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Calling the shots

How a few female actors are turning to production to shape their careers

Sonal Pandya

The past couple of years have highlighted the growing divide in Hollywood on gender and diversity. Several top paid actors, from Jennifer Lawrence to Charlize Theron, have spoken up about the pay gap and lack of opportunities for women in the industry. Since then, a movement to re-examine the hiring and casting process has emerged and many leading actors are stepping up to change their own narrative.

Reese Witherspoon started her own production company, Pacific Standard, with two book adaptations, Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl and Cheryl Strayed's Wild. Rosamund Pike was cast as the lead in the David Fincher directed Gone Girl (2014) and Witherspoon played Strayed in her memoir Wild (2014) about hiking across the Pacific trail after her mother's death. She and Pike both earned a Oscar nomination for their performances. Witherspoon's next production for HBO is another book adaptation, Big Little Lies, which will star Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, Laura Dern and herself in key roles.

Others like former child star Drew Barrymore, Oscar winners Natalie Portman and Hilary Swank all have their own production companies that allows them to greenlight projects to act, produce, direct at different stages of their lives. Like their Hollywood counterparts, stars Anushka Sharma and Priyanka Chopra are becoming producers to have a larger say in their careers. It is no secret that a Hindi film actor enjoys a longer career in this profession. After a certain age, female actors are sidelined or relegated to character roles.

Production is by no means a new trend, the first honoree of the Dadasaheb Phalke award, Devika Rani, was the first female owner of an Indian studio, Bombay Talkies, with her husband Himanshu Rai in 1934. Under her leadership, the studio ushered new talent behind the screen, launched new stars who went to become legends of Hindi cinema, and made entertainers and social dramas that moved audiences.

Other acting stars like Durga Khote, Shobana Samarth and Hema Malini pursued producing and directing at some point in their careers but did not remain active at it. In 2000, actor Juhi Chawla, along with Shah Rukh Khan and filmmaker Aziz Mirza, founded the production house, Dreamz Unlimited, which produced films like Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani (2000), Asoka (2001) and Chalte Chalte (2003). The company closed down and was refashioned into Red Chillies Entertainment led by Khan and his wife, Gauri Khan.

Anushka Sharma has maintained how it important it was for her to take on producing credit on NH10 (2015) so she had a larger control on her career. This film was to be produced by Freida Pinto as a launch vehicle in Bollywood. When she backed out of the project, Anushka Sharma took on the role. Before the release of NH10, Anushka emphasized that it was essential to back films considered risky by others. NH10 proved profitable to her both financially as well as professionally. Anushka's performance was lauded by critics and viewers alike for her bold role selection. Her next production, Phillauri, is set to feature Suraj Sharma and Punjabi actor Diljit Dosanjh in a story written by first time director Anshai Lal.

For every success story like Anushka's, there are those that didn't make it. Preity Zinta led her cricket team Kings Punjab XI to two IPL finals, but she could not revive her career with the long-delayed Ishkq in Paris (2013). Shilpa Shetty tried to re-launch Harman Baweja in her first production, Dishkiyaoon (2014) which also starred Sunny Deol. Dishkiyaoon proved to be a disappointment at the box office for both actor and producer.

Former Miss Indias, Lara Dutta and Dia Mirza, too have turned to production. Dutta produced the indie Chalo Dilli (2011) co-starring Vinay Pathak which turned out to be a modest hit. However, since then she has appeared in supporting roles or second leads in films such as David (2013) and Fitoor (2016). Meanwhile, Dia Mirza turned producer with a fellow actor, Zayed Khan, for Love Breakups Zindagi (2011) with Born Free Entertainment. For her second film, Mirza put Vidya Balan front and center in Bobby Jasoos (2014). Unfortunately, neither film was a hit with audiences.

Priyanka Chopra may have shifted gears, headlining a top-rated series on U.S. television with Quantico and signing on as the villain in the Baywatch remake. But she's still keeping an eye out on the Indian market as well, producing regional films under her Purple Pebbles Pictures banner and launching a web series, It's My City, on the lives of four young women sharing an flat in Mumbai. Chopra is slated to make an appearance in the series as the owner of the flat who checks in periodically with the girls.

The industry's top female actor, Deepika Padukone, has also been mulling about production, mainly "to organise, put things together and make things happen." Most times, these roles create opportunities to cast themselves in diverse, new parts, ones that weren't available to them before. Or they can even open doors for other female actors to shine as Dia Mirza and Priyanka Chopra have demonstrated. But most importantly, it allows them to signal a shift in their careers where the choice is now in their hands as opposed to earlier, waiting for chances to come their way.