Ready for a thought post? Of course you are! Thought posts are the best! Or at least, I like them.
I was looking at my list of films for this week, and thinking about all the many many other films I could have included and didn’t, and discovered that actually (despite the patriarchy and so on) Indian films have far more strong female centered narratives than Western. Why is that? It’s not because Indian films have more women in power in the film industry, or because Indian society has more respect for women. But I think it might be because of the basic structure of both the industry and the Indian film narrative form.
Let me start with the narrative form. Indian film is not an ensemble kind of system. A movie has one central character and the movement of the plot is the movement of them growing and changing over time. Often films start with childhood (or even birth or pre-birth), and keep moving until adulthood. This goes back to the concept of the 4 stages of life in Indian philosophy, a movie usually tells the story of a character moving from the childhood “student” phase into the adult “householder” phase. Along the way our central character will fall in love, sometimes multiple times, will gain enemies and friends, will fight with their family, will have adventures, and finally will achieve security by vanquishing their enemies, marrying their love, and starting their own family.
This is true across genres. Whether it is an action film or a romance or a political saga or anything else, we have one strong central character who changes from a child to an adult as things happen to him. It is a rare film that attempts something different, and those films are usually recognized as “western” (and therefore better) in some way without anyone articulating why that is exactly. For example, Neeraj Panday’s process thrillers tend to avoid character development. Instead of having a strong central character growing through the events of the film, we have a series of events that occur within a limited time period to a wide array of characters who have no internal growth. The idea of a film without the usual markers of life changes and growing up feels different to the Indian audience, which proves by contrast that a film which HAS those changes is the norm.
In Western films, this strong central movement for the central character is not the norm. There are exceptions of course, the superhero trilogy idea follows that pattern (first film shows growing into powers, second film shows complications of adulthood, third film brings us to the happy ending). But your standard action movie, for instance, has a hero who is already fully empowered and adult, not someone you can relate to but someone you can aspire to. The films are short, “slice of life” in that they only show one pivotal section of a character’s life instead of trying to convey the whole sweep of it from childhood flashback on. And in the same way, they tend not to have as strong a central character. Even a movie like Die Hard which has a strong central hero, also surrounds him with a wife, a villain, and a friend. Since we are only seeing a limited period of time (instead of the hero’s whole life with other people moving in and out of it), the wife and villain and friend get as much backstory and almost as much screentime as the hero. Yes, there is a lead character, but instead of that lead character having 70-90% of the audiences sympathy and attention, it is more like 55%.
Now, this should mean that in general western films have stronger female characters. If we accept that in every industry in the world, that central character is a man, then leaving 45% of the film for supporting characters in America should mean that there is space for a woman to get that 45%. But let’s go back to Die Hard. If we say Bruce Willis got 55%, then Alan Rickman and Reginald VelJohnson got about 20% each. Which leaves 5% for Bonnie Bedelia. Not great. On the other hand, in the standard Indian action film like Holiday: A Soldier is Never Off Duty for instance, Akshay Kumar got about 80% of the screen time, the various villains got another 5%, another 5% went to his family, and Sonakshi got a solid 10%. The heroine is second to the hero even in the most hero-centric film from India. She may not have much, but she has more than everyone else.
All of this is in a standard film. Now, what happens in the west when a movie has a female lead? Let’s look at The Blind Spot, for example. Which, first of all, wasn’t sold as a “female lead” film so you probably didn’t even think about it, did you? That’s part of the problem, movies with female leads aren’t sold that way which means when they succeed, no one counts them as “female movies” that succeeded. If we look at The Blind Spot, Sandra Bullock got the lowest possible end of the “lead character” percentage, let’s say around 45%. And she was surrounded by male characters. The overall impression was male, not female. And it didn’t feel unusual, because the standard structure for a western film is that the lead character just isn’t as strong and most of the supporting characters are male.
That’s why “female” films in the west tend to be ensembles. Look at Bridesmaids. Or Pitch Perfect. Or Bring It On. Or Hidden Figures or The Class or Miss Congeniality. The central character still only gets about 55-60% of the screen time, but all those other characters around her are also mostly female. So the overall gender breakdown is more like 80% female-20% male.
It didn’t used to be this way in the west, either the lack of female focused films or the “55% only” rule for the lead character. In the studio era, pre-television and pre the anti-trust law suits, movies were much smaller and more focused on their markets. You would have the movies that were all about the lead character/lead actor drawing on the particular audience that identified with that actor/character. And that would include “women’s pictures”. Bette Davis, for instance, has so many wonderful movies that are all her, she has 70% or more of the focus. Because there was enough of audience to support movies that were Bette Davis focused. But then television came in, and the anti-trust laws wiped out block booking and other techniques that forced theaters to play every movie. Suddenly theaters and audience members could be far more discriminating. And the Western studios responded by trying to make movies appealing to a wide range of people. You don’t like the lead character? That’s fine! His funny friend has a good 30% of the screen time. And of course, that lead character became a white man more and more. Or when it wasn’t a white man, that reality was downplayed and the white male co-star’s importance increased.
But in India, until recently, that competition for audience didn’t exist. Doordarshan, the only television option, was boring and people would rather watch movies. Single screen theaters had to keep their screens filled and would take whatever movie you offered them. And so the narrative style stayed very narrow, focused on the central lead character who we followed birth to death. Of course, there were other reasons for this, the Indian tradition that placed so much importance on the movement from childhood to adulthood, the oral style of narrative which tends to give far more of an origin story for characters than the novelist/written style, and the Indian star system which created actors so big that they moved beyond any niche “fan” market. Because of all these reasons, Indian films have remained strongly based on one central character. Which means in order to make a film “female” all you need to do is flip the gender of that central character and suddenly 70% of the film is focused on a woman’s perspective.
And then there’s the industrial side of things. In America, let’s say you decide to make a film with a female lead character. It starts with the scriptwriter, they have the idea for this story about a woman. And then they have to find a producer that believes in their vision and agrees to keep that central character a woman. And then the producer and writer have to find a studio that will give them the money and keep the lead character a woman. And then the studio hires a director, who also has follow the vision of having a female lead character. And they hire actors (and the male actor usually has more power than the female one) who also can’t make a stink about their screentime. And only if all of that works out, do we actually get a female lead film. If at any point any of these people suggests flipping the gender of the lead character, or even increasing the role of the other characters, then we don’t get a female lead film.
This is part of why Netflix and Prime productions have been so great for showing non-white-male stories. A lot of it is the narrow casting format and the captive audience, they aren’t worried about bringing in millions of eyes and millions of dollars who have other options, it’s a throw back to the golden studio era when the only game in town was your local theater and you would watch whatever they showed. But part of it also simply the streamlining of the process. In America, TV shows tend to have a “showrunner”, one single person who conceives and sells the concept. That cuts out the scriptwriter to producer and then to director gap in the movie system. And streaming services also simplify the studio to distributor to theater process. You end up with one person who has an idea and sells it to one other person and then it happens. Far fewer chances for a fool or a coward to come in and say “what a minute, a female lead? Who will watch this?”
And that same system is what (until recently when the multi-national studios arrived and you started going to them at the funding step) happened in India. The director is also the writer is also the producer. If you want to make a movie with a female lead, you write and cast and direct it and it happens. No outside force will make you compromise your vision. You just have to convince yourself that it is worth the money and the risk. But the problem is, the risk is far far higher in Indian film. If you are your own producer, then the money you are playing with is your own actual money. If this movie doesn’t work because you used a female lead story, then you are the one who loses. That’s a risk that not a lot of people are willing to take.
I guess it’s about purity, in the end. The West has films with female leads, but they are watered down, the stories hidden away as folks nibble away at the original vision. India has fewer movies with female leads, but if they exist, they are pure and complete and total. No one is limiting the vision of the creator, and no one is trying to minimize the central characters of the film either.
And so in India in the past 5 years, we have had Fidaa, Akira, Naam Shabana, Ohm Shaanti Oshaana, Pari, Piku, Queen, Neerja, Noor, Dear Zindagi, Raazi, and many many other films that are, without question or compromise, about their female leads. And in America, we had Ocean’s 8 and the female Ghostbusters.