Bollywood has had a chequered history when it comes to portraying feminism and women in films. Women on the silver screen have either surrendered to the male dominance or merely taken upon the chauvinist role of men. But in the past few years, things have changed and the current generation has female actors and filmmakers who are taking charge and calling the shots. They are bolder in their choices, and fiercer in their performances.. In today’s scripts, roles for women are not dependent on a man, rather, they stand on their own.
With each passing year, this evolution has been evident. Fabulous or flawed, police officer or thief, the women on our screen have grown from heroines and love interests to so much more.
Ahead of International Women’s Day, Netflix organised a special panel discussion with Aanchal Singh (Yeh Kaali Kaali Ankhein), Zyan Marie Khan (Feels Like Ishq), Surveen Chawla (Decoupled), Aahana Kumra (Call My Agent) and Aditi Pohankar (She) who spoke about finding a footing in an industry which till recently was dominated by men, and whether the industry has become a level playing field. Excerpts:
Until a few years ago, female actors wouldn’t escape the question of whether there are meaty roles written about them. With some amazing performances in the past couple of years, can we put this debate to rest?
Zyan Marie Khan: I don’t think we should put it to rest as I don’t want us to lose out or lose steam. Yes, we have made a lot of progress and specifically as actors we know the kind of narrations that we are getting are so in-depth and layered. It is a huge relief. We haven’t reached where we need to be. This is a good and a better place but surely not a happy place and our final destination. As female actors, we cannot sit back and relax and chill. We are on the right track, but there is a long way to go.
Aahan Kumra: I agree with Zyan, we shouldn’t lose momentum and if that happens, we women wouldn’t get the roles that we are getting today. I’ll give you an example of my own film Lipstick Under My Burkha in 2017. The film was banned from coming out in cinemas and there were no promotions for the film. The only way we marketed that film was online. The entire cast including Ratna Pathak Shah, Konkana Sharma, Plabita Borthakur, our director Alankrita Shrivastav and me would sit in a panel and give interviews. Those conversations changed me as a woman. I came into the film industry where people always said, ‘Glamorous dikhna zaroori hai, sundar dikho and fit body rakho, look demure and don’t act intelligent.’ I was surprised because men are allowed to speak their mind, then why wasn’t I? I just don’t want to succumb to playing glamorous characters. I want to play good characters and I can choose to do that today as I have that medium.
Aditi Pohankar: I was really lucky to work with Imtiaz Ali because I remember my first brief from sir was, ‘Jitna ganda ho sake, utna ganda dikho.’ He took my look test and had told me not to wear any make-up and just be myself. So thankfully, I didn’t go through the rut process of going through a series of auditions. I remember in my audition, I had to perform with my eyes and show various emotions. At the same time, I made by debut with Lai Bhaari which was a typical heroine role where my hair was flying and I was dancing around trees. When people asked me how did a play a bold role in She, I always tell them that I have played a character.
We have often seen that women are referred to as someone’s wife or daughter. In Zyan’s case she is known as Aamir Khan’s niece. Do you feel that it is difficult for women to find their own identity?
Zyan Marie Khan: think the choices that I have made speak for themselves. A lot of people don’t know who I am related to and I like to keep it that way. I walk into a room and I don’t know who Ahana’s uncle is, so why should anyone know who my uncle is? Thankfully I have been brought up and taught to stand on my own feet.
Surveen Chawla: Sometimes, privilege actually works as a disadvantage because of the unnecessary pressure and comparison and what you have taken down in your lineage. Hypothetically, Zyan can use her lineage and land a role but she still has to prove herself and everyone has to do that throughout their journey. I am saying this on their behalf because I find this nepotism debate pointless. It is not her fault that she is Aamir Khan’s niece. I feel it is necessary to stop giving star kids the limelight that they don’t deserve even before they prove themselves. You make them a star even before they land up their first project.
Zyan Marie Khan: I completely agree with her. I feel everyone should be given the joy that I have of making my career on my own, luckily because my father (Mansoor Khan) moved away and I feel everyone who starts needs to get that feeling to having worked and earn the respect that they deserve.
Ahaana Kumra: Zyan and I did a play together and for the longest time I wasn’t aware that she was related to someone famous, as it didn’t matter. She is an actor and she is worthy of doing what she is good at. People need to stop being obsessed with star kids and that will help us to do our job.
Taapsee Pannu in one of her interviews mentioned that because of OTT, it has become a level playing field for all actors. Do you see that change happening?
Aditi Pohankar: It has happened in the past. We made films like Bazaar which had some phenomenal performances the only thing different at that time was we called it as art cinema and today it is getting a proper release. Today, glamorous women are also doing de-glam roles. The perspective is changing.
Surveen Chawla: I think what is selling is not men or women, it is the stories. Audiences aren’t fools and they have an IQ and EQ and they don’t want to see anything that is nonsense. They don’t want to see men and women dancing around trees. It is content that is selling which should have been the case all along. I feel gender bias should not be under the limelight.
Ahaana Kumra: Having said that, it is much more fun to watch women on screen. I am bored of watching the male chauvinist trying to save the world or the woman. I like to watch females headlining a show. Women have been waiting in the wings for a long time. The time is now as there are so many platforms available and writers are writing some fantastic characters. I am not saying all of them write or produce good content as I still get roles of policewali (laughs) as you look a certain type. They cannot see us in a certain light as they are stereotyping woman.
Surveen Chawla: Stereotyping doesn’t happen for men. It just exists for female actors.
Aanchal Singh: Talking about this, I want to take the opportuinity to thank Netflix and the makers of Yeh Kaali Kaali Ankhein as before that I have always been given sweet ladki ke roles. They would always say that you have done shampoo and face products commercials where you look sweet so you will get only those roles. I wanted to audition for so many roles but wasn’t even given a chance to do it. Suddenly, after Yeh Kaali Kaali Ankhein, people are giving me negative characters, which is really funny. It amuses me how people look at you and put you in a slot.
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