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Things are better than ever, but not enough, say women at Amazon Prime Video's women's day special

A panel consisting of Gazal Dhaliwal, Zoya Akhtar, Sumukhi Suresh, Vidya Balan, Jennifer Salke, Guneet Monga and Sooni Taraporevala spoke at the Amazon Women's Day talk on 'Women Shaping the Narrative in Media and Entertainment'.

Shriram Iyengar

The Women's Day special panel on 'Women Shaping The Narrative in Media and Entertainment' at the Taj Land's End in Bandra today saw filmmaker Zoya Akhtar, actress Vidya Balan, comedian Sumukhi Suresh, producer Guneet Monga, writers Gazal Dhaliwal and Sooni Taraporevala join Jennifer Salke, head, Amazon Studios to speak about the changing narrative of women-led stories and cinema.

Moderated by journalist Anuradha Sengupta, the group certainly looked buoyed at the growing depiction of female stories, written, directed and produced by women.

Vidya, who has always been at the forefront with portrayals of strong female characters said, "All around us women are trying to lead their lives on their terms more and more. This has found representation in the media narratives, naturally." The actress added, "It has never been better. But guess what, it will only get better."

Akhtar, riding high on the back of Gully Boy's (2019) success, remarked that regardless of gender differences, unless there is quality in work, it is hard for anyone to be noticed in cinema.

On being asked about the need to emphasise the role of a female filmmaker, Akhtar said, "I don't need to state the obvious. I am never not female. I find it very odd that I have to keep talking about gender."

Akhtar went on to add, "In the industry, nobody says that I am a woman filmmaker. I don't say that. It's a made up term in the media." She said, "Now there are so many women writers, directors, technicians, producers in so many departments, that to say I am a female filmmaker is just weird."

While Akhtar maintained that the industry was beginning to change, Gazal Dhaliwal, writer of Ek Ladki Ko Dekha To Aisa Laga (2019), stated that there needs to be a statement made.

She said, "It is like a race in America. It is important that when you see the inequality, you call it out, because there needs to be awareness."
Giving an example of the disparity, Dhaliwal said, "I have spoken to directors who have said to me that you will not be able to write this script because it is a man's story, and you won't be able to get his voice. It is outstanding to me how Gully Boy has done so well."  She added, "Looking at men from a female gaze is equally important as looking at men from a male gaze. At least in our stories, we will get the men we deserve."

Another important question that arose for the panel was the role of the #MeToo movement in shaping the women's narrative, whether on screen or in writing.

Returning from her Oscar win, producer Guneet Monga said, "It has certainly helped in putting things into conversation. It is certainly not easy," Monga added, "But I generally feel that because of social media, now, people will be in check."

Taraporevala, writer of films like Salaam Bombay (1989), The Namesake (2007) reflected on it saying, "I was a still photographer at the age of 18, handling equipment. Somehow, that was more threatening, women operating equipment. We now see more writers, directors, producers, but we see few photographers, cinematographers, or gaffers who are women. I think when that happens we really will have a great filmmaking community. But it is getting there." She went on to add that the film Taraporevala is currently working on has a crew filled with 85% women.

Salke, head, Amazon Studios, shed some light on how the decision making process in terms of selecting content for the streaming platform has also changed.

Referring to the growing percentage of women filmmakers driving content, Salke said, "Looking at a full list of male and female directors, we don't make decisions like that. But it is changing. We have five movies there. We did four of these movies and were directed by women. But that was never in the conversation. We loved the movies. And afterward we noticed it."

Referring to the 4% challenge of announcing a project with a female filmmaker within the next 18 months, Salke said "We do see change. We signed the 4% challenge, and we do way better than that as a company. I think there are so much opportunities for female directors and writers to craft their own narrative."

Vidya agreed that there is a need to take a stand to force diversity, she said, "I do believe so. History has shown us that there are not too many examples of women being granted that opportunity. So, only if you open up the opportunity will you know how many women have a chance of doing it well. That push is intentional."

Comedian Sumukhi Suresh brought the roof down with her comment about being a 'female comedian'. "Every year on the 8th March I get calls asking 'How does it feel to be a female comedian?'" Sumukhi said rolling her eyes. She added, "When we class ourselves as a female director or actor, we are limiting ourselves. I would rather be called a good comedian."

Despite the growing presence of women in all fields of cinema and digital entertainment, Dhaliwal remains unconvinced. Pointing to the disparity between the number of male-led films and female-led films, she said, "There is a growing change, but it is not enough. There are not enough female writers to change the narrative and shape the stories that need to be told."

However, the panel was certain of a positive influence. As Salke added, "This is the first time in a while that cash is chasing content." To which Akhtar added, "Artistes are always running after money, this is probably the best time that money is chasing content finally."

When journalist Sengupta pointed out to the absence of men in the dialogue, Vidya quipped, "We have heard them for so long. We are no longer interested in what they have to say. This is their time to listen."

Monga clarified saying, "We cannot take away that there has been suppression of expression, for so long. Hence, this conversation, which is out loud. This has led to women being very competitive. We are not one or the other, we are the same team."

The last word was left to Taraporevala, who sagely suggested that the 'need of the hour is to be nuanced.' She said, "As a writer, I find it very difficult to put people in boxes, whether they are male or female. I think the need of the hour is to be nuanced, and not black and white. I think we need to understand each other, and love each other as we progress."

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