Selection Day: The Brilliant Ratna Pathak Shah Won’t Allow Ageist Bollywood to Slow Her Down

Bollywood

Selection Day: The Brilliant Ratna Pathak Shah Won’t Allow Ageist Bollywood to Slow Her Down

Illustration: Akshita Monga

I

n Selection Day, Netflix’s second Indian original – an adaptation of Aravind Adiga’s eponymous 2016 novel – 55-year-old Ratna Pathak Shah plays Nellie, an atypical principal of a Mumbai school, looking to put its sports scholarship to good use. The series, which streams on December 28, revolves around two teenage brothers from Madhya Pradesh who have been singularly raised by their authoritarian father into becoming cricketing prodigies.

Like this year’s Sacred Games that delved deep into Mumbai’s underbelly of corrupt police officers, deviant babas, and all-powerful gangsters, Selection Day concerns itself with the city’s other prime obsession: cricket. That also means that the series – just like its predecessor – invariably is centred around a male-dominated universe. Its cast includes the two teenagers (Mohammad Samad and Yash Dholye), their nemesis (Karanvir Malhotra), their father (Rajesh Tailang), a disgraced cricket coach (Mahesh Manjrekar), a God (Shiv Pandit), and a young business tycoon (Akshay Oberoi).

Yet Shah’s Nellie stands out, and not merely because she is the only female character supporting Selection Day’s universe. Her personality is one that Shah, an actor whose versatility far outpaces her roles, exploits to the hilt.

In one of her introduction scenes, a middle-aged Nellie rolls a marijuana joint, unanimously considered a largely male addiction in Indian cinema – unless the intention is to signal a young, sexually permissive, “woke” female character. In another, she delivers the tart, “Normally, I’d welcome this attention by a man half my age still in possession of his own hair” to one of the male leads in such trademark Pathak Shah style, that it is bound to induce a cackle. Nellie is no cardboard grieving widow: She is a loyal friend, a strong-willed headmistress who also teaches science to a class of enthusiastic students, and talks to the statue of her dead husband (in an obvious harkback to her scene-stealing turn in Jaane Tu… Ya Jaane Na).

Her personality is one that Shah, an actor whose versatility far outpaces her roles, exploits to the hilt.

However, even a veteran like Pathak Shah, whose reputation alone merits such well-rounded characters is acutely aware that Nellie is an exception. “At the same age, my mother (actor Dina Pathak) wasn’t getting the kind of roles that I am getting today. The poor woman played Hindi movie moms all her life,” she tells me during the course of a meeting. By her own admission, she was instantly attracted to how “smartly written” her character was in the show, “It’s fantastic considering the age I am.” Yet Pathak Shah, who made her foray into Netflix with Love Per Square Foot, playing Blossom, a widowed Christian mother, is synonymous with layered, evocative performances that acquire a fandom of their own. Just in the last two years, Pathak Shah boasts of more envious acting resume than any of her younger peers.

In Love Per Square Foot, she is a hoot as the mother who reluctantly agrees to her daughter’s decision to marry a Hindu man, parading her impeccable comic timing. In last year’s Lipstick Under My Burkha, Pathak Shah delivered the year’s finest performance (and Hindi cinema’s unforgettable orgasm moment) as “Buaji”, a middle-aged spinster in the throes of her sexual awakening. A few months after that, she was on stage for The Father, that had a month-long run at two of Mumbai’s premier venues. In the play – a portrait of a mind held hostage by illness – Pathak Shah played Naseeruddin Shah’s daughter with such conviction that you forgot that he’s her husband. And then, she also reprised her career-defining performance as Maya Sarabhai, the snooty mother-in-law in the second season of Sarabhai vs Sarabhai.

A fiercely opinionated actress, Pathak Shah is known to not mince her words, whether it was while panning Golmaal 3 – a film she starred in – or when she admits to me that writing roles for women is generally a difficult task for Indian writers, “Our standard is the male experience. The female experience has never been a part of the national discourse” she reasons. She attributes the recent wave of nuanced older female characters in an industry afflicted with ageism to the new crop of writers as well as changing tastes of the audience. “Female characters are slowly becoming individuals rather than being stereotypes. Seema Pahwa has done such wonderful parts as have Supriya Pathak and Neena Gupta. We’re all approximately the same age and all of us are getting much more interesting parts than we’d do usually.”

Pathak Shah, one of the industry’s rare medium-agnostic actors, is partly right. This year alone, Bollywood witnessed a resurgence of roles and extended screen time for older women actors. There was Manisha Koirala playing the disgruntled housewife in Lust Stories; the memorable Yamini Das who gave a face to the emotional burden of small-town married women in Sui Dhaaga; Shefali Shah romancing in Once Again; Tabu’s unforgettable turn as the femme fatale in Andhadhun; Gitanjali Rao’s grieving mother in October, and Neena Gupta’s tender portrayal of a middle-aged mother battling a late pregnancy in Badhaai Ho.

She attributes the recent wave of nuanced older female characters in an industry afflicted with ageism to the new crop of writers as well as changing tastes of the audience.

Yet, in a year that has also produced 110 films, the representation of older women actors ends up accounting for a paltry 9.9 per cent. It hardly offers a cause to celebrate. The scenario isn’t any better in the digital space, which, unlike films, isn’t driven by commercial box-office limitations. Even then, some of the year’s most popular Indian web shows Sacred Games, Mirzapur, Little Things, Ghoul – hardly have had older women in substantial roles.

When I ask Pathak Shah this question that I assume she must have already asked herself, she remains optimistic. But it comes with a caveat, “The way in which women characters are written in the future will likely improve provided we are not forced back into the medieval age socially. India seems ready to do that also. Toh kya malum? Kal main ghunghat odh ke ghar mein baithi hungi.” Nope. Not Ratna Pathak Shah.

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