O Womaniya! Report: The Appalling Lack of Female Representation in Indian Cinema

The fact that men outnumber women on screen as well as in most of the crucial behind the scenes roles hardly comes as a surprise to anyone remotely familiar with Indian cinema. But how bad is the gender gap in an industry that provides the primary source of entertainment for millions of people? What is the real extent of female participation in Indian films?

To answer these questions, media consulting firm Ormax Media and entertainment platform Film Companion released O Womaniya! 2021 on March 8, the occasion of International Women’s Day. O Womaniya! is a first-of-its-kind report that reveals the precise percentage of representation of women across key portfolios and segments in Indian cinema.

“Being a consulting firm in the entertainment industry… we do a lot of work on the commercial side of the business, such as box office, but work that can have long-term social impact is particularly special, and we always look for such opportunities,” said Shailesh Kapoor, Founder and CEO, Ormax Media.

The report is based on an analysis of 129 films released in 2019 and 2020 across five languages – Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, and Kannada – that contribute to 93% of the Indian box office (excluding Hollywood films). This includes the top 100 films based on their footfalls in India as well as 29 direct-to-OTT films that were selected through a combination of YouTube views and Ormax Advocacy (likeability) Score.

Three parameters were selected to evaluate the films – talent, content, and marketing. On each of the three parameters, the findings were appalling.

“I’ve been in the business long enough to know that it (female representation) was bad, but I didn’t imagine the numbers that we saw for the South or for key departments such as cinematography and direction,” noted Anupama Chopra, founder and editor, Film Companion.

In terms of talent, Head of Department (HOD) positions across five aspects of filmmaking were considered: direction, writing, cinematography, editing, and production design.

The data on talent shows that only 8% of HOD positions were occupied by women across all the films analysed. For Hindi cinema, the figure stands at 16% whereas for films from the South, it plummets to a deplorable 1%. Production design has the highest proportion of women at 15% while cinematography has the lowest with only 2%.

Among the Bollywood releases, only one film had a female HOD across all the five major departments – the Vidya Balan starrer Shakuntala Devi.

“People tend to be so judgemental of what shape and form and size you (the women) come in… Mainstream filming has a certain set pattern that people are very unwilling to break. They like to sit within that comfort zone,” explained filmmaker Anjali Menon, who has primarily worked in Malayalam cinema.

The report goes on to highlight that in terms of content, and more specifically, the on-screen representation of women, 59% of the 129 films under the scanner failed the Bechdel test. For some perspective, 32% of the top grossing films in Hollywood between 2015-19 had also failed the Bechdel test.

An internationally-accepted measure of female representation in cinema, the Bechdel test is considered to be passed by a film which has at least one scene with two named female characters talking about anything other than men. The films that did not make it past the test include Bollywood blockbusters like Uri: The Surgical Strike, Bharat, and Article 15 as well as popular films from the South like Darbar, Jersey, and Soorarai Pottru.

Also read: ‘Soorarai Pottru’ Shows Why We Need More Women Calling the Shots

The aforementioned numbers, especially those concerning on-screen representation, raise an obvious question – are Indian audiences still not ready to see women driving the action in films?

“This is the old chicken-and-egg argument. I think the audience is ready for anything that is engaging,” said Chopra. “When Veere Di Wedding released (in 2018), people said women couldn’t open a film, but that film opened to some Rs 11 crore. We have to remember screenwriter William Goldman’s memorable pronouncement about showbiz: ‘Nobody knows anything’.”

On the last parameter of marketing, O Womaniya! came up with the Trailer Talk Time Test to check the disparity between men and women in terms of pitching and promoting a film to an audience. The results found that 19% of the average talk time across the 129 trailers involved women. Out of this, as many as 49 films had less than 10% talk time assigned to female characters.

Now that the numbers are out in public domain, what is the way forward? How can Bollywood and other prominent film industries across the country fix the glaring gender gulf across all segments of cinema?

The answer, it seems, has many components.

First, there must be greater parity in terms of the payment received by actors and actresses, a point underscored by actress Samantha Akkineni’s comment: “It’s considered ‘very cool’ when a hero hikes his remuneration. But when a woman does the same, she’s looked at as ‘problematic’, ‘demanding’ and ‘too ambitious’.”

Second, sexism must be called out at every level, not encouraged or endured silently. Taapsee Pannu recently told Film Companion about an incident from her early days in the industry that gives an insight into how sexism works in Indian cinema. “I was once asked to change my dialogues during the dub because the hero wanted them altered. I refused to do it, only to find out after the release of the film, that they (the filmmakers) had gone ahead and got another dubbing artist to voice my bits there,” recounted Pannu.

Third, filmmakers should look at how an increase in female participation behind the camera affects the participation of those in front of it. For instance, more female writers, according to Chopra, will “create more nuanced and full-bodied female characters. There would be more input from women… and portrayals that are less stereotypical.”

Finally, reports like O Womaniya! must become an annual tradition. Both Kapoor and Chopra, the leading figures behind the O Womaniya! report, agree that this cannot be a one-time thing. For Chopra, data has the power to “ignite conversation and change”, while Kapoor is committed “to doing this report every year. With each passing year, we hope to expand the scope of the report, and also engage with the film industry more, by making them a part of the process, so that they can see this report as their own.”

“After all,” added Kapoor, “we can only be catalysts of change. The real change has to happen in the industry, by producers, actors, directors and technicians working in it.”

Priyam Marik is a freelance journalist based in Kolkata, who recently completed his post-graduate degree in journalism at the University of Sussex, United Kingdom.