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Are women-centric films merely proving that content is king or queen or are they truly breaking the glass ceiling?

The last few years have been a game-changer for actresses in Bollywood as they went from being ‘heroines’ to ‘protagonists’ on the big screen. Stunning as this was in a male-dominated and chauvinistic society and industry, this tectonic shift has finally taken place, paving the way for a new trend in Hindi cinema.

Enter the ‘women-centric’ film, which has become a genre in its own right in Bollywood. It has also turned many an actress, such as Vidya Balan and Kangana Ranaut, into dependable and bankable stars. This is a far cry from the roles actresses were relegated to playing, as mere eye candy or playing second-fiddle to the hero.

Thus, ever since films like No One Killed Jessica (2011), Kahaani (2012) and English Vinglish (2012) met with success, filmmakers have been pursuing this ‘genre’ in the hope of finding the mother lode. This has been the driving force behind films with women as protagonists, such as Piku, Neerja, Akira, Kaahani 2, Begum Jaan, Naam Shabana, Anaarkali Of Aarah, Phillauri, Maatr and Noor among others.

While some may argue that the gender of the protagonist is only incidental and it is only the content of a film that matters, there is no denying that the Hindi audience is changing. They are now willing to pay good money to watch a film with a woman in the lead role.

With Bollywood’s slate flush with women-centric films, here are some of the upcoming movies driven by women in leading roles: Haseena, MOM, Simran, Indu Sarkar… and many more like Tumhari Sulu and Manikarnika-The Queen of Jhansi in the making.

This week, we quiz industry insiders about Hindi cinema churning women-centric films and ask them whether there is truly a potential market for films with a female lead. Do films with female leads have the potential to break the stereotype and gender bias? Is our audience finally ready to accept films with a female lead?

The fact is that, business-wise, not many women-centric movies have succeeded in setting the box-office on fire. We asked our experts for their opinion on this. Shouldn’t filmmakers instead focus more on building strong characters and content rather than on making women-centric films? Here’s what they had to say:

Manisha Koirala

It’s not only now that Bollywood has woken up to women-centric films, there was a great time in the 70s, when one saw many movies with strong female protagonists. Smita Patiljiand Shabana Azmiji have done some great work, before us. However, I feel that time is coming back again; during my time I somehow feel there were very few movies centered on females. And now, when I see, there is a Kahaani, there is a Queen… there are many films which have female protagonists.  Now, I absolutely believe that it’s time for women to take centre stage, not only in movies but in all spheres of life.

Sneha Rajani, Dy President & Head, Sony Pictures Networks Productions

First, I don’t think we should call these ‘women-centric’ films. Films are films and I don’t believe in describing movies on the basis of gender. When Sultanreleased, did anyone call it a ‘male-centric’ film? So why distinguish movies by gender? It is always wonderful to see powerful women characters shape up for the big screen and have such a great impact. These films are not bound by any era and it’s not like our industry has suddenly woken up and is taking a keen interest in making these films. Look at movies like Mother India, Bandit Queen, Mirch Masala, Khoon Bhari Maang, Damini and many more! A good film will create waves, irrespective of its theme, genre and agenda. Eventually, it is the writing that always wins.

When a writer starts sketching the characters in a film, he or she is not thinking about production or commercials. The writer wants to purely build a story and characters that will leave a mark in the minds and hearts of the audience. For instance, when people watched No One Killed Jessica, or Kahaani, they immediately related to the characters and felt for the causes.

The writer of Piku, Juhi Chaturvedi, wrote a simple, beautiful story with wonderful characterisations of Piku, Bhaskor, Rana and the rest of the cast. This was brilliantly put together on the big screen by Shoojit Sircar. I am often asked why I backed a woman-centric film and I tell them that I backed the story. Pikus character was so strong that everyone immediately related to her. After the film’s success, I am often told to make a sequel and turn it into a successful franchise. My point is, you don’t make a sequel for the sake of it. Unless there is a strong story that truly merits a sequel, don’t do it!

As far as the business of these so called ‘women-centric’ films is concerned, you don’t need to look beyond Tanu Weds Manu ReturnsQueen, Neerja, Piku… the list goes on. Just make a good, honest film and the rest will follow.

Rucha Pathak, Chief Creative Officer, Fox Star Studios

There are definitely more women-centric films and more stories being driven by female protagonists,​and this is because quite a few women-centric films have done well at the box office. And that is ​a​ key driver of films in the industry – if it does well at the box office, then make more films just like it. I believe that successful female-centric or female-protagonist films like Neerjaand Piku worked because they were good stories, good scripts, and that is something that applies to all films – whether they’re stories of male or female protagonists.

It is really good to see that more and more female-centric films are happening and that actresses are getting a chance to star in them and drive their own destinies at the box office with female-centric stories. There is a potential market for them if all the elements come together in terms of a good script etc. Just like for any other film.

​Female leads definitely have the potential to break the stereotype and gender bias. And it is quite heartening to see the audience accepting of films with female stars. But again, the films have to be good. I don’t think women-centric films in themselves should become a cliche and a stereotype. First, the films have to be good irrespective of whether female- or male-driven. Second, the business is star-driven, to a large extent. It is getting difficult to get people into cinemas but that applies to all films finding it difficult to pull in crowds. It’s not specific to women-centric films. Well, that’s precisely what we’re doing at Fox Star Studios – we are building content irrespective of female or male protagonists. ​

Dina Mukherjee, CMO, Carnival Cinemas

If a film is made keeping a specific gender of the audience in mind, it is doing something wrong. There are several films that have a stronger resonance with either gender and the audience is game for good stories and strong characters. There are many films in India and world cinema where the male is the main protagonist but we can’t imagine the film without their female counterparts.

Indian audiences have always appreciated films like Mother India (1957) and many other women-centric films, from time to time, but still most of our films are driven by stars and not by content. This is changing gradually and it gives hope to new-age filmmakers to make films like Queen, Pink, Piku, Parched and most recently Lipstick Under My Burkha to name a few. We should not forget that every good film can’t enter the `100-crore club.

Though there are just a few powerful stories by and about women this year, everyone must watch them to take away something that will help us ensure that our girls become strong women.

 Ashwini Chaudhary, Director

A film industry should be about great story telling and great characters, not necessarily about strong characters. As an industry, we had got to a point where we stopped narrating stories about women characters. This was partly due to the ‘star system’ that steered the business of filmmaking. We marginalised women characters and made them secondary to the plot. I believe this narrowed the playing field. What we are witnessing today is a course correction, which is healthy for the industry and fantastic for viewers. Films fail not because they are women-centric or male-centric but because they fail to connect.

Siddharth and Garima, Writers

There is always a potential for great stories, told well on cinema. One needs to relate to a character, and fall in love with them. If that can be achieved by the creators, then it doesn’t matter what the caste, religion or the gender of the character is. But yes, the films mentioned here have a strong female character in the centre of things and thus its gets immediately categorised in a genre. We feel that Indian cinema has since its inception celebrated female-centric films from Devika Rani’s AchhootKanya (1936) to Nargis Dutt’s Mother India (1957), from Jaya Bachchan’s Guddi (1971) to Meenakshi Seshadri’s Damini (1993) all have been superhits. Somewhere in between, the films started lauding the hero as the sole selling point but we are glad that the era of strong female characters is making a comeback. While a Queen managed to strike that chord with the audience, a Begum Jaan failed because somewhere the character lost its roots in reality and hence relatability. On the other hand, a Pink worked on its storytelling and guts even as a Kahaani 2 failed because the story sounded jaded and contrived. So it’s all about how you tell a story and sell a character to audience’s sensibilities. All the forthcoming films this year have to meet the same challenge. And according to us this challenge is equivalent and holds true for a male-centric film also.

In this day and age, as film writers/makers we hold the greatest opportunity to break stereotypes. This is when audience is most open to accepting change and embracing the new. Every film should try to push the envelope and thrive off the edge because only then we can path break. With Vidya Balan’s The Dirty Picture, Kangana Ranaut’s Queen and TanuWeds Manu Returns and Deepika Padukone’s Piku raking in big figures at the box office… the gender bias is already shifting. Yes, commercially producers were less willing to risk a non-hero film on the box office but slowly such notions are giving way to solid content and the merit of storytelling irrespective of male/female/star quotient of a film.

We have always applauded and worshipped female leads! If done well. Yes there was a long phase in between (through the 80s and 90s) when the producers were less willing to depend on female leads and hence very few female -centric scripts came out then. It had nothing to do with the audience but with the risk-assessment of the makers. Yes the Indian film audience loves their hero, but in this case the hero could either be the script, the female character, the villain, the comedian or the male actor. It doesn’t matter. Our audience laps up what entertains them the most.

Divya Rao, Writer

India is a male-chauvinistic country and hence it’s good to see more and more subjects with female protagonists being explored. However, a good film begins with a good story. So regardless of whether or not a film is female-centric, a film works if it has strong characters and the story touches hearts. So a film will work not because it’s a female- or male-centric film but because of the story, the characters and the way the story has been executed.

Films are a form of mass communication which has the potential to bring in a big social change. Imagine the number of people in the world who would have seen Baahubali, that led it to being such an incredible hit at the box office!  So imagine the influence the film would have had at the subconscious level on these people. Films have the potential to change the way people think. They are great influencers. Hence it’s very satisfying and reassuring to see more and more films where women characters are not merely there as sex objects and eye-candy but are an integral part of the plot.

Stories with female protagonists are an unexplored space. Hence, if such stories are executed beautifully with relatable characters, then there is no reason why the audience shouldn’t accept them. I feel it is the story, the characters and the execution which decide the success of a film. If any one of these is lacking, the film won’t work. One shouldn’t make a film just because it is a women-centric story. If it is a story that needs to be told, then it should be told. And, yes, the focus should be on building strong characters and content rather than making a film just because it is woman-centric.

Devang Sampat, Director, India Strategic Initiatives, Cinepolis

Content is king, and we keep talking about that time and again. Movies with good content and the right direction work well and we have seen this with films like Kahaani, Tanu Weds Manu Returns, English Vinglish, Piku, Neerjaand many more.  I don’t think idea should be to make movies specifically with a female protagonist. One should shortlist the right script and then position the movie based on its subject. Another key point is to keep the budget under control based on the project selected. It may not be one the biggest blockbusters but can still generate positive P&L for the project. With growing multiplex screens, a movie with good content may not take a great opening but it can run for a long time.

Manish Singh, CEO, Legend Studios

Cinema follows a certain pattern. Once something works, everybody starts working towards that because everybody is bhukha for success and money in the industry. Nobody wants to make a good film; everybody wants to chase hits and that’s why everyone has a 10-per cent success and 90-per cent failure ratio.

It’s very difficult to get a male actor and easy to get a female lead actress. An actress in a big film with a hero doesn’t get to do much in the film. So once a Vidya Balan does a Dirty Picture or Kangana Ranaut does a Queen, everybody wants to do women-centric films. But they need to understand that these characters were made not for Vidya or Kangana but required by the film. What happens then is that once films like these start working, filmmakers assume that every women-centric film will work.

I think the audience wants to watch good films.

 Debasish Dey, Distributor

Women-centric films have been there since the black-and- white era, with good and high-content scripts and screenplay. We have seen game-changers in Bollywood and seen the transition for actresses, from heroines to protagonists. These films definitely have the potential to create new waves provided they are garnished with good content. Audiences have been receptive to women-centric films from the very beginning. Movies fail not because of heroes or heroines but because of poor script, poor screenplays, poor content and poor execution.

Piku, Neerja and Kahaani (not Kahaani 2) or Tanu Weds Manu Returnsworks mainly because of its rich content, which is always a winner at the box office but if a script is poor, no star can save the movie. That’s what happened with some women-centric movies like Akira Noor Maatr and Anaarkali Of Aarah, to name a couple which failed at the box office. I strongly believe that content, and only content, is the real hero or heroine of a movie and which eventually emerges as a real box-office winner.

Rajesh Thadani, Distributor

Audiences are looking forward to watching good entertainment and are keen to see exciting stories. Yes, now female-driven stories in an exciting set-up are keenly awaited. It doesn’t matter whether the protagonist is male or female; the box-office status of a film rests on the content of the film. Films that worked at the box office like Neerja or Piku did well due to their content whereas some films which featured female leads failed not because the story was based on a woman but because the content failed to impress the audience. Rather than tag a film as ‘women-centric’, we should focus on generating content which does well. 

Avinash Singh, Exhibitor

 Our audience was and is ready to accept female centric films but they have to serve the purpose to entertain. Seeta Aur GeetaChaalBaazChandniBetaKahaani are all blockbusters and are still remembered fondly by the audiences. The film needs to entertain and not cater to niches as it becomes difficult to reach out. Tanu Weds ManuReturns is a glorious example. The problem is not female centric films but bad content. It is obvious that female stars can’t have the draw of their male counterparts but good content can take it to dizzying heights. In my humble opinion audiences are ready to accept any kind of films as long as it serves their purpose as they come to cinemas for only one reason — to get entertained!

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