With the film industry in lockdown and theatrical releases stalled, now’s as good a time as any to catch up on what you missed in the streaming space. She, which dropped on Netflix last week, sees Aaditi Pohankar play a police officer who weaponizes her sexuality to catch the bad guys. She’s in good company – the platform’s next release is Maska, which features Manisha Koirala as an Irani cafe owner whose son turns his back on the family business. In Anurag Kashyap’s Choked, also on the cards, a banker (Saiyami Kher) discovers an unlimited stash of money, arousing her husband’s suspicions. At a recent Netflix roundtable, the three spoke about the importance of the female gaze and the kinds of roles streaming platforms offer them:

Manisha, who’s been part of the film industry since 1989. Saiyami, you’re three films old – as women at different stages of your careers, what is the appeal of working with a streaming platform? 

Aaditi Pohankar: I’m fairly new, I started in theatre with Satyadev Dubey and Makarand Deshpande. From there, I moved to film, did a Marathi film called Lai Bhaari, did a couple of South films. Now I’ve moved to an OTT platform and I’m so happy to be on Netflix when all of this is just beginning. I think it’s in 190 countries and has 167 million viewers so you’re reaching so many people in one go. What more do you want? Everything is so different here – I got cast even though I didn’t look the part. If I talk about my film, you’ll say: Phone dena, dekhte hai kya hai. You don’t have to go to a theatre, worry about missing it.

Manisha Koirala: I’ve done almost 90 films over a couple of decades in cinema. When I got the offer to do OTT, I was super excited because I knew the future was this. It’s easily available. Before it came to India, I was in the US and watching Netflix. I saw the variety of stuff they had. I was very into health documentaries then. They also had Bollywood and American films and the films of other countries. It came here, and I saw the content they were making, like Sacred Games. I was thrilled. The kind of roles one gets at this age – an actress moves on from being the centrestage to getting sisterly, motherly roles. Our screen space would be 10% of the film. But today, if there is a story, an actress can command that space because of OTT platforms. You get a variety of roles, you can experiment. The film I’m doing now, Maska, is something I’ve never done before. So because of OTT I can do these things and not get typecast into sisterly roles.

Saiyami Kher: I started with a film called Mirzya. It was a hyped film, a big film, but unfortunately didn’t make the money that people expected it to. There’s no regret in doing the film. If I could turn back the clock, I’d still do it. But because it didn’t make the box-office money that people expected it to, I didn’t get exciting roles. That’s why I didn’t sign anything for a long time. I got a show on an OTT platform that was exciting and it opened up this avenue for me. It’s this avenue for actors who are not being backed for whatever reason. If I was a producer, there are so many actors you wouldn’t want to back if you’re not getting your money back. It’s maths, finally. OTT has given so many actors so many opportunities. Like Vikrant Massey, who’s done such good work in Mirzapur, and is now doing a film with Deepika Padukone. It’s not about ‘yeh box office numbers layegi ya nahi?’. It’s more: Does she fit the role? Is she a good actor? Get her on.

Was there a specific kind of role you kept getting offered?

Manisha Koirala: Earlier on in my career, I would get really bored because I was typecast. I knew I’d start doing a bad job. It was great that I had great directors to work with like Mani Ratnam, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Mansoor Khan. Those films of mine really helped me to sustain my interest and not get bored over the span of my career. The age I’m in now, it’s very easy to get the sister role or the mother role even though the main lead is just 10 years younger. You’re suddenly put into this grey hair zone. I don’t mind playing the mother as long as it’s an interesting role. For Maska, I had an acting coach and a diction coach, even though I’ve done 80-90 movies. It challenged me.

Saiyami Kher: Post doing a typically commercial film that didn’t make money, you get typecast into ‘teen gaane hai, teen gaane kar lo, do scene bhi hai’. That’s not something that drew me. There’s nothing wrong with it because, as a viewer, you like to watch opulent big films and they’re entertaining. You like watching popcorn films but it’s not something I would’ve liked to have done at that time. With OTT, there’s just content where people have the freedom of expression. I play a housewife in Choked, which is my Netflix film directed by Anurag Kashyap. She’s a homemaker and also a banker who’s struggling to make ends meet. She finds a source of money so it’s a very interesting character. The film is driven by my character so I had so much to do. I’m on another show where I play a hooker. In another show I’ve shot for, I play a RAW agent. So there’s such a variety.

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Manisha, you’ve been in Lust Stories. Aditi, your series Her is about a cop discovering her sexuality. Have the culture and conversations around sex as topic in film, particularly a woman’s sexuality, changed? Has that impacted the choices you’ve made?

Manisha Koirala: I’ll talk about the good things and I’ll talk about the bad things too. For the first time, there is a female gaze that is happening, which is great. Otherwise, sexuality was always looked upon through the male gaze. Always written and directed by men. Now we have female writers and directors. We have bold, strong and forward-thinking actresses who are willing to take chances. Talking about female sexuality, owing up to female sexuality, owing your body – you’re in control of yourself, what you decide to do, how you decide to present and project yourself. The only thing that seems questionable is that this should not become something used to sell a product. Don’t make female sexuality a selling point. Be confident in your story. If it’s needed, really really needed, do it. But now there’s also this, ‘abhi boldness ka trend hai toh dikha denge’. Your intention matters here.

Saiyami Kher: It shouldn’t just be you wanting to sell flesh or sell sex because that’s what’s working. For me, Manisha ma’am’s bit in Lust Stories was my favourite because that’s reality, it’s what happens. It’s so true. But showcasing unnecessary stuff is where the problem happens.

Manisha Koirala: People should like it and not cringe. Sometimes people tend to do it for shock value, which is still fine. People should just not cringe.

Aaditi Pohankar: With my character in She, you don’t see it, you just feel it. And that’s more than enough. It can be in the mind, you don’t have to show your body. There’s a Japanese form of theatre I had learnt, they’d say, ‘Stand here and show me that it’s winter. Make me feel cold.’ Don’t take your clothes off, that’s boring. Everybody does it. Show me what’s in your mind. With my character, you’re always thinking: What is she going to do now? Is she naive? Is she wicked? Is she sublime? She’s like a cat, taking steps cautiously. Women were used as side partners to a man, earlier but in this series, they send this cop undercover as a prostitute. So it’s the woman who’s powerful here. And not as bait, but as someone they believe in.

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