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Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Out of one box into another: Are women in OTT space in danger of being stereotyped?

Rape, murder or child sexual abuse cannot become a convenient backstory device to explain away a woman’s mental or physical health issues, or to make her interesting/edgy enough to be engaging.

Written by Saraswati Datar | December 25, 2020 1:07:12 pm
Women in ottHave OTT platforms ended up slotting women and their stories as well?

There is no denying that OTT platforms have played a huge role in liberating women from pickle jars and poori prisons. In a country where mainstream television shows still have protagonists being either victims or vixens, digital content allowed women to do regular stuff like date, drink, smoke, mess up, marry, divorce, have sex (kya! Kya! Kya!) and actually consider life options apart from winning the most sanskaari of them all pageant.

It also opened the doors to subjects like child sexual abuse, domestic violence and the sexual assault of women which are tricky for GEC channels to work with, given that television programs are usually for family viewing.

There have been some really wonderful stories and female characters on streaming platforms this year, giving some immensely talented actors an opportunity to shine. And yet if you think about shows and films like Bulbbul, Guilty, She, Mirzapur 2, Masaba Masaba, Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives, Aarya, and Bhaag Beanie Bhaag, amongst others, one can’t help but wonder, have OTT platforms ended up slotting women and their stories as well?

Why is it that the most popular or highly publicised shows and movies with female protagonists had leading ladies who were either victims taking revenge, victims taking a stand, or obviously privileged women having fun with a side dose of ambition?

Consider this. Kiara’s character Nanki in Guilty has been abused as a child, and she is struggling to cope even as an adult. In She, Aaditi Pohankar played Bhumika Pardeshi, a woman who has turned frigid after being abused as a child and controlled by society’s expectations of morally appropriate behaviour. In non-fiction show What the Love, a participant shared that she had been abused as child. This was just in the first three months of 2020. Guilty and She, in fact, released in the same month on Netflix.

In Bulbbul, which was a chudail origin story of sorts, Tripti Dimri played a child bride who is assaulted viciously by her husband and raped by her brother-in-law before she turns into a vigilante killing abusive men. Beena in Mirzapur 1 is manipulative, but only after or because her father-in-law rapes her at the end of Season 1, does she really come into significance in Season 2. Even the inarguably brilliant Delhi Crime could sadly be made because it told the story of perhaps the most brutal case of assault on a woman in recent times.

The physical, sexual and emotional abuse of women and children is painfully rampant around the world and definitely needs to be addressed. But abuse is not a rite of passage that a character needs to go through to give her purpose or make her story worth sharing. Rape, murder or child sexual abuse cannot become a convenient backstory device to explain away a woman’s mental or physical health issues, or to make her interesting/edgy enough to be engaging.

On the other end of the spectrum are the fun women. Women who are ditsy/cool, good looking, educated, working individuals. These women are residents, or newcomers to the big city. They dress well, go to bars, get drunk, have casual sex, are confused about their careers and personal lives, and are privileged enough to be coming of age in their thirties, forties or even in their fifties.

Whether its Masaba in her eponymous show, the ladies from Four More Shots Please, the fabulous Bollywood wives, or Swara Bhasker in Bhaag Beanie Bhaag, these are all different versions of the confused/coming of age modern urban Indian woman.

None of these characteristics is a problem or a judgement. But fact remains, it’s all getting quite familiar. It is a struggle to find stories where the character is not playing the aspirational image of a ‘liberated’ woman who is basically doing what her male counterparts were allowed to do for decades.

There are, no doubt, different genres of content, but we need to find a way by which women can be something apart from being angry or not so angry. If we can enjoy Orange is the New Black, Grace and Frankie, Stranger Things, Crown, House of Cards, Marvellous Mrs. Maisel and 13 Reasons Why – all shows that feature women in lead roles but tell completely different stories, why do we struggle to create differentiated content featuring women in an Indian context? Is it because we are still going through a hangover from Hindi GEC or because makers are sticking to a formula that’s working?

Perhaps the answer is not as simple as the question seems, but I really do wish that in 2021 we use the vast potential of OTT platforms to showcase the plurality and diversity of what it means to be a woman in India. Let’s hope that content creators push the envelope and expand the possibilities of female-driven narratives, instead of succumbing to the temptation of compartmentalising women into easy to ‘manage’ boxes.

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