Is Age Really Just a Number?
Well, we have all heard before how we shouldn’t let age become a barrier to our dreams, hopes and ambitions. But what if society as a whole starts rejecting you once you hit a certain age? What if a few wrinkles, the growing white near your temples, and the ache in your limbs are seen as a blaring sign of incapability?
India is one of the countries that account for the highest prevalence of ageism, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). So, how does that manifest itself into cinema and the film industry? Let’s delve deeper and find out.
What is Ageism?
The WHO defines ageism as “the stereotypes (how we think), prejudice (how we feel) and discrimination (how we act) towards others or oneself based on age”. It can affect everyone, on both extremes of the age spectrum. From patronising behaviour towards the old to the lack of decision-making autonomy for the young, ageism can be highly limiting and restricting. However, because our culture tends to idealise youth, older people are more frequently the targets of age-based prejudice, hostility and antagonism.
On a systemic level, ageism is pervasive and entrenched in our society, institutions and relationships. Especially noticed in workplaces, it gives way to hiring bias as well as exclusion. It manifests itself in our language too, with phrases such as “past your prime” or “young at heart” clawing their way into our daily lingo. Deemed as trivial, inconsequential, and mostly harmless, it often goes unnoticed and unexamined. Yet that doesn’t imply that we should turn a blind eye or put up with these unjust practices.
Ageism in the Film Industry
Does a 60-year-old actor romancing an actress almost half his age irk you and ruffle your feathers? Have you ever noticed how the male actors in our industry are growing older and older, but their female counterparts are only getting younger? Well, these are all instances of ageism on the big screen. Age discrimination has been compounded with sexism to make Bollywood a highly discriminatory space. Aging is a natural phenomenon. It is as inevitable as you breathing or blinking as you read this article. Yet the mere idea of an older actress on-screen, much less romancing a young, 25-year-old male is foreign and unacceptable to us.
Why are only male actors given the opportunity to age gracefully? While they are glamorised as the “silver foxes”, the female actors are cast aside into the shadows the moment they enter a certain age bracket. They are sidelined to supporting roles and are painted into discriminatory, one-dimensional archetypes (usually the male protagonist’s aged mother). Entertainment writer, Stephen Whitty, has explained these double standards in the film industry in a much more concise manner. He says that while “women get old, men just get… older.” Younger female stars are also asked to portray characters much older than them, despite there being no dearth of older and age-appropriate actors.
The remake of the iconic song ‘Tip Tip Barsa Paani’ is another such example of blatant ageism and sexism presented by Bollywood. The present-day take on the almost thirty year old song has the same catchy beats, the same pounding rain, the same sizzling chemistry, and the same actor. But guess what’s different? The female actor, Raveena Tandon, has been replaced by a much younger Katrina Kaif in the new rendition while Akshay Kumar stars in both versions. The screen and audience is only kind to the man, making aging look good, but only on him.
A lot of factors are at play here, leading to these instances of discrimination. The first is how, for women in society, youthfulness is equated with the notion of beauty and goodness. Older women are considered unattractive, undesirable, and displeasing while the prevalent perception of beauty is tied to looking and being younger. A female actor’s value diminishes over time, only surviving till the time she “maintains her face and figure”.
Another reason, that follows closely behind, is the glorified male gaze. Female protagonists are frequently portrayed as objects of desire who are seductive, flirtatious, and unmistakably feminine. The moment they start looking and acting any different from the male ideal of beauty, they are rejected and dismissed. This narrative perpetuates a hypermasculine, heteronormative point of view and is undeniably propagated by the film industry. Women frequently serve as accessories, props, or arm candy in stories that revolve around men. Their roles often have no depth, making them succumb to superficial characters which paint them as “damsels in distress”.
In the long run, these widespread, eurocentric beauty standards, which emphasise on youth, have proven to have protracted effects, with the entire beauty and cosmetic industry dedicated towards trying to reverse aging. Female actors feel strong-armed into undergoing cosmetic surgeries, chemical treatments, and inhumane diets. Unhealthy practices are, at times, adopted by them to look a certain way. These, in turn, get reflected in society, leading to impressionable girls and women mirroring the same behaviour. Capitalism and growing consumerism are also to be blamed for instilling and exploiting the fear of old age in society
Life doesn’t come to a standstill once you start showing signs of aging, so why does its depiction and representation in films? Selective ageism is pervasive in the film industry, with female actors facing the brunt of it. It’s high time that filmmakers stop writing their characters in archaic, outdated, and regressive ways and use age-appropriate casting to better serve the plot of the film. Rather than relying on old and worn out cliches, we must demand progressive and inclusive roles. The audience, as well, must be held accountable for how harshly they criticise and deprecate aging females for their looks in the space.
Looking at the bigger picture, like the United States, India needs codified laws to specifically condemn age biases and discrimination. Maintaining diversity is paramount, even across different age groups. We all will end up getting old someday, so why ostracise women for it? They shouldn’t feel the need to hide their age or reverse a normal, biological process on the big screen. Although the situation might be gradually improving, eliminating society’s entrenched conditioning stands at the core of this issue.