Playing by new rules: Anupama Chopra on streaming platforms and stories of women
‘Bollywood continues to discriminate, but streaming platforms are thankfully making more room for women — on screens, behind the scenes and in boardrooms too.’
A Vietnamese-American screenwriter, Eirene Tran Donohue, based in LA. An Indonesian filmmaker, Kamila Andini, whose last feature was screened in competition at Berlinale in 2022. Manatsanun “Donut” Phanlerdwongsakul, a Thai actress, director, producer and writer. Filipino director Marla Ancheta. Indonesian actress, journalist and presenter Marissa Anita. I had the privilege of being on a panel with these women last week.
The occasion was Reflections of Me, an International Women’s Month event hosted by Netflix in Jakarta. The aim was to celebrate storytelling for and by women. We were strangers, yet the connection was instant.
Over a two-hour panel discussion, we explored the evolution in the representation of women on screen; creating female characters who are complex and flawed; why we continue to see stereotypes; the challenges ahead. Irrespective of where the artist was from, the struggles were similar. So were the inspirations. When Eirene and I quoted recent Oscar winner Michelle Yeoh (“Ladies, don’t let anybody tell you, you are ever past your prime”), there was spontaneous applause from the audience.
The opportunities are fewer for women in entertainment everywhere, doors are slower to open, hurdles are higher to climb. There is sexism, stereotyping, ageism. Amid it all, woman continue, in ways big and small, to chip away at the gendered system.
This day spent in the company of so many determined, fierce women underlined for me how drastically streaming platforms are helping, by altering the status quo. Global giants such as Netflix and Amazon Prime have women in key leadership positions — Bela Bajaria is chief content officer at Netflix and Monika Shergill is vice-president for content at Netflix India; Jennifer Salke heads Amazon and MGM Studios while Aparna Purohit heads India Originals.
Reflections Of Me was led by Amy Kunrojpanya, Netflix’s vice-president for public relations for Asia-Pacific, and Amy Sawitta Lefevre, head of external affairs for the same region.
Meanwhile, the storytelling on streaming platforms consistently pushes female characters to the forefront while the format of long-form allows for deeper exploration, more layered writing and greater experimentation.
This trajectory has been far more unsteady in mainstream cinema. The sizeable gains made by women in Bollywood after the success of The Dirty Picture (2011) are on shaky ground. The widespread belief in the industry now is that viewers will only come to theatres for scale, spectacle and megastars; any film that doesn’t fit this formula is better off on streaming. Sara Ali Khan’s latest film Gaslight, for instance, will be released on Disney+ Hotstar next week. Her contemporary Janhvi Kapoor’s Mili played to near-empty theatres in November.
Films led by male stars also continue to tank; in February alone, there was Shehzada with Kartik Aaryan and Selfiee with Akshay Kumar and Emraan Hashmi. But the failure rarely sets a precedent for lower budgets or salaries. Kartik, for instance, has said he was paid ₹20 crore for 10 days of work on Dhamaka (2021). In comparison, women are seldom given such generous paydays or repeated opportunities after a project flops.
Thankfully streaming is altering the rules somewhat. It is enabling women to take centrestage and, as Eirene so eloquently put it, “to embrace and give voice to the complexity that exists within (us) to be all versions of ourselves at the same time”. I’m very grateful for that.