India is witnessing a gender revolution on its small screens. For decades, as far as the country’s TV and cinema producers were concerned, a woman’s place was in the home. And much of India, to be fair, appeared to agree: in two of its most popular series of all time – Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi (Because a Mother-in-Law Was Once a Daughter-in-Law) and Kahaani Ghar Ghar Kii (A Story of Every Home) – women are portrayed more or less exclusively as homemakers. But things are changing. As streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime grow in India, their shows have brought about a not-so-quiet – and, frankly, long-overdue – revolution in the portrayal of women.
For example, Hindi Netflix series Lust Stories, about flawed, often destructive (read, human) women, explores female desire in modern India. It stars Radhika Apte, who’s up for a Best Actress gong at this month’s International Emmy Awards. Or how about Made in Heaven, the Amazon Prime serial about a high-end wedding planner, a sharp, layered, brilliantly written drama about women who kick, fight, scheme and scavenge – again, it doesn’t readily defer to the traditional image of Indian women. Nor does Netflix’s dystopian sci-fi series Leila, described as “India’s Handmaid’s Tale”, directed by Deepa Mehta. And nor does the same platform’s horror-thriller Ghoul, another series with a difficult-in-a-good-way female lead (Radhika Apte again), which would never have been green-lighted by India’s old-guard TV execs.
What does this mean for Bollywood? It appears the mainstream film industry is trying to diversify from its traditional all-singing, all-dancing, la-la-land escapism, creating slightly more gutsy, gritty output, perhaps reflecting the fact that 600 million people in India are under 25 – as well as the domestic and international success of the online platforms’ female-led storytelling, with another Indian Netflix series, Sacred Games, up for an International Emmy.
Could all this have broader implications for the role of women throughout Indian society? It’s tempting to think so. At least it seems that for female actors, writers and directors, who’ve long endured a male-dominated entertainment industry, the game has changed, hopefully for good.
The 47th International Emmy Awards take place 25 November