Karan Johar’s Ae Dil Hai Mushkil has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. Here is a right one: the movie features Ranbir Kapoor’s character Ayan in advanced stages of intimacy with Aishwarya Rai’s poet Saba. Nothing out of the ordinary, perhaps, except for the fact that Saba has spent a few more years on the planet than Ayan.
Rai is an extraordinarily good-looking 42, while Kapoor is 34 – a mere eight-year gap that should not raise eyebrows at all. Yet, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil is being heavily talked up ahead of its October 28 release for the alleged “sizzling chemistry” between Rai and Kapoor – a welcome change from the days when men lost their hearts to older women only to hold their wrinkled hands on the way to the crematorium, their love often unrequited and unconsummated.
In Farhan Akhtar’s Dil Chahta Hai (2001), Akshay Khanna’s character Sid falls for Dimple Kapadia’s divorcee Tara. The script spells out the reasons for this unusual affection in capital letters: Sid is an artist and therefore susceptible to Bohemian thoughts, while Tara is an alcoholic and already on the fringes of respectability. Sid is in attendance when Tara loses her battle to cirrhosis of the liver. If the situation had been reversed, it is possible that Sid might have been cured by Tara’s ministrations – after all, conventional wisdom dictates that young women revive the sagging spirits and libidos of their older partners.
Male matinee idol are permitted to age, sometimes badly, and still woo barely legal women with the help of judicious make-up and carefully filmed songs and romantic sequences.
The examples of what should actually be labelled May-December romances are numerous, and they reflect the bias against giving actresses romantic lead roles after they cross 35. In Dhoom 3 and Sultan, Aamir Khan and Salman Khan look far too seasoned to be the boyfriends of Katrina Kaif and Anushka Sharma respectively. Akshay Kumar’s remarkable fitness levels ensures that the 49-year-old star is aging gracefully, but his heroines have been getting younger and younger (Kaif in Welcome and Singh is Kinng, Amy Jackson in Singh is Bliing, Sonakshi Sinha in Holiday and Rowdy Rathore and Ileana D’Cruz in Rustom).
Rajinikanth has the rare distinction of romancing a heroine who once played a character young enough to be his daughter (Meena in Anbulla Rajinikanth in 1984 and Muthu in 1995). In Kabali (2016), a digitally touched up Rajinikanth stars with Radhika Apte as his wife in the flashback sequences. When they meet later, his hair has gone white, but she has aged remarkably well – and still looks too young to be his partner. The real-life age gap between the two actors is 34 years.
While much has been made of actresses signing up films with actors barely a few years younger than them – one magazine noted with awe that “Priyanka Chopra, 30 romances Ranveer Singh & Arjun Kapoor, both 27 in Gunday” – male stars rarely face such scrutiny. All the three superstar Khans will have turned 51 by the end of 2016, but their heroines remain in the 20-35 age bracket. Anushka Sharma is 28, Deepika Padukone is 30, Priyanka Chopra is 34, while Katrina Kaif is 33. Sharma was 20 to Shah Rukh Khan’s 43 when she made her debut in Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi in 2008. Outrage over the alleged pairing of Khan with 23-year-old Alia Bhatt in the November 25 release Dear Zindagi subsided after it was revealed that he plays her dishy therapist.
Superstars who professionally outlive the heroines with whom they started their careers have a special licence to cradle snatch. At the top of the list is Telugu giant NT Rama Rao, whose enduring appeal allowed him to play Humbert Humbert to various Lolitas. In Srinatha Kavi Sarvabhowmudu, NTR’s last release in 1993 before his death in 1996, he was paired with Jayasudha, who was 35 at the time and half his age.
Stardom often blinds audiences into forgetting their misgivings over the union between wrinkles and vigour. Kamal Haasan was 52 when Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu was released in 2006. The character who becomes his second wife is played by Jyothika, who was born in 1978, the year Haasan headlined such memorable films as Sigappu Rojakkal and Maro Charithra.
May-December romances sometimes need to be written into scripts to justify the age chasm between characters. Amitabh Bachchan’s never-ending career has outstripped those of the women who are best suited to playing his screen partners. Bachchan was perfectly paired with Hema Malini in Baghban (2003) and Sharmila Tagore in Viruddh (2005), but he has also had the privilege of romancing visibly younger beauties through plot machinations, including Nandita Das (Aks, 2001). In Ram Gopal Varma’s creepy Nishabd (2007), Bachchan’s senior citizen falls for the not-yet-adult Jiah Khan. R Balki’s debut Cheeni Kum (2007) makes a big to-do about Bachchan’s 64-year-old chef and his 34-year-old girlfriend, played by Tabu. Paresh Rawal, who plays Tabu’s father in the movie, is horrified, especially since the news is broken to him when both men are relieving themselves.
Among the few films to seriously tackle the opprobrium caused by age gaps is K Balachander’s Apoorva Raagangal (1975). Balachander daringly portrays two sets of taboo relationships: between a young man and an older woman and his father and her daughter. The lyrics of the climactic song Kelviyin Nayagane tell us how things are going to end. A deus ex machina in the human form of the older woman’s husband prevents convention from being violated. Mother and daughter are reunited and drive off in an Ambassador as the two men in their lives look on sadly.
Some older women get to keep their men after battles with the world and themselves. Such men and women are placed in unorthodox milieus that permit such behaviour to flourish. Poorna Jagannathan’s journalist character in the comedy Delhi Belly (2011) appears to be not only older but also more sexually experienced than Imran Khan’s put-upon hero. Kareena Kapoor’s Kia too is older than Arjun Kapoor’s Kabir in Ki and Ka (2016) as well as the one who works while he prefers to be a house husband. In the neo-noir BA Pass (2013), an orphan is first seduced by an older married woman – the archetypal heavy-breathing “aunty” of the male imagination – and then pimped by her to other similarly needy women, one of whom curses her husband while consorting with the younger man.
The older woman who gets to keep her man without being shamed for it? Of all the Hollywood movies being optioned for remakes in Bollywood, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, about a 40-year-old woman and her 20-year-old lover, is not among them – yet.
The other movie that is opening on October 28 alongside Ae Dil Hai Mushkil is Shivaay, directed by and starring Ajay Devgn. The 47-year-old actor is paired with the 28-year-old Polish actress Erika Kaar and the 19-year-old Sayesha Saigal. One film appears to be challenging convention, while the other conforms to the norm that while women age, men only mature.