New TISS, U.S. Consulate report reveals need for more equitable gender representation in Cinema

TISS report launch in Mumbai. Photo: Loudspeaker Media

A new research report by the School of Media and Cultural Studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, reveals that on- and off-screen women and queer representation in box-office hits remains largely stereotypical.

Vidya Balan, actor, filmmaker and social advocate Nandita Das; acclaimed film producer and two-time Academy Award winner Guneet Monga Kapoor; Nitin Tej Ahuja, CEO, Producers Guild of India, B.N. Tewari, President, FWICE, WIMPTSEA released the report, “Lights, Camera, and Time for Action: Recasting a Gender Equality Compliant Bollywood,” at Estella, Juhu on June 28, in the presence of Prof. Shalini Bharat, Director, TISS, Consul-General Mike Hankey, U.S. Consulate General, Mumbai and Prof Lakshmi Lingam, Research Study Director.

The U.S. Consulate General, Mumbai, funded the project. An engaging conversation moderated by film critic Sucharita Tyagi followed the report release.  Representatives of several film industry bodies, film professionals and media and communication students attended the event.

Research for the report, supported by a research grant from the U.S. Consulate General, Mumbai, consisted of both quantitative and qualitative studies. The quantitative research studies analyzed 25 2019 hits and successes to capture a full year of pre-pandemic theatrical releases, as well as 10 ‘women-centric’ films released between 2012 and 2019 as a representative sample. Researchers analyzed 15 crucial parameters, such as intersectional representation, occupation, degree of sexual stereotyping, consent and intimacy and harassment. The studies also analyzed women’s participation behind-the-scenes and off-screen.

In addition to the quantitative studies, TISS carried out three qualitative studies with the experiences and perspectives of women and queer screenwriters, directors and young online media critics.

TISS earlier shared interim findings of the study at marquee film festivals, like the International Film Festival of India, Goa, Pune International Film Festival, International Association of Women in Radio and Television Film Festival, New Delhi and the India Film Project, Mumbai.

Here are the main findings.

72percent of characters in the analyzed films are played by cis-males, 26 percent by cis-females, and 2percent by queer actors.

36 percent of box office hits and 100 percent of women-centric films passed the Bechdel test.

The most popular skin tone for women characters is fair skin and body type is thin for lead characters and medium for all other support characters.

Expression of romance and intimacy is restricted in the box-office and women-centric films, but most often it is male characters who initiate intimacy. The idea of consent is still fraught with ambiguity, specifically because there is a greater emphasis on women remaining demure and expressing consent through non-verbal and symbolic gestures.

Women in employment and in public domain work are shown in films. However, the work roles they play are gendered, with a greater presence of women in health care, education, entertainment and journalism.

Women-centric films have greater diversity and explore inbound subjects dealing with relationships, sexuality, motherhood, and other sensitivities.

Box-office hits have outbound subjects like war, politics, corruption, gang wars, and crime. Majority of characters in films are in the age group of 21-45 years, and belong to Hindu dominant castes. People with disabilities are rarely seen in films. Only 0.5 percent of characters are shown with disabilities.

“This is an important study and a timely one. The report offers an opportunity to foster a diverse, more representative Hindi cinema. I hope this report engenders a conversation that looks towards meaningful change,” said Prof Shalini Bharat, Director, TISS.

“The U.S. Consulate-General in Mumbai is proud to support this project because we know that for Bollywood and Hollywood to thrive – for India and the United States to thrive – we must work together to improve conditions for women.  This work goes beyond the realm of art and entertainment; it also holds profound implications for international relations,” said Mike Hankey, US Consul-General, Mumbai.

Sharing her thoughts on the findings of the study, Vidya Balan says, “When I read the report, I was surprised  because the ground reality seemed different to me. I don’t think we have creche facilities yet, but definitely POSH committees have been instituted on every production that I have been involved in and I can say that a lot of production houses are following that. As far as more women in cinema goes, there has to be a holistic solution to it. I don’t see why it’s a bad thing if women directors are hiring women technicians and women-heavy crews . Eventually that will percolate into male- led films also. I have seen that change with movies like Mission Mangal.”

Nandita Das adds, “This is a very important report that tells us where we are in terms of representation in Hindi films, both in front and behind the camera. Anecdotally we may feel we are far better than where we were, but the research and statistics show us that we have a rather long way to go. It is a detailed and thought-through report that needs to be seen by anyone who cares to be part of the change that we want  to see in the film industry. That’s why it’s rightfully called – Lights, Camera and time for action.”

Talking about hurdles for female producers,  Guneet Monga, founder, Sikhya Entertainment, laments, “I absolutely miss a group of producers who are doing independent films. I have seen a lot of them give up after producing one or two. Having produced more than 40 independent films, I think there is a need to have more female producers.  I think women are incredible at multitasking and are generally able to run the world better.”

She ends on a hopeful note saying “We are beginning to have conversations and create awareness with Mumbai Film festival and researchers. I think this decade looks good for women.”



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