Big 3-0 no longer a no-no for Bollywood actresses

Bollywood actresses are refusing to bow to traditional pressures of marriage and family, with a new film on the subject claiming the change in attitude reflects wider shifts in Indian society.

"Turning 30", starring Purab Kohli and Gul Panag, follows a character who discovers that the end of her 20s, the loss of her job and boyfriend need not be the end of the world.

Panag said the film, released last month, reflected changes in urban India, as the country's economy expands and shakes up traditional roles and demographics in society.

"There is definitely a change happening," she told reporters recently. "I feel audiences will be able to connect instantly with the film because you see many women around you today who are independently minded."

Successful women aren't hard to find in India.

They include President Prathiba Patil, speaker of the lower house of parliament, Meira Kumar, and the head of the Congress-led government, Sonia Gandhi. Many women are at the helm of corporate giants.

Official figures suggest that women more than doubled their presence in India's top engineering colleges in the last decade, with enrolment up in subjects from management to medicine.

In Bollywood, 30-something actresses like Kareena Kapoor, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Rani Mukherjee, Shilpa Shetty and Preity Zinta all enjoy huge profiles.

That is a far cry from the recent past, where an actress often found that leading roles as the winsome love interest dried up once she got married in real life or hit 30 and she was relegated to play elder sisters or aunts.

"Turning 30" director Alankrita Srivastava said her film - which one reviewer said appeared to have been influenced by "Bridget Jones's Diary" and "Sex and the City" - reflected a new breed of urban woman in India.

"The new India has a new 30s woman. She's warm, she's sexy, she's sassy. She has broken the glass ceiling, or is breaking it," she wrote in the Indian Express newspaper.

"She's funny, she's vulnerable, she can beat any man hollow at anything under the sun. She loves herself, and she loves life. India is changing, and today's independent 30 something woman is here to live life fully. On her own terms."

But though Bollywood's women, with their designer outfits and cosmopolitan outlook, are forging their own paths, even they are not immune from traditional pressures.

Thirty-year-old Kareena Kapoor, for example, is often asked when she and long-term, live-in boyfriend Saif Ali Khan will marry and whether she will continue acting.

Aishwarya Rai, 37, a former Miss World turned actress who married actor Abhishek Bachchan in 2007, has had to endure gossip about when they will have children.

"Till this day many girls are being asked questions that why they are not married even after reaching 30," said Srivastava.

"But there is a slow change happening today and many girls just don't want to get hitched for the sake of getting hitched."

Her film, she says, "talks about all those issues".

For her part, Panag, 34, believes "the days of living out borrowed dreams are gone."

"I think we're finally learning to breathe a little for ourselves. And it's a great start," she said.

For sure, India has a long way to go until women are fully emancipated.

Activists say more needs to be done to tackle crimes against women, like domestic violence, sexual harassment and discrimination as well as improve women's health and family planning, especially in rural areas.

But Srivastava says empowerment has begun.

"Things are changing more in urban society for women but to change the situation overall it will take more time. But there has been definite progress in the last decade."

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