Tamil cinema of the 1970s and 80s was known for several women-oriented films that were critically and commercially acclaimed. But where are the women in films today?

Actor and filmmaker Kamal Haasan raised the question at a panel discussion on ‘Evolution of women in film’ that he moderated on the concluding day of the Media and Entertainment Business Conclave of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) on Tuesday.

“I can understand my own movies being oriented towards the male lead,” he said, in a bid to indemnify himself. “I am the star and I bring in financing for my films. What I don’t get is why other filmmakers are not making woman-centric movies,” he said.

The panelists for the discussion — actors Suhasini Mani Ratnam, Gauthami, Nadia and Lissy Priyadarshan — said South Indian cinema, in particular, had explored several woman-centric themes in the past, but the subject had faded away over the last decade.

Suhasini said master filmmakers of yesteryear like K. Balachander, Bharatiraja and Balu Mahendra never compromised on their narrative for the sake of ‘stars’. “One of the reasons why the current generation of filmmakers don’t make films on women-centric themes could be that modern masters like Mani Ratnam and Bala have made a strong impact with male-dominated movies,” she said.

Nadia, who played the lead in many films in the 1980s, made a comeback to Tamil cinema with the 2004 movie, M. Kumaran, s/o Mahalakshmi. But she said such comebacks were rare in a scenario where leading actors preferred to be paired with young heroines. “I would have been aghast to play mother to an actor I was paired with in the past. Thankfully, that did not happen.”

Gauthami said the trend could be bucked if movies clearly represented the changes in today’s society. Suhasini said the best way to make an impact would be for women to turn producers. “It all boils down to the people backing the ideas of the filmmakers. And there is no better way for women to start than by becoming producers of movies they want to see,” she said.

As discussion veered towards more positive trends in Hindi films in recent years, with the success of films like Dirty Picture and Kahaani, G. Dhananjayan, chief of film business (south), Disney UTV Pictures, said he approached leading women actors from the south with remake rights for the two films.

“The truth is they don’t want to risk taking up woman-centric roles. They would rather act in supporting roles so the risk of failure falls squarely on the lead man,” he said.

Actor Nasser said it was not just about a woman playing the lead or being director. “While working on Hindi film projects, I found there were more women technicians on the sets as compared to the southern film industry,” he said.

Mr. Kamal Haasan and the others said it was a cultural phenomenon. “I dare you to find a make-up woman like a make-up man,” he said. “They simply do not exist because it is men who make the rules.”