Stories of women, from women
With more women creators and their stories being backed by Netflix, we dig deeper into this welcome trend
Why are women-centric films thought to be ‘offbeat’? Why does having a female director/technician/producer always become an extra-talking point? Women directors and producers have been in existence since 1930s, but what about the status quo still makes it so novel? Netflix has become an interesting player in this space, in looking to level the gender field. More than 50 percent of its Indian original films have had female protagonists (Choked: Paisa Bolta Hai, Bulbbul, Guilty, Chopsticks, Soni, Lust Stories, Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl), and have been backed by several women filmmakers and technicians, debutantes and seasoned. What about the digital space makes it conducive for women?
"Well, for one, it is a more level-playing field," says Gazal Dhaliwal, writer of the Netflix series, Mismatched. “If you have talent, you will get opportunities regardless of your gender. That’s why you see a lot of women telling stories in this space.” But the crucial factor, as Gazal observes, is in acknowledging that stories about women do make for good content. “Streaming services have been smart enough to recognise that. Since there have historically been far fewer women narratives on screens, there are many unexplored themes, genres, and stories here. There is a novelty, a freshness that every viewer craves.”
This recognition is key, given that the mainstream content continues to be driven by men. Having a theatre release means that creative choices often get dictated by business considerations. “With theatre releases, you look to fill seats. Thus, the lowest common denominator becomes important. It is like a mela, where you need to have everything so it can cater to everyone,” says Anvita Dutt, who made her directorial debut with Bulbbul. So while a studio might not turn down an exciting project just because it has a woman director or a protagonist, it is unlikely that they may pick an experience like Bulbbul, she adds.
Shorn of the worries of filling up seats, platforms like Netflix are free to enable stories that they judge to have an audience across the globe. “I would think differently if I were working on a theatre project,” says Ashvini, Yardi, who produced Masaba Masaba. “Even though I love women-centric stories and support women crews, I do have to keep the business in mind. Budgets are tighter and smaller for women-centric stories than male-centric ones. That is the unfortunate truth. But with the OTT space, as we have a captive, diverse audience, it becomes a place where you can tell the stories you want.” This is a sentiment that Sonam Nair, the director of Netflix’s Masaba Masaba shares. “The mainstream tries to cater to everybody. The people at Netflix, in fact, told me not to worry about the audience. They wanted me to only focus on the story and were sure that we would find our audience. For a filmmaker, this is a beautiful thing to hear.”
Earlier, not many women were encouraged to dream of being a director or being in the film industry. “I was the first female director in Dharma productions. I was 26 when I pitched my script. There were other writers and ADs, but something held them back because it was such a boy’s club,” says Sonam. But the digital sphere has catalysed a change-in-motion. “Women are now in positions where they take the calls. So, with more women in positions of power, and pitching, it is only natural that they pick what they like, and this reflects a different sensibility.” And there is the added benefit of safe environments being created for women. “All our teams had meetings about understanding MeToo, and the guidelines to be followed during production for safety. I think that’s something that isn’t practised in the film space, and something we have recently started in the television industry. With such strong guidelines in place, women do feel protected and secure in this environment,” says Ashvini.
Srishti Behl Arya who is in charge of Netflix India’s original films slate, says that engaging women creators isn’t a calculated exercise, adding that they are simply picking stories that excite them. But it helps that there are women in positions of power. Sonam talks about the prevailing condescension “for chick-flicks and rom-com”. She says a lot of the cinematographers she approached didn’t get the content. “I wrote it with three other girls and friends. I was happy to have collaborators who were mostly women.” Gazal also adds that Netflix has encouraged diversity in the writers’ room. “That’s a conscious effort. This allows for a stronger female perspective even in stories about men. That’s truly wonderful.”
With the pandemic, and the growing OTT consumption, will the digital standards and norms seep into the mainstream theatre space as well? Anvita Dutt believes so. “When you are in the comfort of your house, it is easy to snap out of a story if it isn’t engaging. So, the story needs to be the hero. And with higher consumption, the palette will change. This has already started happening.” She urges people to note that gender has nothing to do with storytelling or intellect. “We had people like Devika Rani who was both a producer and actress, who only made female-oriented films, way back in the 1930s-40s. It is strange that now it has become something to be talked about, something that draws notice. I hope it becomes as common as it was.” That, of course, is the dream.