Alia Bhatt is the latest A-list actress to have started her own production company, and her first venture is Darlings, billed as the story of a quirky mother-daughter duo. The film was announced with the warning: ‘Disrespecting women can be very injurious to your health.’ The actress is beginning her journey as a producer with a women-centric story, following in the footsteps of fellow A-listers Anushka Sharma and Deepika Padukone.
Anushka launched her production house Clean Slate Filmz at the age of 27. Her first production NH10 gave us the brave Meera who is not afraid to step up against oppression, even if it means endangering her own life. She tries to prevent an honour killing from happening, and ends up losing her own partner, while being subjected to violence herself.
Her second production Phillauri was again a story of breaking stereotypes and age-old superstitions that reduce women to mere puppets at the hands of society or fate. The tragi-comedy ridiculed ideas like marrying a tree to ward off the evil eye, etc. Anushka made another brave choice when she made Pari, exploring a genre not many would venture into. The supernatural thriller again highlighted the plight of ostracized women, victims of superstitions, taboos and social stigma.
Her latest production, Bulbbul, used the supernatural motif to tell the story of a free-spirited woman forcibly shackled by society. The period drama traverses the journey of a young girl named Bulbbul from innocence to strength, with the looming shadow of the legend of a ‘chudail’. Writer-director Anvita Dutt upends the idea of the witch, often portrayed as a conniving, evil woman with magic powers. A woman who tries to break free, whose desires are misunderstood, has often been termed a ‘chudail’. Bulbbul’s chudail haunts the forest and hunts men who abuse women.
Anushka says she always wanted to show strong, independent women through cinema and her latest production venture, Bulbbul, is a step in that direction. “The idea that Clean Slate Filmz (which she runs with her brother Karnesh) would one day create a genre of our own was never an intentional move. We, however, always wanted to create a style of storytelling that celebrates women and their spirit. We always wanted to show strong, independent women to audiences through cinema and ‘Bulbbul’ is our new offering in this regard,” she had said at the time of the film’s release.
Anushka stressed that the portrayal of women “in our cinema has always been skewed and lopsided”, adding, “I felt that as an actress and I decided that I will correct this as much as I can through my productions.”
Another actress who picked up gender equality as an issue from the get-go is Deepika Padukone. She picked the horrifying crime of acid attacks as the topic of her first production Chhapaak. Moreover, she chose to narrate the real-life story of Laxmi Agarwal, an acid attack survivor who has shown indomitable strength in the face of adversity.
In an Instagram post, Deepika said that Chhapaak was not just a film for her but a “movement” which redefined the conventional understanding of beauty. Sharing a picture with Laxmi from their magazine shoot, Deepika wrote, “Chhapaak truly has been the most difficult film of my career… Having said that, Chhapaak for me is not just a film. It is a movement that has challenged the definition and our understanding of ‘Beauty’.”
Actress Richa Chadha has recently launched her film production house, partnering with fiancé Ali Fazal. Their first production will be a film challenging taboos around sexuality. Titled ‘Girls will Be Girls’ (clearly a spin on the commonly used adage ‘men will be men’), the script follows sixteen-year-old Mira, whose sexy, rebellious coming-of-age is hijacked by her mother who never got to come-of-age. Mother and daughter grow up together through the course of the script and their fraught but ultimately loving relationship is the beating heart of the film.
As more actresses root for such stories, Hindi cinema will hopefully see a surge in films that focus on women. Projects that take a stand or pick up a cause are often relegated to independent or art film space. Big production houses often consider such subjects as too risky for the box office, which is still ruled by male stars. But with commercially successful, mainstream heroines choosing to highlight women’s issues, one can hope that ‘women-centric’ films will be able to shed that preconceived notion.