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What Has Improved Access for Women Directors and Women-led films in Indian film? – Rebecca Peters

This discussion will primarily focus on the Hindi commercial industry known as Bollywood,
since that is the largest and most pan-Indian. While Telegu, Tamil, and Malayalam films also
have substantial markets, since I do not have data specific to those regions, I will only discuss
In the recent past, the number of women in the film industry who hold roles of an
influential nature has increased substantially. Directors, screen writers, cinematographers,
positions which historically have been almost exclusively men, have had an exponential growth
of women in those roles. While they are still a minority in the industry, nevertheless, women
have created films with significant impact. At the same time many male directors have begun
telling more stories placing women in the main role, disrupting the “standard” Bollywood
expectation of hero-led film. What sort of factors have led to such an increase in attention being
paid to women and women’s stories?
While there are many such factors, I will look at a few.
Before beginning, there are two caveats that I should mention. First) I must acknowledge
that women have had important positions in parallel cinema for decades. In fact, parallel cinema
was the only avenue available for most women directors who wanted to make films (Mankekar).
My focus on Bollywood in no way discounts the work or contribution to Indian cinema from
women working within parallel cinema. However, the reality is that the majority of Indians do
not watch parallel cinema films. These movies are usually shown at film festivals and, when
released in theaters, it is with a very limited run only in major cities. Again, this is not to say
there are not exceptions or that some have not been very influential, nevertheless, the majority of
parallel cinema remains obscure. Since those who work in parallel cinema are not confined by
the producer or investor constraints of commercial cinema, many women (and others) push the
envelope well before the rest of the industry. That is to say, they often critique the systems of
abuse or oppression and showcase radically alternative representations of gender, caste, class,
and so forth. In India, as in many countries, the parallel cinema has been outspoken against
social injustices in ways often glossed over in commercial cinema. This has led many scholars,
especially, to argue that parallel cinema is the more important work to study (over commercial

industries). And through narrowing the field of study to predominately parallel cinema with its
higher percentage of women working behind the screen, a false impression, at least in American
academia, exists that argues, using these films as an indicator, that women have greater access to
the film industry than has historically been true.
The second point to stress is that Bollywood has always been a socially conscious
industry in its subject matter. Throughout its history, films about social ills and problems in
society have been important popular works. From Shree 420 to PK, Bollywood has often had a
thread running through its films critiquing some part of society or educating the so-called masses
towards ideas of sanitation, education reform, and the importance of respecting women, to name
just a few. Therefore, when I say there is an increase in women’s stories, I do not mean the
stories of women’s victimhood or of how society treats women poorly – in other words the social
ills against women. Those stories have always been around. I mean stories that focus on women
characters that highlight her strength and power, not her weaknesses. Films like Kahaani, Queen,
English Vinglish, Mardaani, and Shakuntala Devi,
to name a few, highlight women, and have
been quite successful.
Films, like all cultural media, both inform and are informed by the social conscious, as
Stuart Hall argues. Films are not singular direction media – they are not simply an avenue to
convey meaning to citizens. They are not made in a vacuum. Those same citizens are creating the
media as the ones who consume it. As Hall notes, “the audience is both the ‘source’ and the
‘receiver’ of the message”
(p. 165). The audience learns gendered ideologies from films while
supplying the raw material for these ideologies to filmmakers, dictating, through this interaction,
the “framework of knowledge” within which filmmakers must operate to succeed (Hall, p. 167).
Therefore as society changes, films must adapt and accommodate those changes. Similarly, films
can help direct the change that occurs in society. It is a two-way street, neither happens in
isolation of the other. This means that only at the right time can major shifts happen, as has
occurred in Bollywood and India more widely since the 2000. This adjustment of film
production and messaging according to what society wants to hear is what sociologist Douglas
Kellner describes as the cultural economy of production. The Cultural Economy of Production is
dual-faceted. First, it describes how in order for a film to become successful, it must speak to a
cultural attitude – something the audience not only is ready to hear, but is looking to hear. A film

made in 1985 may not work as well in 2022, and one that works in 2022 would not have worked
in 1985. The timing of release must coincide with the reception, or it will not succeed. In
America, as I’m sure in India, there are several films that flopped at the box office, but later
became “cult classics”. Second, the cultural economy of production refers to the ways in which
film studios and the industry as a whole must accommodate changes in the cultural mindset in
order to stay relevant. In America this can most easily be seen in the rise of superhero films since

Prior to 2008, superhero films were mostly considered niche films – films that spoke to a
key demographic (12-30 year old boys and men) – but not ones that would draw in crowds of all
groups. There were a few popular films here and there, but overall, they were still considered
genre films. However, with the advent of Christopher Nolan’s Batman series and Marvel’s Iron
Man, suddenly more families were going to see superhero films. Today, it is difficult for a non-
superhero film to reach blockbuster status in America. Even Indians have supported these films –
making up the majority of successful Hollywood films here. I would even argue that it is the
same cultural attitudes that encourage both successes.
Superhero films (the successful ones) are complex, multi-layered stories with ensemble
casts that deal with clear lines of good vs evil and present a high-quality production value. What
was once considered melodramatic, silly, and over-the-top, (for example, Jim Carrey’s Riddler
providing puns in vibrant green colors with question marks on his suit)
now is talked about in
serious terms. The 2018 Black Panther film became the first superhero film to receive an Oscar
nomination for Best Picture. What has changed? Not the stories – they are mostly based on
comics from the 40s-80s. What changed was society’s mindset and their desire for a particular
type of story.
So, what does this discussion so far have to do with Film business in India? I would argue
that the cultural economy of production in India has shifted to encourage stories of women and
their strength, as well as having women behind the screen. One of the reasons for this is likely
due to the larger number of working women in the middle classes. Since the economic
liberalization of the late 1990s, the influx of international companies into the Indian market has
encouraged a significant increase to the middle classes. Many more women are working before
they marry, and continuing after, causing many families to become multi-earning families. This
increase of women in a specific area of the workforce has several impacts, including causing

men and women to intermingle more in a social setting, increasing the acceptability of women in
public spaces, and providing more women with disposable income (Radhakrishnan). As
Tejaswini Ganti and Laxmi Srinivas discuss, the rise of the multiplex has shifted those who see
films in the theaters. Before this, theaters were predominantly filled with men or families, and of
all classes. Multiplexes, with their high prices, regulated audience – most are in malls that screen
out lower class people – and urban locations, target more middle class, educated audiences.
Women have become a larger demographic to be concerned with. But also, more men, now that
they interact more regularly with women outside the home, begin to be interested in stories about
women. This is a very simplified overview of the shift, and other scholars have done a much
better job than me discussing this. But the fact remains that in the past two decades, there has
been a significant shift in the types of films Bollywood makes, and in who makes them. This
shift has happened at the same time as women gain greater visibility in the workplace and in
public spaces, especially in urban settings.
Another factor in the increase in roles for women in the industry is related to the increase
in OTT platforms. While OTT always seemed to be the way the industry was headed, the
pandemic moved it from a method for film viewing from some households to most households.
In India, as in America, with everyone stuck at home and theaters closed, people moved in bulk
onto OTT platforms. OTT became the only way that filmmakers could have their films released
for almost two years. Streaming services became routine; watching on the family TV, as well as
on individual devices, brought OTT into the Indian consciousness, not just the youth
OTT, because of the much lower overhead to promote individual films, the ability to
target specific demographics through algorithms, their reduced regulations, and their desire to
provide more than enough content has created a space for films that otherwise would not have
been available for wide release. Films that would have been released at film festivals and in
limited theaters suddenly are available for everyone on this platform. Along with that many
providers, like Netflix, have as part of their mission-statement to provide opportunities for
marginalized and underrepresented groups. This means they actively seek out and fund work by
women directors, screenwriters, and so on. For now, this means that women who have
traditionally been denied funding or access have greater opportunities available to them.

While these are far from the only aspects involved in changes in Indian film recently, they are
important ones to consider. And there is much more research to be done, especially on how OTT
might ultimately effect change, or simply revert to previous studio models of exclusion, in the
film industry. But for now, the moment is opportune for women to both work behind the scenes
and in front of the camera in better more established roles. What does this mean for Film
Business in India?
Only good things.

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