Netflix's She and Guilty, Taapsee Pannu's Thappad turn the spotlight on what women want to watch
The female viewpoint on a woman’s story plays out differently when women helm a project. But it shouldn’t be the domain of a woman writer/ director alone.
In 2019, when the #MeToo movement clamped down in Indian showbiz with survivors choosing to stay away from courts, the new found female gaze in cinema and in the space of web series seemed threatened. But 2020 has a heartening story to tell. Stories on film and on streaming platforms are exploring the female perspectives in sexuality, marital life, consent and pleasure with success and acceptance. The woman’s view point has become inspiration for compelling stories made by both men and women.
Thappad is this year’s most important film about a woman’s viewpoint on humiliation and the politics of power in a marriage. Anubhav Sinha has directed this remarkable story, and co-written it with Mrunmayee Lagoo. That a man has been able to sift through social conditioning and accepted norms in Indian society to tell this story onscreen is laudable. Add to that the many layers of social class that Sinha’s film tackles to show everyday compromises that women make to survive marriages. Thappad is a subtle but powerful comment on male entitlement and conditioning.
“One has seen it (mis-treatment in marriage) happen to women dear to me over the years. When this story occurred to me, I thought this could be a very good vehicle to deal with it,” recalls Sinha,” So it’s a combination of personal experiences observed in people and my understanding of what we’ve been brought up to believe. I was a little apprehensive about how men might react to the film but in the premier itself, a friend half hugged me and said that he wanted to leave and apologise to his wife. I also met a man who was waiting outside a theatre trying to get inside but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. Five years ago, on the same day of its release, he had hit his wife once. I have had grown men cry bitterly over the phone. Some have reacted on social media saying, what if a woman hits a man? My reply simply is, you tell me. You will always find some staunch patriarchal responses but most men have responded to the film heartwarmingly.”
Rather than employ a larger than life, or unusual, person, as its main character, the heroine of Thappad, played effectively by Taapsee Pannu, is your neighbourhood aunt, sister and friend. Not a huge hit, though Thappad had begun to grow on audiences across Indian cities before the COVID-19 shutdown. “Niche films are not a new phenomenon. Decades ago, films like Ardh Satya, Saaransh and Arth worked. A section of audiences have watched such films. Now these films have a more profitable theatrical outlet. As the number of theatres across India has risen, even films that are termed niche are getting reasonable screen space as the quantum of revenue these films make has changed. I have never made as much money in my career as I am making now,” adds Sinha.
While Thappad is an incisive take on social conditioning and male privilege, Guilty, a recent Netflix film, looks at consent in the post #MeToo world. Directed by Ruchi Narain, Kanika Dhillon and Atika Chohan have co-written this project. Dhillon recalls, “Ruchi and I started work on Guilty before the #metoo movement had taken center stage. We were attempting to talk about the judgments and explore the culture of disbelief, silence, privilege, stereotype — all that goes into making it so difficult for a rape survivor to press charges or get their voices heard. The system is usually designed to suppress or discredit them in various ways. And with the #Metoo movement gaining momentum, it gave us the impetus to underline and define it further. The reality is that even today more than 90 percent sexual assault cases go unreported in India. There is a reason for that and we all are guilty of that horrifying statistic”.
Despite mixed reviews, Guilty tackles the impact of sexual assault on the victim’s life as much as it does on that of the accused. It also addressed the role that social conditioning plays in passing judgment on a woman that accuses a man from a different social strata of sexual wrongdoing. Dhillon explains, “A core discussion in defining the violent act lies in identifying what is consent? The female gaze will not only look at the performance or display of content but also beyond that; even if a woman is willing, she has a right to change her mind. Her discomfort as the situation evolves gives her the prerogative to walk away. I'm sure men writing on these topics will take these in account but a female gaze will definitely capture these nuances. I guess it resonates with a viewer more because when women tell women stories we don’t fix them in a box.”
The female viewpoint on a woman’s story — be it facing assault, exploring her sexuality, or dealing with relationships — plays out differently when women helm a project. But it shouldn’t be the domain of a woman writer/ director alone. Imtiaz Ali has delivered Bollywood’s most intensely liked or disliked female leads with his films in the past. Now the filmmaker, whose latest release Love Aaj Kal didn’t work with audiences, pivots in form and style with She — a series that he has written for Netflix. She looks at a woman from a lower middle class background and her discovery of her sexuality, where social norms dictate repression and embed a woman with hesitation in expressing herself. She feels unlike any other film that he has directed or written so far; but his female lead feels intriguing. Credit for this could go to his co-writer, Divya Johry.
That a woman’s sexuality takes centre stage without getting vulgar is in itself good progress for Hindi cinema and series. People are watching these shows/films and getting interested in understanding what might actually be going on in a woman’s mind. There’s also Alankrita Shrivastava’s upcoming series Bombay Begums, about urban relationships of women in Mumbai. If these shows also take off, then the conversation about what a woman wants will take flight.
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