When she moved from England to Mumbai in 2009, British actress and model Mandy Takhar was chasing a dream, and soon, her Punjabi roots saw her making an entry into Punjabi cinema with Ekam in 2010.
“I wanted to add value as a leading lady in Punjabi cinema, but six years and hardly seven-eight films later, I’ve realised female artists in this industry are one time wonders. They are merely aid workers to the leading man of the film,” rues Takhar.
After working in National award winning film like ‘Anhey Ghode Da Daan, Qissa Panjab’ and acclaimed short films like ‘Sutta Naag’ and ‘Nooran’, theatre actor Kul Sidhu too is disappointed with the cine state of affairs. An unconventional actress who doesn’t fall in the ‘fair skinned, long haired, jatti’ image of Punjabi cinema, Sidhu is now frustrated and has moved to Mumbai. “They sadly have a stereotypical image of a leading lady. Also, no one focuses on performance here. Trained actors still give auditions whereas non actors are signed on without it,” feels Sidhu.
Arm candies, all dolled up to sing, dance, flirt with the leading man, be chased by the goons and play damsel in distress, or make a blink and miss appearance for the friends and family, actresses in Punjabi cinema, more often than not, find themselves in a tight spot, fighting for more screen space, time and money.
Barring a clutch of recent films, like Angrej, Ardaas, Love Punjab, Channo, Kudesan and Qissa Panjab, the roles for actresses are either limited, myopic or immaterial, rendering it impossible for the industry to make space for another reigning queen like Neeru Bajwa. Where names like Rama Vij, Preeti Sapru, Nirmal Rishi, Sunita Dhir, Divya Dutta, Juhi Chawla are still etched in public memory, audiences are yet to register the new actresses on the block.
“When I read a Punjabi film script, I read more of a guy and less of a girl. So yes, the bias is always there. At least make an effort to write from a woman’s perspective. The men alone are not facing life,” feels Sargun Mehta.
After giving superhits like Angrej and Love Punjab, Sargun Mehta has adopted an attitude, one that makes her question her value addition to the film. “What is that I am adding to it, even in that limited time and screen space. Neeru Bajwa created that magic, and is respected,” says Sargun.
Monica Gill agrees. From Boston, Massachusetts, Gill won beauty pageants, quit Pharma research and moved to Mumbai in 2014. Since then, she signed big budgets – Kaptaan with Gippy Grewal, Ambarsariya and The Return of Sardaarji with Diljit Dosanjh.
“Meatier roles, lengthier screen time do command attention, and no one has been able to do that after Bajwa. But the question is also why are we not finding actresses who are performing to their best? I know of makers who cut short the role if an actor/actress is not able to create a magical presence on screen,” says Gill, asserting the need for a rigid auditioning system, bolder scripts and professionalism among actors.
“The better I’ve performed, the faster I’ve got work and longer screen time. I was one of the three girls in Ambarsariya, yet I got more space. In Kaptaan, I was second lead but bumped to lead after my work was appreciated,” says Gill, always working on creating that ‘extra edge’ to her character.
Gill also questions whether audiences want to see more women oriented cinema or actresses who can bring in that number of audience with their star power?
Takhar and Samiksha Singh feel otherwise. Lack of strong women characters, disappointing pay structures and the Punjabi ‘alpha male singer-actor’ dominated industry make them voice their concern. “Even after doing a film like Sardaarji, I am still getting clichéd roles. I did the cameo in Ardaas because it offered me a chance to experiment. I’ve approached people, negotiated fees, been persistent, but to no avail,” rues Takhar, refusing to accept defeat.
Singh too has taken a stand. “The reason I’ve done only five films in Punjabi and picked work in South cinema is because I refuse to be part of a film where the hero is flirting with three girls at a time. I don’t want to be a face in the crowd or a frame filler for the hero,” says Singh, who will be seen in Vaapsi, essaying the role of a girl showing strength in face of adversity.
Like her, Kulraj Randhawa too is displaying her power in Needhi Singh that releases July 22. According to her, producers still suffer from the primitive thinking that taking a risk with a male actor is better.
Budget constraints and newcomers who charge peanuts is another problem. “Quality takes a backseat when new girls are signed on cheap, for a couple of lakhs because unfortunately, the last number in a film is that of a heroine. It’s so annoying,” shoots Takhar.
That the major chunk of the pie is taken away by the leading man is more irritating. Singer-actors come with their fan following, whereas among girls, no one is that crazily popular or registered in the minds of audiences. Also, first time producers make matters worse. “They get Bollywood actresses, not because she is suited for the role, because she is a known personality or known personally,” feels Singh, stressing on the need for overpaid singer-actors to bring their fee down.
According to Punjab 1984 and Jatt & Juliet director Anurag Singh, Punjab doesn’t have professional training infrastructure for new actors who want to hone the craft. “Also they don’t think it is necessary to have professional training before joining the industry,” he says.
While he hopes the casual attitude changes as the industry grows, he also agrees that traditionally there has always been a dearth of good roles for women in mainstream Indian cinema. “We have been a patriarchal society for ages. But women are coming to the forefront, and this will reflect in our cinema as well.”