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Dharmendra to Saif Khan: Womens Changing Tastes

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The changing form and varying appeal of heroes reflects the evolving needs of Indian women.


For women of a certain age, there really cannot be any present generation actor as ‘garam’ as Dharam. Certainly, his sons, both Bobby and Sunny, found it hard to live up to the enduring appeal that Dharmendra had for female fans. While many may find it hard to compare the slightly out-of-shape heroes of yore with the chiseled bodies of today, the changing form and varying appeal of heroes reflects the evolving needs of Indian women.

Dharmendra’s nasal style of speaking, winning smile, and countless scenes romancing heroines in gardens and hillsides may not have added up to great histrionics. But there is no doubt that his arrival on screen made female hearts beat a little faster. Why is that? Because women’s appreciation of an on-screen hero has only a little bit to do with what is being portrayed on the screen. It has a lot to do with the hero’s personality and how it sparks the woman viewer’s imagination to think about him off screen. What the actor’s on screen persona hints about his character, his strengths, his weaknesses, his special attributes – this between-the-lines appeal is what makes heroes special to women.

That is why even Dharmendra had to play second fiddle to someone like Rajendra Kumar in films like ‘Aayee Milan Ki Bela’. In the film, Rajendra Kumar’s is the quieter character, the underdog, whom the heroine entices with song and dance, then runs in terror when he actually responds! The quiet, strong man, with an equal capacity to be firm and gentle, was the epitome of romance in the sixties. Dharmendra played this type, so did Dilip Kumar and Rajendra Kumar, and Sunil Dutt. They rarely had to show their physique. What was inside – heart, guts, a sensitive intelligence, these were the things that turned women on.

As a matter of fact, these still do. As any woman who has or hasn’t read ‘Beauty and the Beast’ will tell you, a woman doesn’t fall in love with the best looking man on earth. It is after she falls in love with him that her man begins to look to her like the best looking man on earth! Thus the strong-yet-soft man with a heart of gold continued to have appeal even in the seventies, though heroes like Rajesh Khanna and Shashi Kapoor considerably diluted the strength of character bit.

And then there was the matter of a phenomenon called Amitabh Bachchan. His brooding looks, suppressed intensity, had a tinge too much violence to really appeal to women’s sense of romance. In fact, it was when Amitabh began to loom on the Hindi screen like a colossus that women’s emotions and concerns were completely relegated to second place. From the Parveen Babis and Zeenat Amans, nothing much other than decorative value was ever expected. Only Rekha managed to match Amitabh in the acting and mileage with the audience department. In rare films like Kabhie Kabhie, or Muqaddar Ka Sikandar, Amitabh showed a more romantic side, but the image of the romantic hero in general had been dented beyond repair in his youth.

It needed Shahrukh Khan to light up women’s eyes with films like Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, ably assisted by the other two Khans – Salman and Aamir. In fact, for a while, this trinity undoubtedly played to many nuances of women’s longing, but with Salman Khan, another trend had also begun to make its appearance – the objectification of the male body. Long used to the male need to drool over the shapely legs, breasts and torsos of women, the Indian audience was finding that women had grown bold enough to squeal with delight when Salman Khan took off his shirt on screen.

Or had they?

A closer look among the wolf whistles and squeals may have revealed that at least as many men were rooting for this raw display of brawn as women were. In fact, with the objectification of male oomph, evolving popular taste in Indian audiences had moved from a feminine appreciation of the finer emotions to a masculine, globalized view of the world – one where power, physique, and real muscle mattered more than what a hero felt from the inside.

The logical derivative from Salman Khan’s daring and baring ways were models turned actors like Arjun Rampal, Dino Morea and John Abraham. Before this plethora of gym-ads, Hrithik Roshan’s appeal in his debut Kaho Naa Pyaar Hai created a mild ripple among women who sensed the reappearance of something sincere, good, and real in emotional terms.

Which is why Saif Khan’s emergence as a big draw among women really explains what women really like in this millennium. With films like Dil Chahta Hai, Hum Tum and Salaam Namaste, Saif brings out the chinks in masculine armour, projecting a bumbling maleness that needs to be steadied by female partnership. Today’s smart, capable woman of the world, who still manages to be sensitive and in touch with her emotions wants just that – a partner who needs her to be whole.


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