From Piku to Sulu, Bollywood has given us some strong female characters in the last decade that are the new-age ‘hero’, inspiring audiences to break free from stereotypes. Despite the coming-of-age (or what it seems like), the gender gap prevalent in India’s entertainment industry is alarmingly high.
Research reveals that India produces the highest number of films in the world, with the country’s box office being valued at over Rs 11,000 crore. Yet, there is no credible documentation on women in films. This is what the one-of-a-kind report released by ‘O Womaniya! 2021’, a collaboration between Ormax Media and Film Companion, attempts to change by starting a necessary conversation about gender parity in cinema.
The report, launched on the occasion of International Women’s Day, evaluated 129 films that released between 2019 and 2020 across five languages — Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, and Kannada — that contribute to 93 percent of the Indian box office. The findings have taken into account top 100 films based on their footfalls in India as well as 29 direct-to-OTT films that were picked through a combination of YouTube views and Ormax Advocacy Score.
The films were evaluated on three dimensions — talent, content and marketing — to assess the quality of female representation in the Indian film industry.
“I’ve been in the business long enough to know that female representation was bad, but I didn’t imagine the numbers that we saw for the south or for key departments such as cinematography and direction,” noted Anupama Chopra, founder and editor, Film Companion.
Gender bias behind the screen
The report reveals that 92 percent of key departments in a movie are helmed by men, while only 8 percent were occupied by women. For this, five departments were analysed: direction, writing, cinematography, editing, and production design.
In a shocking revelation, only 6 percent of films were directed by women between 2019 and 2020. The department that saw the highest representation of women was production design, while the lowest was cinematography at 2 percent. Keiko Nakahara, who was the Director of Photography (DoP) on movies like Tanhaji and Shakuntala was the only female cinematographer who participated in films during this period.
“We have fewer female directors because of investor confidence. Mainstream filming has a certain set pattern that people are very unwilling to break. They like to sit within that comfort zone. They think that a person’s gender is what they direct from, which is such a weird assumption to make! People tend to be so judgmental of what shape and form and size you come in. Whoever has the power is definitely biased,” says Anjali Menon, filmmaker.
Among Bollywood releases, only the Vidya Balan-starrer Shakuntala Devi had a female HOD across all the five major departments.
The situation is even more deplorable down south, where there is only 1 percent of female HOD representation in cinema.
Furthermore, the findings show that streaming performs better than theatrical, but is still male- dominated. Female representation in direct-to-OTT film projects stands at 13 percent, but there's still a long way to go.
Mind the gap
All the 129 films were evaluated on the Bechdel Test, an internationally-accepted measure of female representation in cinema. Disturbingly, 59 percent of the films failed the test. For a film to pass the Bechdel Test, it must have at least one scene, in which two named female characters are having a conversation that’s not about a man/men. Some of the biggest Bollywood films including Uri: The Surgical Strike, Bharat, and Article 15 failed to pass the test.
“In my early years in the movies, I was once asked to change my dialogues during the dub because the hero wanted it altered. I refused to do it, only to find out after the release of the film that they had gone ahead and got another dubbing artist to voice my bits there,” says actor Taapsee Pannu on the prevalent sexism in the industry.
Speaking of female representation in film marketing, the story is no different. According to the report, since no existing test measures the marketing representation of female actors/characters, they came up with The Trailer Talk Time Test.
“The main trailer of each film was identified, the length of the spoken parts in each trailer (in seconds) was segregated into male and female components, as well as the percentage of talk time in the trailer allotted to female characters was measured,” noted the report.
According to the report, male characters ‘outspeak’ female characters by more than four times in movie trailers. Only 10 films had more than 50 percent female trailer talk time.
“The hero construct is very significant in our culture. A lot of the industry’s money is riding on that hero and therefore the whole attempt is to showcase that hero - in the film, the trailer or the poster. We have in a sense normalised how skewed the system is. When people are pitching films to satellite channels, they always say that the difference in pricing while negotiating is only dependent on the male leads,” added Menon.
(Edited by Amrita Ghosh)