Aarthi Agarwal's death shows high price of failure in films

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Aging gracefully means something completely different if you’re in the film industry. Grace, if you’re aware of how the film industry works, is usually inversely proportional to the number of wrinkles on your face and the kilos you rake up on the weighing machine.

The Indian film industry is no stranger to hypocrisy. Older female actors are routinely sidelined from glamorous roles, while male actors keep romancing actresses half their age. For example, while Madhuri Dixit is selling detergents, toothpastes and judging reality shows, her co-stars Shah Rukh, Salman and Aamir are playing larger-than-life heroes in big banner films.

Then there’s also the issue of unequal remuneration. Priyanka Chopra had spoken about how the disparity in pay between men and women is just unfair. She also says the change will come once the numbers start crunching, and women are solely responsible for profitable return on big budget films.

So now we have Tanu Weds Manu Returns and Piku, the only two films this year to have crossed the 100 crore mark. Both films have female actors at the forefront, who are arguably the reason behind the popularity of the films. But those films are rare exceptions.

On the other end of the Kangana-Deepika spectrum is Aarthi Aggarwal. Firstpost had earlier reported that the Telugu-actress, originally from New Jersey, passed away on Saturday reportedly due a cardiac arrest and respiratory problems. But she also had a liposuction a month before her death, and was under immense pressure financially and mentally because she wasn’t getting any work. She had approached a doctor earlier in Hyderabad for a liposuction surgery and he refused stating she had no fat to be removed.

One can only imagine the insecurity and trauma that Aggarwal would have gone through, being a 30-something actress in an industry that is looking for excuses to replace you with a younger face.

The fact that Aggarwal was desperate to remove fat – when clearly there wasn’t much of it – shows how exacting the beauty standards of the film industry is. What is perhaps even more terrifying that those standards, are the lengths to which aspiring actresses go to fit in and make a mark in the film industry.

We are not really unfamiliar with the stories of desperation and loneliness, especially among actresses, both struggling and ones who are considered past their primes. From the lonely death of Parvin Babi to the grisly suicide of a young Jiah Khan, the idea that pursuing a career in films can be brutal is not unknown to us. Most middle class Indian homes shudder at the thought of their children going ‘into films’. Yet, hundreds of newbies descend on Mumbai and other hubs of films in India, with the hope to make it big. There is no definitive path to follow, no assurance of success, way too many dangers of getting misled – yet, young men and women, turn up in hordes to become ‘stars’.

Speaking of Tollywood specifically, where Aarthi Aggarwal worked, even when there seems to be a dearth of fresh new faces, getting a break for newcomers isn’t easy. Having just a pretty face, or a great body, doesn’t cut it anymore.

For example Telugu-filmmaker Nandini Reddy audition hundreds of girls for six months before she found the right female lead for her film. And it not even a big budget film.

It’s not that directors have become choosy all of a sudden. I screened over 400 profiles of wannabe actresses before finally finding what I was looking for. No wonder then that the average shelf life of an actress has fallen to less than three years these days,” says Reddy, in this Times of India report.

The unfortunate truth here is, unlike Reddy, most of these women auditioning for her don’t quite realise they fall in the ‘wannabe’ category for filmmakers and producers. In fact, unlike some other conventional professions, there is no definite yardstick to judge whether or not someone is going to make it big in the film industry. It’s for aspirants to figure out by themselves – probably from the number of rejections – if they should go home or persist.

Like Piyasree Dasgupta had mentioned in earlier Firstpost article, the pressure to make it is surrounded by other secondary pressures: to look good, and simultaneously be talented. “They all look for hot people,” said Harsh, a struggling actor, adding, “You have to spend on gyms and grooming. Why will anyone pay a fat, uncouth looking person to appear in an ad or in a film? Who will pay to watch him on screen?”

We also can’t ignore the morality angle of a failed actress trying to make a living for herself. There are all sorts of assumptions that are made about her moral character and she is relentlessly judged by the dubious standards of Indian morality. If a woman has earned the label of a failed actress, not too many respectable jobs are offered to her outside the industry.

Kangana Ranaut had revealed in this interview with Anupama Chopra that they have to keep striding on, despite no work. “We have to earn our bread and butter and sometimes we have limited options. As somebody who is self-dependent and doesn’t really have any other job, I have to keep working, doing something or the other,” she said.

It also doesn’t help that if a woman couldn’t make it in the film industry, the perception is that she has no where to go. Jiah Khan’s suicide is one such example, and what is appalling is the idea that if your struggle doesn’t culminate into fruitful results, as a woman you have no option left. There seems to be no middle ground: either Kareena Kapoor or a failure.

So, what makes it impossible for these young people to go back and do other jobs? At least, the ones who have the financial option to. But what stops an NRI from New Jersey, like Aarthi Aggarwal, to get back on her feet after an unsuccessful run in the industry, and try some other career? What is this desperation to be a heroine? For us who are not in the race, it’s a puzzling question we’ll not have an answer to soon.

It’s particularly confusing as to why women don’t look for other professional options like actress Taapsee Pannu. Pannu had decided to start a wedding planning business with her sister and her friend, to make sure she has a back up when it comes to work. She has plans of starting her maiden venture (The Wedding Factory) alongside her acting plans, reports Deccan Chronicle.

Only if the country loosened up a bit and gave up on the ridiculous stereotypes they nurture about women in the glamour world, maybe, it would have been easier for the likes of Aggarwal to claim their lives back.

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Aarthi Agarwal's death shows high price of failure in films

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