Dia Mirza in Kaafir, Huma Qureshi in Leila: How digital shows have given actresses a fair chance
From Dia Mirza in Kaafir to Tisca Chopra in Hostages to Soni Razdan in Yours Truly, streaming services have opened new avenues for seasoned actresses.
Tisca Chopra is best known to Indian moviegoers for Taare Zameen Par. As a mother caught between a gentle child who does not do too well at school and a rigid, unsympathetic father, Chopra had delivered a nuanced performance.
But Hindi films didn’t offer her parts of adequate quality and worth. Chopra took initiative to write and produce Chutney, a short film that has steadily clocked up milestones, including being the most watched short film with over 124 million views, and an HBO audience choice award in New York. The digital medium has also brought her a lead role in a worthwhile project after a while. She plays Dr Mira Anand in Hostages, an adaptation of the highly successful Israeli series of the same name. “The part of Dr Mira Anand was mouth wateringly good. This is a new medium for me too. I had only dubbed sporadically and hadn’t watched any internal screenings so I saw it when it began to stream. I loved shooting for this series as the atmosphere on set was fantastic. With a mind like Sudhir Mishra directing it, it would be a waste to adapt the original as is. Both the writing and the process of working on this show non stop was something that I looked forward to,” Tisca recalls.
Tisca is amongst the current crop of 40 plus female actors that have found a second opportunity with the digital platform. Shefali Shah won appreciation and recognition amongst millennial viewers with Delhi Crime. She played Assistant Police Commissioner Vartika Chaturvedi, in charge of bringing in the perpetrators of the brutal, inhuman 2016 Delhi rape case. For Shah, working on a Netflix series brought a chance to build and develop a character whose experiences and emotions resemble reality. It also brought opportunity to be seen around the world. “Delhi Crime dropped in 190 countries at the same time. No film can bring you as wide a release as this. The response that we’ve got for this series has been overwhelming, with people from all over the world, some of the most unexpected places. What we were very clear about right from the beginning is that this story be treated with utmost sensitivity, and has to be done properly. Richie Mehta and his team did that,” she recalls.
An added benefit of being visible on digital OTT content that is available internationally is offers for decent parts from overseas. Both Chopra and Shah have been beneficiaries, with more web series offers and quality parts coming their way. While they cannot discuss details yet, they do state that these offers have come to them organically, a direct consequence of their work been seen globally.
Tisca and Shefali belong to the category of female actors that have played the long game. They have chosen quality parts over time, not succumbing to maximisation of commercial film roles that box them in as sisters or mothers. They have also paid the price of playing characters rather than chase heroine parts as younger actors. Yet, as stories, that have stayed untouched by mainstream film or TV for a long time, finally make it to screens, the value of their experience and credibility as actors has brought them to center stage. When it comes to playing characters, you need an actor who can bring depth and be consistent.
Kaafir, a web series currently streaming on Zee5, was meant to be a film originally. Bhavani Iyer had written this story 13 years ago. It took shape as a web series when Dia Mirza came on board. She plays the lead as a Pakistani woman wrongfully imprisoned in India as a terrorist. Mirza, whose last film outing was Sanju, has not been a part of Bollywood films often. With Kaafir, there is room for her to display her acting chops and explore the emerging space of digital entertainment. It also brings the show star appeal.
Like Kaafir, a series originally conceived and written by a woman, Leila has been been written by Urmi Juvekar. Deepa Mehta is creative executive producer and has directed a couple of episodes on this dystopian thriller that brings a second chance for Huma Qureishi to display her acting prowess. A decent actor, Qureishi has always delivered on her roles but has battled against the ideal body image of a Bollywood heroine. Leila has her playing a desperate, determined character with restraint and empathy. It also places her in the evolving space of performance-oriented actors that flourish in the long format of streaming.
Off late, those that had sort of retired from public memory have also found opportunity in web series that tell a solid story. Soni Razdan plays the lead in Yours Truly and Mita Vashist, a celebrated actor from the '90s, plays a key part in Criminal Justice on Hotstar. Sakshi Tanwar, after her turn in Dangal, has acted in The Final Call (Zee5) and Karrle Tu Bhi Mohabbat (AltBalaji). It is refreshing that actors who once were household names and aspirational for many women, now have parts to play suited to their age and stature. With these opportunities, pressures of looking younger and playing younger people has definitely eased up.
Rasika Dugal, who has been part of web series Mirzapur, credits digital content for the fact that she is now recognised as an actor. “Finally, we have begun to acknowledge the contribution of the writer, the most important part in the creative process. I think we have begun trying to talk about female desire as it should be with the kind of writing that the web offers," she states.
Hollywood stars chose to move to web series quite some time ago when roles began drying up in an event and superhero-dominated film studio system. Women took the lead here too, and have been part of some very popular and interesting series. In India, the evolution has been gradual but the change is certain and visible. As these women take the lead in delivering believable performances in complex stories, with female writers and makers also taking charge, the potential for content that represent the female experience, as it should be, is huge. Here is hoping it continues to resonate with audiences in the long run.
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