In September 2014, Geena Davis Institute of Gender and Media released a study titled ‘Gender Bias without Borders‘, which investigated female characters in popular films across 11 countries, including India. The report revealed a glaring lack of female characters as compared to male characters in popular cinema across the world. A total of 493 characters from popular Indian films were evaluated, out of which only 24.9% were found to be women, calculating to a gender ratio of roughly 3 males to every one female. This figure was lower than the global average which stood at 2.24 males to every one female. Next to films which were jointly produced by UK and US, Indian popular films had the lowest percentage of girls and women characters in the world during the period of the study.
In 2015, though, at least five recognizably female-centric Hindi films were released. Among these, Tanu Weds Manu Returns was one of the top 10 highest grossing films that year, while Piku and NH10 had financially successful runs. In 2016, so far, five Hindi films that place females at the center of their story have released. Among these, Neerja is currently the second highest grossing Hindi film of the year in India.
Women On Screen
It appears as if all the debates and studies regarding female representation in popular films are finally yielding a different kind of Hindi cinema. Although there is still much to be desired in the way of female representation, these films are finally starting a dialogue about a range of issues that were never even on anyone’s agenda before. Important questions around female cinematic representation are emerging such as: Is the ‘strong’ woman who is being portrayed in films authentic? Are we ready for frank (and real) portraits of female sexuality? How can we craft images that break down normative ideas of femininity? And these are just some of the problems being discussed in the realm of female depictions in Hindi films.
Hindi films have traditionally been regarded as ambassadors of Indian culture. While the success and widespread appeal of films like Sairat and Baahubali have effectively challenged this notion, Hindi cinema enjoys a position of greater prominence as compared to Indian cinema in other languages. It is therefore, particularly significant that women are appearing in more significant roles in Hindi films.
But as the boundaries that previously constrained images of women on screen now gradually reshape themselves, the women in the theater remain conspicuously absent from social commentary. The visual pleasure and viewership experience of females in the theater need to be spoken about, especially because of the recent wave of strong female characterizations in Hindi films.
Women In The Audience
Female spectatorship is at the heart of the conflict in the women-cinema relationship. Females inhabit a strange territory in cinema: it creates images of them with stunning regularity, but these are not images meant for them. These depictions are traditionally crafted to appeal to the male spectator. Claire Johnston, who was among the first feminist film theoreticians to offer a scientific critique of female depictions in cinema, famously wrote, “despite the enormous emphasis placed on women as spectacle in cinema, the woman as woman is largely absent.”
If women as women are barely present on screens, the identification of women in audiences with female characters is a pipe dream. As Hindi cinema finally begins to produce films with female leads, the viewership experiences of women in the audience might transform into something richer. The problem might begin with actually getting women into the theater, though.
In February, a study of audience perceptions of media representations was released by the Geena Davis Institute of Gender and Media in a Global Symposium on Gender in Media organized in Mumbai. The report concluded that far fewer women in India visit theaters. While the reasons for this may vary, the problem itself deserves recognition. The female in the audience is a diminishing figure. It is important to examine how and if at all she can be drawn into theaters with female-centric Hindi cinema.
Women Watching Hindi Films
On 6th May, Ormax Media, an insights firm, made an audience report available to ‘stakeholders in the film industry’. The study, conducted across 53 Indian cities, concludes that males contribute 81% of first day footfalls of Hindi films. The study also recommends that filmmakers focus on a demographic segment that the report labels ‘Male Movie Maniacs’, who constitute a large chunk of the audience of any Hindi film. Producers of even female-centric Hindi films, while crafting path-breaking images of women, cannot afford to make films exclusively for women, because that would mean compromising on a large chunk of their revenue.
However, the report adds that the contribution of males to the footfalls reduces to 60% at the end of the film’s run. This allows us to conclude that although most females do not watch films on the day that they are released, their numbers pick up eventually. The box office collections of Piku, Neerja, Nil Battey Sannata, all recorded unusually dramatic increases in the latter half of their runs, with Piku reporting a jump of over 60% on the second day. Although it is common for Hindi films to do better on their second day, this scale of uptick is particularly remarkable. The Ormax study also found that Piku was the most gender skewed film, with females making up 54% of the footfalls. It was one of the more overtly female centric films of 2015 and was also promoted as such.
When viewed together, these data open up interesting areas of inquiry about the female in the audience. The facts are not conclusive, but they point towards questions about women’s reception of female-centric Hindi cinema that must be asked. Do women enjoy female-centric Hindi films more than men? Are they able to relate to the female characters in the stories of these films? Do they find greater pleasure in viewing these films than they do in watching male-centric ones? And finally, do female-centric Hindi films speak to females in the audience, resonating with their lives? Finding final, conclusive answers is not the point. The purpose is to catalyze a different sort of a debate.
Cinema is eventually made for audiences. Even as it affords escapism through a suspension of disbelief, it reflects the face of the audience back to them, complete with the quirks of their lives and the peculiarities of their experiences. Female-centric Hindi cinema might not be made exclusively for the women in the audience, but they are trying to make a vital point about them- that the plurality of female experiences is vibrant and resists neat categorization. This kind of cinema means to finally include females in films in powerful ways. They are attempting to reflect back the face of the women in the audience. Lauding these films for their fresh images of women does not accomplish these goals fully. Only by linking these images of women to the women they are meant for, can we fully understand where women stand in relation to Hindi cinema.