On a typical day, movie studios in Mumbai – the heart of Bollywood – open several hours before filming is due to begin.
An army of hairstylists, make-up artists, nail technicians and fashion designers are poised to start the long process of converting actresses such as Rani Mukerji and Kareena Kapoor Khan into the glamorous, flawless creatures we see on screen, with impeccable skin and perfect hair.
But the Hindi film industry is slowly changing this age-old practice, with an increasing number of scripts demanding more realistic, fleshed-out female characters who are more true to life and easier to relate to.
Roles that require actresses to face the camera without much make-up are fraught with complications in Bollywood, however. Unlike the high praise heaped on Hollywood actress Jennifer Aniston for her unglamorous role in Cake (2014), Indian actresses are expected to look desirable all the time.
But times are changing. Alia Bhatt is already a pioneer in portraying less glamorous characters, from her role in Highway (2014) as a kidnap victim who develops Stockholm syndrome, to playing an addict in hard-hitting drug drama Udta Punjab. With only three changes of sweat-stained clothes, and mud caked on her face and hair for the duration of the movie, Bhatt was not a pretty sight – but she got the best reviews of her career.
Aishwarya Rai Bachchan was crowned Miss World in 1994 and is still considered one of the most beautiful women in Bollywood. The 42-year-old is frequently seen – on and off-screen – in outfits by top international designers and flawless make-up by cosmetics firm L’OrÃ©al (for which she is an ambassador).
However, in her most recent film, Sarbjit (2016), based on a true story, she was cast as a middle-aged textile-mill worker with greying hair, thick spectacles and frumpy clothes. She portrayed Dalbir Kaur, a woman with an abusive ex-husband, trying to get justice for her wrongly accused brother who has been jailed as a spy in Pakistan.
International star Priyanka Chopra is another actress who has defied convention.
In 2014’s Mary Kom, she portrays a real-life Olympic boxer, wearing vests and running shorts, with a scrunched-up ponytail and a face scrubbed clean of make-up.
In Barfi! (2012), meanwhile, she slipped effortlessly into the role of an autistic woman – with frizzy hairdo, childlike smock dresses and dull cardigans.
In 2015’s Tanu Weds Manu Returns, Kangana Ranaut took on dual roles as daintily pretty Tanu, and student-hockey player Kusum. Kusum sported buckteeth, cropped hair and boyish clothes – and won several awards for her bold performance.
While a growing number of leading ladies are going down this less glamorous but more rewarding route, here’s hoping authenticity continues to triumph over shallow and insubstantial roles.
Source: art & life