Bollywood’s re-imagination of growing old: Tannistha Samanta


Although the Indian Hindi film industry has been known to be considerably less gerontophobic than the western popular culture (Hollywood, in particular), our aging Naanas and Naanis have been often represented as either able keepers of family “sanskars” or hyper-ritualized subjects (with added effect if in some diasporic setting)or as self-sacrificing elderly parents to prodigal children (or ruthless grandchildren).

This trope of senile benevolence is gradually eroding. With movies such as Kapoor & Sons(2016) and a more recent 102, Not Out(2018), Bollywood is slowly marking a gradual shift from elders who demand seva and respect to a new age of growing old that celebrates everything that is youthful”-internet, gaming, outdoors, hanging out or just “having fun”. In Kapoor and Sons, we find a “young-at-heart” Rishi Kapoor as the 90 year old grandpa who routinely fakes and “rehearses” dying by evoking staggering movements from his wheelchair and at the same time watches porn on his grandson’s iPad, desires actresses in rain-soaked sarees, uses face pack to improve skin tone and mischievously body shames the female nurse at the hospital.  Meanwhile, in 102, Not Out, Amitabh Bachhan plays the role of a centenarian with an undying optimism for life who dances away in “Happy Streets” of Mumbai and plays pranks on his 75-year old son (played by Rishi Kapoor). In addition to Rishi Kapoor’s “retirement” to fame, these movies offer a new understanding to navigate the tension between an abundance of post-retirement time and the limited lifetime in old age. This recognition marks the beginning of a new stage of life where older adults engage in things that they could not in their work-lives. This individual-centric way of growing old has ushered in a new generation of movies where age-related illness can coexist alongside the desire to age well. For example, in Kapoor and Sons we see the grandpa with a chronic heart condition while the centenarian in 102, Not Out discloses a progressive medical condition at a climactic point in the movie. This uplifting narrative where growing old (or the lack thereof) is almost perceived as a choice- a personal and a moral project that benefits not only the individual but also the family and society at large resembles the “successful aging” (Robert Havighurst, 1961) movement of the West which turns the (age-related) decline narrative on its head. Although the promise of agelessness is undoubtedly appealing, the intimate link between aging and choice and by that extension personal responsibility is hard to miss. This neoliberal framing of a “good citizen” who engages in pursuits through lifestyle modifications that reduce the risks of burden and dependence is Bollywood’s new gerontological imagination.

Reconfigured masculinity
On the other hand, this obvious need to stay happy (synonymous with youthful), active and occupied is a textbook example of what is known as a “busy ethic” (Ekerdt, 1986)–a counter ageism narrative that justifies the leisure of retirement and “domesticates” retirement by adapting retired life to prevailing societal norms. In these new age senior movies, we see male protagonists in leisure pursuits -listening to music, socializing, gardening, doing tasks around the house-purportedly, keeping busy.In the process, it resocializes(older) men and reconfigures masculinity in newer ways. In both these movies, we see the older male protagonist performing care through the tropes of domesticity (a compassionate dad puts his 75-year-old son to sleep in Not Out or the weepy grandpa in Kapoor… summoning an intercontinental skype call with his grandsons to alleviate the suffering of his recently widowed daughter-in-law). This foregrounds an intimate form of masculinity in Indian cinema, one that combines (generational) authority with domesticated emotional labor.

Gender and the older celebrity discourse
Also interesting in these representations of fun-loving older males is the heavy-duty prosthetic make-up (although in most cases they all look like they are in Halloween costumes, but never mind) making their aged bodies hyper-visible. This hyper-visibility stands in contrast to the invisibility of aged female celebrities, whose bodies face the onslaught of scrutiny (of the use or not of, cosmetic surgery) embodying social-moral anxieties around aging. For older female celebrities, the most significant trope is one of the suspension of time in order to maintain compulsory femininity, an attempt to “overcome” the signs of aging and look ageless. This contrasting expectation, where celebrity men are allowed to age whereas women are maligned if they fail to hide the signs of aging produce a highly gendered celebrity discourse. Feminist scholar, Kathleen Woodward, notes the paradox of rendering the older female body both hyper-visible and invisible. She argues that in a mass-mediated culture there is a visible eradication of age since (female) bodies featured are never old. At the same time, hypervisibility of the older female body is evident in gossip culture where it is perceived as disgusting and ugly unless “corrected” by medical interventions. Significantly, senior actresses in Bollywood who are considered the epitome of older glamor such as Rekha, Hema Malini, Madhuri Dixit (and to some extent Sridevi) uphold the nostalgic notion of femininity and have been linked to the promotion of consumer products that help maintain a youthful look. The fact that none of the two movies discussed here had an aging female actor in a lead role demonstrates Bollywood’s discomfort in portraying female bodies without tout rejuvenation through steroids, plastic surgery, and cosmetic make-overs. While it is encouraging to see Bollywood veer away from the tropes of generational hierarchy, family, and senility in its recent renderings, it still has a long way to go to point us towards a brave new world where (female) mature adulthood is understood in its biological and chronological terms and not through prescriptive management of a process that is entirely natural and inevitable.

Ekerdt, D. J (1986). The busy ethic: Moral continuity between work and retirement. The Gerontologist, 26.
Havighurst, R.J (1961). Successful Aging. The Gerontologist, 1(1).
Woodward, K. (2006). Performing age, performing gender. National Women’s Studies Association, 18(1).

[Tannistha Samanta is a faculty member with the Humanities and Social Sciences department at the Indian Institute of Technology, Gandhinagar (IITGN). She examines the sociological question of inequality through the crosscutting lens of gerontology and family sociology.]

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