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From damsels in distress to female protagonists who fight for their agency, the portrayal of Indian women onscreen has come a long way. With more female filmmakers, actors and producers helming the creative fronts and financial budgets in the mainstream Hindi film industry, the women characters we see onscreen are no longer just accessories to the hero.
While there had been steady evolution in how women are perceived and depicted on screen over the last few decades, the shift had been too slow and steady to cause any real change in the overall narrative entrenched with male-dominated ideologies. But with the advent of OTT and streaming platforms in recent years, both creators and audiences have been able to witness a different — more drastic — shift in the kind of female characters we see onscreen.
Let’s take a look at how the shackles of the conventional “Bollywood heroine” — glamorous, gorgeous and totally averse to aging — are being broken down, one OTT series at a time, taking the focus away from how women look to what they actually desire — and demand.
The OTT revolution: A shift in the ‘gaze’
Amruta Subhash, 42, an Indian actor best known for her work in the Hindi and Marathi film industry, made her debut with National Award-Winning film, Shwaas, in 2004. Eighteen years later, the actress is finally able to enjoy the sort of work she set out to do but didn’t exist for a large part of her career. “From when I started out, the portrayal of women on screen has changed tremendously,” says Subhash.
“In my initial days, I played the role of a woman who gets beaten by her husband for a television serial. It had the highest TRPs at the time and brought me a lot of fame, but I wasn’t happy doing it. The producer would tell me the scenes where the husband was beating me up, the TRP would be the highest,” the actor mentions.
“With OTT coming to India, in Sacred Games 2, I was able to play the role of Kusum Devi Yadav, who controls a very powerful man like Gaitonde (played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui). I think this was poetic justice to sum up where I started from and where I am today, playing strong female characters that are no longer the victims,” says Subhash.
In societies where patriarchy is deeply ingrained, the way in which gender is represented and packaged for the masses to consume, in the name of entertainment, can play a pivotal role in influencing societal views and public consciousness. “What happens in the industry, what we see on screen, the stories, the characters, it’s all related to how and what is happening in the society as well,” believes Shweta Tripathi, 36, who rose to fame playing the role of Golu Gupta in the acclaimed OTT series Mirzapur.
The effect of the ‘male gaze’ and its prevalence in cinema has dictated, throughout history, how women are portrayed on screen, positioning them as ‘objects’ of desire, to be viewed voyeuristically. The emergence of OTT and the success of the content it promotes suggests this gaze may finally be challenged. “The traditional norms of women’s portrayal also must be broken down by the audience because this is a game of demand and supply. If we keep watching things that are not progressive, then those things will be made,” says Tripathi.
“It’s definitely in the creator’s hand but it’s also the masses that are equally important. Every time you view something, think of it like casting a vote because those are the kinds of stories that will be made. If we want the narrative to change, the change starts from us. We don’t realise the power that we hold,” adds Tripathi, who was recently seen in the romantic thriller Yeh Kaali Kaali Ankhein on Netflix.
Budgets and autonomy: A structural shift
Guneet Monga, 38, who’s an Indian film producer, mentions, “From being a non-revenue generating entity to being a profit-making centre, there definitely has been a shift in financing women’s stories. It’s in pop culture now to have women-led narratives.”
While OTT has become the catalyst for great change, it is also the wider social movements around the globe that have led to a more nuanced conversation, when it comes to women’s issues and subsequently, female characters onscreen. “I want to credit the #MeToo movement because I feel that opened the door in many ways. It really brought women’s issues to the centre and started a global conversation on womanhood and sisterhood, of celebrating each other,” says Monga, who was an executive producer for the Academy Award-winning short Period. End Of Sentence.
Neena Gupta, 62, who made her acting debut in 1982, has witnessed not only the female characters but also the entire industry evolve through the emergence of new platforms with unique affordances. “I have been around when Doordarshan was the only source of entertainment in India. Today, when your work is on streaming, it’s suddenly available for the whole world to see. You don’t have to wait for years for your film to be shot then sold,” says Gupta, adding that this allows creators to experiment with content.
“If the film didn’t do well for the first week, then it would be deemed a flop. Here, you can see it whenever you want, which is a big change from how content was distributed when I started out,” adds Gupta, who was seen in 2020 web series Panchayat, followed by biographical drama Masaba Masaba, featuring her daughter Masaba Gupta.
“OTT doesn’t have the lens of gender. And the pressures of theatricals are off,” believes Monga. “It is just purely about celebrating good stories, stories that connect with so many people. It’s no longer about playing by the rules set for 100 years of equity of certain marketing or certain scale, which absolutely democratises the spread of the content,” she says, adding that in the digital generation, people can easily be called out if they’re creating regressive content. “When you see shows like Delhi Crime or Mimi or Made in Heaven or any other show from recent times, there’s so much to celebrate,” says Monga.
The great equaliser: Breaking free from conventions
If media platforms were a universe unto their own, then one can say, the women who inhabit the OTT universe are starting to look, feel and talk a lot more like the women we see offscreen, in our society. Paving way for a more accurate representation of gender roles, Tripathi adds, “Earlier, there was this typical notion of how a heroine or a female actor should be, but things have changed since then. You must keep at it no matter what the world tells you. They can’t tell you how to dream or what to dream of.”
According to Subhash, “You could be of any gender, age, colour, and you will have space here. The only condition is that you need to be a good actor,” says Subhash. “When I was younger, I was very apprehensive of the fact that when I pass a certain age, my career might come to an end because I didn’t want to play those stereotypical roles. I didn’t want to get slotted or typecast. But when OTT came to India, it broke many such rules,” says Dhamaka actor.
“Earlier, you’d have to be young to play a seductress. But Lily from Bombay Begums didn’t have to be young. I could play that at my age,” says Subhash, who played the role of a prostitute in the web series. “Women can be the protagonists of the story at any age. OTT has given us this freedom of breaking every norm whatsoever and that’s so powerful,” she adds.
There’s a whole new range of concepts people are now writing about, which, in turn, is leading to greater diversity of characters, believes Gupta. “OTT is allowing creators to experiment with a lot of stories about small towns, middle class strata of society, day-to-day problems, women’s issues,” says the Badhaai Ho actor.
The stories that actors are now able to associate themselves with don’t bring in the baggage of gender, skin colour or appearances, highlights Tripathi. “None of these parametres define you. I’m all of five-feet-nothing and I’m way older than the characters I play. If I think about these things, it can limit me,” says Tripathi.
Prajakta Koli, 28, known for her YouTube channel @Mostlysane, is an Indian YouTuber who made her acting debut with a Netflix romcom Mismatched in 2020. “One of the reasons why I fell in love with my character Dimple from Mismatched was that when I got her character sketch, it had nothing to do with the way she looked. It spoke about what she liked and disliked, how her temper was, her relationship with her parents, which I think is a huge step in the right direction, when it comes to writing women characters,” says Koli.
End of the star system?
While OTT has paved the way for more women-centric roles, its success has also garnered mainstream attention with big stars entering the space. Could the entry of the mainstream into the ‘indie’ OTT space risk streaming to become polluted by the same old gender stereotypes we’ve seen in films? “I don’t think the entry of mainstream into OTT space will change anything because the audience is different. Star or no star, the audience wants good content, so substantial content will continue to be backed. I love this saying that earlier, content was king, but OTT is now allowing the content to be queen, too,” says Subhash. “In that sense, we can say that everyone is a star or nobody’s a star. There are projects, which despite having big stars, have not worked well on OTT,” she adds.
According to Koli, this is one of the greatest aspects of being an actor in 2022. It eventually boils down to the quality of content. “It’s no longer about films, OTT, television, radio, podcasts. Those lines have blurred. You could have all the biggest superstars coming into OTT, but only what the audience wants to watch will sell,” says Koli.
On OTT, there is space for everybody, believes Tripathi. “As long as there is a compelling story, there will be an audience to watch it. As an actor, you should be cast for what you bring to the table,” says the Mirzapur actor.
Women telling women’s stories
The ‘Boxed In’ survey of 2021 found that streaming platforms put more women in charge of TV shows than broadcast networks. In what ways has this shaped the on-ground realities for female artists and, in turn, the outcome of projects? According to Subhash, this is the best thing to have happened through OTT. “I’ve been working with so many women directors and so many amazing women creators, in different fields, in general. I started my career with a director called Sumitra Bhave, who’s no more now. She has been the biggest influence on my career and my personal life and has taught me many vital things about my art. The warmth of having like-minded, creative individuals in one room is unparalleled.”
With more mainstream actresses and directors turning producers, “women are now opening various kinds of doors and achieving more, breaking free from outdated notions, such as you can’t be a working mother or the shelf life of women employees being lesser in an organisation. All these conversations are finally being addressed, though there’s still a long way to go,” says Monga.
“Having more women in writer’s rooms has also made a huge difference. The fact that more women are telling women’s stories has led to the characters being written for women to be more relatable,” adds Koli.
“There are a lot of women who are working on the sets, in the production side, in direction, makeup, hair, everything, which has been a great shift. It also means that there’s better representation of women on screen, leading to more work for female actors of different ages,” says Gupta.
The structural shift has also encouraged greater empathy and a better sense of management, says Monga. “Women are now managing a 200-people crew behind the scenes, which also impacts how women are portrayed on screen. With more women behind the camera now, a lot is being questioned for the future we are trying to build,” adds Lunchbox producer.
Tripathi believes it’s a collaborative process, where everyone needs to co-exist and celebrate each other with more women being a part of the system and equally, men also understanding where women are coming from. “There’s no doubt that the kind of battles women must fight are way tougher. I just hope that with the kind of questions we are asking and the answers we are getting, more women feel connected, inspired and motivated. When we stand up for ourselves, we stand up for all the people — men, women, other genders. That’s why voicing your opinion is so important. Everybody has that power, we just don’t exercise it enough,” Tripathi signs off.
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