Showbiz is ageist but there is no slowing down Isabelle Huppert
Huppert is the French Meryl Streep
Isabelle Huppert is a tiny woman. The Oscar-nominated actor is barely over five feet tall and so slim that she redefines the phrase reed-thin. But nothing about her talent or her personality is slight. We met at the 50th edition of the International Film Festival of India, where the actor received the Lifetime Achievement Award. The following day, I conducted a masterclass with her in a packed theatre.
Isabelle is often referred to as the Meryl Streep of France. She has 16 César nominations (the French equivalent of the Oscar). She holds the record for the actor with the most films shown in competition at the Cannes Film Festival –– 20. She was nominated for an Oscar for Paul Verhoeven’s 2016 film, Elle –– a complex, twisty and unnerving work about a woman who gets raped and then takes revenge.
Isabelle plays Michèle, who is violently assaulted in her home but shows no signs of it. She bounces back to life as though nothing has happened, and then plots a precise, brutal payback. Verhoeven said that he cast Isabelle because no American actress would play such an amoral part. But Isabelle describes Michèle as a “likable character”. When I asked her if she feels a moral responsibility when she chooses roles, she said, “If you want to send messages, go to the post office. I have no responsibility other than to do a good film”.
The film industry is notoriously ageist but nothing about Isabelle, who is 66, suggests that she is slowing down. She’s had three releases this year and an off-Broadway play. When I asked if, in all these decades of acting, she’d ever had a day when she wanted to stop, she said, “I don’t know what that question means”.
It was inspiring to listen to her. And it made me think of Indian actresses of a certain vintage –– Neena Gupta, Ratna Pathak Shah, Soni Razdan, Seema Pahwa, Dimple Kapadia, among others. These are all fabulous actors who are redefining how we think about ageing and women. The women that Neena played in Badhaai Ho and Ratna in Lipstick Under My Burkha had sexual desires, which was ground-breaking for Hindi cinema. Even off-screen, Neena defies the traditional rules –– she jumpstarted her career by asking for work on Instagram. Seema, at 57, recently made her debut as a film director, with Ramprasad ki Tehrvi.
These women, with decades of acting and life experience, have much to offer. But, like film industries around the world, Bollywood continues to be dazzled by youth. Two years ago, in an interview, Ratna said to me: “They can’t write good roles for Shah Rukh Khan so where will they write for me, unko aata hi nahin hai.” I hope that’s not true. Because we need to see these actors flourish. There are riches here waiting to be revealed.