A year ago, while promoting the film Jalsa, Vidya Balan told , “For the first time, it's a better time to be a female actor than a male actor. The variety in the way the roles are written is far more exciting than what's happening in the male actor's space.” Her co-star Shefali Shah added, “OTT has given us a chance to explore, express, and experiment, which is great, which is so good.”
was introduced in India — OTT stands for “over-the-top”, because streaming bypasses (or goes over the top of) traditional distributors of media to reach the viewer directly — streaming seemed like it was the perfect storm, one that was going to force the Indian entertainment scene to embrace some much-needed change especially when it came to gender conventions. The industry seemed to respond with enthusiasm. From casting older women actors like Sushmita Sen and Kajol in lead roles, to shining a spotlight on new names like Shobhita Dhulipala and Rasika Dugal, and making space for unusual women-centric stories like Darlings and Qala, streaming entertainment has become the more exciting creative space. Mainstream, commercial cinema in contrast felt stuck in old formulae and tropes.
Yet alongside these wins is the data that holds up a cautionary sign against complacency.
According to this year’s report on gender disparity in Indian entertainment, female representation in leadership positions — as heads of department (HODs) within a film or series — saw only minimal growth from last year. Compiled by Ormax Media and Film Companion, and supported by Prime Video India, this survey is a sobering reminder of how little the needle has moved on gender inclusivity. While 31% of the properties surveyed have a female commissioning in-charge (compared to 25% in 2022), the number of female HODs hired when a man is the commissioning in-charge fell from 8% in 2021 to 7% in 2022. Overall, 12% fewer theatrical films and 6% fewer streaming films passed the Bechdel test in 2022, compared to 2021. (The Bechdel test requires a film to have at least one scene in which two women are talking to each other about something other than a male character.)
One of the more disappointing data points comes from an analysis of content, which includes theatrical films, streaming films and streaming series. Last year, 68% of the content greenlit by female commissioning in-charges passed the Bechdel test. This year, the percentage dropped to 56%, hinting that it takes more than placing women in positions of authority to usher the changes that are needed in the industry. It’s worth keeping in mind that simply being a commissioning in-charge doesn’t clear the obstacles for someone, whether they are male or female. Across streaming platforms, we’ve seen a noticeable tilt towards more commercial properties as these service providers look to increase the earnings made from subscriptions. Bona fide film stars have made streaming shows and acquiring commercial blockbusters has been a priority. In terms of genre, action and crime have seen an uptick.
Among the few genres that are firm audience favourites and allow women’s stories to occupy the spotlight are romances and slice-of-life drama series. However, possibly because they’ve traditionally been considered “feminine”, they command less respect and rarely get the same kind of attention and resources as the more macho genres. Recent theatrical releases are a timely reminder of the sexist double standards that are ingrained in our society and often reflected through audience responses. The expectations from a film about women’s issues or led by a female cast are different from the standard, male-centric narratives. Films like Queen (2013), which was an unprecedented hit, suggest that to win over audiences, a woman-led narrative has to be exceptional. There’s no space for films about women to be middling in terms of quality.
For example, there’s no doubt Grand Masti (2013) is a much worse film than Thank You For Coming (2023), no matter what your yardstick. Director Indra Kumar’s sex comedy was led by three actors who were not A-listers and the film’s crudeness takes a hammer to the idea that commercial Hindi films need to be family entertainment. Yet Grand Masti was one of the top earners of its year. In contrast, Thank You For Coming features one of Hindi cinema’s more talented stars and while it has its share of flaws, director Karan Boolani doesn’t allow any hint of crassness to stain this story about a woman trying to figure out who is responsible for her first orgasm. The film fared poorly at the box office.
Content that features someone other than a man in a central role will inevitably be considered ‘risky’ because conventional wisdom suggests audiences are more forgiving of mediocrity when it comes fronted by a male actor (particularly if he’s a star). Fortunately, on streaming, taking that risk has often paid off, as successful franchises like Aarya, which is on its third season, show. In commercial cinema, we’ve seen audiences cheer for action heroines Deepika Padukone and Nayanthara as loudly as they did for Shah Rukh Khan in Jawan (2023). Unconventional stories like Satyaprem Ki Katha (2023), which uses hero Kartik Aaryan’s masculinity to highlight women’s experiences, have become surprise hits. So even if most of the numbers are disheartening, perhaps there is change and hope lurking in their subtext because evidently, there is scope to do much more than is being done at the moment to make Indian entertainment more gender inclusive. As head of India originals at Prime Video Aparna Purohit put it, “We need to ask ourselves is that the sum of our ambitions? Can we do more? And how?”
Here’s to more experiments and more heartwarming answers in the coming year.