How does Indian cinema fare in terms of female representation? And how much does it have to do with the serious lack of female writers being included?
How do Indian films portray women? Especially, the ones that have done really well at the box office? After all, these are the movies that impact the largest number of people. Would Indian films do a much better job of it if many more of our stories came from women? How does the number of female writers on the team influence the representation of women in the film?
I had to find out some things. I’ve tried to explore these questions by taking a look at some of the top Telugu, Hindi, and Tamil films (I considered only movies of those three languages because Tollywood, Bollywood, and Kollywood are the biggest film industries in India) of the years 2016 and 2017.
I did not go into this project thinking that there would be many female writers in the film industry. And when I say writers, I mean writers of any kind – screenwriters, female writers involved in the writing of the original story, and female lyricists. But I was still shocked at just how low the number of women who write for Indian movies is!
Having looked up the numbers, I tried looking at female representation in these films and what I found was quite disturbing.
Telugu cinema…in dire need of female writers
Let’s start with Telugu movies, since they have the least number of female writers in their top ten box office hits of 2016 and 2017. Out of the twenty Telugu films that I examined, only two had female writers in any role at all. (Data source: Compiled from http://andhraboxoffice.com)
Out of the top ten Telugu box office hits of 2017 (having a World Wide Gross of 58 crore rupees and above), exactly one film gave equal importance to the male and female characters – Fidaa.Fidaa had an unconventional female lead and it can be said that she drove the film. She does stereotypically masculine things like driving a tractor, etc. The film even has the hero moving in to live with the heroine after they marry instead of the usual ‘women have to leave their family behind to join a new one’ cliché. It is also the only film on the list to have a female writer of any sort – lyricist Chaitanya Pingali.
Of course, it’s not like none of the other films have strong female characters; Baahubali 2: The Conclusion for instance does have some very well-represented women. But none of them are as important as the male protagonist. A fairly important female character from the first film (whose portrayal was already problematic) almost completely disappears in the sequel.
The situation wasn’t any better in 2016; in the list of top ten Telugu box office hits (with a World Wide Gross of 46 crore rupees and above) has just one movie that treats its male and female protagonists the same – A Aa. It is based on a novel called Meena by Yaddanapudi Sulochana Rani. None of the other films had female writers in any capacity. Dhruva has an interesting heroine but she is not nearly as important as the male protagonist and male antagonist.
In both the years 2016 and 2017, the top ten Telugu films were mostly male-driven and the two films which gave women as much importance as men were also the only two that had female writers at all. Both these films were romantic, which is traditionally considered feminine. It would be nice to have equally significant female characters in other genres as well. But at least these two films gave the women as much importance as the men despite being problematic in other ways. Clearly, Telugu cinema is in dire need of female writers!
Hindi cinema…doing better but still some distance to cover
When it comes to Hindi movies, out of the forty that I looked at, only eight had female writers of any sort. (Compiled from https://boxofficeindia.com)
The year 2017 saw quite a few women-oriented films get released by Bollywood and do quite well, like, Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, Badrinath Ki Dulhania, Secret Superstar, Tumhari Sulu, and Lipstick Under My Burkha. But not all of these films had female writers. Only Toilet: Ek Prem Katha (Garima Wahal was involved in both the writing of the film and the lyrics of the songs along with Siddharth Singh) and Lipstick Under My Burkha (Alankrita Shrivastava wrote both the story and screenplay of this film while Anvita Dutt Guptan was the lyricist) had female writers. In fact, out of the top twenty films, only three had female writers – the ones I’ve already mentioned and Hindi Medium which had a female lyricist – Priya Saraiya.
Despite this, some of the films have portrayed women really well – even the films that weren’t women oriented like Shubh Mangal Saavdhan. Many others have done a horrible job though. Even Bareilly Ki Barfi does a bad job in spite of having an important female protagonist – she isn’t very well-developed. Badrinath Ki Dulhania is superficially feminist, it’s all about breaking out of a patriarchal family hierarchy and letting women give importance to their careers. However, the male protagonist is quite violent towards the female protagonist and literally kidnaps her; yet, this isn’t seen as a big enough thing for her to let him go forever. This diminishes the seriousness of abuse and is a huge problem. Having a female writer might have helped.
2016 was the year of films like Pink, Dangal, Neerja, and Dear Zindagi, all of which had strong female protagonists. However, only five out of the top twenty films had any female writers, three of them being Pink, Neerja and Dear Zindagi. Out of these five films, two of the films had only female lyricists – Pink and Housefull 3. Neerja was written by one female writer and two male writers. One of the writers of Kapoor & Sons was a woman and so was one of the lyricists. A woman wrote both the story and the screenplay of Dear Zindagi.
There is no doubt that the 2016 Hindi films that had a woman on the story writing or screenplay writing team succeeded in representing women better than those that didn’t. This holds good even for women-oriented films with all-male writing teams and not particularly ‘feminist’ films with a woman on the writing team. For example, Kapoor & Sons managed to treat its women with a lot of empathy and sensitivity despite its seemingly patriarchal name while Pink and Dangal were supposed to be feminist but ended up letting the male protagonists take centre-stage beyond a point, especially Dangal which punishes its female protagonist for going against her father.
Housefull 3 is proof that not all films with a female writer involved in any way are going to be progressive. But it does seem to help in most cases, especially, if the writer is involved in writing the story or screenplay. And that’s why Hindi movies are in want of more women who write.
Tamil Cinema…positive but on the surface
The pie chart for Kollywood paints a more optimistic picture than those of Bollywood and Tollywood. There were seven Tamil films that had female writers out of the twenty that I analysed. When we dig a little deeper though, the picture gets less positive. (Data source: compiled from https://www.imdb.com).
First of all, in both 2016 and 2017, most of the female writers were lyricists and not involved in the story or screenplay of the movies. Now, female lyricists could help make a movie’s representation of women better but they wouldn’t be able to influence the film as much as a story or screenplay writer. Out of the ten Tamil hit films of 2017 that I researched, a few had interesting female characters like Baahubali 2: The Conclusion and Vikram Vedha (the only film on the list that was co-written by a woman) but only two gave very significant roles to women – Magalir Mattum which had two female lyricists and Aval which had no female writers (just three films had female writers out of which two only had female lyricists). And these two films weren’t perfect.
Magalir Mattum despite being empowering to women still seemed to imply that a ‘modern woman’ is required to rescue ‘traditional women’. This stereotype was also seen in the 2015 Tamil film 36 Vayadhinile in which the visibly ‘modern’ Susan is the ‘traditional’ Vasanthi’s saviour. As for Aval, it literally translates to She and the film has mostly female main characters who do very cool things. Yet, I got the impression that the story still revolved around the male protagonist – the film seemed to be narrating his story. Even when they have great female characters, a male character is still the centre of most Tamil films.
The year 2016 was even more disappointing in terms of female representation in Tamil films; all ten of the hit movies that I analysed didn’t have a single female writer in the story writing or screenplay writing team. Only four of the films had female lyricists. It is therefore no surprise that none of these films did complete justice to the representation of women even though some of them had really interesting female characters like Iru Mugan, Kodi, and Kabali. The women, no matter how awesome they were, were always playing second fiddle to the men! For instance, Kodi had actress Trisha playing a brilliant politician who just happened to be the film’s antagonist and therefore had to lose to the male protagonist played by Dhanush. It’s almost like career women who put their career above everything else for ‘selfish’ reasons have to be portrayed as ‘bitches’ who lose it all in the end!
On the bright side, Thamarai is a very popular lyricist, something that isn’t seen very often of female lyricists in Indian cinema. And she wrote a feminist song, Gandhari Yaaro, for the feminist film Magalir Mattum. So, did Uma Devi, who wrote Adi Vaadi Thimira.
But on the whole, Kollywood could do with a lot more female writers, especially story writers and screenwriters to improve the female representation in Tamil films.
Women writers of India, Indian cinema needs you and so do we because movies tell stories that reach everyone and stories are the backbone of societies!