The debate around the representation of women in the Indian film industry—both on and off the screen—has been gaining momentum. And as more women assume significant roles as directors, writers, editors, and more, one would think the portrayal of women on-screen would evolve, moving away from the propesque objectification towards a more compelling, central-to-the-story depiction. Just as the reception of their designations off-screen will change for the better, too. Turns out, while there has been a remarkable shift on both those fronts, they’re still disturbingly wanting in many aspects.
One doesn’t have to look far to find examples. Before Lipstick Under My Burkha was cleared for release in 2017, the Central Board of Film Certification had run into a controversy after it refused to certify the film, citing that “the story is lady-oriented, their fantasy about life. There are continuous sexual scenes, abusive words...”, among other plaints, for their decision. There will be numerous other instances if one goes searching. From the gender of the protagonist, to the audience it caters to, and even the sex of the filmmaker—a ‘women-centric’ film has many layers—each subjected to its own set of scrutinies and met with its own share of stereotypes, right from the creation to the release of the film, even today.
To probe deeper, we spoke to four women directors—fronting the movement of women empowerment, both in front and behind the camera. Through their thought-provoking films and emboldening stances, four trailblazers pen essays about the changes they’ve observed, and why the trials and tribulations associated with a ‘female’ film may have lessened with time...but are far from over.
Most narratives, for the longest time, have been controlled by men. Having said that, many men have given us incredible films and amazing female characters, but that doesn’t mean we don’t question the lack of women behind the camera. It is important that women also get to put across their perspectives. I’ve always admired the works of greats like Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen, Shyam Benegal, Fellini, Godard, Truffaut, and Kurosawa. But there were very few female filmmakers, like Mira Nair and Aparna Sen, who gave us powerful stories with complex female characters.
Director, Listen To Her, Manto, and Firaaq
Films are a reflection of a society’s biases, power dynamics, fears, and aspirations. So while in every era films have changed, the representation of women has not transformed as much as needed. Mainstream films often adhere to stereotypical depictions, and women are boxed in roles of the ‘love interest’, ‘sacrificing mother’, or ‘enticing vamp’. And while, in every era, there have been more realistic and varied female characters—like in Achhut Kanya, Bandini, Bhumika, Ankur, or Arth—we largely remain a traditional and patriarchal society, which keeps manifesting in our films.
Today, many of the ‘feminist films’ deal with sexual liberation, and while control over the body is an important issue, it is not the only battle women face. Gender-based discrimination is not a standalone issue; it also intersects with caste, class, region, and age, which seldom gets dealt with.
As an actor, I have been offered many ‘feminist roles’, which, too often, simply meant that at the end of the film, the woman kills the villain or takes revenge. However, we know that our struggles are far more complex. It’s more important for female characters to be represented in all their diversity—strong and vulnerable, funny and serious, old and young, and in all the shades that exist—for their characterisation to not be unidimensional.
I am a director who happens to be a woman, but my experiences of being a woman must impact the way I think, feel, and do, however subconscious that may be. After watching Firaaq and Manto, many said that they could clearly see a woman’s take on the subject—that a man would have been tempted to show blood and gore in violent times. The female characters in both films were layered, with their strengths and vulnerabilities.
Along with more wholesome portrayals of women, there are many other things that I’d like to see change in the industry. Gender pay gap, for example, is worrying, and not talked about enough. Then there are issues of the casting couch, harassment, and lack of diversity of roles, both in front of and behind the camera. But the film industry is only a reflection of the patriarchy and misogyny that exists in society. So without changing that, films alone can’t bring about change.
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