A middle-aged woman widowed schoolteacher operating a COVID helpline in her city doesn’t understand the power her seemingly marginal job can wield, gets caught on both sides of withholding information about the ongoing pandemic because it dredges up a still-fresh memory from a few years ago, and, also takes the law in her hands as the city runs short of hospital beds and ventilators, in making the necessary arrangements for any under stress.
That’s the story of the recently released ‘War Room’ – a part of the five-part anthology ‘Unpaused: Naya Safar’, where actress Geetanjali Kulkarni plays the role of the school teacher who is now spending time at a Covid-19 war room in the city as schools continue to remain shut.
Just like ‘War Room’, where the plot of the story revolved around a woman, several such titles, be it in the theatres or on TV or the streaming platforms, have moved away from the age-old stereotypical narratives to creating more layered and empathetic female characters, on-screen now.
Sample this: Zee5's comedy web series 'Kaun Banega Shijhwarwati' about four daughters who have to carry on their father's legacy by also fighting a number of prejudices and patriarchal conventions. to Netflix's crime-drama ‘Yeh Kaali Kaali Ankhein’, where Anjali Singh literally moves heaven and hell, to get to the man she loves.
“There are more stories being headlined by female protagonists and there is an overall better gender sensitivity in these stories. I feel a female gaze and perspective is far more powerful, nuanced and gets the much-needed balance in our stories. It is not only about telling stories with female protagonists, but it is also how women characters are portrayed in a story or how a woman sees a story,” says Nimisha Pandey, who is the Chief Content Officer for the original Hindi-language titles on ZEE5.
It is not just the number of women-centric titles that has gone up, but even the portrayal of women, on-screen, has evolved and female characters in Hindi-language titles are becoming increasingly layered. Primary reason behind the evolution has been the increase in the number of women, who are essential to the part of the filmmaking process.
“Today, there are more women telling stories than ever and though it is still far away from equal or ideal but it is an upward journey. So, for starters, you can see more real women characters – not the unidimensional roles that women most of the times got boxed into. There is more room for flawed women characters without judgement,” she adds.
Audiences too, seem to have embraced the “female gaze” in the last few years, many of the stories and many films which were either led by women actress such as ‘Tanu Weds Manu’, or directed by a woman such as ‘Gully Boy’, or even both, such as ‘Raazi’ have done extremely well on the box office.
“As women keep growing as directors, producers, screenwriters and decision-makers, a dual change will come about with an overall more sensitive narrative for, and towards, woman and at the same time, bolder. More empowering, more centred around woman as leading ladies, and well-rounded characters which will not be restricted to an ideal woman sitting on some pedestal or playing second fiddle to any man,” says writer Kanika Dhillon who has written scripts for many popular woman centric films such as ‘Manmarziyan’ and ‘Guilty’.
Dhillon’s most recent story was the thriller ‘Haseen Dilruba’, a drama thriller, where the plot revolved around Taapsee Pannu, who is the lead character in the film, alongside Vikrant Massey and Harshvardhan Rane.
“Being a part of the fringe or marginalised (groups), in this case women representation and the patriarchal society’s treatment towards them, as a woman from the same ecosystem, you are sure footed with the first-hand experience of the travesty, the inequality. But also, the strength and what they are capable of when pushed into a corner. You not only capture the extremes but also can sometimes embrace the unpopular character traits looked down upon by society in general as a part of the new narrative not explored before! That makes for a rich, diverse, inclusive, fresh, non-binary, fierce and much required narrative for new Indian women,” adds Dhillon.
‘Haseen Dilruba’ is one of the many examples of how the OTT platforms have also seen popular titles, where the story revolved around the female character such as ‘Aarya’ or ‘Aranyak’, were or were made by women. Popular filmmaker Leena Yadav’s three-episode long documentary, ‘House Of Secrets: The Burari Deaths’ -- based on the Burari deaths in 2018-- received rave reviews and thanks to a slew of memes and jokes, was a big a big hit on social media as well.
“The fact that it got on an OTT platform, certainly meant it could reach out to a wider audience. The idea was to not be judgemental about the incidents, and just tell it from the perspective of people who were there at that time. The fact the audiences liked it tells everyone that people in the industry should just stop second-guessing the audiences, all the time, and just focus on telling the stories,” she says.
The increase in the number of woman producers over the last few years has also played a role in the shift in the storytelling narrative. Anushka Sharma has been on the production business for a few years now, while actors Taapssee Paannu and Richa Chadhha, announced their own production ventures last year and this year Kirti Kulhari become a recent addition, after she launched her production company.
“I never even had this idea in my head when I started you know, that I would one day become a producer. It was never a dream like that or anything. IT’s only over the last few years, where I have realised that, I want to be part of a change in the way the content is being looked at is changing right now, and I can’t just do it all as an actor,” says Kulhari.
What’s also important, Kulhari points out, “is to make sure that in representing a community, you don’t isolate yourself from the rest of the world. I am not just going to produce a woman-centric project just for the heck of it, or hire only women professionals in my company, that’s not going to happen. Everyone and everything will be judged on their merit.”
And while women in the entertainment industry are happy that the perspective around female characters on screen is slowly turning a page in the industry, many believe, it won’t change till the society also moves forward, collectively with a lot more empathy.
“You can’t expect an overnight change, or the fact that cinema will change it. It has to start from the house. It has to be there in the ads, with the fathers cooking and mothers watching television. Unless you change that, it wont there in the cinema because at the end of the day, cinema is a reflection of the society. Only then will you see the real change in terms of more gender-sensitive storytelling in cinema as well,” says actress Geetanjali Kulkarni.
Shweta Tripathi Sharma, who was most recently seen in ‘Yeh Kaali Kaali Annkhein’, concurs. “It is not just about how cinema is bringing about a change, but it should be the other way round, for a better society, not just an industry. It has to change at a social level. Because then, when even men will tell a story they will have a different and a much more empathetic approach towards women characters,” she adds.
Be it ‘Tribhanga - Tedhi Medhi Crazy’ -- which centres around mother-daughter relationships while also calling out issues like gender equality, gender determination tests and women empowerment, or ‘Pagglait’ – which tells the tale of a young widow who aspires to break-away from tradition and stand on her own feet despite social pressures-- by backing more subversive and taboo-breaking titles, makers are encouraging a new generation of storytellers who are presenting a new view of themselves.
“It’s about time that we knock down the age-old traditional good Indian woman narrative - and create a new one - because it’s the responsibility of the women of our generation, given the tools that we have, the women in cinema- that we set free our gender from the stamp of ‘the great Indian woman’ -who is trapped in a stifling binary narrative of a good woman or a bad woman - dictated by the convenience of a man,” says Dhillon.
There might be a lot of ground yet to cover, but there are enough signs indicating that the industry is moving towards more gender-sensitive narratives, slowly, with even big production houses and filmmakers acknowledging the same. “Focussing on stories with women makes perfect business sense. They are half of the world’s population. I think representation is extremely important and as women it is our responsibility to play an active part in creating a more equal world, both by telling stories that are led by women and by encouraging more women to tell those stories,” says Pandey.