Lights, camera... no nonsense
Seventy mm. The silver screen. The planet’s only place, perhaps, where ‘All is always well’. Behind the screen, though, an entire half of the artistes who create that Utopia are questioning their reality. In 2018, Indian cinema’s women broke the silence on sexual predators. The industry’s best known piece of furniture is the casting couch, but few women admitted ever hearing of it till #MeToo reached Indian shores. In 2019, on the first anniversary of #TimesUp, the hashtags have made way for hope of real change.
Shaken, Not Silent
Year 2018, hashtag MeToo. Tanushree Dutta, a former beauty queen, made filmdom face its ugly truth, revealing harassment on the sets of Horn OK Pleassss (2008) by co-star Nana Patekar. Every dawn hence has spelt the demise (or dip), of a career — Vikas Bahl, Sajid Khan, Alok Nath, Kailash Kher, Anu Malik — among a notable few.
Film critic and author Khalid Mohamed feels #MeToo is here to stay. “There has been an upsurge, led by Tanushree, who was practically the heroine of the year. Maybe now it’s not as strong as it was when it started, but I’m sure it will return with a force.”
“I or my daughter Konkona [Sen Sharma] or Shabana Azmi, or many others, come from a position of privilege so it hasn’t been difficult for us,” admits actor and filmmaker Aparna Sen. “But I know it has been difficult for many women, particularly if their entire earnings depend on this profession. I’m very glad that women are coming out.”
Unlike Hollywood, however, the number of prominent women stars in India breaking their silence was next to none. Tanushree says she understands their reluctance to “fight the good fight”. “Casting for big-budget movies doesn’t always happen on the basis of talent, especially for women. In my five years in Bollywood, I never heard of a screen test. So when you get jobs on the recommendation of a male co-star, director, producer, how do people ruffle feathers? There’s a saying, ‘Dwarka ke dwaar par Shakuni mama’. This is Bollywood. The A++ list is Dwarka. Shakuni mamas are actors who don’t want to work with any girls other than who they’re recommending. This is why women [actors] don’t speak, I don’t blame them. But there were exceptions like Sonam K Ahuja, who spoke out, strongly and vehemently.”
In fact, right towards the end of 2017, a few women from the Malayalam film industry formed the Women In Cinema Collective (WCC) after a female actor was kidnapped and assaulted in her car. Filmmaker Anjali Menon, a WCC member, says even in Kerala, women didn’t really speak up till this incident. “When Nirbhaya happened in 2012, people were shaken because we identified with being a student/working woman stepping out at a certain hour and expecting to return home safely. Similarly, this incident brought back memories of many, violations. A violation is not just only at this incredibly brutal scale that she faced, but even in the way you are viewed, the way you’re spoken to, the things you have to witness on set, the way you’re judged for your gender.”
Filmmaker Shonali Bose affirms #MeToo brought changes. “Many production houses are now putting in place committees and mechanisms to address complaints. In Roy Kapoor Films (which is producing her next film), we had a four-hour workshop. There’s also an independent committee.”
Another WCC member, popular South Indian actor Parvathy, who made her Bollywood debut with Qarib Qarib Singlle (2017), is also optimistic. “I think the biggest takeaway would be the fact that there is a brilliant momentum set in 2018, which is not dying anytime soon. I think there are extremely invested people, men and women alike, and they are working towards maintaining this momentum of change and tearing the walls down in various manners.”
Producing Content, Spreading Sensitivity
Devika Rani, often called the First Lady of Indian cinema, was also one of its first woman actors to turn producer. Calling the shots at Bombay Talkies in the 1940s, she produced the super hit Kismet, remembered for its support to the independence struggle with strong anti-British message, hoodwinking the colonial censors. And went on to give Hindi cinema Dileep Kumar with Jwar Bhaata (1944).
Over the years, many women actors took the plunge and turned producer, which seemed a better way to gain control of the narrative, both on and off the screen, than even wearing the director’s hat.
And in 2019, another A-lister is walking the path of her illustrious predecessors, to tell the story she wants. Deepika Padukone is producing a biopic on acid attack survivor Laxmi Agarwal, in which she also plays the lead.
A Padma Shri and winner of nine National Film Awards, Aparna applauds the decision by several young women actors to turn producer. “Kanan Devi (renowned Bengali actor) shielded herself, becoming virtually unapproachable, after she turned producer. I understand where she was coming from,” she reminisces, and says,
“I’m proud of actresses like Anushka (Sharma) who have taken the risk and are trying to make what they consider good cinema. This a great achievement.”
“With more women in decision-making, change will happen. The more women we have in production, the more aware and sensitive the unit will be. In fact, it’s not about gender, it’s how aware and sensitive you are to issues per se,” observes Anjali. “As a member of the crew, you want to work in an environment where you’re not judged by your gender. When this openness comes into our social thinking, it percolates into the content we create. It’s a circle — content is created, people view it, they perpetuate those values, the values come back on our set.”
A Place To Work, Like Any Other
The law is clear on how harassment of women at the workplace is to be dealt with. But in the film industry, whether Bollywood or its regional counterparts, ‘workplace’ is still a vague term, say most actors and filmmakers.
Anjali agrees the film industry is still a disorganised sector. “When it comes to law, it is the fundamental right of a woman to have a harassment-free workspace. Though the law defines workplace in the broadest scope, there is no clear definition of our workspace within the industry except ‘this is the space where we have work’. So that definition needs to recognised by the industry, the workplace insulated so that it is a safe and professional work environment. That is the need of the hour.”
Telling Her Story The Way It Is
The shift in narrative, from glam-goddess and silently suffering demigod to ordinary human, with her unabashed frailties and strong feelings, came over the years. And Indian cinema, in 2018, told many such stories. India’s official entry to the Oscars was incidentally by a woman, filmmaker Rima Das’s Village Rockstars (Assamese), which was about a 10-year-old girl’s dreams of forming a band.Pratima Joshi’s Aamhi Doghi (Marathi) poignantly showcased the unique bond between two women. Mahanati, biopic of southern superstar Savithri, made in Tamil, Telugu and Kannada, didn’t botox the wrinkles. Nor did Meghna Gulzar’s Raazi, while Sriram Raghavan’s AndhaDhun shed an altogether different light on the dark side of a woman.
Piyush Roy, film critic and associate professor in Liberal Studies, Jain University, Bengaluru, says the first blockbuster of 2018 and its second-highest grosser was Padmaavat, a film revolving around its heroine. “There never has been a year in recent film history where such a diverse range of women-centric films across genres, helmed by leading ladies of all age-groups, were critically and commercially acclaimed. Eclectic talents from the ‘class of the ’90s’ — Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Rani Mukerji, Tabu and Kajol — played dynamic lead characters in their film outings. Five of the year’s top 10 box-office earners – Padmaavat, Hichki, Badhaai Ho, Raazi and Stree – revolved around women protagonists, making a case for demands to balance pay cheque disparities between genders. Even films which didn’t exactly set the box office aflame, like Patakha, Manmarziyan, Daas Dev or Veere Di Wedding, were toplined by some robust female characterisations not seen before.”
However, Khalid feels it’s still difficult to sell a ‘woman’ film in the market. “I’ve been trying to sell a script with a woman as its pivot, but I’ve been told ‘why don’t you make it a man’. With streaming platforms, I hope there is more scope.”
Shonali agrees it has been difficult, but says over the years audiences accepted women-led films like Kahaani, Piku, Mardaani. “Almost 12 years ago I made Amu. When I went to people with the script, few wanted to do it and those who did said ‘can you make it a male lead’. Now, producers are looking for women-centric stories and women directors, it’s very encouraging,” she says.
However, trade analyst Taran Adarsh argues only content sells. “If a film can provide entertainment in two-and-a-half hours, whether it has a female or a male protagonist, it’s bound to work. This is not a new trend. There was Pakeezah, there was Mother India, more recently Kahaani and Queen.”
#MeToo, Now What?
There were murmurs that the ‘big baddies’ escaped, but industry members felt #MeToo did instill fear. “It’s not going to be so easy for people because it will be out on social media and you could lose your job,” feels Shonali.
Parvathy says, “Groups supporting rights of any particular gender won’t rest until we see a transparent policy at the workplace. We’ve set an example of asking questions till we get all the answers and if we don’t get answers we change the system so that the question doesn’t exist anymore.”
Anjali, however, points out the response to #MeToo should not be limited to a re-tweet or calling out the same person. “Everybody is just looking at grievance redressal. What about prevention and prohibition? Change will happen when people know ‘this is not done’. Chalta hai has to go. Nahi chalega. India is so quick to adapt to technology like new cameras, 3D filmmaking, so why not adapt to social systems that are changing? We have to upgrade our mental ware, our social ware, not just our software.”
Or, as Taran puts it: “Hindi films are incomplete without our leading ladies and it’s time that producers give them the respect in their films and stories.” Karan Johar, for one, has promised Dharma Productions will strike ‘item’ off its song menu.