Why is it that we have a paucity of acting talent at the top? Is it because the industry prefers to restrict women to glamorous roles?

Thank God for Vidya Balan and “The Dirty Picture”. And that the movie has pushed her into the Rs. 100 crore league, alongside Katrina Kaif, Kareena Kapoor and Priyanka Chopra. Heaven knows we could do with more actresses up there. Hindi cinema is perilously short of women who can hunker down and act as opposed to those who dress the part, look sexy, learn their lines and try somewhat sincerely but not too successfully.

Pick the biggies of 2011 and you'll find that most directors don't seem to be able to look beyond the four girls we talked about. One of whom can go from exquisite to disastrous, another who is always competent but never great, a third whose acting skills are best left unanalysed, and a fourth who is usually good, sometimes great. I leave you to figure that one out.

With Rani Mukerji short of too many offers, Aishwarya Rai and Kajol easing off with their respective babies, and Madhuri Dixit's comeback bid skidding, all we have at the very top today are four big-leaguers. Not enough to last a count on one hand or fill up the roles in major projects.

Consider: Of the 10 top grossers of the year — “Bodyguard”, “Ra.One”, “Ready”, “Singham”, “Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara”, “Don 2”, “The Dirty Picture”, “Mere Brother Ki Dulhan”, “Rockstar” and “Yamla Pagla Deewana” — Kareena has two, so has Katrina, Priyanka has one (unexpectedly for her and us, “7 Khoon Maaf” bombed or she'd have had two as well) and Vidya Balan has one. So four actresses have pocketed seven of the top 10 grossers.

Which leaves the other three films for Asin (whose career hasn't quite hit the high spots in Bollywood), Kajal Iyer and Nargis Fakhri (both debutantes in films clearly built around the hero).

You could try to flip this argument on its head and say, all those films were hits because they had these actresses, but let's get real — the only girl that would apply to would be Vidya Balan in “The Dirty Picture” and to a far lesser degree, Katrina Kaif in “Mere Brother Ki Dulhan”. The other films rode predominately on their heroes.

What's worse is that the top four actresses also double as item girls or do cameos in pretty much the same lot of films. For instance, “Bodyguard” had Kareena in the lead with Katrina doing an item number there. The soon-to-release “Agneepath” has Priyanka Chopra in the lead role, with Katrina Kaif doing an item number there as well. “Ra.One” featured Kareena Kapoor in the lead role with Priyanka Chopra doing a cameo in the beginning of the film. Which was revenge or a reversal of sorts since the first “Don” had Priyanka in the lead, with Kareena doing a cameo and an item number. It's like one of those toy trains that keeps going round and round on the same set path.

What's even worse, the second rung of female stars, which features Deepika Padukone, Bipasha Basu, Sonam Kapoor, Sonakshi Sinha and Kangna Ranaut, can't boast of a single truly good actress. Unless it is Kangna Ranaut on past performance, since it certainly cannot be on current form; the actress who started off so promisingly seems to have lost her way in a haze of makeup and tacky onscreen glamour. The others are all beautiful, sexy, professional — but can you see any of them shoulder an ambitious role? Can you visualise any of them in “Chandni Bar”, “Omkara”, “Lajja”, “Devdas”, “Jodhaa Akbar” or “Fashion”? They are the glam gals, and sure, we'd like a bit of that as well, but what about some serious acting, please?

What this effectively means is that if a director has a strong role for a woman, his choices are pretty limited right now. Even less than four. Because Katrina Kaif has an incredible screen presence but all her hard work has yet to make a real actress of her. So what does a film-maker do? Compromise or wait for Kareena, Priyanka and Vidya to finish their projects on hand, or for Kajol and Aishwarya to take time off motherhood.

It's not that we are short of good actresses. Look at Konkona Sharma — she has some great performances in commercial hits — “Wake up Sid”, “Omkara”, “Page 3” — but how many producers would stake a big-budget film on her? (In any case, she's another who is currently lying low after having a baby.) Or take Kalki Koechlin or Chitrangada Singh. Of course, there's plenty to pick from in the older actresses: the redoubtable Shabana Azmi, Sridevi, Tabu, Deepti Naval, Dimple Kapadia. But these are actresses, not stars; they don't have that indefinable quality that can help bring in Rs. 100 crore at the box-office.

The question is: Is this perilous paucity at the top the cause or the effect? Is it the reason so few good roles are written for women? Or is it the other way around: is it because heroines are escorted politely to the Glamour department that we are getting wave upon wave of PYTS who wear the right clothes, learn the right makeup, work out faithfully to stay in shape and work hard on their ‘look' for the movie (all heart-warming attributes) but act so badly that they need to do all of the above to stay in the running?

It is the latter. One of the industry's favourite excuses is that heroes sell movies, heroines don't. Which is true to some extent, it has to be admitted. No female star of today commands the kind of unquestioning loyalty that the three Khans inspire. No female star can shoulder a film the way a Madhuri Dixit, Hema Malini or Sridevi could in their heyday. Wait, correction: few producers are willing to stake a big film — one with a budget of Rs. 60 crore and more — on an actress. “The Dirty Picture” may be close to Rs. 100 crore in revenue now, but was a strictly medium-budget film.

As for next year, brace yourself — you are going to see Priyanka in two biggies (“Agneepath”, “Barfee”), Katrina in two as well (“Ek Tha Tiger” and “Dostana 2”) and Kareena in no less than five major movies — “Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu” (with Imran Khan), “Talaash” (with Aamir Khan and Rani Mukerji), “Heroine” (with Arjun Rampal) and “Bol Bachchan” (with Ajay Devgn and Abhishek Bachchan) and the much-delayed “Agent Vinod” (with Saif Ali Khan). Surely that can't be good for anyone, not even Kareena in the long-term. Oh well, that's the price directors and we, the audience, will have to pay for the vacuum at the top.