There’s a scene in Netflix’s Grace and Frankie where 80-year-old Grace (Jane Fonda) turns to her much younger boyfriend and says, “You know why I can’t be with you? Because I look like this.” She peels the make up off her face and says, “Will you still be with me when I look like this and when my leg is in massive pain and I’m actually using a stick to walk, will you? Will you?”
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It’s a poignant moment, and I, for one, have never really seen an older character reveal their insecurities so openly in film or even on a show. Grace and Frankie is about two women who find out that their respective husbands are gay and have been in love with each other for over 20 years. Their husbands are partners at a law firm and hid their relationship. Jane Fonda (82) and Lily Tomlin (80) play these women with such ease and panache, making them an absolute delight.
The show is on its sixth season now and will end next year with season seven. We have a bunch of shows like Friends, How I Met Your Mother etc that are these happy, feel-good sitcoms but mostly about young people. Back home, things are even worse and more so for female actors.
‘Mere Paas Maa Hai’ And Nothing Else
For a long time in Hindi cinema if a female actor chose to get married, she would be playing the mother of a male actor who is probably the same age as her. For example, Waheeda Rehman has played Amitabh Bachchan’s love interest and then also his mother.
Nirupa Roy as the sad mother always in some kind of trouble became a pattern in a lot of Hindi films in the 70s. I’ve also lost count of the number of times I’ve seen Farida Jalal as the mother or ‘dadi’ in films- Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, DDLJ, Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham and recently in the trailer of Jawaani Jaaneman. She’s been a grandmom for a while now!
Male actors have it a lot better though, you have Amitabh Bachchan who is getting to do a diverse bunch of roles from Paa to Pink. He has also done films like Nishabd and Cheeni Kum where he is seen romancing younger women like Jiah Khan and Tabu. In the early ‘80s as well you had a film like Shaukeen which had three old men lusting after a younger woman. But the reverse is almost non-existent. A few that have stood out are, Dimple Kapadia and Akshaye Khanna’s track in Dil Chahta Hai? Or Ratna Pathak Shah who is attracted to a much younger man in Lipstick Under My Burkha. But the examples are few and far between. (On a side note, haven’t we seen a lot of older women in films just knitting?)
An older female character has barely any autonomy. Remember Jaya Bachchan in K3G? Her life was about swinging between the whims of her husband and son (with ‘aarti ki thaali’ and all). Even Reema Lagoo who’s played mum to Salman Khan in Hum Aapke Hai Kaun, Hum Saath Saath Hain and Maine Pyar Kiya was only a few years older to him. She’s a lovely actor but why did her life revolve only around Prem?
But the men are hesitant to play fathers on-screen even if they’re of that age. Anil Kapoor had to be convinced for a long time by Zoya Akhtar to play Ranveer Singh and Priyanka Chopra’s father in Dil Dhadakne Do. Zoya had said, “It took me one whole year to get him on board. It took a lot of wooing. It took Aamir Khan to go to his house.” Why Mr Kapoor?
Recently too, ‘Saand Ki Aankh’ was criticised as many felt that since the film was about the shooter dadis in their 60s and they could have opted to take actors like Neena Gupta, Ratna Pathak Shah and many others.
In fact, Ratna Pathak once said, “They can barely write a good part for Deepika Padukone. So how are they going to write a good part for me?” Neena Gupta had to put up an Instagram post saying that she wanted more work, after which she got a film like Badhaai Ho. So clearly we’re far away from seeing older women in leading parts, let alone them having ‘fun’ or even having agency on-screen.
Movies are a reflection of society, and the people who make them are creating them from their life experiences.
Do we really see our grandparents or parents as sexual beings? We’re so shy about talking about s-e-x, and the conversation around it is always hush hush.
Sometimes we also forget to look at our parents/grandparents as individuals- people who have a life of their own, people who make mistakes. So much of how we view them is in context to our life. They somehow become our role models, heroes even and their flaws seem disproportionate.
When we as a society begin to look at them as ‘individuals’ is when we can expect that to reflect on screen as well. You also probably need a creator who understand the desires of people of that age. Aparna Sen captured that in her Bengali film Sonata, co-starring Shabana Azmi and Lilette Dubey. It’s about three middle-aged women, well settled in their careers and single by choice. Exploring one aspect like sexuality isn’t enough, but a flesh and blood depiction of what middle-aged people go through is the need of the hour which Sonata gets right.
Like it, Want it, Need it
Which is why Grace and Frankie was such a breath of fresh air. We think of dating, sex, drinking, partying as things ‘young people’ do. But here are two women who are looking for love in their 70s and the passion is just as much or maybe even more. One of my favourite moments on the show is when Frankie asks Grace to get onto a dating app for older people. She hesitates but then eventually goes on a date.
The two of them have truckloads of fun, from taking weekend trips to going on dates to starting a company that sells vibrators! It’s because Grace uses a vibrator but that leads to a massive pain in her hands. She and Frankie then decide to start a company that produces vibrators designed for older women and their needs.
They aren’t squirmish about their appetite for sex, which is refreshing to watch.
Grace used to run a wildly successful cosmetics company which she later handed over to her daughter, and this is her second shot at being an entrepreneur and age is no bar.
The Fear of Ageing
As a society, we’re so scared about ageing and the issues that come with it. The characters on the show reflect that. Grace is struggling with terrible knee pain, but she hides it from her kids because she doesn’t want to be seen as someone who needs help. Frankie suffers from a stroke and often has moments of disorientation but dismisses it as nothing serious.
There’s also this hilarious sequence where Frankie and her friend are unable to cross the street because the time given to cross the road is limited. The scene has some crackling humour but also reflects how urban infrastructure doesn’t really support the elderly. The show is set in America, but here in India, the situation is even worse. The concept of assisted living is seen as taboo and so are the recreational facilities for older people.
On their children’s insistence, both women also move into an assisted living space which they both eventually run away from. Both Grace and Frankie also benefit from the fact that they’re extremely wealthy and privileged and so can afford services that others probably can’t. But the insecurities and fears are real. At one point Frankie asks Grace why she was hurriedly dating a man. To which Grace says, “You know, at my age I only have one speed: breakneck. Of course, I don’t call it that. Because it is a very real fear.” The show reinstates the fact that you don’t stop living your life or wanting to have fun just because you’re old. Death is, of course, an eventuality but until then have a blast.
Grace and Frankie works because of how well the two central characters have been fleshed out. The problem with a lot of Indian content, and international content as well, is the lack of dimensions. So if you’re say, over 70, you’re a mother or a grandmother which is fine. But is her job only to be a ‘mother’ and say, “Beta khaana khaaya?” (Have you eaten your food?) What about her ambitions, her insecurities? The show also makes a strong case for sisterhood, Grace and Frankie are always looking out for each other.
Grace and Frankie are mothers and grandmothers who have dreams, run a business, love their kids but also realise the need to love themselves. After all, why should young people have all the fun?