in 2003, when a wide-eyed Aparna Purohit, then in her early twenties, started working on a film set, some of her dreams had come true. But she soon realised others would take their own sweet time to fructify.
Back then, some film sets didn’t even have basic facilities like toilets or changing rooms for women, and Purohit—who’s survived all this and worse—stands tall today as the Head of India and Southeast Asia Originals at Amazon Prime Video to tell that often harrowing tale. “I recollect being on an outdoor shoot once where the actress and I were the only women in the crew. There were no facilities; no toilets or changing rooms in a remote outdoor location—and demanding basic rights got us labelled as ‘difficult to work with’,” she recalls. She says the only way out is to speak up.
“As I grew in my career, these were some of the things that I looked into as priorities. I want to make sure that women are not easily dismissed and don’t go through such experiences as they find their foothold in this industry,” she says.
Sure, India’s entertainment industry has come a long way from when Purohit was starting out. Directors like Zoya Akhtar, producers like Guneet Monga Kapoor, writers like Juhi Chaturvedi, cinematographers like Fowzia Fathima and editors like Aarti Bajaj were few and far between. Women in India’s entertainment sector believe that while the industry has come a long way over the years, it’s still a long, long way away from equality, especially in terms of leadership roles.
According to a recent report, called ‘O Womaniya!’, by consulting firm Ormax Media, entertainment platform Film Companion, and OTT platform Amazon Prime Video, only 12 per cent of the 780 HOD (head of department) positions analysed across key departments of direction, cinematography, editing, writing, and production design were held by women. It’s interesting to note that the share of female HODs increased from 17 per cent in 2021 to 22 per cent in 2022 in content when women were in charge of commissioning, but fell from 8 per cent to 7 per cent when a man was in charge of commissioning. “This data highlights an important point: women in leadership positions are actively hiring more women. This trend underscores the pivotal role played by women in shaping the industry’s diversity landscape by actively promoting the inclusion of female talent in important creative positions,” says Purohit.
Traditionally, women have faced significant barriers in the media and entertainment (M&E) industry, including gender bias, limited access to opportunities, stereotypes in storytelling, and workplace harassment. Such long-standing issues that have persisted for decades will take decades to wash off. For Oscar-winning producer Kapoor, who’s made over 35 films, ageism on top of sexism was a bigger problem when she was trying to make it big in Indian movies. Kapoor was just 26 when she produced Gangs of Wasseypur and being taken seriously in big corporate meetings was always a task.
“In businesses in India, we don’t take our young too seriously. So, it’s always hard to push your way forward, and that is something that I faced. All my life, I have faked being 40. I’ve coloured my hair white, worn sarees to meetings, worn glasses, etc. You do what needs to be done to internalise any kind of discrimination, to have that layer of even more seriousness,” she says.
Kapoor believes that with more women on board, the lens of filmmaking changes and gives more depth to the female characters portrayed in the film. Through her films like Soorarai Pottru, Pagglait, Kathal, and Elephant Whisperers (with debutant director Kartiki Gonsalves), she wants to move to a female-first conversation. “We have the onus of pushing it. In our commercial boundaries, we want to make all the money but also break the glass ceiling,” she says.
The scale of the challenge becomes apparent when you consider that gains made earlier could be reversed. For instance, according to the Ormax report, there was a drop of 12 per cent in theatrical films and 6 per cent in streaming films in terms of content that passed the Bechdel test in 2022 versus 2021. The Bechdel test, conceptualised by Alison Bechdel in 1985, is an internationally accepted yardstick to measure gender representation in content. A film is considered to have passed the Bechdel test if it has at least one scene in which two named women are speaking and the conversation is about something other than men. For streaming series, the criterion was modified to include three scenes, given their longer runtime. By this measure, streaming series have done better, with a much higher 55 per cent score.
“While there has been a slow but steady improvement in a few key parameters, there is a need to take a look at inclusion with a serious eye. Streaming continues to pave the way for female representation; however, the sub-par performance of theatrical films should serve as a wake-up call for the industry,” says Shailesh Kapoor, Founder & CEO of Ormax Media.
Things are far worse down South, per Ormax data. Hindi has the highest representation of female HODs across formats. Experts see a direct correlation between more female leaders and better representation of female characters, as well as more women getting hired to do the job. While 17 per cent of HOD positions in Hindi movies and series were held by women, the figure for Telugu was 7 per cent, Tamil 6 per cent, while Malayalam and Kannada were the laggards at 4 per cent each.
According to Kavery Kalanithi Maran, Executive Director at Sun TV Network, even though media is a space where women are the primary consumers, there’s still not enough representation of women in the workforce. “We try to hire in such a way that 60 to 70 per cent of our fiction team is women. But two to three years after joining, many leave to get married. We are still not at that point where men move [relocate for work] for women after marriage,” she explains. She also feels that the shift towards nuclear families is not helping matters. Women are often seen sacrificing their careers for the sake of raising children. “That way, joint families were a good support system where you knew your child would be taken care of. In nuclear families, who will look after your kids? And it’s always the women [who have to leave their jobs],” she says.
Holding The Door Open
For reasons like these, Jyoti Deshpande, who manages Jio Studios’ 100-plus asset slate that launched in April, says it’s important that women don’t check out after reaching a certain level. “Women also have to put themselves forward to challenging roles,” says Deshpande, President, RIL Media Business. She believes that when the going gets tough, the tough get going. “I would encourage existing women leaders to hire and mentor other women consciously rather than by accident. We have to walk the talk. In my leadership team at Jio Studios we have 70 per cent women leaders who are all at the top of their game,” she says. Deshpande believes having more women will help give voice to women-centric stories. “This is not activism but rather a purposeful shift in the narrative of equality, rather equity,” she says.
Purohit, too, believes it’s important to keep the door open for other women. “Once you have entered the room, you should keep the door open for other women to find their way in. If that had not been done for me, I would not have been here today. When I started working, it wasn’t surprising if I was the only woman in the whole production crew, besides the actress. Things have, of course, come a long way since then,” she says.
Her team is now working towards having at least 30 per cent female HODs across all of Prime Video India’s original series and movies. “It is heartening to observe that diversity in storytelling is beginning to bear fruit. Today, when creators present their projects, they proactively highlight the inclusion of women in the writer’s room, production, and on their sets. This shift signifies a big win for me. Every incremental increase in the percentage of women occupying key creative roles marks a significant step towards a more balanced and inclusive industry,” Purohit adds.
She says that the importance of diversity and inclusion goes beyond numbers. “It’s about telling richer, more authentic stories and creating an industry where everyone has an equal opportunity to shine and voice their opinions. The entertainment industry plays a significant role in moulding cultural narratives and informing societal views,” says Purohit. It’s essential, she adds, for the industry to authentically mirror the diverse fabric of the world we live in, ensuring that content resonates with audiences from all backgrounds.
For Kapoor, it needs to make financial sense first. “It matters to me that more women are out there, but you can’t do charity. As many opportunities should be given to women if they are good at their jobs. We are in an equity industry. We are not in an industry where it’s run by government grants like Europe, Australia, the UK, South Korea, China, Canada, etc.,” she says.
Financial education and skill development are two essentials for women in entertainment today. “Let’s [have] conversations about what is possible and not have isolated dreamy conversations. Being realistic, making change by hiring more women, spending more on skill development, [creating] safe spaces, making those bathrooms, and making sets accessible is all the work that goes into making this entire industry more female-friendly and having more women step in is important,” says Kapoor.
Purohit, too, struggles with debunking the misconception that female-led stories have “no audience”. “The success and widespread acclaim of Prime Video’s shows like Made in Heaven have challenged this misconception. The reception we’ve witnessed unequivocally proves that there is a substantial and enthusiastic audience for narratives centred around women,” she says.
To instigate change and break down these stereotypes, it is imperative to not just acknowledge but also celebrate the success of these stories, she adds. “The shift towards inclusivity extends beyond writers and directors; we are witnessing a surge in diverse talent taking on unconventional and technical roles such as lights, grips, production design, cinematography, and VFX supervision, contributing to a more inclusive and dynamic industry landscape,” she says.
Despite slow growth, women leaders in entertainment feel optimistic about the future. “Everyone’s waiting for someone else to change things, but it has to be me and others like me. We’ve only just begun. Ten years from now, hopefully, change will be visible on paper as well, and the ‘O Womaniya!’ report will also change,” Kapoor says with a bright smile, like the one she beamed while holding her Oscar for the first time.
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