Jul 14, 2016

Balancing the scales

Source : The Hindu


There is a growing need to acknowledge efforts to break gender stereotypes in Indian cinema. Take for instance, Nitesh Tiwari’s upcoming film Dangal, with a host of strong female protagonists. Then there’s Vikas Bahl’s refreshing comedy Queen, centred around a woman enjoying her honeymoon after her fiancé calls off the wedding. Not to forget Aashiq Abu’s 22 Female Kottayam, a Malayalam film which follows a young nurse’s tale of revenge. For the 18th Mumbai Film Festival, the Mumbai Academy of Moving Image (MAMI) has partnered with the non-profit organisation, Oxfam India, to introduce an award, the ‘Best Film on Gender Equality’ that recognises the sensitive portrayal of women in cinema.

Childhood friends reconnecting after over 30 years — MAMI’s Festival Director, Anupama Chopra and Oxfam London’s Head of UK South Asia Engagement, Kalyani Gandhi-Rhodes — came up with the award for the two organisations to address women’s issues. The winner, selected from the Indian delegates, will be ascertained by a three-member jury and awarded Rs. 10 lakh.

Actor and filmmaker Rahul Bose, Oxfam’s Global Ambassador, believes the award will add a new dimension through which to experience a film. “A film can be viewed from the point of view of its acting, its cinematography or even background music,” he says. “The lens of gender equality will uncover what the film says about its filmmaker’s beliefs.” While he doesn’t think it will result in a clamour for activity within the Indian film industry to create gender-balanced films, it will shed light on the importance of gender sensitivity. “In a very subtle way, I think it might alert filmmakers about their unconscious prejudices,” says Bose.

Hoping the award will kick-start changes in the understanding of gender, the CEO of Oxfam India, Nisha Agarwal says, “Indian films are influential like no other medium in our society. Over time, popular culture can change people’s thinking and behaviour.”

However, Chopra and Bose believe gender-sensitive portrayals in the Hindi film industry have been regressive despite attempts to change them. For instance, “from powerful and substantial roles in the 1950s,” says Chopra, “Women began being assessed on the grounds of looks and fashion.” She says the ultimate compliment paid to Madhuri Dixit and Sridevi was that they were ‘the female Amitabh Bachchan’! However, things are changing, according to the Festival Director and film journalist. “I think the much-needed shift in this portrayal and understanding of a gender-balanced film came with Vidya Balan’s Dirty Picture.”

The ‘Best Film on Gender Equality Award’ comes at a time when numerous international film festivals have come under the spotlight for the issue of gender inequality. The Cannes, Venice and New York film festivals have all been noticed for under-representing women filmmakers. “Selecting a film because it was made by a woman would be a disservice to the cause,” believes Chopra. “Quality should be the only criterion.”

While Bose agrees, he believes, “It is the duty of a filmmaker to be asexual. The twin streams of femininity and masculinity, as socialisation describes them, should flow through their work.”

On the one hand, the award will allow for closer scrutiny of gender representation in Indian cinema, and as Bose points out, it will help shed light on Oxfam’s work with marginalised communities. The UK organisation strives to eradicate social and economic barriers of inequality to uplift groups often disregarded by majoritarian norms and hierarchies. “The award will bring attention to an organisation that works extremely hard to address these issues that are so difficult to solve overnight,” says Bose.

Last year’s edition of the Mumbai Film Festival saw the debut of ‘the Women in Film’ panel that included distinguished Bollywood actors Shabana Azmi, Vidya Balan, and Kangana Ranaut along with filmmakers Kiran Rao and Ava DuVernay. Together, they talked about topics ranging from unequal pay to item numbers.

“I know there’s a certain fatigue around panels and people think the discussion doesn’t really change anything,” shares Chopra. “But it counts even if three people leave the hall with food for thought. So we will do something similar with gender bias this year. I mean, this festival is almost entirely run by women!”

The award brings us one step closer to acknowledging that the gender binary is an oversimplified and inadequate yardstick to understand people: both in film and society. Hopefully, a time will come when a discussion on gender will not be needed.


Source: The Hindu

The writer is an intern with The Hindu

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