In the last few years, there has been a discernible rise in women actors leading Bollywood films—and finding success at the box office.
Take, for instance, Kangana Ranaut’s Tanu Weds Manu Returns. In June this year, it became the first and the only female-led Bollywood film to earn more than Rs100 crore—a feat typically reserved for the three Khans.
This year’s other women-led hits included Anushka Sharma’s NH10, Deepika Padukone’s Piku and Bhumi Pednekar’s Dum Laga Ke Haisha. And in October, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan is returning to the big screen with Jazbaa.
The success of these films has led to much media attention, with some even proclaiming that decades of male domination in Bollywood is nearing its end. Film critic Anupama Chopra, for instance, called it “the golden period” for female actors.
But perhaps we are celebrating too soon.
Behind the big screen, there’s still a disproportionately tiny percentage of women working as producers, writers, directors, lyricists, and sound and light technicians.
“We still have spaces where women, perhaps they are not forbidden, but definitely don’t have an equal chance of access in many sectors within media and entertainment,” Lalita Kumarmangalam, chairperson of the National Commission for Women, said last week at a conference in New Delhi.
“There’s actually no physical reason for women not being able to make in that sector, except the almost inherent bias that exists,” she added.
Last year, a study on the representation of women in cinema across 11 countries, conducted by the Geena Davis Media Foundation along with the United Nations, examined the gender of those working behind the camera. It found that the gender ratio in India’s film industry stands at 6.2 males to every one female, much worse than the average of 3.9 males to every 1 female.
The study analysed 120 popular films released between 2010 and 2013 across the world’s most lucrative film industries. These included Australia, Brazil, China, France, Germany, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea, the US, and the UK.
Every once in a while, female scriptwriters such as Juhi Chaturvedi (Piku and Vicky Donor) or Urmi Juvekar (Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!) breakthrough with movies that win both critical and commercial acclaim. But these stories are far and few in between.
Advaita Kala, who scripted Kahaani, an award-winning film about a pregnant woman, said that the Indian film industry is simply not a “female-friendly” workplace.
“As a writer, one’s work is mostly solitary, so the risk of gender politics is greatly reduced in terms of practical working conditions,” she told Quartz. “What one really encounters is the male gaze that dominates film making in India. The producer, director, camera man—essentially every major player on a film will in most cases be male—that influences the approach to the material. “
“As go the numbers of women in other fields, so do they go in the our film industry,” Shibani Bathija, screenwriter for blockbuster films like My Name is Khan and Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna, told Quartz. “The numbers of women in boardrooms, and other traditional male bastions are skewed as well.”
Women in Bollywood feel that parents actually discourage their daughters from entering the industry.
“If you watch a film made on the life of India’s first filmmaker, Dadasaheb Phalke, you will see how the society and the women themselves viewed prostitution as a better career than acting,” Meghna Puri, president of Whistling Woods, a leading film school in Mumbai, told Quartz. ”Some things are so deeply ingrained in culture that they take years to change.”
However, Puri is witnessing some change.
“We currently have a 40:60 girls vs boys ratio. We started with 30:70. Girls are joining courses that are perceived to be unconventional for them like cinematography, sound, editing, direction and producing,” said Puri. Whistling Woods has courses that last between one and three years, and covers all major departments within filmmaking.
On any Hindi film, the percentage of men employed can go up to as much as 90%.
“If the crew is of 200 people, there are hardly 12 or 15 women—the lead actress, a few junior artists and dancers,” Charu Khurana, a pioneering female makeup artist, told Quartz last year.
Till last year, Bollywood operated a strange 60-year-old system to ensure equal opportunities for men and women: The former were forbidden from hairdressing, and women couldn’t become makeup artists. One alleged reason: Makeup pays more than hairdressing.
“I couldn’t be seen as working as a makeup artist, so I would be doing all the work in the vanity van, or in the hotel room, while a man would represent my work on the sets,” Khurana said. “I would share my credits, and my salary with that man to be my face on the set.”
Finally, in 2012, backed by the National Commission for Women, Khurana formally filed a petition of protest and won the case in her favour in the the Supreme Court of India to lift the informal ban.
“Now, in some six months, there are 150-200 women artists,” Kumarmangalam said on Aug. 24.
Among sound and light technicians, there are even fewer women. Hetal Dedhia is Bollywood’s only female gaffer—head of electrical and lighting—and only because her father practiced the same profession. Still, he wasn’t exactly supportive when she decided to enter the profession.
“My father discouraged me and the lightboys working in his company laughed, pointing out that I was too frail for the work,” Dedhia, who has worked on films like Don 2 and Luck By Chance, told the Indian Express newspaper in 2013.
“This is a business that works around the clock, and is physically and emotionally demanding. Then, work can be erratic with timings, travel schedules for outdoor shootings and sometimes inconvenient living and working conditions,” scriptwriter Kala told Quartz. ”These are all considered disadvantageous for women by a prevalent mindset.”
But the number of female directors and producers has risen steadily in Bollywood in the last few years.
Several current and former actresses have taken up the producer’s job. For instance, Dia Mirza’s Bobby Jasoos and Anushka Sharma’s NH10. Then there are wives of Indian superstars, like Gauri Khan and Twinkle Khanna, who have produced films in which their husbands have starred.
Among female directors, former choreographer Farah Khan has become one of the most sought-after names in the industry. In 2004, she became the second woman to be nominated for a Filmfare award for her debut film, Main Hoon Na. Last year, her blockbuster film, Happy New Year, became the first film directed by a woman to earn more than Rs100 crore at the box office.
Alongside Khan and Zoya Akhtar—who deals with multi-starrer archetypal Bollywood movies—a generation of women directors have begun to explore more feminist themes in their films, finding both commercial and critical success. Recent examples include Gauri Shinde’s English Vinglish and Shonali Bose’s Margarita With a Straw.
Nonetheless, a majority of these women tend to be related, in some way or the other, with established Bollywood families. There still remains little scope for an outsider—those who do not have a superstar father or husband— to be able to raise funds for their projects.
“Unless and until half of the directors are women, one won’t really be able to say there is absolute gender equality in the movie business,” Tanuja Chandra, who has received both commercial and critical acclaim as a director, said in a 2012 interview.
“At that time perhaps the pay structure will change too and women will earn as much money as men—whether an actress or a woman-director.”
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