Aishwarya Rai's marriage to Abhishek and the subsequent brakes she voluntarily put on her career resulted in a gap - a huge one - at the top. Several actresses were in pole position to make a bid for #1 (Kareena, Bipasha, Rani, Preity), which admittedly for female actresses remains a nebulous distinction (for e.g. its not necessarily tied to box office clout). The two most interesting contenders were relative newcomers: Katrina Kaif and Priyanka Chopra.
They've both gone about climbing the ranks with distinctly different career choices. The results were neck and neck in 2008. But in 2009, one actress pulled ahead. Its interesting to take a closer look at their career arcs because it results in an examination of Bollywood trends.
Katrina's breakthrough hit was Namastey London (Akshay Kumar, 2007). She has followed that up with a series of roles in movies starring tried and tested box office luminaries. In effect, she's been happy to play prop or second or third cog in the wheel. The strategy resulted in a really good year in 2008 - Katrina logged blockbusters with Welcome, Race, and Singh is Kinng. She became an instant internet goddess and a contender for Aishwarya's vacant position at the top.
Priyanka, on the other hand, made significantly different choices. She chose to sign fairly meaty roles - often at the risk of casting herself as the main draw opposite lesser known actors (remember Love Story 2050? No, well ok). Wisely (or un-suicidely, take your pick), she also made sure she signed up with big name actors. But this mixed strategy seemed to be going wrong last year (Drona, God Tussi Great Ho) until the arrival of Fashion, which not only delivered the biggest hit of Priyanka's career - but did so entirely on the back of Priyanka's name and performance. This was significant: was Priyanka on the way to becoming a star of Aishwarya's standing, tapping into a female demographic thus far inaccessible to most other female stars?
Priyanka's box office momentum was cemented by Dostana late last year, but a single movie ne kiye kare par paani pher diya. That unfortunate distinction belongs to What's your Raashee - a movie that would have vaulted Priyanka to the top because she would ended up with all the credit had Raashee not crashed and burned in cinemas.
Katrina, on the other hand, was happy to motor along as a part of the larger picture. Her strategy delivered a steady stream of hits in 2009: New York, Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Kahani and De Dana Dan. None of her roles were particularly memorable or often less than one-dimensional, but nevertheless they clearly vaulted her to the top.
I'm left with the feeling that although Katrina delivered an impressive year, Priyanka delivered the more memorable one. It makes you wish that her bold choices - the bravery here is relative - are rewarded. Here, she has a problem. If she continues to headline movies she will have to hit her target demographic - which has to be women (box office rules dictate that men won't go to see a movie headlined by women unless vampires or tightly fitted leather outfits are involved). But to hit that demo she needs the help of female directors, who can tell the stories to connect with female audiences. She has none on the horizon - and the few who exist have had to be so much smarter than the men, that they've intellectualized themselves out of the range that can deliver a mainstream hit.
Priyanka has a couple of movies lined up with the Akthar family (Kismet Talkies - with a female director Zoya Akhtar) and Farhan Akhtar's Don 2 (one of the more memorable female roles in popcorn Indian cinema). Katrina's next big project is the multi-starrer Rajneeti (Ranbir, Ajay Devgun).
Let the games begin!