There Needs To Be More Depth To Women Characters: Maanvi Gagroo
Online streaming platforms have bestowed us with not only content customised to modern Indian sensibilities, but a new league of web-series stars that have become a household name. One such name is Maanvi Gagroo. She broke on the desi web-series scene with Pitchers, gaining adulation as one of the three eccentric siblings in Tripling. Playing one of the four main characters in this year’s hugely popular Four More Shots Please! Gagroo further consolidated herself as a seasoned and versatile actor. But then she switched gears and medium, and starred as the female lead in Ujda Chaman. She speaks with SheThePeople.TV on what it’s like to be one of the first wave breakout web stars in India, why we need to normalise diversity and the stereotypes that the entertainment industry needs to get rid of while writing women characters.
With Four More Shots Please! and Ujda Chaman you’ve played two characters dealing with body images issues? Was that a conscious decision?
No, it wasn’t. In fact when Four More Shots Please! was offered to me I was very sceptical about doing this part. For the majority of my career, I have been offered parts that were of a chubby girl but were not substantial enough. They were either there for just the comic relief or they were defined by their physicality, and that’s all there was to them. I fought really hard to not give in to those parts. So when Four More Shots Please! was offered to me I was really scared that I might fall back into that trap. The reason I agreed to do it was because her physicality isn’t all that is there to her. While her body image is a part of her characterisation, there is so much more to her.
Even after signing the project I was still a little hesitant. At that time the show’s director Anu Menon told me, “Just allow yourself to be this character and you’ll see that it might liberate you.” And you won’t believe, but that actually did happen. For instance, before playing Siddhi, I used to be very conscious of my legs being a little heavy, so I wouldn’t wear shorts or short skirts. But in the show, I am only wearing shorts because that was the part of Siddhi’s look. While filming I had to put that confidence on for my character, but it became a part of me. So now I have qualms about wearing shorter clothes.
For the majority of my career, I have been offered parts that were of a chubby girl, but were not substantial enough. They were either there for just the comic relief or they were defined by their physicality, and that’s all there was to them.
Again, for Ujda Chaman, I took up the role because it wasn’t just a “fat girl”, there was so much more to her. She is quite confident as a person and she is okay with her body. So I am okay with playing plus-size characters as long as that is not the only thing. I mean you can’t just show the character eating or talking about weight… There has to be much more to it.
Fat-shaming very common in Indian society, and both women and men bear the brunt of it. Why do you think that is?
As clichéd as it may sound, but I think it comes from the insecurities of a person or lack of confidence in their own looks. Comments on someone’s body either come from a place of aspiration, as in “I want to be like her,” or from comparison, like “she is fatter than me, but how is she there and not me.”
I have gone through this myself. When I had just begun my career, if I came across any picture of an actor who seemed slightly bigger, then I would think, “Oh god, she has put on so much weight.” It always came for a place of insecurity, as in how was she getting more roles than I am, despite being bulky like me.
It is okay to say that someone has put on weight, but it is how you say it and the intent with which you say it. You know I see so much conversation on empathy and body positivity on social media, but people don’t practice it. I have begun doing that now. It is isn’t easy, but I try.
You are one of the actors who garnered fame due to online streaming platforms. What has the journey been like?
It has been very good. I feel extremely proud and possessive of this medium. I take it very personally when someone says anything against digital content. My first ever digital show was The Pitchers, and I remember when it was being developed, I knew that something really interesting was happening, because these guys (the makers) were my friends. I felt that I need to be a part of it one day or another, in fact, I even told them that in case if you don’t cast me as an actor, please take me as an AD, because I want to be on that set. Then of course the show came out and people loved it, and then Trippling happened, and that blew up. It suddenly felt that a new world has opened up for us as actors and everyone else. Even though I just went with the flow, there were a lot of people who were still sceptical about it initially. And then suddenly people took notice of this medium and this format and they realised that web-series are working. There was this whole market to be tapped into.
I love the fact that everybody is getting opportunities to work today. In fact we keep joking among ourselves that if you are an actor and without a job, then you have to be a really shitty one because right now everybody is working. There’s just so much work happening, and not just the actors; the writers, directors, camera people and technicians, everybody is working, and that is really good.
Digital content has been especially liberating to small screen women actors, who now have more options at hand than playing pious bahu or evil saas. Do you think it has also affected the casting process in the entertainment industry? Making it more inclusive, when it comes to casting women?
Yes of course. Everybody wants fresh talent now, so they are out there looking for new actors. However, inclusivity for me would be when you are casting actors, not faces, for a part. For instance, how many North-Eastern actors do you see around? Not many. And the only time you see one is when the character requires a person to be of that ethnicity.
But look at Four More Shots Please! on the other hand. If you just look at the girls visually, you see how different they are. There’s someone who is tall, someone who is short, someone who is heavy, someone who is lean, someone who is dark, someone who is fair, or someone is heavily tattooed, while there’s someone who has no tattoos at all. That for me is pluralism, when you are normalising diversity. It is not like a dark actor is being cast just because her track requires her to be dark. No, she is a regular girl, who happens to be dark, and then there’s another regular girl who happens to be fair.
It does feel like sometimes the gaalis and the intimacy is unnecessary. Sometimes when you can do without it, people do it just because you can, or because it seems to be cool. But as a viewer, when you are watching it, you know when it is required and when it isn’t.
I wish we become more inclusive, as they have in western shows. I think a lot of them have managed that bang on, if not all. Right now, I think everybody is still trying to figure out what to do with this new medium. They are still finding their feet. So hopefully we will get there in future.
Online streaming platforms also cater bolder content to the audience. There’s intimacy and swearing to name a few. But have you feel that all of it is justified/essential to the script? Or is it just added to increase the thrill and novelty factor?
Yes, it does feel like sometimes the gaalis and the intimacy is unnecessary. Sometimes when you can do without it, people do it just because you can, or because it seems to be cool. But as a viewer, when you are watching it, you know when it is required and when it isn’t. On many instances it is required and you need an intimate scene between two characters to show their journey, whereas on other occasions it is just there for titillation or to be able to market it in a certain way. It all depends on the makers, the kind of show you are doing, and also a little bit on the audience. They can look at the product and decide if this is something they want to watch of not, it is as simple as that.
Has there ever been a time when you found yourself saying or doing something in front of the camera that didn’t sit right with you? How did you deal with it?
If there is something that I don’t agree with, I always voice it. Thankfully, I have been lucky enough to have worked with people who are collaborative, so they listen to me. They also sit and explain to me why they think something is important and they also give me the room to say why I think it isn’t. Since it is a collaborative process I either get convinced or I manage to convince them or we take both the options.
Thankfully there are so many conversations happening today on these things, because of which everybody is more open to discussing and collaborating, and we need to respect that. So if a writer writes something, I need to respect why she or he has written that, and see if it is important or not, and go with it.
Tell us three stereotypes that entertainments industry needs to rid itself of, when it comes to portrayal of women.
First is the stereotype that every fat girl is funny or “bubbly” or putting her in the script just for comic relief. Second, the way they show strong women as ultra-modernised (for the lack of a better word). You’ll see her partying, drinking or smoking. Not to say that these things are wrong, as we all do it and in some ways, they are liberating. However, this isn’t the only definition of liberty. Third, I have a huge problem with ageism. The minute you turn thirty, people are like, “Ye to ab badi lagne lag gayi hai,” however this doesn’t apply to guys.
Women who wake up in the morning, gets their kids and husband ready, and go to work themselves, who lead a full-fledged busy life, they are heroes as well, and such female characters need to be written a lot more.
Also, there is a level of casual sexism in writing. I remember being offered a web show about a bunch of friends. I saw that the female characters were very typical, like there was one hot girl who everybody is falling for, who is always dressed in skimpy clothes and then there was a “tom boy”, who is like a buddy or “jhalli”. They were guys’ version of girls and I had a really hard time explaining to the makers why I didn’t agree with the show, which I thought was written from a male perspective. It wasn’t about the fact that the writer was male, because I have done a lot of shows with male writers and directors, but it was just the perspective was very typical, like either the girl is hot or she is a “buddy”.
You can’t categorise girls or even guys with just one trait, because nobody is just one trait. When it comes to writing women there needs be a depth, even for a normal character. She doesn’t have to do something definitive in a film or series, she could be like regular person you meet on the road. Women who wake up in the morning, gets their kids and husband ready, and go to work themselves, who lead a full-fledged busy life, they are heroes as well, and such female characters need to be written a lot more.
Your roles in projects like 377 Ab Normal and Four More Shots Please! touch on two different ends on the spectrum of female sexuality, but do you feel that there’s still a lot of ground to be covered?
Well I think it is changing. Since Section 377 got abolished last year, everybody wants to make something on it because this is a topic that not many people have touched before and now they feel that they can. Let’s face it, homosexuality has been portrayed in the worst possible way in our country, it has always been made fun of. Even in our society, people have been made fun of for being homosexual. That is why we see very few people who are out of the closet. I am hoping that this is going to change, and it will.
Right now a lot of content is being made on same sex love, which is great, but it needs to reach a point where it is normal. For that to happen we as a society also need to reach that point of acceptance. A lot of people are still uncomfortable watching two guys kiss on screen because they are not used to seeing that visual. Anything new that you introduce will always first be faced with resistance, so one has to gradually break through that. In fact I know actors who are uncomfortable doing same-sex intimate scenes, which is again because that is something we are not used to doing.
So now we need to start telling stories where there are gay characters, but that are not just about homosexuality or same-sex love.
All Images Courtsey Maanvi Gagroo