Whether or not you agree that women rule the world, we can safely say that these six women most certainly have conquered the screen with their collective star power. Their spirited act has entertained us through the decades with National Award winning films, a documentary that’s earned an Oscar and their path breaking work across various Netflix projects. Meet the game changers of our generation and their views on pay disparity, the #MeToo movement and how streaming platforms are rewriting the rulebook for women in showbiz.
The game changers:
Madhuri Dixit: With a career spanning 38 years in Bollywood and countless Best Actress awards to her credit, the 54-year-old star recently made her Netflix debut with ‘The Fame Game’. She also turned producer of two Marathi films, one of which is set to release soon. Asked whether direction is on the horizon and her response: never say never.
Neena Gupta: The young at heart actress has worked 40 years in showbiz, giving us gems such as ‘Saans’ and ‘Woh Chokri’. After a lull in her career, she famously took to social media to ask for work and saw a career resurgence in 2018 with ‘Badhaai Ho’, playing a middle-aged pregnant woman. The 62-year-old currently features in the Netflix show ‘Masaba Masaba’, which stars her daughter in the titular role.
Guneet Monga: As the founder of Sikhya Entertainment, a boutique production house, Monga has earned accolades by the time she hit 38, serving as an executive producer of an Academy Award-winning short (‘Period. End of Sentence), earning a BAFTA nomination for ‘The Lunchbox’, and backing notable films like ‘Gangs of Wasseypur - Part 1 and 2’, ‘Masaan’ and the Netflix hit ‘Pagglait.’
Shweta Tripathi Sharma: You have probably loved her as Golu Gupta in ‘Mirzapur’ or as Dr Shreya Pathare in ‘Laakhon Mein Ek’ (both on Amazon Prime Video). Most recently, she has won hearts in the Netflix production ‘Yeh Kaali Kaali Aankhen’. The 36-year-old began her film career as a production assistant and associate director and gained wider recognition with films like ‘Masaan’.
Aahana Kumra: A graduate of filmmaker Subhash Ghai’s Whistling Woods, Kumra made her name with her debut in Sony TV’s ‘Yudh’ with Amitabh Bachchan. However, her breakthrough role came in the award-winning film ‘Lipstick Under My Burkha’ (2017). Currently you will find her on Netflix’s ‘Call My Agent: Bollywood’ while she awaits the release of the Bollywood film ‘Shamshera’.
Mrunal Thakur: The Indian TV and film star made her first screen appearance in the path breaking film, ‘Love Sonia’ (2018). A year later, Bollwyood found her with ‘Super 30’,followed by ‘Batla House’ and ‘Toofan’. While she awaits the release of ‘Jersey’ next month, you can catch the 29-year-old in the Netflix film ‘Dhamaka.’
Less than two decades ago, a discussion about women taking the lead behind and in front of the camera would have been an alien concept. Would you agree there’s been a positive shift in the way women are perceived in the industry and have we gone the distance?
Madhuri Dixit: Definitely. There was a time when I would walk onto a set and the only women in the room would be me, the hair dressers and the deputy actors. But now, when I walk in, the camera people, the director of photography, directors, costume designers, set designers, are all women, which is amazing to me.
Mrunal Thakur: Of course we have. The latest example being ‘Gangubai Kathiawadi’ doing so well. It is just amazing that a female led film is doing really well. Things are changing, and on OTT (streaming) women are leading and I’m sure that things are going to change where women get as many opportunities [as men].
Neena Gupta: There is much, much more variety in the type of roles for women my age today, and not just OTT platforms but films as well. I am doing so much work and such a variety now. Like in ‘Masaba Masaba’ I’m playing me, wearing whatever I wear and embodying the role of a modern mother. So it’s been a boon for all of us from the film industry that everybody has work now.
Aahana Kumra: I feel that the narratives have changed and the spaces have changed. If you feed your audiences right stories, they will consume that, and they’ll start thinking of that. I feel now the conversations have also become very progressive, and not as regressive as like - and I’m not trying to put anybody down here — but those TV serials we were being fed for so long that we thought were the norm. But now I feel that because there are so many stories, and people have the choice to choose, that filmmakers are trying to tell different stories.
What brought about the change though — a need for diverse voices, a mature audience demanding good content, women breaking the glass ceiling, industries adapting to more females in the workplace or something else entirely?
Mrunal Thakur: I think it’s everything. It’s a combination of audience. It’s a combination of celebrating different age, colour, shape and size.
Guneet Monga: I’d like to believe that the #MeToo movement played a role. One woman started sharing her experiences led to another one recognising that I too have similar experiences. Nobody had spoken in that scheme or discussed this so openly. And that is why I think it led to a lens of inclusion. And also there are amazing campaigns about feminism, about including more women or even basic stats like even in India there are less than five per cent of women who are directors. So when all of this data comes in front of you and you happen to be in a position of power, there’s definitely a rise in consciousness.
Aahana Kumra: Yes, women’s voices are getting stronger roles but bolder does not mean taking your clothes off. For the longest time after I did ‘Lipstick Under My Burkha’, I got calls from filmmakers to do bold roles. And I was like, ‘what do you mean bold? What is your definition?’ They were like, ‘you know, actually have a sexually charged character’. I don’t think that’s the definition of being bold. Just because I shed my clothes in a particular scene does not make me bold; it was a requirement of a character, it’s a requirement of the script, and therefore you do it not just to titillate audiences.
And this cycle would have continued but then the lockdown happened and people were stuck at home watching content that we had all worked in. We did not know what the future of that content was going to be but people identified with those characters and our ideas worked.
So you can have an opinion, I think that’s a very important thing to have in today’s times. I think most actresses have opinions and they have a mind of their own. And they decide to select what they want to do. Not maybe in the beginning of their careers, but you know, once they do a couple of shows, and they’ve worked enough in the industry. But I do think the voices are getting stronger. Women are trying to tell different stories, they have a point of view, they’re having a conversation with their filmmakers. Earlier, you used to see only men have that kind of leeway, or have that kind of space with directors.
Is gender stereotyping still a major concern for women on screen? Perhaps in the kind of roles that are being written for them that largely (but not always) favour a Mother India trope? Or perhaps defining how women above a certain age must be depicted on screen?
Madhuri Dixit: I think initially in my career, women-oriented films used to mean either revenge dramas or being victimsed. Those were the only mandates given that created a very stereotypical kind of woman-oriented films. But I think we’ve come a long way from there. I think in my career, I was very fortunate to get very strong women roles, whether in ‘Beta’, ‘Raja’, ‘Mrityudand’ or ‘Khalnayak’. I think I was fortunate to get roles written that were powerful in their own way. But now I think sensibilities are changing.
Neena Gupta: Now, if you’re asking me if these are stereotypical roles then I will say I don’t think so. Society is changing very fast because of the internet and social media, which means stories are bound to change as well.
Guneet Monga: I don’t think so either. And I don’t think even actors are open to doing that anymore. I think women in all their colour are being celebrated. I think the rise of internet and so much conversation that is happening and the flaws of women being celebrated now in cinema is leading to further acceptance.
Are streaming platforms changing the way roles are being written for women?
Neena Gupta: Of course. Earlier, big actors would not work for TV, now everybody is working for streaming platforms. I mean, Madhuri Dixit just now did a series on Netflix [‘The Fame Game’]. So it has been a wonderful change for the for the whole film industry. And I hope it remains and I hope it becomes better, even better than now, because I can see a lot of scope still, which has not been touched upon.
Aahana Kumra: I think OTT has completely changed the game for all of us. It’s not about capsule time. If you’re telling a good story, people will be hooked to that character. So people stand up for you, will fight for you, will say nay or it’s never a cute idea.
Is there an active need for organisations such as Women in Cinema Collective or similar entities that protect the rights of women in the film and TV industries?
Mrunal Thakur: There should be rules, not just for women, but for everybody, every artist, be it a technician or someone else. I feel like we need to be very strict as far as working hours are concerned because we have no weekend. You know, I’m not a feminist, but I believe in equal things.
Aahana Kumra: Oh, yes, I’m totally for it. I really feel like something has to be done about this because I always questioned whenever a male counterpart is getting paid more than me. I always questioned the producers. Is this person bringing more to the table? And if he is, then why are you hiring me? So I have actually said no to a lot of work where I am not paid as much as my male counterparts. And I’m okay with that. So I feel like there’s a certain need, like in HR, to have a women’s panel or an organisation in the film industry that actually looks at grievances. I feel conversations around pay disparity and safety of women need to be had.
Shweta Tripathi: Not just women, I think everybody needs to come together because we have to make the world a better place for everybody involved. We should not be defined by our gender, by our colour, by size, or by the texture of our skin. I think that is why these organisations like Women in Cinema Collective or similar entities are very important because we want everybody to feel that we’ve got your back. If you have a problem pick up the phone, send us a message.
I’d also like to say that work is sacred and I take my work very seriously. In fact, this happened on a set of ours where the girls were not comfortable and I spoke to the Chief Assistant Director about it and I spoke to the producers and I told the girls as well that every time you speak up you’re speaking up not for yourself, but you’re setting a standard. I can’t take responsibility for people’s homes but if you come to a set where I am working, I will do everything in my power to keep you safe.
Aside from safety, equal pay remains an issue. Even I am experiencing that. You have to fight for your contract to read that you will be on equal pay footing with the male co-star. And the thing is, I don’t know how to keep quiet. I’m going to stand up for not only myself but every woman, girl that I know.
What is some of the content you have seen on screen (or been a part of) that you are proud of, which has effectively pushed the cause for women in the industry?
Mrunal Thakur: Well, ‘Jersey’s going to release soon that’s a good one. All the films that I’ve been a part of, be it a ‘Batla House’ or ‘Super 30’, have done their part. But if you ask me, one of the first films that I did, ‘Love Sonia’ changed a lot of things for me and the people around me.
Guneet Monga: I would definitely say I’m very excited about the story of ‘Pagglait’ because 90 per cent of the women in the rest of the India are still arrange married, and they are married off at a certain age. And if somebody faces an unfortunate circumstance, there’s no place for them to go because the paternal side washes its hands off saying, ‘okay, we’ve done our duty’. So I think it was really an important piece of work for me. I would also say ‘Period, End of Sentence’ is something I’m extremely proud of and I was also given a lot of love for that. And of course in terms of awards, that being an Oscar or a recognition in India and the support and the launch and the conversation around it was very heartening.
Shweta Tripathi: I’m very happy with the kind of content that is being made, but obviously we can do better. But when I look at my career graph, one of my favorite projects is ‘Laakhon Me Ek’, which is on Amazon Prime Video. The story is about this young doctor who doesn’t want to be a hero but her placement is in a rural area, where she’s killing mosquitos, getting hassled, trying to figure out the bathroom, what to eat… It’s her personal journey towards setting up a cataract camp. The idea is that hardships will always be a part of life, but how we deal with them makes all the difference.
In your opinion, what is the need of the hour for women today to equal the field further in the film industry?
Mrunal Thakur: Why do we even need to ask, you know, why isn’t it already equal? I want women to come up and take risks. Alia [Bhatt] has taken such a big risk at the age of 27. I don’t know why I’m talking about her, but that’s the only film that I think I have watched recently and has changed something within me.
Aahana Kumra: The most important thing which I feel that women don’t do enough of is ask enough questions. There’s something that I learned a long time ago by my sister. She was like ask and you shall get but the thing is that we don’t ask because we feel like it’s not worth it or we will be just shut off or we’ll just be told we are more difficult. So ask the questions: Why? Why am I not being given the same privilege? Why am I not being given a good role? Why am I not being given the right salary?
Nobody’s going to fight that battle for you. You have to do it yourself. But also know that your battles are not your battles alone; everybody’s fighting the same battle.
Shweta Tripathi: The need of the hour I think is to dream and to not feel any guilt about it, constantly thinking ‘Am I a good mother?, Am I a good daughter?, Am I a good friend? Am I good wife?’. You try to do everything you can but don’t kill yourself. There’s global warming in the world. There’s war taking place. You can either lose sleep over it or fix what you can. In the midst of all this, I also want to say that I am turning producer soon and more on that later.