The box office’s wonder women: telling it like it is

Actors from Taapsee Pannu to Vidya Balan and industry experts weigh in on whether the female lead is finally getting her due, and the space to tell new, untold stories

April 28, 2022 07:28 am | Updated May 07, 2022 02:31 pm IST

Back in the 90s, women in films were either glorified or vilified, says actor Vidya Balan

Back in the 90s, women in films were either glorified or vilified, says actor Vidya Balan | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

After a standing ovation premiere at the Berlinale in February, and grossing nearly ₹197 crore at the box office, the Alia Bhatt-starrer Gangubai Kathiawadi made a big splash on streaming giant Netflix a few days ago. Among the very few films to have stuck to the eight-week window between theatre release and OTT debut, Gangubai’s continued stellar run is a testament to both good storytelling and Alia’s star power.

That women-led films or shows don’t sell is a myth long busted. Already this year, we have seen multiple projects, big and small, with strong women characters essayed by some very talented actors — from the Vidya Balan and Shefali Shah-starrer Jalsa to Gangubai to The Fame Game web series headlined by Madhuri Dixit, or to cite a non-Bollywood example, the Malayalam thriller Oruthee, led by Navya Nair. 

The idea of the ‘bankable’ female lead has never been stronger in Indian cinema

The idea of the ‘bankable’ female lead has never been stronger in Indian cinema | Photo Credit: X.J.G. Satheesh

As recently as a decade or so ago, this would have been unthinkable. Says actor Taapsee Pannu, “When I started working, there would be one or two female-led films in Bollywood per year, and it would feel like the light at the end of the tunnel. Now we probably have one or two every month. Every leading female actor right now has multiple women-led projects.”

Commercial tag

It could be argued, therefore, that the idea of the ‘bankable’ female lead (and as the word indicates, the nomenclature is largely commercial) has never been stronger in Indian cinema. What are the factors behind this shift? Has OTT or the streaming industry played a huge role in this? What more can one expect in the years ahead? These are some of the questions we asked the stakeholders themselves — actors, directors, producers, writers and critics — to gain their different perspectives and experiences over the past decade. 

Alia Bhatt in ‘Gangubai Kathiawadi’

Alia Bhatt in ‘Gangubai Kathiawadi’

“I think there definitely has been progress over the last decade or so,” says Sohini Chattopadhyay, who won the National Award for Best Film Critic last year. “In 2012, we saw Kahaani and at least for Hindi cinema, its commercial success heralded a period of so-called women-centred projects. By then we had seen Tanu Weds Manu in 2011 and Kangana Ranaut had another major commercial success a couple of years later, with Queen. So, the first half of the 2010s was a period where we were seeing a lot of women-led films doing well in mainstream Hindi cinema.” 

Also read:Women in cinema — notes from the South

Taapsee’s filmography over the last five to six years is a particularly relevant example in this context: PinkMulkThappad and more recently, Rashmi Rocket and Loop Lapeta are all solid, well-made mainstream films that have made an impression on critics as well as the general public. Many of these projects would have found it impossible to find financial backing before the mid-2000s.

Taapsee Pannu

Taapsee Pannu

Mirroring society

There is also a marked difference in the kind of roles being offered to women actors today. The industry has slowly but surely begun reflecting changing attitudes in society, says actor Vidya Balan. “Back in the 90s, women in films were either glorified or vilified. From the mid-2000s onwards, women onscreen were seen as individuals with hopes, dreams and aspirations of their own. It’s a reflection of the progress that society as a whole has made on that front. And the things women still have to fight for… you see that struggle onscreen as well.”

Actor Tina Desai (Sense8Bloody Brothers) shares the sentiment. “I can’t tell you the relief I feel when I see the variety of roles on offer for women today,” she says. “Initially, I was worried about how to be the bubbly, charming girl that the guy falls in love with. But there has to be some variation, otherwise how am I supposed to play 30, 40, 50 types of charming, you know?”

In the recent Zee5 show Bloody Brothers (an official remake of the BBC show Guilt), Tina’s character Sophie appears to be a naive city-slicker in the small town of Ooty, before the latter episodes reveal her true origin story and motivations. Sophie is a well-written inversion of the ‘damsel in distress’ trope and Tina’s versatile performance drives the irony home. “Now both creators and audiences are more interested in different kinds of female characters, not just homely or holier-than-thou ones!” Tina says.

The streaming industry may have played a big part in making such varied castings possible and paving the way for women-led projects to get off the ground. Financiers may still give these films reduced budgets, using words like ‘niche’ to justify the decision — but the stories are here, and they’re piling up.

Says Tanul Thakur, who won the National Award for Best Critic in 2014, “Today there are several shows and films led by women that simply would not have seen the light of day as recently as 10 years ago — the SonyLiv show Maharani, for instance, where Huma Qureshi’s lead character has been inspired by former Bihar CM Rabri Devi. Could the standards of Indian OTT content be better? Sure, but I think this in itself is noteworthy.”

Huma Qureshi in ‘Maharani’

Huma Qureshi in ‘Maharani’

It’s not like theatrical releases didn’t have interesting women. It’s just that the streaming medium allows for more well-rounded, complete stories, says Sameer Nair, CEO of Applause Entertainment, which has produced OTT series such as Scam 1992Rudra, and Criminal Justice. “This is more important, I feel, than the fact that there are no box office numbers for OTT shows/ films. I always tell our actors, ‘In our shows, there is no hero or heroine, there is an ensemble and the script is the real hero’.”

And true enough, streaming platforms have given some very talented but relatively unknown actors more prominent roles and increased screentime to make their performances count. Take Ratnabali Bhattacharjee, for instance — she has been involved in some very interesting OTT shows in recent years, including Netflix’s Ghoul, TVF’s Permanent Rommates, and most recently, the darkly funny series on Disney+ Hotstar, Ok Computer. Ratnabali also co-wrote Ladies Room, a 2016 web series (produced by Y-Films, Yash Raj Films’ digital wing) following two young women where each episode was set in a different loo.

A still from ‘Ladies Room’

A still from ‘Ladies Room’

A reliably funny and whip-smart show, Ladies Room was well-received, especially for its dialogues. Despite the audience reception, however, change is often slow and painful, says Ratnabali. “After Ladies Room got people’s attention — IndieWire named it one of the best web series of that year — I received more writing offers. But they all relied heavily on tropes; poor boy meets rich girl, fat girl meets sweet boy, and so on and that didn’t interest me.”

New narratives

This is probably where production houses helmed by women can play a bigger role. “I named my production house Outsider Films,” says Taapsee, “because I wanted to reach those people who are talented and have fresh, innovative perspectives and stories to tell, but who do not have anybody backing them in the industry.”

Actor Anushka Sharma, who co-founded a production house with her brother nine years ago, is also known to champion women-centric projects — NH10PhillauriBulbbul and Pari — all films marked by distinctive visual styles. Last month, however, she announced her decision to step back from the venture, handing over the reins to her brother. A young mother, Anushka said she wished to concentrate on her acting for now. 

Anushka Sharma in ‘NH10’

Anushka Sharma in ‘NH10’ | Photo Credit: Ridhin Pancchmatia

The shift is also reflected in the kind of stories the women in the industry have to tell. “Traditionally, Bollywood films have been made with a very male-centric gaze,” says screenwriter Suhani Kanwar. “But, things are changing and I’d like to think I’m part of that change.” Suhani penned the additional screenplay for Alankrita Shrivastava’s Lipstick Under My Burkha (2016) and also wrote episodes on the Netflix shows Leila (2019) and Betaal (2020). 

In March, Netflix launched a scriptwriting workshop for women in partnership with the National Film Development Corporation. The one-year programme is aimed at fostering a more gender-inclusive ecosystem and familiarising participants with the film industry. At the end of the course, participants will submit a script, and get a shot at being selected for NFDC Screenwriting Lab or the NFDC Film Bazaar. 

Every little step counts. Says Suhani, “The change is not restricted to gender. Whether it’s caste or sexual orientation — I enjoyed Badhai Do recently, for instance — there are now stories coming from people who were under-represented thus far. I think the industry was very different when I started working, just over a decade ago. On a film where I was AD [assistant director], the notes for a female character simply said, ‘Woh bra nahi pehenti thi’ [She did not wear a bra].” Surely, it’s time for a change.

The writer and journalist is working on his first book of non-fiction.

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