Breaking the ‘Actress’ Mould / by Tara Kaushal

April 2016: Does the mainstreaming of actresses who are mothers, like Waluscha de Sousa, signal a shift in the way we see women?

The word 'actress' has been the subject of much feminist/linguistic questioning and debate. Must it be clubbed with obsolete words from a time when professions where the preserve of one sex—like authoress, comedienne, manageress, lady doctor, male nurse, male teacher—and, therefore, rejected? Or does it fall under the more advanced, newer envisioning of gender dynamic—different but equal—and, therefore, reclaimed? 

While I'm of the latter opinion, I am not surprised at its outright rejection by so many young female actors. (To quote Stephen Prichard of The Guardian, "Being obliged to describe someone as a 'female actor' suggests that we still consider the term ‘actor’ to be fundamentally male, so why not keep the unambiguous 'actress'?") After all, the word ‘actress’ does come with a whole lot of baggage.

An actress was necessarily a fair and virginal PYT, whose primary role was to evoke love, lust and longing in the hearts of fervid fans. Acting prowess was important but not paramount. In her private life, (the appearance of) virginity or at least singleness was a prerequisite. Marriage and/or age and most certainly kids dashed the illusion of her availability, and were the end of her career.

On the other hand, an actor evoked, or hoped to evoke adulation and respect, feelings different in quality from those reserved for actresses. More than just a pretty face, his acting style and persona were important. He could have a complicated love life and marry multiple times, not to mention run over people and assist terrorists. His ageing served to only increase the age gap between him and his female leads.

Divya Bharti, who acted in several successful movies after her marriage to Sajid Nadiadwala (cut short by her tragic death in under a year), may have been on her way to breaking the trend in the early 1990s. Then, we lost Juhi, Karishma, Madhuri, Sonali and Kajol to post-marriage sabbaticals, whether voluntary or not. Finally, this decade has seen Kareena Kapoor Khan, who lived with a much older man of a different religion before marrying him. Sunny Leone, who was a porn star and is married, loud and proud of both. Radhika Apte is married. So is South Indian actress Abhirami.

Enter former model Waluscha de Sousa, who makes her debut in Shah Rukh Khan's Fan later this week. A single mother of three at 33 (she's divorced from Marc Robinson who she married at 19), she breaks all stereotypes, and joins the ranks of women redefining the mores of Hindi cinema. Not to mention society in general, if art reflects life and vice versa.

After much ado about this thing, now let’s just hope she can act.

An edited version of this article appeared on iDiva in April 2016.