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Category: Art and Entertainment, International

Gender Discrimination in Filmmaking—Bollywood Style

| October 13, 2009

Moviemaking styles may vary between Hollywood and Bollywood, but women working in the Indian commercial film industry have as difficult a time as their counterparts in the United States getting good roles and investment in their films. Director Zoya Akhtar takes a satiric look in Luck by Chance.

A sixty-something bald man lectures a class of aspiring male and female actors on what is required to be a “hero” in Indian commercial films. “It is very difficult to be a hero in Hindi films because he not only acts, he also sings, dances, and plays serious, funny and action-oriented roles,” said the acting teacher. “It takes a lot of nerve to be a hero in Indian films.”

This is a scene from an Indian film, Luck by Chance, a satire of Bollywood that tells the story of a female protagonist who—despite a more rigorous struggle alongside her male-counterpart—does not make it big in the industry. By contrast, the hero of the film receives phenomenal commercial success.

Does such gender discrimination in the Indian film industry exist for real?

Zoya Akhtar, the director of Luck By Chance, knows from the inside of the industry that the answer is a simple “yes.”

Parallel cinema aside, there has been a dearth of women-oriented scripts in Indian commercial films. The role of female protagonists in Indian movies is to support the male characters.

Confirming Aristotle’s view of art as an imitation of life, gender discrimination in the industry does indeed reflect the bias that exists in Indian society. For instance, the gender ratio in India is heavily skewed in the favor of males (1.12 male/female). Thus, Indian moviegoers are also mostly men—roughly between the ages of 15 and 34 years. These moviegoers, according to an all-India survey by a research organization, enjoy mindless comedies. Such thinking dominates cinematic expression in one of the world’s largest centers of film production.

This situation also formed the basis of the opening panel discussion at New York’s recent IVIEW Film Festival 2009, which explored gender and sexuality issues. Filmmakers and actors on the panel were asked to comment on the presentation of social issues through Indian films.

The Indian entertainment industry stands at $10 billion today and is expected to grow at 18 percent per annum compounded annually over the next two years. An average Indian spends approximately 4.6 percent of disposable income on movie watching in theaters. And because issue-based films are not a favorite with the masses, a producer opts for subjects with more appeal so that s/he can recuperate the huge investments involved in film production.

Even female filmmakers do not risk funding for their films by focusing on women-centric subjects. Zoya Akhtar, the filmmaker of Luck By Change, downplayed the importance of the female protagonist in her film. “The character could have been any,” said Akhtar at the festival panel. “The fact that she is a woman is a coincidence.”

But because the film ends up centering on the story of a woman, the director struggled for six years to make the film—apparently because numerous male actors turned down the costarring role. She had a difficult time despite her insider status in the industry as the daughter of renowned Indian scriptwriters and the sister of an accomplished film director, actor, producer and singer.

However, the costar issue can work both ways, evidently. “I’ve always faced problems over signing up leading actresses,” said the male Indian film director, Onirban Dhar, to an Indian magazine. “This is because they are more interested in knowing which hero is opposite them.”

With the star system thus forcing directors to compete for commercial viability, who can be blamed for the absence of social issues in Indian commercial films?