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Swara Bhaskar joins scriptwriters to discuss portrayal of women in Hindi cinema


Writers Juhi Chaturvedi, Sudip Sharma, Tushar Hiranandani and actress Swara Bhaskar discuss changing gender equations in film.

Suparna Thombare

The panel discussion on changing gender equations in film at the fourth Indian Screenwriters Conference in Mumbai last week did not touch upon current social relevance and the need to tell more stories about women or make more films from a woman’s perspective, but it did give an insight into how writers like Juhi Chaturvedi and Sudip Sharma, who are known as intelligent storytellers of our times, perceive their characters while writing a script. They also shared their perspective on how storytelling has changed over the years when it comes to the portrayal of women on screen.

Tushar Hiranandani, who has a big list of masala entertainers to his credit – Masti (2004), Housefull 2 (2012), ABCD (2013), Main Tera Hero (2014), Dishoom (2016) and the forthcoming A Flying Jatt (2016) – was questioned about using women’s sensuality in his films, including the sex comedy Masti. He replied, “I know a lot of people think it’s a sexual film. But at the end of the day married men understand they have made a mistake and go back to their wives. Women are an important part of our lives, whether it is our mothers, sisters, wives – we have to respect them. And that’s what I try to do… as far as I can.”

Hiranandani’s reply was as stereotypical as a lot of the female characters in formula films. Perhaps many scriptwriters still find it difficult to understand that more than respect for being a mother, daughter or wife, women need equal treatment as human beings. A case in point is the recently released Sultan. While the film was driven by Salman Khan, Anushka Sharma’s Aarfa was a fleshed-out character.

Juhi Chaturvedi brought this point out beautifully when she said that despite her first film Vicky Donor (2012) centring on a male character, the women in her film were also fleshed out and strong.

“Even if you look at a film like Satya, the character that stayed with me was not one of the dons," said Sudip Sharma, who has written films like NH10 (2015) and Udta Punjab (2016). "It was Bhiku Mhatre’s wife. The scene where he comes home after a night of drinking with his friends, she starts bickering. He slaps her. And then she slaps him back, twice…. thrice… four times. And that’s despite it being a minor role. She is a gangster’s wife, but she is a strong woman. He is not controlling her. And that’s what I like.”

Both of Sharma's films so far portrayed strong women. Asked whether he could have written NH10 with a man as the protagonist, Sharma said, “The idea started with, if we place a woman from a city in a high testosterone zone, will she be able to survive the brutality? So there was no question of looking at a man playing it.”

Asked if anyone had suggested that he cast a hero instead, he replied in the affirmative.

Sharma also admitted that if Udta Punjab had only been a story about Alia Bhatt’s character, it would have made things tough. “There is no denying that the odds are stacked against you if you are trying to tell an all-woman story.”

But he also said there is a middle path, which is relevant. “If Tommy [Shahid Kapoor’s character in Udta Punjab] went back to save Bauria [Bhatt] at the end and she was just sitting there, and he broke the door and came and rescued her, that’s the traditional male narrative. I am not interested in that. In the film, when he is trying to save her, she is also doing her part. She is trying to quit drugs, she is attempting to pluck the nail out of the wall, she uses it to pierce the head of her tormentor, and tries to get out. That is the woman character I identify with or like. That’s the perspective I am looking for.”

Speaking about the change female roles have gone through over the years, Sharma said, “Mother India was a story of an agrarian family. Around that time that was the economy and women had a stronger role to play in that economy. Once that narrative changed, women were sidelined, till the services economy came in. That is what the late 1980s started showing, where the migrant hero started coming to the city. This guy was away from the women from his village, and was now looking for an urban woman. It was a fantasy being played out on screen. There were only two narratives where he could have her. One, save the damsel in distress, and the other narrative was taming of the shrew. That stuck for a while.”

The discussion veered towards how women have been portrayed in mythology. Juhi Chaturvedi spoke of giving women a voice in our films. “The fact that it is Ramayan and not Sitayan… it's Ram’s story," she said. "Pati ho Ram jaisa, beta ho to Ram jaisa. [One's husband must be like Ram, son must be like Ram.] And Sita lost everything. In cinema, Mother India, Bandini, Sujata and many others have happened.

"Later, in the years when the Angry Young Man was at his peak, there was also Hrishikesh Mukherjee doing Mili and Guddi. At every stage, whether it was the 1950s, 1960s or 1970s, there was need to give women a voice. In Guru Dutt’s films, his women always worked, whether she was a vet, teacher, dancer, singer, prostitute, because he believed everyone needs to work – man and woman both. A lot depends on the filmmaker’s mindset. All these people were very socially conscious and aware. Every film from these people reflected that. They didn’t say I made a woman-centric film and I am done, and now let me make something else.”

Swara Bhaskar, whose last film Nil Batte Sannata (2016), the story of a domestic help who is a single mother, resonated with the audience, said it matters whose perspective we are seeing a story from. “Ramayan is going to be very different from Sita’s perspective, but also very different from Kaikeyi’s. When we are writing these stories, whose perspective are we writing from? A woman is not an alien to say ‘ek aurat ki kahani' – what does that mean? First you have to accord humanity to the character. To hear different kinds of stories, different kinds of writers have to write them.”

Taking the point up, Chaturvedi questioned how the industry today interprets a woman-orientated film. “Woman-centric film means what? A big heroine should be there and a smaller hero? Are we going to achieve any success then? Is Deepika [Padukone] going to feel happy that an unknown guy plays second fiddle? No, I don’t think so. I think it’s very important that you get Deepika and Priyanka [Chopra] and Swara, Barkha Dutt, Priyanka Chaturvedi also… your mothers, daughters… get them all into one room and ask them what is it that troubles you, irritates you, bothers you. That is where the thinking needs to change,” said the Piku (2015) writer.