In the decades of loving and worshipping cinema (and quality TV drama), its portrayal of women has been unfailingly disappointing. Either she is the perfect lady, with no humane flaws whatsoever, or she is the ostentatious ‘evil’.
“There was a real dearth of women-led narratives that represented women as they were and not catering to any archetypes or prototypes,” says Sayani Gupta, who has been bridging this gap with her impressive body of work. The actor, in her latest outing, as Damini Rizvi Roy in Amazon Prime’s Four More Shots Please! continues the trend.
A fun, casual, light-hearted drama about four young women, the show – between the seams – unpacked some real, flawed, and refreshingly realistic storylines during its first season. Sayani’s character especially strikes a chord, thanks to her go-getter attitude as well as many weaknesses.
Damini is clearly not one to shy away. She waltzes through life, shuttling between two love interests, occasionally revealing a soft core. It is this very candour that gets you hooked since the very first episode, and according to Sayani, grabbed her attention to the role too.
“I loved the freshness of the perspective,” the actor tells us. “I always get attracted to characters which are empowered, even if it's somebody like Gaura in Article 15, who is a Dalit woman from a backward village but still a very empowered and fierce woman.”
Arguing for on-screen portrayals of women who are “fierce, independent, and trying to make a difference in their own lives,” Sayani steers the conversation towards a typical Bollywood conundrum – the need to attach virtue or vice as the singular driving force.
“How can you constantly be putting women in boxes,” she questions, “either she is virginal and completely listening to her father all her life…or she is a vamp, out to wreck other people’s homes?”
Breaking the Bollywood bubble
Sayani, a graduate from the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), has been steering change on-screen for quite some time now. With her unconventional choice in roles and thespian skills, the 32-year-old has brought to life some of the most memorable characters, including Khanum in Margarita with a Straw, Hina in Jolly LLB 2, Rohini in Prime Video’s Inside Edge, and latest, Gaura in the Ayushmann Khurrana-starrer Article 15.
In the award-winning Article 15 directed by Anubhav Sinha, depicting the plight of ‘untouchable’ Dalits in modern India, Sayani steals the show as Gaura, a young Dalit woman fighting for justice for her sister. Same with Akshay Kumar’s Jolly LLB 2, where the actor plays a desperate pregnant woman, fighting for justice for her dead husband, Sayani manages to successfully glide into the critics’ good books.
But what guides these decisions and what is the cost of playing emotionally-taxing roles?
“I definitely like [characters based on] people who lack representation in mainstream narratives, and I would love to give that a form and a voice,” responds Sayani.
She recalls how she was absolutely “petrified” after reading her part in Jolly LLB 2, a role that Sayani confesses, she rejected multiple times before saying yes.
“Once I read the script, I was like, ‘Oh my God, what a great thought,’” she recalls. “I realised that this was the reality for many girls, women, mothers, and wives out there… like it's so easy to pick up somebody with a Muslim last name and encounter him,” she adds. Sayani is referring to the fake encounter of Iqbal Qasim (Hina’s husband) in the film.
“I want people to understand that no matter how much privilege we have in our little bubbles, a huge part of the reality in our country and in our environment is that people are still lynched outside mandirs and beaten to death if they happen to cross upper caste [events]; it's our reality,” the actor says.
Cinema – a powerful tool to change people?
A non-believer in “boxes” or “labels”, Sayani has done a fine job, balancing between off-beat hits and commercial cinema with movies like Fukrey Returns, Jab Harry Met Sejal, and Jagga Jasoos. And even as she spreads her wings and expands her footprints internationally – her latest outing is in the British medical drama The Good Karma Hospital – she is well aware and in touch with the realities that define entertainment industry.
When asked about the issues of gender equality, pay parity, and accountability in the industry, she says, “The good thing is that there's a lot of conversation that has started in the last two years, thanks to the #MeToo and Time’s Up movement. Having said that, I really feel that we have a long, long, long way to go and it's not going to happen overnight. It's a constant battle.”
But like a true showman, Sayani also emphasises on the power of visual arts. She insists, cinema is a powerful medium to change and motivate people, and to make a difference in real life. Slowly but steadily, showbiz is waking up to the changes in society, mirroring what truly goes on in real life.
And this, says Sayani, is evident in the way her work is being appreciated and her shows are garnering fan-following.
“You can make a successful show or film with women protagonists, where you don't have to put them in boxes,” she quips.
(Edited by Saheli Sen Gupta)