‘Hichki’ to ‘Bucket List’: Why are the comeback films of actresses all about empowerment?

Finding a fresh footing in the film industry after a break can be an uphill task, more so for women.

On May 25, Madhuri Dixit-Nene makes her Marathi cinema debut in Bucket List, the story of a middle-aged woman coming into her own after a life spent defining herself as a daughter, wife, and then mother.

Empowerment has been the crux of several of Dixit-Nene’s films since her return to cinema in 2007 after a five-year break after her marriage. After making a comeback with Aaja Nachle, which carried forward her legacy as Bollywood’s dancing queen, Dixit played a widow with shades of grey and homo-erotic undertones in Dedh Ishqiya and the leader of a woman’s vigilante group in Gulaab Gang (2014).

The idea of a woman beating the odds and proving her mettle to the world was also seen earlier this year in Rani Mukerji’s Hichki. The tale of triumph saw Mukerji as a teacher with Tourette’s syndrome who struggles to be taken seriously by her students and peers. The March 23 release marked Mukherjee’s return to cinema after a four-year sabbatical post marriage and motherhood.

Khol De Par, Hichki (2018).

The comeback roles of many other popular actresses have also centred on themes of achievement or the idea of a woman taking on a male-dominated world. Often, these roles depart from the kind of cinema the actresses were known for in their earlier years. For instance, Gulaab Gang also marked the return of Juhi Chawla as a shrewd politician who locks horns with Dixit’s Rajjo. This was the first time that Chawla played an antagonist.

Among the more successful comeback films was Sridevi’s English Vinglish (2012), which saw the superstar return to cinema after over a decade in the role of a housewife who takes English lessons to prove a point to her family. She followed that up with Mom (2017), in which she plays a mother who takes the law into her own hands to avenge her daughter’s rape.

Revenge for her daughter’s rape was also the theme of Raveena Tandon’s Maatr (2017), her first film in two years and her first lead role in over a decade. Aishwarya Rai Bachchan returned to acting after a five-year post-pregnancy sabbatical in Jazbaa (2015) as a lawyer forced to defend a rapist in court after he abducts her daughter. Manisha Koirala made her comeback as a lonely and reclusive middle-aged woman whose zest for life two teenaged girls try to reignite in Dear Maya (2017).

English Vinglish (2012).

Jyothika returned to acting after seven years with the 2015 Tamil film 36 Vayadhinile as a 36-year-old woman who rediscovers her ambitions after losing herself to her marital responsibilities. 36 Vayadhinile was a remake of the Malayalam film How Old Are You (2014), which marked Manju Warrier’s return to acting after 14 years.

Though smaller in number, some actresses have made their cinematic comebacks in films that are not female-centric narratives of empowerment. These include Karisma Kapoor’s supernatural thriller Dangerous Ishq (2012) and Preity Zinta’s Ishkq in Paris (2014). Both films tanked at the box office.

Meanwhile, Kajol’s comeback vehicle was Rohit Shetty’s Dilwale (2015), in which she reunited with Shah Rukh Khan in an ensemble cast that included Varun Dhawan and Kirti Sanon. Though it made money, the film was not among Shetty’s most popular films. Kajol is now working in Eela, in which she plays a single mother in what is once again being heralded as a comeback role.

How Old Are You (2014).

Finding a fresh footing in the film industry after a break can be an uphill task. And actresses seem to have to do it at a rate several times higher than Indian cinema’s leading men. Bollywood’s patriarchal bent has been well documented , and the problem is not limited to Hindi cinema. Though it’s gradually changing now, actresses have for decades found it difficult to continue playing objects of desire after marriage and motherhood, even as their male counterparts romance women half their age and play college students past the age of 40.

This could well by why achievement, empowerment and reinvention are at the core of so many comeback films – finding fresh relevance in an industry that has long moved on is, after all, a feat. The movies are also fittingly publicised and their female-centricisim highlighted, perhaps because the idea of a woman as the protagonist of a film remains a novelty even today.

The media hype around actresses’s return to cinema after a hiatus has been called out by many stars as well. “I have made at least fifth or sixth comebacks,” Tandon said in a 2017 interview. “Honestly, the word comeback does not bother me. It is a cliched line and media keeps using it.”

Maatr (2017).

The fuss is considerably dialled down when men make their way back to films after a long break. Examples of grand comebacks for male actors are much fewer – many of the reigning stars of the 1990s still dominate the industry. Salman Khan, Aamir Khan, Shah Rukh Khan, Akshay Kumar, Saif Ali Khan and Ajay Devgn continue to share space with the newer crop that has emerged in the 2000s. Older actors such as Anil Kapoor, Nana Patekar and before that, Rishi Kapoor, never really went away, but slipped into different kinds of roles.

Back in 1997, after a semi-retirement, Amitabh Bachchan came back as an angry (though not so young) man in Mrityudata (1997), though it wouldn’t be until the 2000s that he went regained his lost glory. More recently, Telugu star Chiranjeevi returned to acting after an eight-year political stint with Khaidi No. 150, which harked back to his earlier films Khaidi (1983) and Khaidi No. 786 (1988).

Meanwhile, Sanjay Dutt’s comeback vehicle was 2017’s Bhoomi, where he continued to play the macho hero who saves the day as he has in several other films. This was his first film appearance in three years, the hiatus enforced by his imprisonment for possession of illegal weapons in the 1993 Mumbai blasts case. In the interim, Dutt had been immortalised in Hindi cinema through the announcement of a biopic based on his life, starring Ranbir Kapoor as the controversial star. The film, expected to release this June, is one of 2018’s most anticipated movies.

Bhoomi (2017).

This year will see Govinda trying to restablish his credentials in the industry after a string of commercial disappointments. His upcoming film, FryDay, is being heralded as his comeback, even though he was last seen in 2017’s forgettable Aa Gaya Hero.

The movie is scheduled to be released on May 25, on the same day as Madhuri Dixit-Nene’s Bucket List. On the day that Dixit-Nene’s character undertakes a series of firsts in her journey towards self-actualisation, Govinda will go back to doing what he does best – comedy.

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