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Radhe Aur Adhe: Why Does Bollywood Pair Old Men With Young Women?

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Bollywood has a bad habit of pairing old(er) actors with really young actresses on-screen. Fetishising young women is not just limited to Bollywood, but a pan-India problem. Strangely, the Indian audience doesn’t seem to mind watching heroes in their late 40s play college-going lads.

As I watched the remix of the song “Tip Tip Barsa Pani” (pitter patter, the raindrops fall) in horror, I couldn’t help but wonder that the song would have been more apt, and nicer with Katrina Kaif and Vicky Kaushal, her rumoured boyfriend… Or any other actor in her age bracket, for that matter!

Why is Akshay Kumar even in this song when there’s no Raveena Tandon around? The filmmakers could have taken a cue from the inclusive remix of the 90s song “Sheher Ki Ladki” (girl from a city) featuring the original pair.

Raveena Tandon still looks fabulous… Actually better than Akshay Kumar, who still gets the privilege of acting as the main lead in mainstream movies. Unfortunately, we have normalised and trivialised old actors acting opposite young actresses.

Earlier this year, the movie “Radhe” came under the scanner. Salman Khan is surely not the first 51-year-old actor who has been paired opposite women young enough to be his daughters.

Yet this time, people cringed at the sight of Salman Khan romancing Disha Patani on screen. Especially, the stupid tape kiss scene.

The public reaction to Radhe’s lead cast was surprising. A few years back, the same audience was hooting after watching the “Slow Motion” song, which became a blockbuster hit.

So, what changed all of a sudden in the past couple of years?

Nothing much… If you ask me!

I believe that the backlash was less about the odd pairing, and more about the public hatred towards one of Bollywood’s reigning superstars, Salman Khan, after Sushant Singh Rajput’s controversial death.

Perhaps, it was also because of the mounting antagonistic sentiments towards actors who belong to minority groups, but are the reigning superstars in the film industry. The recent arrest of Aryan Khan as a speculated attack on Shahrukh Khan’s lineage, success, and global popularity is a case in point.

Even if it might be for the wrong reasons, the public did raise its voice against the pairing of Salman Khan and Disha Patani, which is a rare phenomenon.

The Problem Is Not So Skin-Deep 

And, it’s a pan-India menace as well as a global one. Being a Malayali, I cringe every time I watch Malayalam movies with my parents.

It’s horrific and unacceptable for me to watch mainstream male lead actors, such as Mohanlal and Mammooty in their 60s and 70s paired opposite female actors in their early 20s—young enough to be their granddaughters.

Unfortunately, this is an acceptable norm not just in Malayalam movies but also across India and the world.

Think of a much older James Bond canoodling with bikini-clad women less than half his age. Somehow, this is the ultimate sign of manhood. And, it’s utterly despicable that this glorified male fantasy of romancing much younger women is what the majority of the world finds relatable, acceptable, and normal.

The Vulture had published an analytical article a few years ago comparing the ages of three of the most successful Hollywood female actors with their onscreen pairings.

The findings confirmed the prevalent age gap of onscreen couples as a necessary rite of passage for young actresses to enter Hollywood’s A-list category.

Turn The Tables And You Won’t Have Many Takers

How many movies do we have of women romancing much younger men that our audience has embraced wholeheartedly?

Do male celebrities who marry much-younger women face the same kind of judgement women celebrities face when they marry much younger men?

Milind Soman’s personal life is chill. He has a huge fan following that is unaffected after his marriage to Anita Konwar, 26 years younger than him. If anything, the union has added to his popularity and image.

Contrast this with the public reaction that Malaika Arora gets post her divorce and relationship with a much younger Arjun Kapoor.

Malaika Arora and Arjun Kapoor pose for a photo.
Malaika Arora gets trolled for dating her beau, Arjun Kapoor, who is 12 years younger than her. Photo credit: @malaikaarora, Instagram.

There have been numerous predictions of a divorce between Priyanka Chopra and Nick Jones because of their wide age gap. But no male celebrity in a wide age gap relationship goes through such public scrutiny and marriage doomsday prophecies.

I also know people who loved Sushmita Sen earlier but no longer have the same affection for her, all because of Rohman Shawl, a model who is 15 years younger than her.

“What’s wrong with her?” is what I get in response when I probe what changed.

But, the same people don’t bat an eyelid watching almost pedophilic pairings on screen when the genders are reversed. Their double standards are like the proverbial elephant in our sanskaari rooms.

Older Male Actors Want To Have Their Cake And Eat it Too

It’s amusing how onscreen relationships with older actors and younger actresses are not shown as age-gap relationships but with a normal age gap.

For example, a much older Akshay Kumar who played the role of Arunachalam Muruganantham was paired with a younger Radhika Apte, who played his wife. Worse, he was also the object of admiration, love, and desire of Sonam Kapoor, another much younger actress.

Akshay Kumar and Sonam Kapoor from a still in Padman
Akshay Kumar was seen opposite much younger actresses (Sonam Kapoor and Radhika Apte) in Padman. Photo credit: IMDB.

This subliminal and repulsive casting in Padman (ironically preaching social messages) prompted me to give it a 2-2.5 star rating.

Why should male actors talk about women’s empowerment when they don’t practice the same in their industry or make an effort to change the patriarchal norms? No! Starring in women-centric or patriotic movies don’t make the cut.

A random observation is that in our Indian movies, the young actress is always head over heels in love with the older hero’s machoness, honesty, kindness, and innocence. The cherry on the cake is the hero’s nationalism, sending our nubile heroines into multiple orgasms.

The wide age disparity in sexual relationships is rare in real life, comprising less than 5%. Only in the film industry do you have the norm of much older men paired opposite much younger women.

The entertainment industry’s amorous scouting for young actresses to pair them with older actors is unethical, exploitative, and misogynistic.

We Need Realistic And Healthy Portrayals Of Age-Gap Relationships

Even when wide age gap relationships are portrayed onscreen, there is an unmissable fetishisation. The onus seems to be entirely upon the younger female actors to cure the poor older male protagonist’s impotence.

As for the older woman, usually typecast as a teacher or bhabhi, she is a sexual map prop for young, male virgins. The conflict in such storylines is just as absurd, with the poor older protagonist having nightmares of his much younger, attractive partner eloping with a young man.

Why can’t the focus of our filmmakers be more on realistically exploring the relationship dynamics of couples with a wide age gap? Like the generational gap in the mindsets, the health concerns, and more.

Remove The Taboo Around Older Women-Younger Men Relationships

Please show us stories of much older women who are in relationships with younger male partners too.

It’s just as possible for older women and younger men to be attracted to each other. There’s nothing taboo or shameful about it. It’s also possible for younger men to be attracted to an older woman for her personality and not physical looks alone.

It’s hypocritical that we have a term like “cougar” for older women in relationships with younger men indicating they are predators. But, older men like George Clooney’s marriage to a much younger Amal Clooney adds to his charm and sex appeal.

George and Amal Clooney pose for a photo.
George Clooney marrying a much younger woman has only added to his sex appeal, rather than him being perceived as creepy. Photo credit: pinkvilla.com

This perception carries onto the screen as well. There is a visible imbalance of wide age gap relationship portrayals onscreen.

We do not have enough older women playing protagonists alongside younger male actors.

While there are realistic onscreen portrayals of older women and younger men that have gained acceptance among our audience, they are still far and few in-between.

Stop Breadcrumbing Older Female Actors

Another myth that we need to dispel is that older women are unattractive. In contrast, older men are virile demi-gods until they hit their graves, are burned up in ashes, or plucked at by vultures.

Our entertainment industry propagates this blatant lie in the added pretext that the audience wants to see only younger actresses. Because, in real life, many women age better than men, and in fact, they are sought after more than their male partners, unlike what’s shown on screen…

That women age faster than men is a misogynistic and capitalistic lie!

I’m reminded of a statement by Neena Gupta in her interview with Rajeev Masand, post the grand success of her film “Badhaai Ho”. To a question, if she missed anything, she replied instantly:

“I will be admired, not desired at my age.”

And, I literally threw up my hands in the air, shaking my head in defiance, thinking:

Why should this be the case? Why should we settle for this norm that older women are not attractive and desirable?

Think about it!

Isn’t it unfair that aging actors like Salman Khan and Akshay Kumar can romance women like Disha Patani and Kiara Advani; but their counterparts like Sushmita Sen, Raveena Tandon, Shilpa Shetty, or Karishma Kapoor, who have aged better than them, are sidelined and limited to TV shows, advertisements, and at best—OTT web series?

It’s the othering of older female actors that should bother us all. Irrespective of whether they have aged or not, they seem to be outcasted merely because of their gender.

It’s easy to point the finger at the woman (in this case, the actresses’ agency) because she’s always seen as weak and hence, the soft target. We give too much leeway and importance to the men, and treat women like disposable objects.

The question we should be asking is: why can’t older actresses like Raveena Tandon, Karisma Kapoor, or Shilpa Shetty be helming lead roles in mainstream movies like their male counterparts?

Correct Answer: because, an older woman with solid experience in the industry is a threat to her male peers, be it in talent, power, or compensation. Also, they are more difficult to control.

So, if we can accept a leading hero with greying hair and sagging skin, we must also embrace older heroines.

Stop Fetishising Young Women

There is no harm in showing older men and younger women in relationships onscreen. But, please have the honesty and courage to call out the old male protagonist as “old” and stop pretending that this depiction is of a normal age gap couple.

We need more mature and sensitive portrayals of couples with a wide age-gap irrespective of the genders that are not fetishised or fixated on all things penile.

It’s time to give older female actors their due—not breadcrumbing them with side characters on the big screen, lead roles in OTT web series, or TV show contracts, but in lead roles in mainstream cinema with as much compensation as their male counterparts.

Just because the age difference in Bollywood couples has been the norm for ages doesn’t make it necessarily right. Isn’t it high time to change it!

Featured image, a still from the film Radhe, is for representational purposes only. Photo credit: rediff.com
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