If you are a woman in the Indian film industry, you always have to be young and fresh — just like a vegetable. This is according to someone with experience in the matter, actress Soha Ali Khan.
The unhealthy and often corrosive influence of Bollywood on concepts of beauty in India dominated the “The Beauty Debate” presented by Dove at the Women in the World Summit in India today.
The panel, which also included an international model, a fashion editor, and a filmmaker, agreed that Bollywood — the affectionate name given to the Indian film industry — has both defined and restricted opportunities of the women who work within it.
Lakshmi Menon, an international fashion model, who first managed to make her mark in the fashion world with Jean Paul Gaultier outside India, told the audience that the plum contracts in Bollywood are only given to a “very select group of women.”
“For me to work in India was not viable. Abroad, there is a lot more acceptability of diversity. And that’s how I made my mark in the fashion world.”
Menon also pointed out that lucrative television and magazine advertising work is cornered by just a handful of Bollywood actresses: “It is all the same people. You see Deepika Padukone in five different things in one magazine. Is she the only beautiful person in the country? In a population of millions of women who are absolutely exquisite,” she asked.
Khan, an Indian actress who has worked in the film industry for several years and hails from a cinematic family, conceded that while there has been some progress, not everything is “moving forward.”
“If you look at the women who are succeeding in the film industry today, they are of all shapes, sizes, colours and hairstyles. In the ‘60s, there was a more certain sense of what a conventional heroine should be. Now, on the other hand, it is very important to be fit,” she said.
“Earlier, for instance, no one went to the gym and didn’t need to look sculpted. Today, it is about manufacturing beauty. It is becoming complicated. There is a lot of image building. Now, everyone has a stylist. My mother laughs at me because it takes three people to get dressed. That ‘just got out of bed’ look? That takes an hour,” said Khan to a chuckling audience.
Indian fashion magazines also continue to endorse celebrities, mostly film personalities, on their covers, said Anaita Shroff Adajania, Fashion Director for Vogue and a Celebrity Stylist.
“That is because India never had a culture of supermodels and the Indian film industry generated all of India’s style icons,” she said.
“There has been a surge of Indian models though,” added Adajania although she was quickly and pointedly corrected by Menon that all found success outside India.
The panel was asked what happens when just one media is allowed to dominate and dictate what beauty should look like.
Menon explained: “Beauty is being controlled by an exclusive bunch of people who decide how you should look, what you should wear, how your hair should be, what color your contact lenses should be. It’s not allowing beauty to be celebrated in its true spirit, which is in diversity, and uniqueness.” She noted how impressionable young girls’ and boys’ minds are. “It’s not fair to do that.”
Moderated by Fatima Mahdi Karan, a consulting editor with Bloomberg TV India, the panel then deftly turned the debate toward a very modern affliction – ‘the selfie’ – and its effects on the idea of beauty.
Filmmaker R. Balki argued that the global phone camera phenomenon is not an adverse influence on definitions of beauty.
“People nowadays know the best angles for photos. They know lighting a lot better than a lot of cameramen actually. This selfie culture actually lends to more diversity out there,” he said.
Soon enough however, the debate circled back to the types of beauty asserted by Bollywood and whether this is more deleterious for women than men.
“The film industry does set a standard and the definition of beauty needs to be expanded. The new hot thing in films is that you must be young. You must be fresh. It is like buying vegetables,” said Khan.
Menon agreed readily and interjected, “As far as Bollywood goes, actresses have a fairly short life. All the men, Salman Khan, Shahrukh Khan have been around for years and they are playing college boy roles. But for women over the age of 40 or even 35, it is time to play maternal roles.”
Ageing in showbusiness appears to be a global phenomenon.