The fourth panel discussion at the Bombaywaali Summit focused on aspects of female characterisation in film and television. Featuring film producer Ashvini Yardi, filmmaker Shikha Makan and television writer and author Jaya Misra, the panel was moderated by SheThePeople.TV's Ideas Editor Kiran Manral. Full of witty takes the panellists also shed light on how feminist guilt often raked their minds, when they were strong-armed by TRP guided dictates to write characters and storylines which most of us deem to be regressive or even sexist.
- The conversation centred on the struggles of women to keep their feminist guilt at bay while writing characters and stories which could bring in strong TRP.
- Constraints don’t stop them from slipping social messages or rebellious character traits in their work.
- If done correctly, the audience does swallow a dose of progressive writing with copious amounts of drama.
Of coitus interruptus and other tropes which come into play while creating content
Most of us perceive both film and television to be That is where I began to have fights equally raft with misogyny and skewered gender dynamics. However, producer Ashvini Yardi, who has worked in both spaces, observed that television was a more women-friendly workspace. “I moved to movies only four or five years back, and I find a vast difference in the way women are treated. Because the corporate or channels or GECs as we know them, all have women on top. Even programming consists mainly of women. I actually have men complaining and saying ‘can’t you hire more men.’ But for Bollywood there are no norms. Since I’ve worked for corporate for 20 years, I was in a bit of a shock, because of the lack of system. It basically runs on hero culture.”
"In TV, especially in soaps, we have this unsaid formula - badjalan ladki (shameless girl) and bechari ladki (naïve girl). The badjalan will always lose, bechari will always win." - Jaya Misra
Television as the popular mode in tier two and tier three cities
Television is still a very popular mode of entertainment in tier two and tier three cities in India. Which means it has its own sets of demands in terms of TRP and the limit to which content and characters can be modernised. So female writers must keep their feminist guilt at bay and go on sketching boxed female characters. Writer Jaya Misra pointed out at the restrictions which come into play when writing women. She said, “In TV, especially in soaps, we have this unsaid formula - badjalan ladki (shameless girl) and bechari ladki (naïve girl). The badjalan will always lose, bechari will always win. The badjalan will have all the spunk in her, while the bechari has all the goody-goody characteristics… She’s the person who will never flirt, who is always going to be a virgin even after she gets married…she will never have a wedding night…”
But even when they do get to break this stereotypical mould, it sooner or later catches up with them. Shikha Makan, who wrote Jassi Jaissi Koi Nahin essayed how she had to fight to keep Jassi’s character different.
She said, “The ideas behind that show were very progressive and it was very interesting to write. Here we were creating a character, though inspired from a foreign show, who had her own sense of agency, despite not being in the description of what makes a great successful woman on screen, as TV had defined it forever - sanskari, very beautiful, a head turner. Jassi was odd, yet she had so much of inner strength and the capacity to assert herself, and that set her out. It was a defining moment on Indian TV after Tara. But as things were progressing and the time was coming closer to transform her, all the ideas of using the same old gaze of men come into play. That is when I began to have fights and left the show.”
“It is a great idea, to tell the truth in the drama of a lie. So you tell what you have to, but you also give it that drama, otherwise people won’t accept it." - Ashvini Yardi
Sending a social message across
Things have changed a lot, both for better and worse, even on television. There are still many shows which are aimed at middle-class housewives from villages and towns. But even among these shows, there are the ones which dare to send a social message across. Yardi has done shows like Balika Vadhu, Na Aana Is Des Laado, etc, which were both high on drama and kitchen politics, but also endorsed a social cause. The only reasons why these shows worked were because the show makers managed to keep a balance among the two aspects of such shows. She said, “It is a great idea, to tell the truth in the drama of a lie. So you tell what you have to, but you also give it that drama, otherwise the people won’t accept it."
And why stop at slipping a social message inside of a daily soap? Writer Jaya Misra said she also tried to push forth a message via traits in her characters. Although the pressure to write in a certain way is always there. “It is little difficult with TV, because it is daily and we have a bunch of people working on it together. So with the producer, to the broad story writer, to the episodic story writer, to even screenplay and dialogue, it is little difficult to change,” she said. “It has been really tough writing any kind of even mild feminism in television. But ever since digital entertainment started, it has been great for the writers. Now we can really write realistic stuff and have fun while we are writing it.”
Yamini Pustake Bhalerao is a writer with the SheThePeople team, in the Opinions section. The views expressed are the author’s own.