Masaba Masaba to Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitaare, the rise of Indian content championing female gaze and talent
As women pick, choose, fund and deliver original content across genres in Indian streaming content, women technicians — primarily directors and writers — have also started to make their mark with films and shows that champion women characters and the female gaze.
Recently, streaming giant Netflix made Bela Bajaria the head of global television, a key role filled by the impressive Cindy Holland. Holland brought original content like Stranger Things and House of Cards to Netflix. In the world of streaming, women leaders have held important positions and have shaped content globally. Here in India, Aparna Purohit has delivered clutter breaking content with various Amazon Originals, and Monika Shergill heads original content (series) for Netflix. ZEE5 also has a woman in charge with Aparna Acharekar as programming head.
As women pick, choose, fund and deliver original content across genres, women technicians, primarily directors and writers, have made their mark on OTT. Typically, women directors find it more difficult to land a well-funded film, featuring top draw stars in Hindi cinema. But writers have gradually been gaining control as writing talent is chased by producers. Director Nupur Asthana, who has co-directed Four More Shots, Please, which recently got nominated for the International Emmys, explains, “I strongly believe that women hire more women. They trust us to be able to do everything. That kind of trust as a filmmaker is empowering.”
Importantly, women directors and writers have delivered successes on Indian OTT. In the past few months, Bulbbul (Anvita Dutt), Flesh (co-written by National Award winning Pooja Ladha Surti), and Cargo (Arati Kadav) have done exceedingly well. Subsequent seasons of popular series like Four More Shots, Please (co directed by Anu Menon and Nupur Asthana; co-writers Devika Bhagat, Ishika Moitra and Rangita Nandy) and Made in Heaven (Reema Kagti and Zoya Akhtar as showrunners, Alankrita Srivastava and Nitya Menon as co-directors) are eagerly awaited.
But things have not always been like this. Despite having delivered a popular TV show Hip Hip Hurray, it took Asthana 10 years to make her first feature. “I was writing stories but not many thought them to be feasible for the box office, those were hard years. I approached some of the corporates entering cinema production but I actually made my first film with Yash Raj Films (Mujhse Fraandship Karoge) and Aditya Chopra was my mentor. I never thought of approaching them. When my second film didn’t do well, it was a struggle again. Thankfully, the OTT world had just opened up. Ekta Kapoor was building ALT Balaji and then I made Romil and Jugal, which did quite well with the LGBT+ community. And then Four More Shots, Please happened. Here’s a story about four women and their lives, what’s not to like? When you work on a series, there’s lot more depth to explore the story, and I could bring in my experiences too.”
Like Asthana, Sonam Nair has found recognition for her work on streaming platforms too. She made her first film, Gippy, for Dharma Productions, and recalls the experience of being a young female director. “There is just a very clear distinction made in people's heads if you're a 'female director', it's as if you will only tell stories about women's plights and make the men into villains and you can't handle a mainstream subject. But I always thought of my gender as my strength. I am lucky to be one of the few women getting to tell stories, so why should I try to do what the men are doing? OTT showed us there is another definition of 'mainstream', and we don't have to conform to the set rules to make a successful series.”
She has directed Kafir for Zee 5, and has now made the popular Masaba, Masaba for Netflix. “Without the constraints of box office success, which comes from focusing on subjects of very wide appeal, or having big names attached, OTT platforms focus on telling stories. A series like Masaba Masaba seems experimental, but it has appealed to people from all over the country, and even the world. The visibility a platform like Netflix can give your work is far beyond what a theatrical release for something of this genre could have gotten.”
Beyond web series, OTT platforms also give independent films visibility and reach. Alankrita Shrivastava won acclaim across film festivals with Lipstick Under My Burkha, and then had to contend with the Censor Board to release it theatrically. A subsequent release on Amazon Prime Video made a big difference to the film’s reach. She says, “Films that have difficulty finding satellite buyers now have a good financial avenue for independent spirited films.” Her next release, Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare has released on Netflix with aplomb, resulting in many opinion pieces about how it champions the female gaze, despite a somewhat haphazard plot. “When people from different cultures watch it, these specific stories end up becoming more universal. It is based in outskirts of Delhi but it’s story can connect with people from different cultures,” she adds.
Shrivastava, who was part of the writing and directing team of Made in Heaven, will also present her web series, the much-awaited Bombay Begums with an all star cast on Netflix. “With Made In Heaven, we got so much love and applause, that it made me open to the idea of writing and directing a web series. There is such joy in creating characters and in building so many lives for this format.”
While streaming platforms have brought more opportunities for women directors and writers, is pay parity and better treatment also a result of this success? Nair says, “As one of the younger female directors I've always had to struggle to be taken seriously, and now with my last two series doing well and being of completely different genres, I no longer have to prove that I can do it. It's there for everyone to see. The pay is fair and for the work, not the projected box office figures that the project might make.”
Asthana points out that female assistant directors that work for her are hopeful of getting a chance to direct soon. But Alankrita argues that a shift in perception of audiences is mandatory to ensure that women get paid better. “Pay depends more on the kind of film it is. If it’s an independent spirited film and returns aren’t expected to be high, they keep budgets tight and obviously most people working on it will be paid proportionately less. If it’s a bigger film, pay also rises. The female-male actor pay parity debate is not that simple to resolve either; because audiences need to watch a woman led film. Relatively, there is more pay parity on streaming. Economic value is linked to how you are paid in the streaming space. If you are a more commercially successful director then you draw bigger monies on OTT too. I think this space is more democratic and equal than cinema for now and is still evolving. While the streaming space is open to more nuanced storytelling and caters to different kinds of audiences, one just hopes that it doesn’t get typecast and remains open to evolution and change. “
Vakeel Saab is the Telugu language remake of 2016 film Pink.
'A whole different ball game:' Arshad Warsi, Boman Irani on turning hosts in Amazon Prime Video India's LOL - Hasse toh Phasse
Hosts Arshad Warsi, Boman Irani, and comedians Sunil Grover, Aditi Mittal, Cyrus Broacha and Suresh Menon weigh in on being a part of LOL - Hasse toh Phasse and competing with old friends and co-workers.
Amazon Prime Video India also released a teaser of Market Down Hai, which marks comedian Gaurav Gupta's first association with the streamer.