By Gayatri Manu
Priyanka Chopra has been in the American news cycle for a lot of reasons lately – for pointing out who the xenophobes are in the US, for playing the villain in the soon-to-be-released Baywatch and, of course, for being the protagonist of the thriller series Quantico produced by ABC.
Now there’s finally something for us too. Turns out that Chopra has also just debuted as producer with a Bhjopuri film under her own banner Purple Pebble Pictures. The film Bam Bam Bol Raha Hai Kashi, starring Bhojpuri superstar Nirahua, was released on June 9th. We are proud of Chopra because we know that old, old fact: female producers in the Indian film industry make up a measly 15 percent compared to the global average of 22 percent.
A UN sponsored global study commissioned by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media states that despite 189 countries adopting the Beijing Platform for Action, “the international roadmap for equality,” 20 years later underrepresentation is still an issue in the film industry. But we could have guessed that anyway – what’s more interesting is that the study also found that when films were directed or written by a woman, “the number of female characters on-screen increased significantly.”
Shonali Bose, who directed and co-produced Margarita with a Straw, says that gender bias is most obvious in the kind of the stories that male producers choose to finance. Now, a single film backed by a female producer in India is unlikely to change the industry anytime soon. But a growing oeuvre from female producers just might. There are now a clutch of women producers in India who are working to fix gender stereotypes – while also hoping to make some money. How’s that for motivation to disrupt the status quo?
Ekta Kapoor has, of course, been a leading female producer for some time now. Her most recent project is Udta Punjab, the story of a man battling drugs in Punjab, a state where drugs worth crores of rupees are consumed every year. Priyanka Chopra has come out firmly in support of Udta Punjab in its ongoing standoff with the certification board. Kapoor’s production banner, Balaji Telefilms, is famous for the unorthodox films that it presents regularly. (Kapoor also has no qualms in revealing that most men in her immensely popular TV shows are merely eye candy.) Balaji’s production of The Dirty Picture starring Vidya Balan did some excellent business and raked one of the biggest box office collections to date with a female character in the lead.
There are also some newer female producers who we should look to for exciting work. A few years ago Lara Dutta co-produced Chalo Dilli, in which the protagonist, Mihika Mukherjee, played by Dutta herself, is an anglicised investment banker who takes a road trip across Delhi with Manu Gupta (Vinay Pathak), only to discover that her inner desi loves taking mud baths and wearing tight silk blouses as she traipses through small towns. The film opened to lukewarm audiences but the critics sang praises about Dutta for weeks, even if the film’s emphasis was on the male character.
I burnt my tongue on my morning coffee a couple of weeks ago when I discovered that Dutta is now planning on producing her second film. Perhaps more confident, this time the film will be about the extremely successful Chhattisgarh Women’s Basketball team, which made headlines last year for winning every possible title in the country. Dutta has bought the rights to their story and is producing the film under her very own Bheegi Billi banner.
This comes as a double relief because in Bollywood, the most attention basketball has gotten is in that pivotal scene in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai – where Kajol, draped in a dripping saree, and Shah Rukh Khan with his superhuman swag, play the most cringe-worthy, one-on-one, full-court game. And yes you guessed right, the camera zooms seductively into Kajol’s navel as she fixes her saree before taking a jump shot.
On the other hand, the story of the women’s basketball team from Chhattisgarh involves the triumph of underdogs (the MVP played with a searing migraine due to a brain tumour she’d been diagnosed with) who defeated their privileged, upper-class rivals. Such stories of grit, catharsis, and inspiration can only be effective with an honest retelling, and let’s just say we’re more confident of Dutta than some other random dude in the producer’s seat. Dutta has her credentials down for this project; she has a long history of being a basketball fan and famously went on an all-access VIP weekend visit to the National Basketball Association’s Los Angeles Lakers some years ago. It’s refreshing to know that a female producer in India is going to bring attention back to the hoops.
Anushka Sharma has also got in the game. She’s often praised for acting in women-centric films (even if some of them like Ladies vs Ricky Bahl and PK barely manage to scrape past the Bechdel test). She debuted as the youngest female producer in India last year with Bollywood’s ‘first slasher roadtrip film’ NH10, a film that beautifully broke the cliché of the damsel-in-distress. Sharma has said that NH10’s success should encourage other producers to take similar risks, regardless of how “tricky or unconventional” that prospect might seem. She is now promising that her second production Philauri, set against a Punjabi marriage, will most certainly not be the usual wedding drama. She is also reportedly backing NH10 director Navdeep Singh’s next film as well as Delhi Belly writer Akshat Varma’s directorial debut.
When marginalised or minority groups are removed from the narratives in a film or are reinforced in stereotypes, inequality is normalised and bound to be sustained. Aparna Sen, Deepa Mehta and Mira Nair have all been praised for financing their own films, many of which have enabled a fruitful conversation about gender on-screen. Priyanka Chopra, in her distinctive style, is said to be focusing on regional cinema rather than Bollywood, and is reported to be producing a Marathi and Punjabi film next. Now with mainstream and popular female actors increasingly sitting in the producer’s chair as well, we’re looking forward to films where women play bigger, better roles, and give us stories that we might actually relate to.
Co-published with Firstpost.