Free of sanskar, but still stereotyped? How Indian online shows limit women characters

The old bahu-bitch divide is gone, but why are we not seeing stories about women who're from different age-groups, settings and lifestyles?
Free of sanskar, but still stereotyped? How Indian online shows limit women characters
Free of sanskar, but still stereotyped? How Indian online shows limit women characters
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For years, the small screen limited the possibilities of a woman’s life and bottled her potential into a pickle jar. Sitting in the kitchen of a gaudy mansion, she fermented for a lifetime, battling villainous sisters-in-law, halwa deadlines, and suffered as her dementor like mother-in-law thrust the old rusty knives from her back into the heroine’s.

Over the past three years though, a combination of viewer fatigue and fragmentation, high-speed internet connections and cellular networks has enabled personal devices, smart TVs and smartphones to become the new means of content consumption. This opened a new gamut of possibilities in the digital space, erasing many of the 'rules' that govern content selection on traditional TV channels.

Ironically, as screen sizes shrank, they liberated women from the bahu-bitch dichotomy. So now, women could roll both joints and rotis on screen and not be judged for their choices. Fresh youthful stories emerged that mirrored urban lifestyles and its problems with realism and honesty.

Smaller screens also gave women greater agency to become content creators themselves. Food and fashion bloggers, comediennes, singers and makeup artists were empowered to create online careers without having to be a ‘heroine’ or look like one. This freedom has also been felt by writers and directors creating web series in Tamil and Telugu, where in addition to fresh content ideas, women are finally finding a voice as writers, actors and directors. As Janhavi Dasetty who wrote and produced Mahathalli-Mahanubhavudu, and Gautami Challagula, a web series specialist behind Posh Poris, Social and Mana Muguri Love Story, told TNM, the online space is a powerful medium to shatter stereotypes associated with women in cinema and television. The medium allows content creators to present fresh material that shows realistic scenarios instead of unending suffering and illogical storylines.

However, several years and popular shows later, how far have we really pushed the digital envelope in India? A look at some of the most popular shows in the past few years like Tripling, Permanent Roommates, The Trip, Girl in the City, What the Folks, Bang Baaja Baraat, Pitchers, and Alisha reveal certain familiar tropes that are also common to other shows available online.

There is usually a young woman, new to Mumbai, in a tough job, and a complicated relationship where she may or may not be living with her boyfriend or husband. She wears urban street fashion, and smokes and/or drinks. All these are common and acceptable in an urban Indian scenario, but is it reflective of a larger more diverse Indian reality which include youth in small towns and women of other age groups? Are we also foisting a stereotypical ‘modern’ sensibility on female characters, where they are merely imitating their male counterparts instead of seeking their own voice?

In the lighthearted and enjoyable The Trip, four girls go on a bachelor trip driving to Thailand, and discuss their love lives, Daddy issues, hormones and weight loss. While there is nothing wrong with these subjects, why do we shy away from women talking about politics, their work, or Syria? If they do, they are usually dressed in glasses and insinuated to be geeks or bores. Tripling, which was a witty tale about sibling bonding, had the sister unhappily married, faking a pregnancy and uncomfortable amongst her sari-clad relatives. She needs the support of her two brothers to finally take a break from her annoying husband.

In Bang Bajaa Baraat and Love Per Square Foot, the same woman actor played two different characters, both in love with men who came from a completely different backgrounds and faced roadblocks on the path to marriage. Even with the hugely popular Lust Stories which was marketed as a revolution of sorts in discussing female sexuality, the narratives were treated with caution. In the final story of the anthology, a woman trapped in a pleasure-less marriage finally has an orgasm using a vibrator. While she does claim the right to her sexuality, the issue itself became diluted with the unnecessary distractions of low cut blouses, funny sound effects, a climax scene lifted directly from a Hollywood film, and just a single dialogue on how women aren’t just meant to have babies. Bhumi Pednekar whose story had the only truly lustful scene in the entire series, remains silent for almost the entire story, accepts her reality, wistfully eating a barfi, instead of trying to change it.

A closer look at shows available online also reveals a disproportionate saturation of content in the comedy and romantic comedy space. Whether its short sketches, music videos, or episodic narratives, most creators choose to temper their narrative with humour. Apart from narrative stories like the ones mentioned earlier, comic sketches by AIB, TVF or Filtercopy all have predictable roles for women to play.

Take Filtercopy’s YouTube channel as an example. The Filtercopy videos about IIT entrance exams, CA exams, diets, and insomnia have male actors driving the narrative, while videos content involving women are about being in love, being newly married, getting a haircut, loving your sister, loving your bestie and annoying things you hear when you’re a woman.

In fact, an insightful video that released five months ago proved that out of all the content created by an established group like AIB, only two sketches passed the Bechdel test. Apart from their popular ‘feminist sketches’ women rarely featured in sketches, interviews or podcasts scripted by the group, or in content by similar channels across the genre.

In another development, TVF recently launched Girliyappa, “India's leading Women Centric entertainment channel”. Do women really need quotas for women online as well? What does women-centric entertainment mean anyway? How long should we mask our inherent discomfort in talking about our bodies and larger social issues by using catch phrases like ‘cause I have vagina re’, and ‘besties before testies’?

As Hannah Gadsby says in her pathbreaking show Nanette, when you use humour self-deprecatingly, you internalise and accept the shame you’re made to feel every day.

 Apart from Pushpavalli which had Sumukhi Suresh play an obsessive stalker, Damaged which was about a female serial killer, or Test Case which was a shoddily told tale about a woman army officer, content producers have not tapped into the vast potential of stories in other genres and formats that would work in a less constrained environment online.

In comparison, Netflix in America produced Orange is the New Black, Grace and Frankie, Stranger Things, Crown, House of Cards, and 13 Reasons Why - all shows that feature women at different ages, life stages, in important roles and in unusual circumstances.

At a discussion with the writers of the highly acclaimed Sacred Games, India’s first original series on Netflix, a member of the audience rightly pointed out that while the show was fantastic, the women characters were largely in the margins of the story. They were lovers, counsellors, wives or enablers to the male leads, but their own motivations and backstories were not explored in depth at all, a fact the writers acknowledged to be true.

While a case can be made that online content in India is still new, and there are constraints of budget, it’s quite easy to fall into a comfort zone and then struggle to reinvent yourself. Creative professionals can look no further than their siblings in television who were stuck in the Sindoor and Sanskaar trap for over a decade. We finally have the means to tell the stories that don’t get told on television, and in styles and languages that speak to our plurality and diverse female experience. It’s time we work harder to create content that takes women on journeys where they aren’t just a stereotype or plot device, but thinking and feeling individuals, with a voice that should be heard.

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