Sridevi died as she had lived, a beautiful enigma in the looking glass world of Bollywood. The conspiracy theories spawned by her untimely and so far inexplicable death may be entirely off the mark. What’s disturbing are the intense debates sparked by her passing, on the peculiar stresses to which female stars of a certain age are subject: looking good, defying age and staying relevant.
Going gently and elegantly into the evening of life, like Waheeda Rehman, is no longer the norm or so we are given to understand. Greying is passé. Critics point to advertisements featuring increasingly youthful mothers, purchasing diamonds and lingerie, streaking their hair and having adventures. These, along with the ever-youthful Sridevi and Madhuri, are the new role models for women in their 40s and 50s.
The recognition that female sexuality does and should survive domesticity and motherhood is encouraging and empowering. The Gen X woman’s identity transcends her role as wife and mother and liberates her from the stereotyped image of benevolent grandmother, whose only remaining relevance is her ample and nurturing lap.
Some writers have animadverted on the new stereotype for women in their 40s and 50s. Post-children and menopause, the ideal woman sheds her comfortable pounds and is whittled into Jane Fonda-esque proportions, nipped and tucked into photogenic perfection. Being adjudged as looking her daughter’s age is gradually becoming the gold standard for this demographic.
The beauty industry comes in for criticism on the impossible benchmarks it is seeking to set, in order to offload an ever-expanding array of age-defying formulations of doubtful efficacy. Some are benign, but others are controversial (such as those which contain the skin-lightening compound hydroquinone).
On one hand, industry can hardly be blamed for targeting women in their middle years, a numerically significant segment of whom are now economically independent, with the ability to exercise purchasing choices outside the domestic sphere. Mining this demographic for gold through air-brushed images of wrinkle-free stars, is in keeping with the modus operandi of big business, ie, create and cater to demand.
It also means that older people are more relevant than ever. A large number of Hollywood films and TV series focussing on senior citizens have done well at the box office. Diane Keaton, Meryl Streep and Jane Fonda have all played romantic leads in their 50s, 60s and 70s. Sridevi herself essayed roles of wife and mother in her comeback films. The very fact that Fonda and her co-star Lily Tomlin, both in their 70s, can carry the TV series ‘Grace and Frankie’ on their own, is an indication that ageing gracefully is cool.
On the other hand, the ‘no more greys’ and banish the ‘seven signs of ageing’ revolution may, in the short run, turn society increasingly ageist. Children, who were once comfortable with plump, hair-in-a-neat-bun, sari-clad mommies, may now be embarrassed by their appearance and sartorial choices.
Sridevi, when she returned after a 15-year hiatus, looked impossibly youthful and glamorous. As a result, terrabytes were expended on social media in debating the form and extent of the plastic surgery she must have undergone to look the way she did. Her fitness regimen, reportedly comprising two hours a day, was spoken of with awe and admiration.
After her passing, disturbing questions have been raised on the evils visited by the body-shaming cosmetic giants on young women – bulimia, anorexia, lipo-suction, slimming pills, stomach stapling, etc and whether older women eventually fall prey to these as well.
The fact is that a woman’s choice of ‘look’ lies with her alone. She will be judged, regardless of what choices she makes, so she might as well make the one with which she is comfortable. If cheek or breast implants can engender psychological benefits, why not? If a streak of electric blue hair in the midst of black or grey pleases her sensibilities or if encasing thunder thighs in tight leggings (as Sridevi in her chunkier avatar wanted to do) and love handles in body-hugging T-shirts makes her feel strong, let her go for it.
Subtle pressures are also exerted on women of a certain age to be economically productive in order to stay relevant. Recognising and tapping into the potential of the 50+ demographic is excellent, as long as it is not an imposition. The acceptable response to the dreaded question of ‘so what do you do?’ is not ‘I exist beautifully’ or ‘I’m a retired actor’ or ‘a homemaker’. One must ‘be’ and ‘do’ something, be it artisanal cooking, some form of art, teaching Yoga or running an NGO.
Fitness is a desirable goal for women of all ages. So is engagement with the world, in some form or the other. But social pressures cannot dictate women’s choices. It is comforting to believe that Sridevi chose to live as she did, and to divorce her life choices from the sad fact of her premature passing.
The writer is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author.