Women telling women’s stories on a global platform is not a privilege female artists have enjoyed for long. With the advent of OTT platforms, Bollywood’s obsession with heavy duty blockbusters green lit by production houses solely based on the machismo of the lead star that could automatically catapult said film into the ‘100 crore club’ has thankfully taken a back seat. And the ones who have managed to shine are female artists – be it filmmakers, producers, artists, creators – who are finding a perch to experiment, to give unbridled freedom to their creativity and soar in an environment where content is truly king, or queen, as may be more appropriate in this context.
We speak to a select few artists – actor, comedian, director – to find out how they view this newfound freedom and most significantly what advice they have for other women artists hoping to create a space for themselves in India’s entertainment industry.
Neena Gupta: ‘Women should be financially independent’
She famously took to social media to ask for work at an age where women were perceived to be too old to restart their careers, especially in the glam industry. For a woman who ‘found love’ at 50, there’s been no stopping Neena Gupta as her second coming in Bollywood certainly called for encores with movies like Badhaai Ho and Shubh Mangal Zyada Savadhan. But it was Netflix’s reality drama Masaba Masaba in 2020 that truly bought out the real spirit of this unorthodox woman – who proved underneath that soft demeanor, lay a strong woman, who is truly one who embodies ‘nari-shakti’.
Advice for women: “My message for women is that one should be financially independent. That makes a whole difference to everything in life. Being financially independent doesn’t mean you look down upon a man or you don’t compromise in a relationship – even though you are independent you have to do that. But being independent financially will give you a lot of strength to sort out your problems in a relationship.
On her equation with Masaba: You have to be honest in your relationship – when young girls are teens they will obviously hide things, they have boyfriends, they go out – you are bound to hide, but there is a limit. Mothers also should be very frank with daughters. I didn’t have the same relationship with my mother cause we have a big generation gap. But with Masaba I have less of a generation gap.
I couldn’t talk to my mother as freely as I can to Masaba and vice versa. Every relationship including mother-daughter will survive, be healthy if you are honest with each other. You have to be available to each other,
If you have a problem you have to talk and find a (solution) midway. I used to not sleep when my daughter went out and came back late. Initially I put a time limit but sometimes it doesn’t work but that doesn’t mean that I stop her and don’t allow her to go out. She has to grow, she has to learn her own lessons, from life but most importantly a mother should make her daughter feel she is always there whatever the latter does. So she can always come back to her…
Bhavana Pandey: ‘My advice to Ananya would be to stay grounded’
When Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives first dropped on Netflix, the unapologetically glamorous foursome – Seema Khan, Bhavana Pandey, Neelam and Maheep Kapoor – naturally drew all eyeballs. Unapologetic about their glossy lifestyle the four friends took detractors in their stride – one thigh high boot and stiletto clad foot at a time. The series offered up a look at each one’s fabulous spirit and brought out the bond between the friends that has remained unshaken in a seemingly shallow industry where relationships are made and broken after every film release. Among the four, Bhavana Pandey’s cool and collected self stood out – she was not just an atypical star wife she was also an atypical star-mom to a rising superstar Ananya Pandey.
How liberating was it to tell your own story on your own terms with Fabulous Lives… I was very apprehensive about doing the show initially as I didn’t know how it will be taken. The beauty of the show was that I was not given any lines, was not told to behave or act in a certain manner – I was just told to be myself. That was the most liberating part of the show.
Advice for Ananya: Chunky and I are extremely proud of Ananya. She works really hard and she’s trying to better herself at her craft every day. My advice for her would be – stay grounded, take in all the love, don’t get bogged down by all the negativity, work hard and reach the top like you’ve always wanted to whether in Math, English, Psychology – whatever you have done in life. Stay true to yourself – don’t let anyone tell you, you can’t do it. Go for it, give it your best, be humble. I’m sure everything around will support you until you achieve it.
Kalki: Don’t wait for the world to catch up with you
In Tamil anthology Paava Kadhaiga, Kalki plays Penelope, a mysterious character who turns out not to be whom you initially perceive her to be. But the role wasn’t a far stretch for an actor who was known to push the envelope as far as movies were concerned with a slew of experimental fare – be it Dev. D or Margarita with a Straw or The Girl in Yellow Boots. With her unconventional looks, this French actress has over the years proved that nothing can stand in the way of pure talent.
Kalki’s advice to actors: “As an actor I’d say to her – be enterprising, we live in a time when we can put our work out there, we don’t have to wait for that one thing to come our way. So create, produce, write, put your stuff up, don’t wait for the world to catch up with you. What has really worked for us (during the pandemic) is the Internet – the fact that we can tap into cinema from around the world has given us a competition that we can’t ignore any more. That is what has opened top cinema, we’ve always had that one or two art house or interesting movies that have come up but it hasn’t been as widespread as now because of the Internet.”
Mallika Dua: Why it’s important to show flawed women on screen
While she made a lasting impression in Indoo Ki Jawani as the motor mouth friend of the heroine, whose blatant disregard for societal norms and openness about her own sexuality came like a breath of fresh air to viewers, Mallika Dua was not without detractors. “In Indoo ki Jawani I was not a comedian, I was playing a part, a character, I was playing Sonal who believes the things she is saying. Nowhere does it say that an actor would only play roles that are palatable for everyone. It’s a greater challenge to play a character that you are not.. For me as an actor it is very much fun to play those parts and to say that with conviction. Anybody who follows me knows that I don’t preach…
I was so drawn to this movie (Indoo Ki Jawani) cause we were showing women the way we don’t show them traditionally, talking about their sexuality or what to do with their sexuality or when to do what… – it has been a category reserved for men. There’s a lot of brotherhood we see in films. We don’t see the sisterhood – it is as funny and as goofy and as flawed. I’m a firm believer that to normalise content featuring women, helmed by women, it is important to show them flawed as well. If we only show them as sex symbols or as symbols of purity or perfection, the stereotypes are going to be deepened further; it’s not going anywhere. If we show them as human beings, we are more likely to get further ahead.
So what does Mallika, the brand stand for today? “What I firmly stand for is no labels. When people mistakenly call me a stand-up comedian, a female comedian or a digital sensation or writer-actor – I find these labels because then you have to live up to these labels. But you don’t have to live up to these labels, we have to live with ourselves and we are ever changing, we are humans. The best thing about us is that we can change, we can adapt and the best thing about the digital medium is exactly that. So if you ask me what my brand stands for today it is ‘no labels’. Quite honestly. And not taking s***.