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Reverse engineering Bollywood

Updated on: 02 July,2023 07:21 AM IST  |  Mumbai
Meenakshi Shedde |

The School Faculty/Project team included Dr Shilpa Phadke, Dr Faiz Ullah and Dr Shilpi Gulati, along with project Associates, Rashmi Lamba and Dr Sunitha Chitrapu

Reverse engineering Bollywood

Illustration/Uday Mohite

Meenakshi SheddeDo you remember Galli Galli Sim Sim, the Indian adaptation/co-production of Sesame Street, that delightful muppet series for preschoolers on Cartoon Network India and Pogo from 2006? It was led by schoolgirl Chamki, five years old, an enthu cutlet. There was Jugaadu, an inventor who created a robot from spare parts; he played the flute, and later married Revathy from South India. Oh, by the way, he was in a wheelchair, but it never stopped him from enjoying life fully. Basha Bhaijaan, who owned a corner store, was a linguist. His wife Dawa Di, from Northeast India, taught dance. The series’ runaway success was a tribute to “reverse engineering”. Aware of the tremendous power of the media, the series grew organically from workshops with educators, parents, caregivers and NGOs, that helped identify key issues of concern for pre-schoolers—cognition, physical, emotional and social well-being, and culture, harmonising diversity. Following the release of the landmark report, Lights, Camera and Time for Action: Recasting Gender Equality-Compliant Hindi Cinema on June 28, I realised it is time to reverse-engineer Bollywood too: analyse what isn’t working, and fix it. 

“If you can see it, you can be it,” is the motto of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. Aware of the tremendous impact of Hindi cinema, Bollywood, the Lights, Camera and Time for Action: Recasting Gender Equality-Compliant Hindi Cinema Report was released by Vidya Balan, Guneet Monga, Nandita Das, Nitin Tej Ahuja, CEO, Producers Guild of India, and a Film Union rep, along with Prof Shalini Bharat, Director, Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai, and Mr Mike Hankey, US Consul General. The report was prepared by the TISS’s School of Media and Cultural Studies (SMCS), led by Dr Lakshmi Lingam, retired Professor and Dean, SMCS, and funded by the US Consulate General, Mumbai, see

The School Faculty/Project team included Dr Shilpa Phadke, Dr Faiz Ullah and Dr Shilpi Gulati, along with project Associates, Rashmi Lamba and Dr Sunitha Chitrapu. I had the honour of serving on the report’s Advisory Committee: for me, this was a confluence of deep interests—film and gender issues—I’m also vice chairperson, Point of View, the not-for-profit that has amplified women’s voices through popular media for 27 years.

The study did an in-depth, shot-by-shot analysis of 35 films—25 box office topper Hindi films of 2019 and 10 women-centric films, including those directed by women/gender fluid individuals, made between 2012-19. This was to focus on the significant period following Nirbhaya’s gangrape and death in 2012; the passing of the Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal of Workplace Sexual Harassment (POSH) Act in 2013, and the Supreme Court’s reading down of Section 377 of the IPC, that criminalised homosexuality, in 2018. They conducted six studies: three quantitative studies examining the representation of women onscreen, crew behind the screen, and women in other parts of the film ecosystem. And three qualitative studies, examining the experiences of women and queer directors, screenwriters, and young online film critics. 

The Indian Media and Entertainment industry was worth Rs 2.1 trillion (US$26.2 billion) in 2022, with film being eight per cent of this, along with TV, etc, according to a FICCI-Ernst and Young report, 2023. The study found that in box office topper films, 72 per cent of film characters were played by cis-males (males), 26 per cent by cis-females (females) and 2 per cent by queer characters. Whereas in women-centric films, though 58 per cent characters were male, there were 36 per cent female characters and 7 per cent LGBTQIA+ characters. In box office topper films, 90 per cent of the romantic co-leads were female characters, but women-centric films featured a majority of women as leads and co-leads. Only 36 per cent of box office topper films passed the Bechdel Test (with at least two women characters, with names and speaking parts, who speak about anything other than a man), whereas 100 per cent women-centric films passed the test. Women centric films had greater diversity of subjects, dealing with relationships, sexuality, motherhood and other issues.

The report’s numerous recommendations include that film institutes and the industry offer scholarships and mentoring to encourage more women working in film. As Bina Paul, co-founder of the Women in Cinema Collective (WCC), Kerala, formed after a horrific #MeToo incident involving top actor Dileep, reminds us: following a WCC petition, the Kerala High Court directed the state’s film production houses to form internal complaints committees as per the POSH Act. Moreover, the Kerala state government has granted R3 crore each year to fund films by women directors since 2019. 

So impossible is nothing. Where there’s a will, there can be a well-aimed kick in the butt.

Meenakshi Shedde is India and South Asia Delegate to the Berlin International Film Festival, National Award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide and journalist. 
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