- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 27, 2011

MUMBAI | In “No One Killed Jessica,” the new year’s first big release from India’s billion-dollar Bollywood film industry, there is no manly hero shooting from the hip.

The female leads of the film are not glammed up, do not break into hip-swinging musical numbers, do not shed their clothes and are not mere love interests for the larger-than-life hero.

The estimated $3.5 billion Bollywood film industry banks heavily on such formulas, but now there is a whiff of change, with women playing central roles in films like “No One Killed Jessica,” which is based on a notorious real-life Indian criminal case.

Instead, Vidya Balan sports a deglamorized bespectacled look as the crusading sister of the titular character, while hugely popular Bollywood actress Rani Mukerji essays a hard-nosed TV journalist modeled after a famous Indian TV personality.

“Hopefully the success of ‘No One Killed Jessica’ will silence those who refuse to change with the changing times,” Bollywood film industry’s noted trade analyst, Taran Adarsh, said, noting some of the other commercial barriers the film faced at home, including its English title, its real-life basis and the poor time of the year.

“No One Killed Jessica” is a no-frills docudrama about the fatal 1999 shooting of Jessica Lall, a rising model and part-time barmaid, by Manu Bhardwaj, a powerful politician’s son, at a New Delhi socialite’s party over her refusing him a drink. The incident — and the authorities’ initial dismissal of the case against Bhardwaj — had sparked outrage and huge media coverage until Bhardwaj was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment in 2006.

In an emotional drama that races from police stations to courtrooms to news-channel sting operations, the two female protagonists call the shots — fighting the combined might of corrupt police, political muscle and a judiciary hamstrung by hostile witnesses.

“They are simply films about people, striking a balance between men and women. And thankfully for me, a lot of interesting films are happening these days, despite the fact that I only want to do roles that are challenging and exciting,” co-star Ms. Balan said.

And the film worked at the box office, netting 270 million rupees (nearly $6 million) in its first week, giving a boost to other new filmmakers who are not deterred by sex bias in the hero-oriented Bollywood film industry and who want to make women-centric films.

In 2010, “Ishqiya” (“Lovestruck”) starred Vidya Balan in the role of a stoic semi-rustic woman who uses two men to avenge her renegade spouse, and also became a hit. At the tail end of the year the film “Mirch” (“Spice”) created ripples for its bold treatment of female sexuality and infidelity.

“There is a perceptible change. Women can just be the star of the film. They are now more aggressive and the audience accepts it,” Rajkumar Gupta, the director of “No One Killed Jessica,” told The Washington Times.

“The landscape of Indian cinema is changing. Different combinations are now at work. The gender issue is blurring,” he said, buoyed by the strong popular response to the film despite a mixed critical reception.

“It has taken some time, but now the content matters. Even male superstars cannot pull a film if there is no content,” he said.

“What used to be considered very commercial can be a box office dud now,” says Mr. Gupta whose film shows Ms. Mukerji using the F-word at the drop of a hat and overrunning men.

According to Vinay Shukla, the maker of the sexually loaded “Mirch,” Indian women are now empowered by themselves and the films are reflection of that social changey. With the advent of multiplexes, urban Indian women feel more secure in the theatres now — unlike in the past when catcalls and whistles were common occurrences.

“More women are working now and they can go to a multiplex and watch a movie with subjects as bold as ‘Mirch,’” Mr. Shukla told The Times.

He said he is not afraid of making women-centric films.

“The choice of women in central character is easy for us, because we are budget filmmakers. The popular notion of a male star driving the box office success does not deter us,” he said.

“My film is not a rom-com, not an action flick. It deals with female adultery with humor,” he said of the film, which has four stories centered on adultery with one drawn from a popular Indian fable.

Nearly 900 movies are made in India every year — the most of any nation in the world, India also having the world’s largest box office in terms of number of tickets sold — with the majority of them being produced in Bollywood, the Hindi film industry based in India’s teeming western city Mumbai.

According to Bollywood industry news, more women-in-lead films, especially with small to medium-sized budgets, will reach Indian screens in 2011 as well as screens around the world that cater to Indian-immigrant communities in North America, Britain and elsewhere.

This year, popular actress Priyanka Chopra will be seen in “Saat Khoon Maaf” (“Pardoning Seven Murders”), a film in which she kills her seven spouses.

As Mr. Shukla points out: “The new woman in India is emerging. There is a change in the society. She is now a completely independent individual.”

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