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Inside Bollywood sets and studios: Of male entitlement, casual sexism and mansplaining

On International Women’s Day, we speak to storytellers working in the Hindi film industry who want Bollywood to let them be creators, who are women. Not despite of.

Written by Priyanka Sharma , Komal RJ Panchal | Mumbai |
March 8, 2021 7:04:25 pm
womens day featureTahira Kashyap, who has directed Netflix's upcoming anthology Feels like Ishq, says it is unfair that women are shown respect for not what they bring to the system but only for the chair they sit on. (Photo: Instagram/Srishti Behl Arya, Renuka Shahane, Tahira Kashyap)

When Srishti Behl Arya, who calls the shots on what makes it to Netflix India’s film slate, tells you that on being rejected, male creators want to know “if they can speak to her boss,” you wonder if male entitlement in the movie business will ever accept women in power. And if the director of International Original Film for Netflix is subjected to blatant misogyny, how much worse is it for the women who haven’t made it to the top yet?

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Over the last few years, the discourse around the need for more women creators and technicians has picked up steam, courtesy some fierce female voices in the industry and an audience that can look through Bollywood’s majorly facile depiction of women empowerment on screen. While one hopes that more women in power will keep misogyny in check, is that really the case? Should women’s right to respect and equality be deemed valid only when they outnumber men in power?

This Women’s Day, indianexpress.com delves into these questions with some storytellers, who want Bollywood to let them be creators, who are women. Not despite of.

Respecting women bosses out of compulsion, not choice

A shared laughter– one that spells familiarity– fills the room as we ask a panel of filmmakers if men in Bollywood are open to taking instructions from women at work. Renuka Shahane, who last made Kajol-starrer Tribhanga, says men might be wanting to “put you down” in their head but will show respect if you mean business.

tribhanga netflix release Renuka Shahane directorial Tribhanga starred Kajol, Mithila Palkar and Tanvi Azmi. (Photo: Netflix)

“It’s the first day that determines if men are going to snigger at you or not. In their head, they might want to put you down but once you show that you mean business and you show that you are good at what you do and you aren’t interested in throwing your weight around, there is a great amount of respect.”

Tahira Kashyap, who has directed Netflix’s upcoming anthology Feels like Ishq, says it is unfair that women are shown respect for not what they bring to the system but only for the chair they sit on.

“Here we have power so we have the right to also fire people if we don’t want to work with them, because we choose our crew. But the real test is if you are respected as an individual for your opinion with or without power, and sadly there, gender plays a big role.”

But the respect or acceptance by men, even if forced, also has its own set of filters, which are unsurprisingly driven by sexism. As Sonam Nair, the director of series like Kaafir and Masaba Masaba, says that her being a “girl who laughed out loud and dressed up in a certain way” made people wonder if she knew her business at all.

Mother-daughter duo Neena Gupta and Masaba Gupta reprised their real-life roles in Masaba Masaba. (Photo: Netflix)

“Because I don’t come across as someone who is serious, so constantly when I was trying to make my first film, I just felt like that everybody was like, ‘What is this girl going to do? She just flounces around in a dress and giggles all the time. What does she know?’ Especially when I was in my 20s, not just my HODs but production people like local line producers, who are just not used to women giving orders.

“Now things have changed but earlier I used to worry, ‘Are these people going to land up at my house to beat me up?’ Because I was very bossy but things have to get done. Now it’s fine but I don’t think my male contemporaries had to deal with that because ‘He is a director and oh, he is young so he is even cooler.’”

Sonam’s sentiment is echoed by director Ruchi Narain, who laments that women’s struggle to prove themselves at par with men is constant, irrespective of power. “Women have to be at least four to five times better than their male counterparts just to be at the same level. I want men and women to be rewarded and given responsibility at the same level. My major grouse is that just to be considered to be on par (with men), we have to be five times better than them,” says the director, who last helmed Kiara Advani-starrer Guilty.

guilty movie Kiara Advani starrer Guilty released on Netflix in March last year.

Mansplaining, not merit in moviemaking

Ruchi’s Guilty writer Atika Chohan shares how Bollywood, which gloats in telling stories that guide women on what’s good for them and what sets them free, naturally pays male writers more and discourages feminist storytelling.

Atika, who has constantly pushed the envelope with films like Chhapaak, Margarita with A Straw and Waiting, describes how gender disparity often and sadly forces women writers to cater to the male gaze.

“Pay gap between a male writer of my level and me is pretty wide. Hard genres are considered a preserve of male writers- also populist big budget content – and my subjects are considered indie. Female narratives are not as well paid. The risk is always limited thus it makes most female writers lesser determined by their skills or talent than by eventual consumption of the content by male viewership.”

Exhausted at being mansplained in the writer’s room for years, Atika has developed a skillset to protect her voice. But how far from feminism must be the system that puts the onus of levelling the field on women themselves.

“I do get mansplained or interrupted but lately that has eased out since I have learnt how to skilfully hold my mic! Having said that – it is a hustling skill acquired to self-preserve over the years and isn’t that sad that I have to manipulate a work dynamic and not come from my authenticity?”

While Atika and Ruchi are aware of the unfair practice of patriarchy to make women accountable for their growth, many in moviemaking are often conditioned to believe the sexist notion that female workers should distance from their gender identity to be taken seriously.

“Like Sonam said, ‘I’ m bossy’, or Kashvie (Nair, director) says that sometimes she screams on set but as long as people believe it’s for the good, it’s fine, all of these are judgements. These are terms that are considered normal for men. Being bossy or arrogant would be a non-issue for them,” says Srishti Behl Arya.

deepika padukone chhapaak A still from Deepika Padukone’s Chhapaak, based on acid attack survivor Laxmi Agarwal.

To be in a man’s world, be like a man

While Sonam Nair’s dress sense became a parameter for men to judge her skills, assistant director Pranjal Asha shares how her clothes were called inappropriate for a film set because they would invite attention.

“When I had my first film set experience, I was wearing this crop top with jeans and I was told by a producer, ‘Hey, you can’t wear this to the set because there are spot dadas and all,’ which till date I find a bit weird and I do understand the concern but I don’t get the point. It’s politically incorrect to ask a woman to cover herself,” says Pranjal.

While some women have the privilege to debate on ideas of feminism, there are workers like Janet John Nazareth, aka Kitty ji, whose every day struggle on a film set is to avail basic hygiene.

The 49-year-old background dancer shares there have been times when she and her colleagues have had to relieve themselves in open as some sets continue to operate without restrooms.

“There have been days on shoot when we wouldn’t have adequate sanitation facilities, we would not use a washroom for hours at a stretch. Earlier we would also have to go in the open. Till date there are no loos at some sets in Goregaon Film City. However, things are changing as bigger production houses keep vanity vans for women to use. But then, it is not enough. Even if there are 20-50 women, there is one vanity van for them.”

Pranjal shares how it gets worse for women when they have to share restrooms with men. “The hygiene on sets is poor as the same vanity van will be used by everyone. A lot of men pee everywhere.”

Spaces, which find it tough to respect hygiene concerns of women, would naturally be indifferent to the functioning of their bodies. Hence, period leaves remain mostly out of question. Not just for the employer, but for employees themselves.

“I have personally worked on periods and you can’t take those leaves because if you are shooting, then you are shooting and if the period date has arrived, so be it. If you are on a set where people empathise, they will always try to provide you with some comfort. But you can’t just announce that you have periods. At least I haven’t…” Pranjal says.

One realises that for every young, spirited and unconventional woman that Bollywood shows on screen, it tries to shun every feminist voice behind the scene. But for someone, who has been resisting patriarchal ways of the industry since she played a docile, subservient daughter-in-law on screen more than two decades ago, Renuka Shahane has learnt one thing in her fight: Embrace it.

“As an actor I have been on sets where my intelligence wasn’t taken seriously or if I showed my intelligence in the way I speak, people would be put off by it and wouldn’t want to repeat me because maybe I asked the right questions and that too to a man. So, now as a filmmaker I am not going to judge myself. I am not going to allow anyone to put me in a box,” she says.

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