What Do Male Bollywood Writers Not Get About Female Characters?

From a 'women empowerment' film with exactly zero female characters to two friends sharing a vibrator - actresses, writers and creative producers pick instances in which men got it wrong
What Do Male Bollywood Writers Not Get About Female Characters?

Men write women badly all the time. From an overemphasis on female anatomy to a supremely poor understanding of just how it works – there are entire subreddits, Twitter accounts and listicles dedicated to collating the best of the worst examples. It's almost an art, albeit one that evokes irritation and disbelief. In Bollywood, where male creators vastly outnumber the women, we got actresses, creative producers, writers and critics to talk about the ways in which male writers have gotten women all wrong:

Maanvi Gagroo (actress, Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan): There are plenty of occasions when a script reaches me and, just by the characterization, one can tell that the female part has been written through the male gaze. I remember a web series offered to me with two female parts. One, a 'hot, sexy' girl, every man's fantasy, and a 'tomboy buddy' girl, every man's friend. I refused it because I found it extremely banal. I call this kind of writing, 'launda' writing since it's usually (generally speaking) embellished with locker-room, bro code, back-slapping humour and that is something I just cannot stomach, as a viewer even.

Tillotama Shome (actress, Sir): I was once offered a film which was well-intentioned and aimed at perhaps showing the aridity of a world, in which women had been wiped out and only a few survived. The film had numerous scenes in which a woman was raped by the various male members of a family – the brothers and the father took turns. I said no to the film because to me it was just gratuitous violence and I could not understand why it had to be made. Over time I became certain that I would not do a film that depicted rape, if its only purpose was to depict the violence of the act. It has to be more nuanced than that. Alles Gut by Eva Trobisch was that film, it made me sit up straight and look at the violent act through a lens that was deeply nuanced and compassionate.

"The most recent instance I can think of is Karan Johar's short in Lust Stories. No woman, no matter how horny, would borrow another woman's vibrator and start using it on her body without any care for hygiene"

Development executive at a studio who didn't want to be named: A regional writer-director pitched something with a middle-aged female protagonist from a small town. The problem in the writing of that character was that there was no character. Apart from the usual aspects of the woman being a mother, wife, daughter, there was no new insight into her inner life, who she really was or hoped to be, what she wanted apart from a good husband or successful children. Her economic independence would one day be defined as branching out into a catering/cooking service (because it's assumed that that's what Indian women are good at).

Nandini Ramnath (film editor, scroll.in): Women have always fared badly in Akshay Kumar's films, right from the days when he was a dancing-fighting hero with visible chest fuzz and an undisguised interest in the female form. When Kumar cleaned up his act and embarked on a series of nation-building films (even while applying for and gaining Canadian citizenship), it was hoped that his heroines would have more to do than gaze upon him in open-jawed amazement. Writers and directors were finding ways to cast Kumar as a representative of ordinary hopes and dreams, and perhaps his heroines would benefit too.

As John Abraham would say, no ways. Whether it's Airlift or Rustom, Jolly LLB 2 or Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, the characters played by Kumar create social change while maintaining the gender status quo. All these films are oriented towards boosting the hero's achievements. The heroines serve as attractive and grateful appendages lined up along the spectrum of rescue. The filmmakers who are a part of both boosting Kumar's star power and cashing in on his popularity ensure that no woman comes in the way.

Not even Pad Man, a film that's about affordable menstrual hygiene products (surely a women's subject), allows for the heroine (Radhika Apte) to interfere in the hero Lakshmikant Chauhan's progress. Pad Man gives Lakshmikant another female admirer in the form of Sonam Kapoor's Pari, who, while helping Lakshmikant sell cheap sanitary napkins, falls in love with him. That's the only reason Pari appears to have been added to the movie, actually.

Kumar's image makers elevate him to the head of class even in a movie that is supposedly about female achievement. Mission Mangal celebrates the contributions by female scientists to the Indian Space Research Organisation's successful attempt to launch a probe on Mars, but reminds us that they would not never have made it without their male boss.

It took a female co-writer and the presence of Kareena Kapoor Khan to humanize Akshay Kumar. In the recent hit Good Newwz, Varun (Kumar), who is married to Deepti (Kapoor Khan), needs to be dragged to bed and requires professional medical help to bring a child into the world. And yet, reality catches up with Deepti too, who is largely defined by her desire to be a mother, whatever the cost. Whatever the movie, Akshay Kumar's characters always win.

Sayani Gupta (actress, Article 15): In 2017, I got offered six or seven rape revenge films. There was no way I'd do them because they were by men who wanted to make the same story. They were just showing violence and I knew I would get exploited in the name of the film. All the roles made me go, 'What are the men in our country thinking and reading?' Because the female characters were either really loose and homewreckers or they were rape survivors. I had said yes to a film about rapist that a woman was doing. It was a completely different perspective. So I think there are certain subjects where it makes a huge difference when a man is filming a woman versus when a woman is saying this. Last year, I was doing a film where the (male) director thought an eve-teasing scene was funny. My co-actress, an assistant director and I were like: This is wrong. We told him: There is no way we are going to do this. He was like: No, but it's fun right? It's like men appreciating you. I don't think a woman would ever even think of a version where it could be fun. He is a woke man, he has written an extremely woke script about a woman but there are still things like these.

Creative producer at a major streaming platform who didn't want to be named: The real problem is with so-called progressive, woke writers consider themselves feminist. What they end up doing is writing female characters who have to be strong. And how do you make women strong? By making her a cop, as you must have seen in Mardaani, or by giving them the higher power structure. The woman can do it all and the writer isn't really getting into the vulnerabilities she has, her perspective or not really understanding that a woman can be strong in multiple ways. It's very difficult to have a conversation with them because in their head they have written a strong character.

I was reading a script written by two men. The story was based in Uttar Pradesh and the woman was super strong just because they made her the IPS officer. Another 'strong' element that they gave her was that she was so focused on the work that she was not able to pay attention to her domestic life. See, that's the problem. That's not the definition of what makes a woman strong. Men write uni-dimensional characters and come back to how she is struggling with her domestic life. What are the other flaws that a woman can have? God knows. Why should I believe that she is such a strong character just because you have given me her position or you have shown me she is smoking? That is another thing they love doing. A strong woman is equivalent to woman who is probably alone, who is not paying attention to her domestic life, who is smoking or who is dressing up like a man because  that is their understanding.

Ritika Bhatia (head of international alliances, Drishyam): There have been so many times I have watched a film and said that this could only be directed and written by a man. Not just the gaze, but even the experience feels inauthentic or dishonest and under-researched. The most recent instance I can think of is Karan Johar's short in Lust Stories. No woman, no matter how horny, would borrow another woman's vibrator and start using it on her body without any care for hygiene or anything. Even in Karan Johar's super sanitised and opulent world, which is usually not very realistic anyway, that really stuck with me because if a woman was writing, it would have been different. It's liberating to see women in sexually liberating roles, taking charge of their own pleasure, but that very basic oversight could have only happened because it was written and directed by a man. Even a lot of my female friends said this could only happen in a male fantasy world in which women exchange vibrators like their pens.

Whenever I am reading women empowerment films that are written and directed by men, they end up feeling so inauthentic precisely because most of the time, the director, writer and producer are men and they can't tell a woman's story. We were working on one script, to be written by a man and directed by a man.  The entire film was a dark psychological thriller about patriarchy. It had no women. Maybe the idea was to show a dystopian world without women but it didn't work for me because you can't tell a story about patriarchy and women's oppression or women empowerment without women.

Sanyukta Shaikh Chawla (dialogue writer, Neerja): I find the intense pursuit of a woman problematic sometimes. Some really effective, successful, romantic deeply emotional films in the recent past are based on a rather disturbing principle of relentless pursuit of a woman who is not interested. Eventually the woman relents she sees the 'commitment' of the man which borders on stalking. But throw in a song, a grand gesture for one of her parents, a smart answer to her reprimand and that's it. The girl relents she was apparently misunderstanding the stalker behavior. Don't get me wrong, I love love stories and I enjoy an honest pursuit of engaging another person into a love interest, but I wish more attention was paid to its design and the approach was more balanced. I just don't think they balance the man's pursuit with the woman's reaction – even gentle and civil gestures can be dramatic and can have women react positively – like won't a woman like a man more if stopped when she asked him to stop following him rather than him intensifying his chase?

Shweta Tripathi (actress, Gone Kesh): A lot of the so-called commercial projects have women who are just eye candy. My problem is always: inka kuch pata hi nahi chalta? I'm not saying give us the full story, where she comes from, what her dreams and aspirations are, but she should do something more than just looking pretty. Even women need to not do these things. If people continue to do item songs, there will be item songs. As the audience, you have to be careful about what you give your views to, but as an actress, you have to be responsible about the characters you are doing. There was a time when every film had an item song. As a kid, my favourite song was 'Chane Ke Khet Mein'. When I grew up and I understood it, I couldn't believe anyone had let me dance to it. The lyrics are, 'jawaani ke lootere…' – she was talking about being raped.

Ratna Pathak Shah (actress, Thappad): Until recently most, if not all, films represented women who were unreal or idealised. They had no real independent lives. Even in female character-driven films, one finds stereotyped female characters. It's just recently we've started telling somewhat different stories so let's wait and watch where this goes.

(With inputs from Suchin Mehrotra)

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