The idea that I threw away a burgeoning law career just as it was about to take off and ran away to a fantasyland of Bollywood song and dance baffled many for a few years. Then, when the dream ‘came true’, people awarded me their approval, endorsement and a retraction of their former cynicism.
There are many others who assumed that relative success within a generally murky ocean of setbacks was something which must have been “easy”. Well one thing about this whole affair of leaving my home in Melbourne to follow my childhood dream can be said with utmost certainty: “it was not”.
As a new entrant in an industry rife with nepotism, sexual repression (as well as silent promiscuity) and an expectation that women who want to succeed will “compromise”, I armed myself with a heavy ammunition of conviction, self-belief and often outright defiance. The extent to which the enemy lines tried unrelentingly to convert these traits into cowering subservience, self-doubt and disillusionment became a mode of attack to which I am still not completely accustomed.
I remember sitting on a set about four years ago, where I was the only female cast member present amongst an ensemble of very established veteran male actors. Perhaps with my heritage as a springboard, my colleagues started to discuss the history of Indigenous Australians. Having studied Native Title at length, I decided to contribute to the conversation about land ownership in Australia. I will never forget the eerie silence which ensued after I started talking. My desire to speak out, to partake in something (which was in fact a rather limited discursive exercise to start with) made the men around me squirm. Later that evening my co-actor - one of India’s most critically acclaimed performers - said to me with heightened gravity, “never feel the need to voice your opinions”. The thought itself was never meant to arise.
Being skilled in the legal domain has proven a drawback in an industry notorious for its wafer-thin compliance of contractual obligations. The blatant inefficacy of the Indian court system and the dearth of any arbitration mechanism for media-related contractual affairs, leaves actors without recourse when producers default (a very common occurrence). When I have chosen to step in and protect myself or others from the draconian clauses set upon us, I have been chided for being “rigid”, “too smart” and my personal favourite - “unfeminine”. Reeled in, batted down, and manipulated out of fighting for what is rightfully mine. All too often a female’s intellect and her sense of self-protection are posited as the antithesis of the eager-to-please, desperate, and ultimately more sought-after stereotype of what a female actor “should be if she wants to succeed”.
The inexplicable and random sense of entitlement that people feel in commenting on the physicality of other women is another astounding reality. As I have learnt to be objective when assessing unsolicited advice and criticism from colleagues about my own appearance, the depraved obsession with physical perfection has come to seem like a warped Aryan worldview: thinner, fairer, hips of a child bearing nature (so as to give rise to the aspirations of male voyeurs), breasts that defy physics. The expectations of women on celluloid contradict any notion of a free woman in India.
The flip side - that women in cinema may choose this or any other image for themselves - creates an interesting conundrum. An actor and a woman, has every right to choose how they present themselves. Yet when it comes to women in film, the potential risk of condemnation by critics or a conservative public if a screen kiss lasts too long or cleavage becomes too obvious is very real. The moral judgement faced by actors for the characters they portray follows them off screen into their real lives. Vulgarity is attributed to the very act of showing bare skin. The audience partakes in the objectification of a woman by stripping away her right to self-determination and the free expression of her being.
Notions of woman at all levels are divided into bizarre binaries: Goddess/Slut, Easy/Frigid, Thin/Obese, Educated/Bimbo. You are either one or the other. I have chosen at all times to pursue my profession with dignity and self-respect. For this, at various moments, I have been labelled a lesbian, a feminist, an intellectual, an activist - benign epithets with scathingly harsh undertones. With skin thicker than before, I carry on in pursuit of the artistic vision that led me to follow my passion. I will continue to reside within the “wrong” end of the binary, in the hope that very soon - a century after these concepts dominated western liberal discourse - human dignity, freedom of thought, justice and equality can be restored for women in India. So that we can speak up without fear of being shushed, demand our rights without fear of exclusion, and inhabit our bodies without fear of the gaze around us.
Don't miss a chance to hear more from Pallavi Sharda as she takes the stage as one of five incredible women sharing their game changing and risk taking stories at BOLDtalks Woman on 27 November at the Forum in Melbourne. Pallavi will be telling her amazing story of how she risked a high-flying legal career in Australia to embark on a completely different journey as an Actress in Bollywood and the highs and lows along the way.
A fun night of discussion and story-telling you won't forget. Five diverse high-profile female raconteurs will grace the stage in an intimate evening of moving storytelling where each will share their uniquely inspirational account of how they have challenged traditional thinking and disrupted their chosen field in a unique and thought-provoking way.