Actresses who keep us hooked to our screens
The content boom brought about by streaming platforms has changed the Indian entertainment scenario in many ways, particularly in the way women have been afforded energy and agency in most of the roles that are now written for them, irrespective of whether they play the protagonist or not in a show or a film.
On the occasion of International Women’s Day this year, streaming giant Netflix brought together some of its biggest female talent to shine the spotlight on how women are gaining ground in the stories being told now.
Over a 30-minute Zoom call, The Telegraph chatted with actors Shefali Shah, Soni Razdan, Kirti Kulhari, Rasika Dugal and Masaba Gupta on what Women’s Day means to them, how they react to a script and how women can champion women.
Given the times we live in, what does International Women’s Day mean to you as women and as actors?
Kirti Kulhari: Irrespective of International Women’s Day or not, for me, the whole struggle is about equality... equality of opportunities, of freedom, of space.... As an actor and a woman, this is what I fight for.
Masaba Gupta: It’s not about a day any more. Women should be applauded, celebrated, every single day. I find feminism and the things around it to be a bit over-exaggerated, frankly. For me, Women’s Day means having compassion and empathy.
Soni Razdan: I find Women’s Day to be a little bit irrelevant because it’s something that we should be aware of 365 days of the year. But having said that, the fact that we have International Women’s Day is very important because it serves as a reminder to everyone that perhaps we need to sit up and remember that women, and the issues they go through, need the attention that they deserve. We need to keep reminding ourselves because a lot of people otherwise tend to forget.
Rasika Dugal: Well, I feel differently about it every year. There is a need to remember it, like Soni said. But I think that is true for any act of inclusivity. There are times where it results in a sort of affirmative action, but there are other times when you feel that an act of inclusivity can become patronising, or become about people identifying themselves as a social group, in this case gender, and overlooking one’s individual achievements and identities.
Shefali Shah: For me, Women’s Day is about stupid forwarded messages, about heart-shaped balloons which look like inverted butts, about roses and cakes and chocolates... it’s ridiculous, all of it is ridiculous!
I don’t understand why you would pick only one day in a year to celebrate a woman or even acknowledge her. The dictionary meaning of feminism is actually equality, it’s not one-upmanship. So what women need is what any other person needs, which is love, compassion, sensitivity, understanding, equality.... I don’t even think it’s gender based... it’s a simple thing of everyone needing to be treated equally.
Kirti has told me more than once that when a script is offered to her, she reacts to it as an actor as well as a woman. Does that happen to the rest of you too?
Kirti: I know I have said that to you, but over the years, I have realised that more than an actor or a woman, I have started reacting to a script as a human. The ‘woman’ part is also disappearing because it’s becoming more and more clear to me that I could be a man and I could feel the same emotions. Any woman’s story could be a man’s story and vice-versa. I am now moving towards that stage where I see everything as a human being.
Masaba: I have another problem... I react to a script as a designer as well! (Everyone laughs). It’s a bit complicated. I must tell you that I have read about four scripts in my whole life because I am the newest here. I do have to agree with Kirti that one reacts as a person, it’s not gender specific for me. I am so new to this, but what I can say is that I like the world that I see in a script, more than anything. And if I resonate with it, I find it exciting.
Rasika: I think all of us look at scripts with our own set of idiosyncrasies... like audiences do when they watch something. I don’t think it’s possible to distinguish whether I am looking at something in a particular way because of being a woman, because of being upper class, because of something else.... There will be a certain way in which I will perceive a story because of my experiences.
Soni: I read a script from the point of view of a character. I don’t think you can isolate which perspective you are looking at a role from when you are actually reading a script. It’s about the character I am playing and how important that character is in the scheme of things, particularly at my age because I don’t get lead roles very often. If it’s not a lead role, then I literally look at how many scenes I have before I read the script... I am just being honest! (Laughs) Very often than not, I get three scenes and I feel I am not going to bother doing this. Then, of course, if it’s a very good role, then I do tend to subconsciously look at it from the point of view of a woman. But I don’t go like, ‘Is this justified? Is this not justified?’ I read it in totality. But if there is something that I hugely disagree with from a feminist perspective — and I don’t really like using that word but just saying so for the sake of argument — then I would let the director know, or I wouldn’t do that role.
Shefali: There are two things here. One is that every script hits some point in you. So you can’t treat every script in the same way. For example, the show that we (looks at Rasika) did... Delhi Crime... we didn’t have an option... it hit us as women. It hit even the director (Richie Mehta) who is a man, as a woman. That is what it required. Secondly, I genuinely feel that an actor is a small part of a much larger picture. So if the script in entirety doesn’t work, then it doesn’t really matter what you have done or not done. Just seeing it from my point of view or from a woman’s point of view or seeing it from the character’s point of view is not the way I work. It’s the script firstly, though of course, the role matters. And it’s happened so many times that I have read a script and I have come out and said, ‘Oh my god! X, Y, Z... brilliant characters’. And they are not even my roles!
Kirti: What’s driving me more and more as an actor now is representation. I want to be able to represent as many different kinds of people from different stratas, with different kinds of issues in their lives.... That’s totally, totally driving me in terms of the work that I am choosing. That’s how I want to use myself as an actor... to talk about things that are generally not spoken about, or that we are not even aware of.
For long, women actors have been given a short shrift on our screens. Would you now say that you are doing your best work, or at least your most varied work?
Kirti: For sure. OTT has finally changed the game for me, personally, and I am sure for a lot of the others sitting here. The content that’s coming out of OTT is really pushing everyone who wants to do something different. There is so much space for everybody and I think that’s a beautiful transformation that OTT has brought along. I am getting to do the kind of roles that really get me going.
Masaba: OTT has brought about the democratisation of content. There is space for everyone, but more importantly, there is space for different kinds of stories which were kind of pushed to a corner when content was dominated by the big screen. I don’t think something like a Masaba Masaba would have happened even three years ago. The audience has a lot to do with this because they have opened their eyes to a whole new set of people. People who look like them, for a change! The actor, the star, the icon is no longer intimidating... he could look like your neighbour or your cousin. As a natural progression, people have connected to stories that feel real and familiar.
Rasika: It’s a great time, I am enjoying myself a lot and there is an abundance of work. I’ve spent 10 years of my life staring at the ceiling fan in my house and finally, I don’t have time to do that! (Laughs)
Kirti: Don’t you miss it?! I do!
Rasika: Sometimes I have to admit that I do (smiles).
We all had a lot of time during the lockdown to do that...
Soni: We were cleaning in the lockdown!
Rasika: We were staring at the floor, not at the ceiling! (Laughs)
Shefali: The fans at home were, in fact, so clean that I didn’t recognise them any more! (Everyone laughs)
Rasika: So ya, the quality of the work has been very good. I hope it can still get better, I hope this is not the best that we can do. I hope there is somewhere else to go from here also, and I hope this sustains.
Soni, are you getting more varied parts now?
Soni: Definitely, in terms of the spectrum and the volume of work that’s being offered. I don’t know what’s actually happened... because I am now going out to work and my husband (film-maker Mahesh Bhatt) is sitting at home! (Everyone laughs) He’s quite enjoying sitting at home I have to say.
What about you, Shefali?
Shefali: The OTT platforms have definitely opened up a whole new horizon. The reason being that the work happening is content driven. It’s not put into the box of a ‘hero’, a ‘heroine’, a ‘star’ or the box-office collections on a weekend. Every single character is very, very important. It could be the smallest character in the script, but it’s treated with equal importance. I think that has changed for all of us. I am excited, I am thrilled, I am finally doing the kind of work I have wanted to do... I am playing protagonists. Amazing work, touchwood!
All of you now frontline shows and films. Do you still get offered the so-called flaky roles in bigger commercial projects that are driven by the male actor, so to speak?
Kirti: That stopped happening with me almost three years ago. There are times when I am offered very strong roles, which probably have only five or six scenes like it was in Uri, but I do them because they are very powerful and I choose them because of what they offer to me as an actor. That identification of, ‘Let’s offer this to Kirti, she will do this’, that’s gone for me. People only come to me with roles that have something for me to offer as a performer.
Masaba: For someone like me who doesn’t look so much like an Indian girl, I think it goes into a very caricaturish space, where people think, ‘Oh, she can be that funny chick who can be the best friend of the actor’. Or, ‘She can be the hot other woman’ because, you know, dark women are always the other women, the vamp! (Laughs) That is still very rampant, is my sense, because that’s very much ingrained in our system, but I don’t find that happening on OTT at least.
Rasika: Actually I have never been offered a flaky role and I am dying for it! (Everyone laughs) In one sense, there are no flaky roles, there are flaky stories. If your story is not well written, any role can be flaky. But I haven’t been offered the kind of flaky roles that I think you mean. I would love to do that and I would love to nuance that and see how it works (laughs).
Soni: I never really got offered flaky roles in the first place, they were all very small roles. Now, luckily, the parts have increased in terms of substance, but not all of them, of course. We’ve always believed that there are no small roles, there are only small actors, but having said that, it’s really lovely to get your teeth into a good, meaty role and the opportunities are really presenting themselves. For me, there is no time like the present and it can only get better, and it will only get better, I am sure.
Shefali: Like Rasika said, it’s not about a role. A role could be great, but if it’s written or treated shoddily, it will be nothing. As an actor, I could fail as well. Being a heroine, dancing around trees, looking pretty, being somebody’s mother isn’t flaky... it’s just the way it’s treated in the bigger context of a film. But those same characters now, on OTT, because it’s content driven and because it’s character driven, they have become really important and it’s no more shallow.
Kirti: If your writing is on the surface, which has been the case with a lot of work that’s being coming out of Bollywood for a while now, it will seem flaky. But as Shefali said, on OTT, even the smaller roles are so beautifully written.
How can women champion women in the industry as far as issues like ageism or pay parity are concerned?
Kirti: As actors, we try and stand up for what we believe in through the work that we do. And then there is the person in you who needs to stand up for certain things. I think we do stand up for each other and for what we believe in. These are battles that we are all fighting for on the side. Sometimes it comes out very obviously, sometimes it’s more subtle.
Rasika: I believe in pay parity, except that I have no idea what anyone gets paid, honestly! (Laughs) There is this actor, and she and I could possibly be competing for the same roles, who very sweetly offered information about how much she gets paid... she had bluntly also asked co-actors about their pay packets, and also shared that information with me, and that helped me. Other than that, I have no idea.
Soni: In terms of women championing women, I think it’s happening by default, subtly. For example, when you agree to do something that’s directed by a woman, you are supporting the cause. Likewise, when one writes a strong character for a woman, that champions her.
Masaba: I think women supporting women will start only when they stop competing with each other on how they look. ‘Am I looking better than her in that role? Is my costume and make-up better than hers?’ That kind of thing. They should be gunning more for things like, ‘Am I doing a good job here? Is what I am bringing to screen meaningful?’ Once you stop competing with other women in that space, you automatically start delivering better work and you support each other. Collaboration over competition is what I say.