MARY BEARD, POSSIBLY the world’s coolest historian right now, says women have been silenced in public from the moment immortalised in Homer’s Odyssey, when Telemachus tells his mother, Penelope, to go back up to her quarters, and take up her work, the loom and the distaff. Speech, he says, “will be the business of men, all men’’, and only men.
This silence of women, culturally coerced and reinforced, can be broken only when women take the power back. That’s precisely what women are doing in the world of entertainment. They are reclaiming their power both in front of and behind the screen. One of the most remarkable things about the trailer of the forthcoming Manikarnika is that Kangana Ranaut is credited as the co-director of the film along with Radha Krishna Jagarlamudi. And she is clearly marking her territory of empowerment; in a voice dropping by an octave to signify authority, she says: “Jhansi aap bhi chaahte hain, aur main bhi; farq sirf itna hai aapko raj karna hai aur mujhe apno ki seva.” And in another, echoing Indira Gandhi, she says: “Main pratigyaa karti hoon jab tak mere shareer main rakt hai, main poorn nishthha se Jhansi ki seva karoongi.”
Over in Hollywood, buoyed by the demand for diversity, one of the most awaited cinematic superheroes of the year, Captain Marvel aka Carol Danvers, echoes the same sentiment in her trailer: ‘’I’m not gonna fight your war. I’m gonna end it.’’
This will be the Year of Women in Indian entertainment. With the traditional Khan superstars fading and audiences changing, female storytellers and female stars, partly emboldened by the MeToo movement and partly empowered by the sound of cash registers ringing, are going to drive powerful new narratives. On streaming services, women directors and producers are collaborating, promising a wide range, from the Rangita Pritish Nandy-produced and Anu Menon-directed Sex and the City-type Four More Shots Please! for Amazon Prime Video to Made in Heaven, a fun and flinty take on the wedding planning business from Zoya Akhtar, with episodes directed by Nitya Mehra (Baar Baar Dekho) and Alankrita Srivastava (Lipstick Under My Burkha), among others. Over at Netflix, a series of female stars is driving movies, from Bulbul produced by Anushka Sharma to 15th August by Madhuri Dixit.
A-list women are banking on women with unique visions. Deepika Padukone will play acid attack survivor Laxmi in Chhapak by the queen of headline-driven cinema, Meghana Gulzar; Priyanka Chopra will play the mother of Aisha Chaudhary, a teen who died of complications from Severe Combined Immuno-Deficiency or SCID, in The Sky is Pink by Shonali Bose, the director of the heartbreaking Amu and Margarita with a Straw; Sonam Kapoor is playing a young woman who may well have feelings for another woman in Ek Ladki ko Dekha toh Aisa Laga directed by Shelly Chopra Dhar; Alia Bhatt essays the part of Naved Shaikh aka Naezy, Mumbai’s young Muslim woman rapper, in Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy; while Kareena Kapoor plays Jahanara Begum, sister of Aurangzeb and Dara Shikoh, in Karan Johar’s historical Takht.
The power of Bollywood's women has been under-leveraged in movies so far because they are not perceived as stars who can open films wide. That notion is now changing
Bollywood women have usually sold more brands than the men, whether it be jewellery, phones, or cosmetics. Their power has been under-leveraged in movies so far because they are not perceived as stars who can open films wide. That notion is changing with movies such as Meghana Gulzar’s Raazi and the Rhea- Sonam Kapoor produced Veere di Wedding doing well at the box office. There is a growing realisation among female stars that they don’t need to play second fiddle to male superstars, even if they do get top billing (as Shah Rukh Khan scrupulously does with his female co-stars). There is also an understanding that with so many more screening avenues (from kinds of platforms to various geographies), if films are made within specific budgets, they can make money.
And even if they are big-budget spectacles, such as Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat, which was headlined by Deepika Padukone, or the forthchoming Kalank, which Madhuri Dixit as an Old Delhi courtesan stands head and shoulders among a cast of heavyhitters, filmmakers are unafraid to put the woman’s face where it belongs—front and centre of the film’s poster. Sridevi and Madhuri Dixit had this distinction in the 90s, but now the pool of women who can greenlight a movie is wider and deeper, going from an established actor like Vidya Balan who played a spirited homemaker in Tumhari Sulu in 2017 to favourable reviews to more recent actors like Taapsee Pannu who can go from starring in ensemble dramas like Mulk to romantic movies like Manmarziyaan.
IN THESE POLITICALLY volatile times, there is another kind of movie that is gaining popularity. The chest-thumping, flag-waving biopic, whether it is about a forgotten hockey star in Gold or a sanitary napkin innovator in Pad Man. 2019 continues this trend, which seeks to cash in on the take-no-prisoners nationalism that the BJP has unleashed in the country. So there’s BJP’s favourite khiladi, Akshay Kumar, playing one of 21 Sikh soldiers who fought in the Battle of Saragarhi against 10,000 Afghans in 1897; Hrithik Roshan, who is playing a character now loosely based on Anand Kumar, founder of Super 30; Arjun Kapoor, who is playing Sadashiv Rao Bhau up against the immense force of Ahmed Shah Abdali; and Vicky Kaushal, who is an Indian soldier in Uri, based on the surgical strike masterminded by a character inspired by National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, here played by Paresh Rawal.
On streaming services, women directors and producers are collaborating, promising a wide range, from the Anu Menon directed Four More Shots Please! to Zoya Akhtar's Made in Heaven
The biopic market is a gift that keeps on giving in an environment where truth can sometimes be a casualty of special interest groups with an agenda to appropriate history. They are usually scrupulously shorn of controversy, carefully calibrated to press the nationalistic buttons, and artfully tailored to the current political environment—even if they are still awaiting release, such as Accidental Prime Minister, starring Anupam Kher as Manmohan Singh, and based on Sanjaya Baru’s bestselling book.
THE CRISIS OF storytelling in Mumbai is so acute that bestselling books have become great source material. Sacred Games and Raazi did well in 2018, and in 2019, it seems like a veritable deluge. There’s Aravind Adiga’s Selection Day about one father’s obsession with his two sons’ cricket careers for Amazon; Prayaag Akbar’s dystopian Leila turned into a series for Netflix by Deepa Mehta starring Siddharth and Huma Qureshi; Bilal Siddiqui’s Bard of Blood, about Kabir Anand (Emraan Hashmi) and his exploits; Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children by Vishal Bhardwaj; and Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, a culmination of her life’s work as described by Mira Nair. In this, they are following the West and its love for legacy entertainment, such as The Handmaid’s Tale, written by Margaret Atwood, Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects, and John Le Carre’s The Little Drummer Girl. Filmmakers are looking for inspiration, but it is interesting that when these adaptations do depart from the books they are based on, it is usually to highlight the role of women.
And they seem happy to delve into books to get it. Netflix’s Ted Sarandos has been reported as saying that there will be a flowering of breadth of stories with local settings and complex characters. The global streaming giants are looking at an 18-month slate they’ve kicked off with their inputs—sending writers to help work with teams working on their tentpole shows. These teams have brought in some discipline and also the pacing required for a story to be sustained over multiple episodes. But given the depth available in literature, in every language, in India, there’s unlikely to be a scarcity of ideas anytime soon. As Ratna Pathak Shah, one of the many actors who has been resurrected by this urge to tell real stories, says: “There is the scent of truth in stories like Dum Laga ke Haisha and Bareilly ki Barfi. I hope this spreads. I am not holding my breath. In India, it’s always one step forward and three steps back. You will see the effect of internet on cinema. I am dying for this new world. We will finally have real situations. But first, we will have lots of sex and violence. For some reason, that’s our only idea of growing up.’’
Indeed, there’s a lot of it on Netflix’s Sacred Games and Amazon’s desi western Mirzapur, enough to spark whispers of censorship. But it’s all in the service of authenticity. And when authenticity crosses paths with inclusivity, great art is born. Three films epitomised this best in 2018: The Favourite with its three powerful women and its depiction of life as it was in 18th century Britain, including people defecating in the streets and nobles fighting over ducks; Cold War, which shows the intersecting lives of two lovers in post-war Poland loosely based on the life of Pawel Pawlikowskii’s parents; and Roma, which chronicles the life and times of Alfonso Cuaron’s nanny in a way that is heartbreakingly tragic. Cuaron believes the world is moving back to the 90s, when cinema was not gentrified in some sort of product. As he said in an interview to Variety, “Remember the 90s in which the big studio movie was co-existing in the multiplex with the foreign film and the film from Sundance. That’s the healthiest way of cinema.”
And co-existence is something India knows well.