I’ve been reporting on the Hindi film industry for more than two decades. I often say that I’ve seen Bollywood go from Bokadia to the Blackberry (for the uninitiated, K. C. Bokadia was the director of gaudy, loud, logic-free films like Lal Baadshah and Maidan-E-Jung). Through these 20-plus years of film journalism, one of the most exciting things I’ve witnessed is the evolution of women in film.

One of my early memories of the job is visiting the sets of a fantasy film called Rajkumar in Film City in 1993. Rajkumar, directed by Pankaj Parashar, featured Anil Kapoor and Madhuri Dixit as the prince and princess whose lives are thrown asunder by the machinations of the evil prime minister, played by Naseeruddin Shah. I was there to interview Madhuri Dixit for a cover story I was doing for India Today magazine.  There were at least 200 people working on the set and I remember being distinctly aware of how few women there were. I counted four – me, Madhuri, Madhuri’s mother and Madhuri’s hairdresser. But I didn’t question it. This was the norm.

The first sign that things were changing came five years later on the sets of Mansoor Khan’s Josh.  Once again, I was in Film City – this time to interview Shah Rukh Khan.  I noticed that many of Mansoor’s assistants were women. I asked him how that came to be. He shrugged and said, women are more efficient.

In the years after, women started to break through the ranks.  In the 2000s, Farah Khan and Zoya Akhtar made their directorial debuts.  With the blockbuster success of Om Shanti Om in 2007, Farah became the most successful female director in Bollywood.  Women acquired more power and visibility. But the clout didn’t necessarily translate into a voice. The most high-profile names – the heroines – were largely silent about the gender equation in the industry.  I don’t remember any A-list mainstream actress commenting on the pay gap, the lack of substantial roles or the skewed gender politics in the films. For female actors, the power bequeathed by box office success, was so fragile and short-lived that no one wanted to risk alienating the powers that be – namely men!

The first sign that things were changing came five years later on the sets of Mansoor Khan’s Josh.  Once again, I was in Film City – this time to interview Shah Rukh Khan.  I noticed that many of Mansoor’s assistants were women. I asked him how that came to be. He shrugged and said, women are more efficient.  

In the last three or four years, this polite silence has shattered.  The industry is still controlled by men but a new generation of women – in front of the camera and behind it – are calling out the sexism.  In an interview I did with Anushka Sharma in 2015, the actress described how actors would invariably get better rooms than actresses at outdoor locations. She said, “Nobody is going out of their way to do this.  It’s ingrained. I only experienced discrimination when I became an actor.”

Anushka isn’t the only one. Kangana Ranaut has rewritten the rules for actresses by fearlessly speaking her truth even if it pits her against the Bollywood establishment. The last time I interviewed her, she said, “I’m fed up of taking directions from ego maniacs”.  Sonam Kapoor talked frankly on camera about the difficulty of getting the budget she and her sister Rhea wanted for Veere Di Wedding.  She said, “John (Abraham) and Varun (Dhawan) got to make Dishoom in a lot more money”. Recently Swara Bhaskar stirred a hornet’s nest by writing an open letter to Sanjay Leela Bhansali questioning the gender politics of the year’s biggest hit – Padmaavat.

I don’t always agree with their opinions but I applaud their courage to voice them. It would be so much easier and perhaps professionally beneficial to stay quiet. After all, nobody likes a trouble-maker, or as Anushka said people often refer to her, ‘an activist.’  In the last six months, many people have asked me when Times Up will happen in the Hindi film industry, where sexual harassment is as endemic as it is in Hollywood. My answer is that it will take time – after all, it took decades and tenacious reporting by the New York Times to nail Harvey Weinstein. But I am certain it will happen.  The rumblings of dissent are too loud to be gagged anymore.

In Bollywood, systemic change is usually the direct result of box office success – nothing works better to alter behaviour than a 100-crore hit.  The status of women in Hindi film altered post the monstrous success of The Dirty Picture in 2011.  That film redefined the ground-rules. It was followed by a slew of ‘female-oriented successes’ – Kahaani, Queen, NH10, English Vinglish. These films proved that women were as capable as men of pulling in an audience.

When I first started, the biggest compliment an actress could get was to be called the ‘female Amitabh Bachchan’ – I remember it was the descriptor of choice for both Sridevi and Madhuri Dixit. It meant that these actresses could power a film on their own.  This weekend, Padmaavat headlined by Deepika Padukone crossed Rs 250 crores at the box office.  Perhaps, in the not-so-distant-future, a successful actor will be referred to as the ‘male Deepika Padukone’.

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