‘A-sexualize’ roles in life and in movies

The biggest change in the films in this past decade is a change in the attitudes of the people creating and consuming them


Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

I complete a decade in the film industry this year and if the business of entertainment was anything like the business of technology, I’d be telling you how dramatically everything has changed and how the landscape today looks nothing like that of yesteryear. We are a generation that has seen VHS tapes evolve into cloud storage at a pace that is so dizzying that it qualifies us to make comments like “We’ve seen it all…” or “Back in our time…”

The business of storytelling, however, is a slightly different beast. Whether it’s stories that make you laugh so hard at their absurdity that you forget your troubles or tales that make you want to reflect on your life choices, films are as much a reflection of the human condition as they are catalysts of it. And in that sense, the film industry can only change as drastically as the disposition of the society it exists in and caters to.

Let’s reflect on this. The past decade has seen an explosion in the start-up economy. Some of the factors responsible for this explosion are, of course, matters of policy and resources. But other factors contributing to this tectonic shift are largely societal in nature: an increase in people’s appetites for risk, an awareness of one’s own potential and, to some extent, a disillusionment with the status quo.

This shift in people’s paradigms is reflected clearly in the film industry’s evolution as well. We’ve seen a crop of newcomers making their mark (you may have heard of Ranveer Singh and Nawazuddin Siddiqui) in an industry that was infamous for being nepotistic, we see more storytellers having the courage to talk about issues and subjects that were previously taboo (think The Dirty Picture and, more recently, Dear Zindagi), and where we’ve got an array of blockbusters raking in millions, we’ve also got a plethora of modestly budgeted movies that are blurring the lines between “indie” and “mainstream” cinema and carving out nice little niches in people’s hearts and minds (pretty much everything from Court to Pink to Neerja).

But just as iconic and timeless corporate behemoths persist and thrive right alongside start-ups, so do big-budget blockbuster films and…well, the Khans! Some things don’t change and, frankly, not everything needs to!

In my opinion, the most interesting (and endlessly controversial) subject that has gained a lot of ground this past decade is the role of women and the roles that women play in Indian entertainment. We have certainly come a long way from looking at women in films as decorative pieces who add a sensual zing to an essentially patriarchal (and patronizing) story and protagonist. Even in the late 1970s and early 1980s, some of the best film-makers, like Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Vijay Anand, had started telling stories about women, with women at their core. Sridevi and Rekha laid the groundwork for women to play strong characters that could carry the films on their delicate, but by no means fragile, shoulders.

I think it was Rani Mukerji’s Black in 2005 that made women in the industry realize that we could be much more than the subject of a story. We could be the story itself. And when women came to terms with their own power, the industry witnessed a wave of films that revolved around strong female characters, their struggles, motivations and victories. With Aisha (2010), The Dirty Picture (2011), Piku (2015) and NH10 (2015), Udta Punjab (2016) and Dear Zindagi (2016), my contemporaries and I have tried to responsibly reflect and indeed catalyse the movement to empower women with, in the very least, their own self-awareness. The next step in evolution, in my humble opinion, would be to a-sexualize the roles that people play, in life and in movies, so that we can move the conversation from women’s rights and women’s empowerment to equal rights and equal opportunities for all. That’s the change I’d like to see, in the film industry and in society.

I guess if I were to sum it up in one sentence, I’d say that the biggest change I’ve seen in films this past decade is a change in the attitudes of the people creating and consuming them. We’re becoming more open to differences and less prone to judgement.

So go ahead. Sit back, relax and enjoy that show (because there really is a whole lot of great content out there now, like Sultan or Dangal, for example, where the Khans have given women stronger characters) or sit up, take charge and make a change (because you know, we can always do better, make better and be better).

Either way, I’m not judging.

Sonam Kapoor is a Hindi film actor

This is part of a series of articles in Mint’s 10th anniversary special issue that look at India 10 years from now. The entire list of articles can be found here

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