Balan continues to enthrall us by drawing us in the coherence and fluidity of her thoughts, making her stand on numerous issues clear while unabashedly exhibiting the way to love oneself. It can be quiet, unassuming, never over-the-top, but always there. She’s sexy, powerfully feminine, and not afraid to speak her mind, and while as she chattily tells us what life and movies are like from her perspective, we can’t help but soak in the shimmy of her gorgeous metal earrings.

Zaira Wasim is one of the most self-assured actors to have occupied Bollywood’s ever-expanding, and admittedly over-crowded space in these times. Her present and growing awareness about survival in the tinsel world is glaringly honest, and commendably structured. Not only did she hold her own in the session, but chimed in at the right moments, without breaking into the conversation unnecessarily, preferring instead to absorb what the others had to say. That is quite unbecoming of a millennial (more so, in the film industry) in an Insta-bombed age, which is why I just cannot wrap my head around why she acted so hastily in the airplane molestation incident.

Bhumi Pednekar has had us thrilled with her acting chops considering the commercial success of all her chosen projects till date, and yet, I cannot say the same about the round table discussion – I was less than thrilled to hear her speak, visibly annoyed by how she kept throwing the ‘privilege’ word around. Yes, I get it, you had never stepped out of Mumbai and been a part of the cultural milieu of a tier two/tier-three cities in the country (it’s not A,B,C city for god’s sake!) until you chose to step into acting, but I am sure so have the others. Vidya Balan has lived her whole life in Mumbai, Swara has braved her growing-up years in Delhi, what’s the fuss then?

Might I say I was also unimpressed by the fact that Bhumi wouldn’t talk normally, but let the words tumble out in a drawl, like she was speaking to impress. An actor putting on an act when she clearly doesn’t need to, is obviously off-putting and dilutes the overall tempo of the discussion.

However, lest the tempo meander into the territory of scripted interviews and actors acting even when the cameras aren’t rolling, Swara ensures she was heard, AND seen, quite a bit, courtesy the excessive gesticulation. At one point, I started getting a mild headache from all the different directions her arms would keep flying and with the way her head/shoulders would twitch. Her animated movements more than made up for the sober, cautious, controlled approach taken by the others. Having said that, maybe we need to step beyond how actresses should present themselves on and off the cameras?

Note: why do I think Bhumi and Swara were constantly trying to one-up each other (goofy grin, the ‘competition’ is unmistakable, huh)? 

Now that I have penned no less than an epic on this topic, it’s time to wrap up, but not without thanking Rajeev Masand for his insightful questions, his diplomacy and intuition in ferreting out just what we want to hear from our stars.

Also, thank you for not asking some of these ladies the parroted and much-dreaded sexist question: So, how was it working with the Khan (s)?

Author: Shravani

Content-cum-Copywriter by the day. Dreamer and an idea juggler by the night. Foodie, Movie buff, Bookworm, Chai-holic, - in that order. A truckload of money to throw into that mix, and that's all I'll ever need.

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