Hindi Film 101: The Three Phases of an Actress Career

This came up on yesterday’s News Round-Up post when we were talking about Dips and Padmavati and where she might go next.  The thing is, there is a standard route where she will go that is kind of an unspoken but accepted thing.  So I thought I might as well speak it, just in case you are new to the films and are unaware of the expectations for an actress.  Oh, and also give a comparison with Hollywood in case you are new to Hollywood and unaware of the standard route there.

Usual Disclaimer: I have no special knowledge and don’t know any of these people personally.  But this is the general public knowledge of how things work which might be useful if you are new to the Hindi film industry, or somehow never ran across this part of it before.



There’s a sort of unspoken sweep to an actress’ career in Hindi film which we all kind of accept without talking about it.  But if you are new to the films, hearing us all say “it’s time for her to get married”, for instance, can sound weird and regressive.  So let me explain what we mean by that!

Actresses in Hindi film tend to have 3 phases to their career.  Starting out, Established, and Married.  “Starting out” means you are a teenager, a former model or the daughter or sister of someone connected to the industry.  Oh, and “model” really means “actress in commercials” a lot of the time.  Deepika and Anushka both started as “models”, but were really known for their commercials.  They were picked for how charming they came across in motion on camera, not because they looked pretty in lingerie ads.

(Dips in her first ad.  See how charming?)

When you are “starting out”, you are often cast opposite actors who are trying to get their start just as much as you.  So the film can be promoted as “youthful” and so you won’t overshadow them.  Maybe your first film is opposite a major star, so they can promote a “discovery”, but they won’t come back to work with you again until you have established yourself on your own.

Some actresses stay in the “starting out” phase for years.  Jacqueline Fernandez, for instance, she somehow still hasn’t shifted out of it.  Parineeti Chopra is struggling desperately to get higher.  The goal is to somehow show enough talent, make enough connections, be lucky enough to get a role that lets you actual act, do more than just stand there and be pretty, prove that you can carry a film on your own.  Kareena found it in Chameli, Alia found it in Highway, Deepika found it in Cocktail.

(Karisma found it in Raja Hindustani)

It’s still not an overnight thing, making the leap to “Established”.  You have to have that role which shows you can actually act.  And then you have to make savvy decisions to capitalize on it.  Alia, for instance, she is being very smart.  She did Highway, and then 2 States, mixed in Udta Punjab with Badrinath Ki Dulhania.  She isn’t trying to go too far too fast, she is moving slow but sure up the ranks of actresses while still partnering with actors to bring in the big budget hits and get more of the audience to see her.  Compare that with, for instance, Sonakshi.  Lootera could have been that break out film for her.  But she followed it with tiny heroine roles instead of building immediately on it, then tried to do a string of lead parts (Noor, Akira) too late, after the buzz had died down.

It’s a lot of work getting to the “Established” level, and it’s just as much work staying there.  When you are Starting Out, you have to make nice at all the parties, do the sexy-but-not-too-sexy photoshoots to keep your name in the minds of the public without making you unhireable in future, be charming in interviews, be seen in all the right places, maybe date someone who can help you, all of that.  And then once you are “Established”, you have to give even more interviews because suddenly you are in charge of promoting your films, not just yourself.  You have to be seen at and give witty and unexceptionable quotes at all the events.  You have to make nice to everyone, and also avoid the people who are now trying to make nice to you.  And any relationship carries with it the weight of figuring out if you are using them or they are using you.

Image result for deepika filmfare photoshoot

(See?  Sexy but not too sexy)

It’s exhausting! And it just gets harder year by year.  Because there are always new actresses coming up and looking for the good roles, new opportunities for you to offend the wrong person, new chances for a film to flop.  And the longer you are on top, the more you become a target, the one who will get headlines for anyone who goes against you.  Not to mention that, as an actress, your career has a built in timeline.  It used to be 14-24, now it is more like 19-30, but it is still a very short career.  And trying to break that 30 barrier, that is very very hard (check out my women in film post for more on that).

And so moving on to the 3rd phase, “Marriage”, is just the wise thing to do at a certain point.  “Marriage” means you are announcing to the world, “my career is no longer in high gear, I have chosen to move away from fame and power”.  You become sort of a “star Emeritus”.  You are invited to all the big events, and occasionally people pay tribute to you.  Reporters fawn over you and complement you.  Everyone gets sentimentally excited on those rare occasions when you appear onscreen.

Standards are a lot lower for married women too.  As a young unmarried woman, your virtue and chastity belong to the nation.  Vidya Balan can get in trouble for starring in Dirty Picture.  And then you get married, and your virtue and chastity belong to your husband.  Aishwarya Rai can play a divorcee sexual cougar, and no one really cares.  Well, no one really cares about much of anything any more, since your virtue and chastity no longer belong to the nation, the nation tends to lose interest in you all of a sudden.

That’s the downside, once you are in the “Married” point of your career, you don’t get the really big roles any more.  You don’t get the headlines, you don’t get as many ad campaign offers, everyone respect you but no one really wants you any more.  It’s a hard thing to do, to give up all that adoration and fame.  But it’s inevitable.  And better to do it by making an official kind of announcement through marriage, than to make it look like you are trying to hold on to something that is slipping from your grasp.

Marriage can also open up totally new career options.  If you manage to marry someone of similar fame/power, you can leverage that to build up a new position in the industry.  Twinkle Khanna, for instance, married and retired.  And became a writer, an interior designer, and now a producer.  All while still maintaining her film connections through her husband.  Shilpa Shetty, she married a very wealthy businessman not a film person.  But she used his money and connections to start her own film studio, buy a Cricket team, stay relevant that way.  These are things that it would be very hard to do while still a single working actress.  No one would respect you, believe you were serious about it.  But if you are married, your husband can buy you that respect.

(Shilpa produced this film, and did an item song in it.  Did terrible at the box office, but she didn’t get any backlash from it, the way she would have if she were starring not just producing.  People were just excited to see her onscreen again)

This was the issue with Priyanka.  She was reaching an age and a level of success where she had to get married, it was the natural next step.  But instead she took a leap into the unknown and started her career fresh overseas.  Which allowed her to gracefully move away from the fame treadmill in India, and avoid more flops like Jai Gangaajal, and quietly start her own production studio.  The point isn’t marriage in particular, it is to make a clear clean break and get the option of starting over.

So now when we are looking at, for instance, Deepika or Katrina Kaif and saying “it’s time for them to get married”, they don’t ACTUALLY have to get married.  If they can come up with some other way of jumping to a new career point, that would work just as well.  Heck, just throw a big party called “I am semi-retiring and focusing more on my art rather than just on fame and success”, complete with interviews and press conferences.

Image result for rekha husband

(That’s kind of what Rekha did.  She got married and then almost immediately got divorced.  She didn’t have to deal with the husband, but it kicked her career into a new place anyway)

Dips right now is looking at Padmavati being a huge success, making her too big to really do anything but heroine lead films without it feeling like a step back.  And there aren’t enough heroine lead films to keep her busy.  So, time to get “married”!  Start a charitable foundation, take on more interesting roles for the fun of it rather than the fame, cut down on your public appearances.

And Katrina is looking at an audience that is beginning to get tired of her.  She’s been around a long time and she isn’t doing any better than she was 10 years ago.  Not doing any worse either, which is an accomplishment, but how long can that last?  Time to get “married”!  Announce she is moving back to London to live with her family, or partnering with another woman to found their own film studio, or writing a memoir and moving to the country.  Or open a boutique, or found her own fitness studio chain.  Anything!

The “married” phase of the career, that’s something that Hollywood doesn’t really have.  You are either working, or you’re gone.  There isn’t this family connection, the way you can keep your hand in and stay connected even after you are too old to be cast in things.  And, since you are still connected, occasionally get a chance at a really wonderful role that was written just for you.

Image result for juhi chawla new movie


(The movie flopped, but it still had two powerhouse older actresses acting opposite each other, and they are both still getting roles written just for them)

Priyanka, she is making good career decisions for now.  America will let her be the lead of a TV show for years, and cast her in the occasional movie, let her run her little production studio, all of that.  But when she hits 45, it’s all over.  In India, the options right now would be narrowed.  But she would be able to come back at 45, at 50, at 60, and still have wonderful roles written just for her, fans who love her, co-workers who have studied her work and respect her, all of that.  Madhuri in Ishqiya, Sridevi in English/Vinglish and Mom, Hema Malini in Baghban, Jaya Bachchan in Kal Ho Na Ho, these are the kind of roles you just don’t get in Hollywood.  And that’s not even mentioning the way they are invited to every awards show, given tributes, referenced in interviews by younger stars, invited to make special appearances in films.

That’s why I want Dips to get married, not make the jump to Hollywood.  Because really, what is here for her?  A little short term fame, and then she will be thrown out like every other actress over 40.  And it will be hard to work her way back to India after that, Aishwarya had a tough time winning the Indian audience back after her little American foray, she had to become the most married of “married” actresses to do it.  You can’t exactly spend 35-45 in America, and then show up back in India and say “okay, I’m 45 now, I want you all to revere and respect me!”

(Madhuri getting this kind of applause and reverence in 2014, age 47, over ten years since her last big hit movie.)


One final note, there are a couple actresses now that are trying something new, skipping past the “Established” phase of the career and going right from “Starting Out” to “Married”.  Sonam and Anushka, they put in their time in the “Starting Out” phase.  Interviews, photoshoots, bad movies that made them the right connections.  But they always had their eye on production, on controlling their own careers.  Being respected, not just famous.  So rather than doing heroine role after heroine role, making a million public appearances, performing at all the awards shows, and so on, once they reached the “Established” point, they immediately stopped working at that pace.  They are both down to one film a year on average, and every other film they make is one they themselves are producing.  This is a pace and a position in the industry that they can keep up indefinitely.  Anushka in Phillauri, that is the kind of role she can take for the rest of her life.  Not the young lover lead, but an interesting role in a good movie.  Sonam in Veere Di Wedding, same thing, an interesting female role that isn’t a “heroine” role.  They are set for life already, right now, without needing a husband to help them get there.

18 thoughts on “Hindi Film 101: The Three Phases of an Actress Career

  1. This is interesting. It’s true that actresses have to start thinking of other options by the time they hit their mid-30s. Lead roles opposite the big male stars begin to dry up and anyway when you reach a certain level of fame, you cannot do those 2nd fiddle roles. Katrina is nearing her last hurrah doing those roles though it’s remarkable she’s managed to last this long.
    Priyanka headed to HW and although I dislike her, it takes a lot of guts to start over somewhere else and give up the name and fame you’ve built. It must be so strange to audition for minor roles like in Baywatch or reduce yourself to being a television actress – HW or not, TV will never get the kind of respect movies do especially network TV which comes without the prestige of HBO or Netflix. Bollywood usually does not roll out the welcome mat for those returning from HW either regardless of the lip service they may pay for making it in the West. Also the truth is there just aren’t enough roles available for an Indian woman in her late 30s no matter how talented. Frieda Pinto had a surge of popularity after Slumdog but also faded away. BW was not keen on offering her anything either. I think the same is true for Priyanka. She keeps heading back to India off and on and talking about signing a BW movie but nothing seems to materialize in the end. She has established a production house so perhaps she can make a movie for herself but there are a lot of risks when it comes to production especially when you reach an age when the audience isn’t interested in watching you anymore.
    The smartest thing Sonam and Anushka did is to start producing at an early age so they can star in the movies themselves while they establish their production company. If they can create a good reputation, by the time they reach that cut-off age, they can get others to star instead. Otherwise, bad production decisions can end up being very costly. Look at AB destroying his finances with his company and going into bankruptcy. The male stars can pull it off better because they have longer careers to begin with and by the time they can’t play lead roles anymore, they often have children they can pass it off to.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sonam and Anushka are, I hope, building towards movies that they can act in without starring. I’d love to see Anushka 10 years from now playing a really interesting role as the wise Didi giving advice, and letting another younger actress play the lead, in a movie she is producing. I’m really curious what she has planned for Saif’s daughter, it sounds like she may be producing but not starring in that movie. It may be hard to give up the fame, but it’s a smart decision to build a career that can stand the test of time rather than one with a built in deadline. And that means preparing to play older female roles, not just “heroines”.

      Picking up on Moimeme’s comment about Priyanka’s production house, it sounds like she has made a good business decision in focusing on smaller industries and languages, but not a good decision if she wants to use it to restart her own career. Unless she is interested in being the featured heroine in smaller language industries, in which case there is no need to start her own studio, she could probably have gotten those kind of roles on her own anyway.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Speaking of Priyanka, I really do wonder what her next move will be. I’m guessing Quantico is coming to an end this season. The ratings were atrocious and it was barely hanging on as it was and this season has been reduced by half. She is currently filming those 13 episodes but she should be done in 2-3 months tops.
    Can she go back to BW? They may be some women-centric films available but I’m guessing they would be small movies, not the big productions she would have been able to get 10 years ago. That would also mean a huge pay cut since they wouldn’t able to afford paying big amounts. Or will she stay in HW doing supporting roles and maybe look for another TV show? It doesn’t seem like marriage is a possibility for her anytime soon either.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I keep thinking back to Jai Gangajaal. That was her last real starring role. Bajirao, it was a 3 lead film and anyway Bhansali was the real lead of the film, not any of the actors. Jai Gangajaal got terrible box office, but is also probably similar to what she would be offered now. A tired sequel to an older more successful film, no other major actors involved, or other major artists (costumes, music, etc.). She can be the lead, but only if the film itself is smaller than her, and all the other artists are smaller as well.

      Or, she could give up and take less than lead roles in bigger movies. If I were here, i’d come back to India, because even supporting roles are better than what she could get in Hollywood. But then, money might also be a consideration.


  3. The first film produced by Priyanka’s production company won the National Award for best Marathi film (Ventilator – I recommend it). Her second film is in Bhutanese, I believe, or at any rate, one of the really small language industries. She has made it her mission to champion and bring recognition to regional cinema, which is very laudable, I think. So she is forging a different path in this, too, than either Anushka or Sonam. Sonam is definitely and clearly specializing in “chick flicks”. I don’t know if Anushka has an identifiable focus.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Huh. So Priyanka’s company is running well, but I wonder if that will give her, herself, a place in the industry? If she is happy coming back and being a successful producer who wins National awards, that’s wonderful and an excellent post “marriage” kind of career. But if she is still interested in being more of a personality type celebrity, I wonder if she will find an additional path.

      On Sat, Nov 18, 2017 at 7:31 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:



      • Priyanka had a cameo in that film, playing herself. She has taken such a different path so far that I wouldn’t try to predict her future using any of the existing models. Even her production company is on a very different path from those of other actors. I personally think she will do something new, different, and exciting. 🙂


    • I think Anushka’s focusing on more creative, different films that are pushing the envelope and allow her to be remembered for doing something different. Therefore, she’s carving a niche for herself and creating a strong brand.


  4. Interesting read. What do you think of Vidya? She tried doing the typical heroine stuff like Salaam e Ishq, Heyy Baby and Kismet Connection, realized she didn’t fit in there and started doing movies which suited her like Paa and Ishqiya.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think Vidya is a great example. She had a good “launch” in Parineeta, then struggled in the “Starting Out” phase, Ishqiya started changing things for her, but then there weren’t good roles and her films started failing, she got married and dropped down to one or less film a year and now is doing stuff like Tumhari Sulu, which is wonderful, but a much smaller film than a “Top Actress” would consider doing. But is just fine if you are “Married” and everyone knows you are no longer trying to be the top.

      On Sun, Nov 19, 2017 at 3:28 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:


      Liked by 1 person

      • She’s in a comfortable phase now. But after The dirty picture and Kahaani, she was touted to be equal to the Khans and one of the few female actors to command an opening.
        And probably from 2013 to until tumhari sulu now, most of her films flopped.


  5. I think with Indian women moving on up in life (indian women in urban centres who can spend time and money on films independently- sans ‘man’ and/or family) is also going to have an impact on what the careers of our top actresses look like in a few years.

    A decade ago, if you got married, your life was over. Today, it’s much better. There is a huge emphasis on ‘living your life’ both before and after marriage. The career girls that are getting married late are already living the Anushka in travel films life or they aspire to be like PC- with a settled career in India and a chance to make it abroad too. Stuff that Alia is doing works because it resonates with the young girls just getting started with their careers. Deepika, Priyanka, Anushka, Kareena, Vidya- their audience is the urban Indian woman. The Ileana-Katrina style “just a pretty face” actress no longer has a dedicated audience because there are prettier girls to ogle at on Instagram. The latter is the segment of heroines struggling. Everyone is working. Slowly, surely. Maybe they don’t have huge solo hits but then again the leading men aren’t getting them either

    Liked by 1 person

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