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Showbiz: Where are the women business leaders?

Five years on, when ZEE5 was planning an antithesis to the show that would celebrate the right side of the law but give viewers the same edge-of-the-seat action, there were several pitches on the table. However, instead of greenlighting yet another action-packed show glorifying a male protagonist, Nimisha Pandey, ZEE5’s chief content officer of Hindi originals, decided to go on the road rarely taken. The new show, Jaanbaaz Hindustan Ke, centres around a female cop, who leads an investigation into a bomb attack.

“It didn’t occur to anybody that the lead protagonist could also be a woman. The fact that we decided to turn the central character into a woman was a small shift (in storytelling). It definitely wasn’t a brainwave or a stroke of genius. But could it have come from a man? I’m not so sure,” Pandey says, referring to a crucial lacuna in Indian entertainment—the dearth of women in top leadership roles across the industry.

While there are several stories centred around women, shows that give women actors of different ages and demographics ample opportunity to play those roles, the industry itself doesn’t have enough women at the helm to commission these projects or bring their point of view to the table.

According to a July 2022 report by media consulting firm Ormax, only 10% of the head of department (HoD) positions across key filmmaking divisions— production design, writing, editing, direction and cinematography—in India are held by women. Of the 56 theatrical films analysed across languages for the report, not even one was directed or edited by a woman. Even in media and entertainment corporate houses that are at the centre of decision-making, only 10% of senior leadership roles were held by women.

The absence of women leaders has a cascading effect on inclusivity through the production and execution chain. Representation of female HoDs is also low in streaming (13% for OTT films and 16% for web series), but still five times higher than the theatrical segment (just 3%). Not even one HoD position across the 34 Malayalam, Kannada, Marathi, Punjabi, and Bengali films analysed for the report was held by a woman.

While films—and more specifically, web series—are bringing much-needed changes in the portrayal of women on screen and more diversity in storytelling with stories centered on women, the Indian entertainment industry continues to be a boys’ club. Several important roles, such as studio and broadcast network heads, down to trade analysts, are dominated by men.

Biases and conditioning

There is a lot of conversation around how there are generally more women on sets, as directors, writers and more. But there just isn’t enough talk on women not being in top leadership positions in networks and studios,” says Pandey.

A lot of it comes from the pride that companies take in their gender ratios, which look impressive on the surface but hide harsh truths about the disappointing skew at the top. Many women, for instance, are made to take on roles of creative heads without being considered for more hardcore business leadership roles.

“Much of the greenlighting of projects is done by creative heads. And they work hand-in-hand with business heads, who are responsible for things like increase in subscriptions or returns on investment,” says Aditi Shrivastava, co-founder and chief executive of digital entertainment platform Pocket Aces. It is these business heads that are more often than not seen as the face of the organization. And a lot of it has to do with prevailing gender stereotypes.

“It’s a known fact that historically, it is men who financed, produced or commissioned films, and so, most senior or leadership roles went to men. To add to that, the stereotypical notion that unlike a man, women can’t manage both career and family becomes an additional impediment. An abysmally low number of women being groomed and encouraged to take the lead over the years has resulted in fewer female leaders in entertainment,” says Aparna Purohit, head of India originals, Prime Video India.

There is also the conditioning. “We have often been conditioned to be quiet, to not be vocal, to not question and to not be upfront about our demands. In a room full of men, so many of us have wrestled with questions such as, ‘is it okay to ask this question’; ‘would I be taken seriously’; ‘would I be judged’; ‘can I ask for a promotion’; ‘is it worth making this point’; ‘can I ask for a raise’; ‘do I even deserve a higher salary?’” says Purohit.

Writer Mrunamayee Lagoo Waikul (known for Netflix original Scoop and films such as Thappad) agreed that a lot of women who are qualified do not want to be seen as demanding or asking for credit. “That conditioning, where you’re supposed to feel lucky, is hard to beat even if you come with a strong upbringing. Even in the case of someone like me, who was given a co-creator credit for Scoop, thanks to the fairness of (director) Hansal Mehta,” she says.

It is true that women have to work harder to make their way into boardrooms, and it is common to see them give up on the way, says Monisha Advani, producer at Emmay Entertainment, most recently known for titles such as Rocket Boys and Mrs Chatterjee vs Norway. As is often the case, both on screen and off it, similar character traits may not be seen as acceptable for men and women, Advani pointed out. “If you see Rani Mukerji’s character in Mrs Chatterjee, for example, a lot of people thought she was hysterical. A man, in a similar situation, would be seen as passionate,” says Advani, referring to commonly preconceived notions.

Fewer women on sets

Having more women on sets would generally allow more women to rise to the top, says writer and stand-up comic Sumukhi Suresh, who has interacted with several women during her negotiations with OTT platforms and is now venturing into movies as a producer herself, with a slate of six properties. “Then you wouldn’t just be choosing the best woman (out of the few that you have). There aren’t many women lighting personnel, for example, or executive or line producers,” says Suresh. Plus, the industry has barely scratched the surface when it comes to female comic voices (or those from other genders) from tier II and tier III towns, or in incorporating female actors across ages and body types to be represented on screen.

After Suresh played the lead in Pushpavalli, a comedy drama that she also created for Amazon Prime Video in 2017, she thought she would be flooded with acting offers. But that never happened. “It still takes people years to even write roles for body types like mine,” says Suresh. Which is why she’s now writing and is ready to produce these herself. “If the power to commission, make and then sell lies with you, your voice becomes clearer. The idea is to give a platform to more people like me, who may not necessarily get the presence or face (on screen),” she says.

It is a lot about ownership over resources and opportunity, says Gunjan Arya, CEO, OML Entertainment, a media and entertainment company that produces web originals and manages talent like Suresh. With someone such as Suresh controlling the narrative by becoming the writer, creator and producer of these shows and films, it means there will be opportunities for others to follow suit, says Arya.

Rising to the top is also a function of working consistently on the ground, which can often be tough given the nature of the entertainment industry. “It is such a disorganized industry. Even if you insist on hiring meritorious folks, it is quite the norm to work with freelancers and these involve late hours, outdoors and schedules frequently falling out of place. More often than not, it is simply getting someone who is available to do the job in the best way possible. While we would all prefer as diverse a crew as possible, there is no real way of making sure that happens,” Shrivastava says.

Waikul agrees that the entertainment industry is an unpredictable one, not known for great job security, and not necessarily specific to a particular gender. “With women though, erratic schedules or having to work odd hours and mostly live outside your home town is complemented by the fact that this is seen as a male-dominated industry,” says Waikul. The general norm is to have a plan B in case things don’t work out (which happens often), she adds. Further, while there are active efforts being made by certain production houses now, basic things like figuring out where a washroom can be for women or if there are adequate arrangements for them to get back home after a late-night shoot are just not a priority. “It’s not necessarily about preparing for sexual harassment, it’s also about how these things, more often than not, feel like an afterthought,” adds Waikul.

Baby steps

While historically, the industry has been male dominated, some organizations are actively working towards addressing these challenges and promoting gender diversity and inclusion. For instance, the Netflix India content team is led by three women executives: Monika Shergill, Tanya Bami and Ruchikaa Kapoor Sheikh, who greenlight the content slate of Indian originals for the platform. The company says that it wants more people and cultures to see themselves reflected on screen, so it’s important that its employees are as diverse as the communities it serves.

Globally, of the 23 leaders in the Netflix senior leadership team in 2022, 43.5% (10) were women. At a global level, across gender identities, women make up 49.6% of the company’s workforce and have the highest representation at Netflix, down from 51.7% in 2021. Women leadership (directors and other senior roles) at Netflix remained steady at 51.4% in 2022 versus 51.2% in 2021.

For a show or film to have strong female characters with agency and a meaningful presence within the story’s universe, it is important to ensure there are women in writers’ rooms, says Amazon’s Purohit. “We have made it a mandate for creators to have women in their writers’ rooms. More than half of our originals in production have women in HoD positions, and feature women in writers’ rooms. We are now working towards having at least 30% of HoDs as women across all our shows and movies,” she adds.

“My team and I have also worked on a database of women technicians, from writers, directors, cinematographers, editors and production designers to executive producers. So, if a creator tells us that they are unable to get female technicians ‘because there aren’t any’, we are able to share a list with them and show them that there are many, if they are willing to hire one,” Purohit says.

Closer home, Jyoti Deshpande, president of RIL’s media business Jio Studios, says the company’s vision is to create an organization that is empowering to women as well as build strong, effective leadership. “Since its inception, the company has over 55% women, with almost 90% of the leadership taken up by women, including our chief operating officer, chief financial officer, head of legal, human resources, strategy and corporate communications,” says Deshpande, who is also co-chair of the Ficci media and entertainment board.

This is the first time that a female executive of the media industry has been appointed as one of the office bearers of the vertical. “By incorporating diverse perspectives, we want to promote a more comprehensive and authentic portrayal (of women’s stories on screen). We are committed to highlighting women’s voices in our upcoming projects across films and web shows on sets across departments. This year will see more productions from the Jio Studios slate helmed by women, from direction to screenplay to other areas off screen,” Deshpande added.

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