Women On Screen: Firebrand Writers And Directors Talk Representation
What Women Want: Anu Menon, Kanika Dhillon And Other Firebrand Women On On-Screen Representation

To quote Neil Gaiman: ‘I like stories where women save themselves’

From being just the arm candy, or a suffering mother, or the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, to becoming the master of her own destiny, the on-screen avatar of the Indian woman has been going through a metamorphosis of sorts. A gang of firebrand women who are writing and fighting patriarchy, both on and off screen, discuss the reality and their hopes for the future.







“What is refreshing is that we are now having stories where women are full-fledged characters and not just underdogs. That narrative has shifted,” says Anu Menon, the screenplay writer and director of Shakuntala Devi, who also directed the first season of Four More Shots Please! Menon also works in the UK industry, and has just finished directing two episodes of the final season of Killing Eve, a British spy thriller television series. According to her, conversations around representation are important. “Privilege is a spectrum; there will always be people who are underrepresented than us and also those who are overrepresented than us. We need to constantly check who gets to tell which stories. It is still largely the cis upperclass male perspective through which we are supposed to understand the world. You want to understand what a woman, or a trans person, or a person of a lower caste is going through, you have to understand it through the POV of the upper-class male hero. We need more POVs and the right kind of lensing.”


Although Menon admits that things have changed for the better and today, unlike even a few years back, nobody questions the viability of a female-led film, she points out that getting the money is still a struggle. “I don’t know how much that needle is shifting. Although female headlined shows and movies are consistently delivering big numbers, we are still working under financial constraints while making a female-led movie. This patriarchal nature of budget allocation needs to change. That’s the next step,” says Menon.








The London School of Economics alumnus started her journey in Bollywood as a script supervisor at Red Chillies Entertainment, and her writing credits include movies like Haseen Dillruba, Rashmi Rocket, Guilty, Manmarziyaan, Judgemental Hai Kya, and Kedarnath. According to her, today, women on screen have finally begun to break the fourth wall of a definitive moral binding, which primarily served a patriarchal purpose of extolling a submissive, one-dimensional identity of a woman, subservient to a man in the role of a wife, sister, mother,


or girlfriend. “This decade is where we are seeing more female storytellers and hence, a varied take on creating and decoding female characters in cinema. We need a wider lens to truly represent the spirit of an Indian woman fighting a battle that ranges from a right to live, love, or lead,” says the creator of badass characters like Rani Kashyap Saxena (Haseen Dillruba), Rumi Bagga (Manmarziyaan), Bobby Batliwala (Judgementall Hai Kya). But what kind of stories is she looking forward to? “Women stories that are entertaining, that are not buried under the burden of


defining feminism in a limited gaze, but exploring females as leads in a story without any obligation to tick certain boxes. How male leads are unperturbed and free of any judgment and are true to the story they tell and the character they play, similarly, women-led stories should be allowed to do the same,” she emphasizes.







“To quote Neil Gaiman: ‘I like stories where women save themselves’. Having said that, I just want to see great stories; regardless of the gender of the protagonist or the storyteller,” says Anvitaa Dutt, the lyricist and screenwriter who turned director with the hauntingly beautiful Bulbbul — an alternative/ feminist take on conventional fairytales. But beyond its gendered identity, Bulbbul might as well be a superhero origin story. “Writers like Rabindranath Tagore or even directors like Bimal Roy have given us female characters/protagonists who were interesting and layered; their inner worlds strong and evocative. For some reason, for decades in between, we had lost that sensitivity. Not just in terms of how women were portrayed. Today with the arrival of OTT, a new avenue has opened up for storytellers.” she says. But what kind of woman she wants to write about, we ask. “Brave. Broken. Magical. Flawed. Basically, all that real women are and can be,” says the ace writer.







The FTII alumnus, who had co-written The Verdict – State Vs Nanavati and was one of the writers on Sacred Games Season 2, is one of the upcoming names in the industry. She points towards a very different aspect. “It has taken me a while to realise that ‘We need a female writer for this’ is really just code for ‘We don’t want to make the effort to understand the issue ourselves, can you please come in and make sure we don’t get flak from the woke people on social media, when this comes out’. A lot of times, the creative heads/producers are just worried about the aftermath, rather than conscious about intent. Therefore they want to palm off the burden of gender sensitivity and responsibility to the female writer,” she says adding, “Any story becomes better when it comes from a place of lived experiences. But one doesn’t expect a writer working on a war film to necessarily base it on a lived experience. If writers of another gender feel strongly about a story, and about their craft, they will make the effort, do the research, ask the questions, and find the lived experiences around them.”


Tolani strongly believes that it’s never a good idea for creators to feel they need to cater to a certain kind of audience expectation or social need of the hour. “Having said that, I personally think we need to widen the spectrum of ‘women’s stories’ to include more real, more varied, more nuanced female experiences.” She is currently working on a biopic, a comedy featuring a bunch of compelling women characters, and also a short film that is to be part of an anthology.







Atika Chohan is the fiery co-writer of films like Chhapaak, Guilty, and Margarita with a Straw. She started her career as a journalist before delving into screenwriting. “Yes, film writing and storytelling around women has certainly evolved. There is a perceptible shift in the perspective that is displayed in mainstream cinema at the moment. Does it have room for improvement? Yes, immensely. Even as the attempts are shaky, unsure, underworked at times, the intent to be honest to a distinctly gendered female experience by a large section of the industry also needs to be acknowledged,” she says. “I think I have struggled to sell strong female narratives throughout my 12 active years in the industry as a screenwriter, but it is only now that I’ve seen things change with such favorable momentum with OTT coming into play.” Personally, the FTII graduate is itching to write about heroines who are honest cowards. “These are women who are at the cusp of their tipping point — women who have lived tough lives, full lives, women who have quietly challenged the patriarchal setup, have dealt with the anxieties of being a woman and powered through patriarchal gatekeeping before emerging as winners. For me, female heroism is not something that is served to the character on a platter. I want to also acknowledge in my universe that both men and women subscribe to the patriarchal dynamic.” For Chohan, whose next project is Kanu Behl’s much-awaited Agra, the biggest sign of success for her and her comrades would be the day when they would be able to overcome the need to be segregated or promoted for their gender. “I am not discounting the need to promote marginalized voices, but I would consider myself a success if I graduate and grow in a way that my craft is equally sought after as much as my voice or my gendered experience is.”







The story writer of Yeh Kaali Kaali Ankhein has been working in the Indian entertainment industry for over two decades as a screenwriter. According to her, it is an interesting juncture and advent of new paradigms of content creation, streaming web-based platforms, and more contemporary cinematic values that don’t shackle the female perspective in strict compartments, and are allowing for more full- bodied and compelling female characters. “The age-old mindset of labeling a successful female- protagonist film as a ‘woman-oriented subject’, a presumably niche category, or the notion that stories about women are fit only for television soaps, is losing relevance.”


Anahata is optimistic about creating terrific women-centric stories that have a mainstream appeal. “In fact, I am currently engaged in developing one. But, I don’t see it as my responsibility or my cross to bear. I enjoy telling stories about awesome male characters as much. I prefer the path of a free-spirited artist who creates for the love of it, liberated from ideologies, hive-minds and propaganda. Also, I think the masculine insight is as relevant as the feminine gaze when it comes to telling stories about women.” As a writer, Anahata gravitates towards characters that are whole-bodied, engaging, compelling, and distinct with surprising trajectories, irrespective of their gender. “I have had great opportunities to tell compelling stories about some wonderful women characters so far in my writing career. But I wouldn’t want to limit possibilities by choosing stories about a certain kind of woman or women,” says the writer.







Kapoor didn’t plan to be here. The writer of films like Good Newwz, Badhaai Ho, Daawat-E-Ishq, Kaccha Limboo had chanced upon an FTII entrance advertisement while on her night shift as a journalist, and that changed the course of her life. It’s been 15 years since. “Although the web space is relatively flexible in giving opportunities to attempt more nuanced women characters, mainstream films are yet to catch up. The OTT platforms are definitely pushing the envelope. They give you more creative liberty, they give a better representation to women film-makers (which is a policy followed by most of the international streaming platforms), they have give a new lease of life to regional content.







Apart from celebrating women in their different shades, from the independent Laila to the hot-headed Safeena, this duo is quashing everyday patriarchy by not only making their women strong and independent, but more so by making their men woke.




Be it the layered portrayal of female friendship and sensitive handling of a topic like surrogacy in her debut film Filhaal, or the poignant story of love and sacrifice in her short Pooranmasi, her women are ‘brave’ without confirming to the male idea or tropes of ‘bravery’. Sehmat in Raazi is not swapping her womanly ‘vulnerabilities’ for male ‘virtues’. She remains every bit a woman — emotional, fraught with self-doubts, even scared at times, and that becomes her strength.




Her 2012 movie Lipstick Under My Burkha is a seminal work, and she has been one of the main forces behind changing the narrative of women in Hindi cinema. Be it Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare or OTT series like Made in Heaven, hers is a sisterhood of work- in-progress women in quest for freedom — emotional, financial, and sexual.




The writer of Vicky Donor, Madras Café, October, Gulabo Sitabo and Piku, Chaturvedi is one of the most prolific writers today. She excels in nuanced, if often eccentric, characters, and is a master of writing drama and her version of feminism into mundane situations. When in Piku, Bhashkor nonchalantly says that “marriage without purpose is a low I.Q decision,” it is not a sweeping statement, but one that stays with you and makes you rethink life decisions.

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