Why you should care
From delivering some of Bollywood’s biggest hits to winning plagiarism battles, women writers are transforming the face of one of the world’s largest film industries.
Four years out of the Film and Television Institute of India, the country’s top graduate school for film students, Jyoti Kapoor was thrilled to bag a contract to write a script. But when the director learned she was married, he refused to release her signing fee and insisted on taking her for a reconnaissance trip to the outskirts of Mumbai. Kapoor walked out and never looked back. In subsequent encounters with other similarly dodgy industry individuals, she would let slip that she was trained in the National Cadet Corps, a voluntary program under which the Indian military trains schoolchildren in self-defense, marching and small-arms use.
That was nearly 10 years ago. Today, Kapoor has a growing peer group of successful female writers who are transforming Bollywood, the Hindi film industry that leads India’s movie craze. The country produces the most films in the world, has the highest number of cinemagoers and boasts the third-largest box-office revenue.
Over two years in 2013 and 2014, women were credited as writers or cowriters in only four films — Lootera, Madras Café, Queen and Bobby Jasoos — with major directors and big stars who draw crowds to theaters and drive millions of dollars in box-office earnings. In 2018, by comparison, two of the most critically and commercially successful movies so far — Raazi and October — were written by women, and upcoming big-ticket films this year, Batti Gul Meter Chalu and Andhadhun, have women as co-writers. Shoojit Sircar, the director of October, put writer Juhi Chaturvedi’s name on all the publicity for the film, an honor that most writers in Bollywood never get.
Streaming platforms like Netflix, with their search for edgy, distinct content, are also creating opportunities for women writers. Sacred Games, India’s first Netflix original, which was released this year, is co-written by Smita Singh. Another series, Leila, has been commissioned with screenwriter Urmi Juvekar as executive producer.
As long as you have a script that sells tickets, no one really cares what your gender is.
Jyoti Kapoor, Bollywood writer
The industry’s screenwriters’ association elected its first female president, Preeti Mamgain, in 2016. And women writers are devising strategies and fighting against a culture that remains predatory and misogynistic. Screenwriters share blacklists of industry individuals to avoid, says Kapoor, adding that the #MeToo movement has had an impact on India’s film industry as well. And Kapoor, 39, has won a plagiarism lawsuit against director Kunal Kohli over the film Phir Se (it borrowed heavily from a script she had written), which premiered on Netflix in January.
“Things are changing, and people are more careful,” Kapoor says.
Traditionally, screenwriting wasn’t treated as a vital cog in the Bollywood machine. Lines were written as actors prepared for scenes, screenplays were altered halfway into principal photography, and shoots were halted to rework scripts. Successful women directors such as Zoya Akhtar, Meghna Gulzar, Reema Kagti, Shonali Bose, Tanuja Chandra, Farah Khan and Gauri Shinde wrote their own scripts. When Tulsea, a management company that represents professionals across the Indian film industry, launched in 2010, some writers were “anxious about appearing snooty among producers and studios,” says Radhika Gopal, the firm’s talent agent and manager.
But professionalization and a growing demand for diverse storylines over the past decade have led to an increasing recognition of the role of writers. And within the community, female scriptwriters are soaring. “People are finally acknowledging that a film is also a writer’s medium,” says Binky Mendez, co-writer of the 2018 Indian-American production The Ashram and showrunner of Netflix’s upcoming show Crocodile, a murder mystery set in Goa. “There are a lot more opportunities for women, period.”
For sure, “content is still controlled by men,” says Kapoor — male leads are preferred in films and they usually get the best lines. Women in Bollywood remain vulnerable, with no union or institutional support, says Mendez. They are a tiny minority in the top echelons of big production houses.
But their success has now made women writers impossible for producers to ignore. “It’s the only language producers understand,” says Kapoor. “As long as you have a script that sells tickets, no one really cares what your gender is.”
India’s moviegoing demographics have also changed. Once a minority in theaters, women formed 53 percent of India’s moviegoing audience in 2017, according to a study by media agency GroupM. That shift has forced filmmakers to cater to a more diverse set of viewpoints than before. “Women bring a different perspective to the table that’s compassionate and more sensitive,” says Ronnie Lahiri, an award-winning producer.
The expanding presence of women writers in Bollywood is finding expression in the form of movies with strong female leads that have done well at the box office. Queen (2014) was about a woman who goes on a honeymoon alone after her fiancé dumps her a day before their wedding. Piku (2015), written by Chaturvedi, had actress Deepika Padukone as its eponymous lead. And Raazi (2018) is a gripping drama about an Indian female spy who marries a Pakistani major general’s son and steals secrets on the eve of the 1971 war that led to the creation of Bangladesh.
Creative challenges persist. Often, women writers are sought out to soften a script, not to elevate it creatively. “Women can write anything, but we’re still approached by all-male teams looking for female points of view,” says Gazal Dhaliwal, 36, who has written dialogue for major films like Lipstick Under My Burkha and more recently co-wrote Qarib Qarib Singlle with Tanuja Chandra.
Lahiri cautions against what he calls reverse societal pressure — the need for women writers to introduce feminist notions to prove one’s coming-of-age as a modern woman. “Stories are stories,” he says, arguing that women-centric films in India can still isolate sections of the audience.
Still, a decade ago, even this debate was unthinkable. Now, Kapoor has traversed from that first harrowing experience with a director to a point where she has just finished writing Good News, produced by Dharma Productions, one of India’s largest production houses. The film stars two of the country’s biggest names, Kareena Kapoor Khan and Akshay Kumar.
Next, Bollywood’s women writers want to get to a place where the debate isn’t needed. “We will have achieved equality when no one raises these questions anymore,” says Dhaliwal.