Deepika Padukone in Chhapaak and Taapsee in Thappad. (Photo Credit: Instagram)
Sometimes angry and scathing and other times gentle and funny, women in Hindi cinema are speaking out in a chorus of affirmation of their many-hued identities. The gender prism is shifting thanks to women writers, filmmakers and, of course, audiences who are willing to pay to watch and listen.
While writer-filmmakers such as Sai Paranjype and Kalpana Lajmi in an earlier era changed the testosterone tonality of cinema at the time with films such as Sparsh and Ek Pal, today's writers and filmmakers are using the medium to voice their opinions and aspirations and also to reflect contemporary society.
The first two months of 2020 saw the release of filmmaker Meghna Gulzar-Atika Chohan's Chhapaak, Panga written by Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari and Nikhil Mehrohtra and Thappad penned by director Anubhav Sinha and Mrunmayee Lagoo Waikul, all mainstream Bollywood films with women writers on board.
While Chhapaak, produced by Deepika Padukone who also stars in the film, deals with acid attack, Kangana Ranaut-starrer Panga is about a woman returning to work after marriage and motherhood and Thappad is a nuanced look at domestic abuse and a homemaker's (Taapsee Pannu) fight for her respect in the face of all odds.
It is the right time to tell stories that are inclusive, sensitive and gender neutral, believe women writers from the Hindi film industry. Mrunmayee hopes the success of Thappad makes things a bit "easier" when it comes to telling stories that come from her world.
"I don't know whether this is a shift, but if it is, then I'm very happy. I hope to write a lot of stories that come from my world, come from my being. They will probably now find a platform," Mrunmayee told PTI. Scriptwriter Kanika Dhillon, who has written unapologetic and not-so-coy female characters in movies such as Manmarziyaan and Judgementall Hai Kya, said women are not ok with "not being heard anymore".
"It's about time we move towards inclusivity and sharing the ownership and responsibilities with co-creators. The emphasis on good content and story telling is further empowering writers. Women voices have to be included because women are not ok with not being heard any more, be it at protests sites, as characters in a story or the creators creating them," she told PTI.
Kanika, who is reuniting with Taapsee for the thriller Haseen Dillruba, believes the gender of writers should not reflect in the characters they create but the female gaze definitely gives a new dimension to the story.
"A new colour and a new perspective will be added when a woman writer tells about a character. A woman writing a woman will know she can't be boxed or she can't be a uni-dimensional figure. She has her own aspirations, dreams, ambitions and weaknesses like any male character.
"The testosterone in such portrayals is palpable sometimes so it is good to have the female gaze. Although, in an ideal world, a good writing piece is where you cannot tell the gender of the writer," she added.
From being a women-led arena in its initial days in the 1930s with frontrunners such as Fatima Begum, Jaddan Bai and Devika Rani, Bollywood turned into a predominantly male space in the 1950s, resulting in the Hindi film heroine mostly being reduced to a damsel in distress. This also led to lack of opportunities for women behind the camera.
The parallel cinema movement in the 1970s marked the return of working women on screen and had its fair share of female talent contributing to the technical aspect of filmmaking. While the era saw the rise of women in the fields of choreography, art direction and writing, film direction remained a male domain.
This began to change in the 1980s with Paranjpye, Lajmi, Aparna Sen and Mira Nair turning to direction -- and giving refined and relatable portrayals of women on screen. As the years passed, the involvement of women in filmmaking increased but, apart from a few exceptions, female characters again were mostly glorified props in a male narrative.
In the 2000s, things started to look up with filmmakers and writers like Meghna, Tanuja Chandra, Devika Bhagat, Bhavani Iyer and Juhi Chaturvedi bringing real, layered stories to the forefront.
The films were few, but their impact was huge as the work by these women writers gave a push to many more to come forward. Juhi, the writer behind the wickedly funny Vicky Donor, slice-of-life story Piku and the elegiac October, said she does not like to categorise her stories from the lens of gender.
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I just felt like sharing something that happened with me today, which may or may not be relevant for you, but here's hoping that you'll read. First of all, thanks for all the love you showered upon my "An Ode to Forbidden Love" video that I shared yesterday. It was my first time making an edit like this and I know it's not perfect, but I'm overwhelmed with the response. Well I was quite confident that people here would like it - people of my age group, who are vocal about homosexuality and other things I showed in the video. But I wanted to know what my parents would think about it, and after some hesitation I sent it to my dad. I come from a not-so-conservative but not-so-liberal either middle class family, and it's not the norm to touch upon "taboo" topics in daily conversations at home. I was really curious to know what they would think about this - all the kissing scenes I included, especially the same sex ones, things that they haven't grown up watching on screen. Well, after seeing the video he gave me a call and I picked up with my heart racing. I almost cried when he said he absolutely loved it, followed by my mom as well. He was even happier when I told him how many views it has got, and what all comments have come. I guess he was a bit shy to talk about the topical details, so he started asking what software I used and other technical stuff, but I was comfortable enough to tell him about SMZS and how people are trying to break the ice for homosexuality nowadays. He said yes that's a very good step and an important issue, and I heaved a sigh of relief. Sometimes I feel that we just need to TALK, you know? There's always some kind of wall between Indian parents and kids, while both parties have so much to say to each other but don't manage to. Maybe we can just make some healthy arguments? And I'm glad we live in a time and place where films are such amazing conversation starters. It's the first time I mentioned the word "homosexuality" to my dad and I'm so glad I did. That's the win I'll celebrate through having made this video. Piku (2015) • Shoojit Sircar
"'Chhapaak', 'Panga' and 'Thappad' came maybe because when things reach their peak, we can't deny them anymore... What is important is that a handful of people have started understanding or being sympathetic to a space which ideally should be gender neutral. Writing should be gender neutral," she told PTI. "I don't remember my gender all the time... An idea is bigger," she added.
With the discourse around gender equality in terms of space, pay and treatment evolving in the post #MeToo era, there is more attention to such stories.
Atika, Kanika and director Ruchi Narain have collaborated for Guilty, an incisive look at the post #MeToo era. The Netflix movie, starring Kiara Advani in the lead, touches upon various topics such as patriarchy, inherent biases and class divide through a campus-set rape allegation story.
"My urge to write and create comes with a feeling of protest. I have found my voice through anger. The articulation, the craft may have taken time but the need to say things out loud, things which need to be said, was lurking in me from the age of 12. I knew at that age that I had to protest," Atika told PTI in an earlier interview.