With Amala dropped from a film after announcing her marriage, the question returns. Why does the Tamil film industry persist with the outdated idea that married actresses cannot play romantic leads? Subha J. Rao finds out

When actress Laila, who redefined bubbliness in Tamil cinema, walks down the streets of Mumbai, where she lives with her husband and two children, she still gets admiring glances. Sometimes, she is mistaken for a college girl. But when South Indian producers and directors call the actress, all they offer are ‘mother’ roles. “Why should I play the hero’s mother? I don’t look like one,” argues Laila.

When reigning queen bee Simran swapped the arc lights for a life with her love in 2003, lead roles all but dried up, except for a meaty role in Gautham Menon’s Vaaranam Aayiram. Madhoo, the Roja girl, marked her return to Tamil films as a mother in Balaji Mohan’s rom-com Vaayai Moodi Pesavum. After marriage and children, Nadiya, the South Indian film industry’s eternal sweetheart, has got ‘dignified’ roles, not lead roles.

Married actresses just don’t get to play romantic leads in Tamil cinema. Immediately after the popular Amala Paul recently announced her marriage with director Vijay, news came of her being dropped from Telugu movie Vastah Nee Venaka, the makers claiming that her being married would affect the film’s takings.

It’s a problem actresses face, admits a top director. “Producers tend to think that married actresses lack ‘desirability’ and won’t draw in audiences. That mentality has to change. Married male actors flaunt their children with pride and still have women fans, don’t they? Why is this not applicable for actresses? Does talent vanish overnight after marriage?”

A producer, on condition of anonymity, defends the case. He points out that even a top-billed Kareena Kapoor was not successful after marriage in teeny-bopper roles — love story Gori Tere Pyaar Mein did not set hearts racing. Even an Aishwarya Rai, who took a break after getting pregnant, managed only a couple of films after marriage. In reality, though, Hindi films have been far more forgiving than Tamil ones. Dimple Kapadia famously got some of her most fantastic and seductive roles after marriage and kids. More recently, Vidya Balan has attracted author-backed roles, and Kajol starred in Fanaa and My Name is Khan.

“Why don’t audiences and producers understand that a woman has so much to give even after marriage or children?” asks a Tamil director. “Why can’t they be given maternity leave and welcomed right back?” Agrees Laila: “We go through so many experiences; a new range of emotions are within our reach now; things that we have lived, felt.”

As Suriya says, after a point, actors should not matter; only characters should. “An actor’s job is to camouflage himself into a character and ensure the audience never sees the actor on screen. Where does one’s personal status get into this equation?” he wonders. It remains a blind spot, though, in the Tamil industry. Things will change, says G. Dhananjayan, chief, South Business, Studios, Disney-UTV, when South India embraces the multiplex culture. This would mean more mature audiences with fewer hang-ups. “It’s up to the industry to tap their talent and write roles to suit their new status,” he says, pointing out that Meena was perfect as a homemaker in Malayalam blockbuster Drishyam.

The question, though, is not about ‘correct’ roles. The question is, if much-married actors can woo heroines half their age, why can’t a married actress get the same roles she did a month before she got married? Balaji Mohan, whose Kaadhalil Sodhupuvadhu Yeppadi and Vaayai Moodi Pesavum were both multiplex darlings, agrees: “People must have the ability to look beyond this.” But clearly, both industry and audiences still have a long way to go.

Different in small screen

Interestingly, leading ladies on the small screen, especially Hindi TV serials, have managed to hold on to lead roles, even romantic ones, after marriage. Think of the fragile-looking Sangita Ghosh. She scorched screens every evening with her smoking-hot chemistry with the much younger Ruslaan Mumtaz in the just-concluded Jee Le Zara. Then there’s Shilpa Shirodkar, who took a break after marriage only to make a comeback with the popular series Ek Mutthi Aasmaan, where she plays the lead — a domestic worker with dreams for her children. A gracious Poonam Dhillon plays the lead in Ekk Nayi Pehchaan, a story about a loving but illiterate wife of a business tycoon who learns to read, thanks to her bahu’s efforts.