In a mediascape where women are underrepresented or misrepresented, these stories continue to shine like a beacon.
The theme for International Women's Day 2022 is #BreakTheBias and it encourages us to imagine a gender-equal world without stereotypes and discrimination. But does this world only exist in our imagination? Multiple statistics have reported that around the world, gender imbalance and under-representation of women is rampant in many areas of society, including the media.
A 2015 report conducted by the Global Monitoring Media Project found that as subjects of stories, women only appear in a quarter of television, radio, and print news. Have things changed since then? According to unwomen.org, research spanning more than 100 countries has found that "46 percent of news stories, in print and on radio and television, uphold gender stereotypes. Only 6 percent highlight gender equality." The website cites another global study spanning 522 news media organizations to conclude that," though women represent half of the world’s population, less than one-third of all speaking characters in film are female." This is why it would be interesting to look back across the Indian mediascape and celebrate the stories that put women protagonists right at the center of the narrative.
Here are a few of our favourite stories that celebrate sheroes and continue to remind us of the importance of representation.
This was possibly the first TV show where a woman in uniform led the narrative. The story written and directed by Kavita Chaudhary begins by painting the unsung struggles of rural Indians as they battle land sharks, corruption, and violence and are let down by inept policing and legal loopholes. From this heartbreak and deprivation, rises Kalyani (played by Chaudhary herself), a young girl who vows to change the circumstances and systematic failures that have victimised her family. She becomes an IPS officer, faces gender bias and discrimination at work but triumphs ultimately to inspire many other young women to rise above their circumstances. Aired on Doordarshan from 1989 to 1991, the painstakingly researched series was based on the experiences of the director's sister, Kanchan Choudhary Bhattacharya, the first female Director-General of Police. The series is particularly relevant today when most television shows depict women in domestic settings and make no place for their aspirations and ambitions.
'Main Kuch Bhi Kar Sakti Hoon' (I, A Woman, Can Achieve Anything)
In the best traditions of edutainment and transmedia content that can be accessed on TV, radio, internet, and mobile phone, 'Main Kuch Bhi Kar Sakti Hoon' (MKBKSH) is a trailblazer in the truest sense. Launched by the Population Foundation of India, the series offers counterpoints to deeply entrenched social prejudices regarding family planning, early marriage, reproductive health, domestic violence via a courageous female protagonist, Dr. Sneha Mathur. Directed by acclaimed director, Feroz Abbas Khan, the show has been endorsed by the likes of Sharmila Tagore, Shabana Azmi, Farhan Akhtar, and many more and has had a far-reaching impact on rural communities across India. It is hugely inspiring to see the idealistic and empathetic Dr. Sneha Mathur, doing her best to spread awareness in a village and helping to normalise conversations around sex-selective practices, sexual health, sanitation, and hygiene. It is eye-opening to see a female-led series that strives to not just entertain but to empower, enlighten and guide. The show has 3 seasons and a total of 183 episodes, which are available on Hotstar and Youtube.
Released in 1985, this Basu Chatterjee directorial presented as its central protagonist, a home-maker on a mission. Rajani was a woman who took on bureaucratic lapses in government offices, corruption in the distribution of public utilities, and everything that was wrong with society with steely resolve and a smile. With proactive problem solving, she demonstrated how women could, just with a little bit of knowledge and confidence, solve everyday problems and fight against injustice. Priya Tendulkar in the lead became a cult figure in popular culture and the series went on to gain an iconic status even though it was shot on a shoe-string budget at the screenwriter Ranjan Bose's apartment! The series was a far cry from the TV shows of today, where plots revolve usually around women engrossed in domestic disputes and little else.
This 1985 adaptation of Jane Austen's 'Pride and Prejudice' was way ahead of time as it depicted how in a marriage and status-obsessed society, a young woman if she so chooses, can speak her mind, accept or reject proposals guided by her own inner compass and refuse to be bullied by riches or arrogance. Interestingly the show was written by well-known film writer and author Kamna Chandra, the mother of author Vikram Chandra, film critic Anupama Chopra and film-maker Tanuja Chandra. The lead character played by Sangeeta Handa, was a straight-talking, middle-class girl who remains unswayed by the pressure to get married, to be manipulated into a marriage of convenience, or to accept even an eligible, rich suitor (Tarun Dhanrajgir) till she is convinced that his values match hers. Her intelligence, quick repartee, strength of character, and integrity make her one of the most unique heroines on Indian television.
Shanti - Ek Aurat Ki Kahani
This series is about a truth-seeking journalist was aired on DD National in 1994, and later on STAR Plus and featured Mandira Bedi in the titular role. This was not exactly a realistic portrayal of journalism but the fact that the story was led by a determined young woman who relentlessly risks danger for the sake of justice and to find closure and peace, connected with legions of fans looking for a story to identify with. Shanti was no pushover, met her opponents with a square gaze and calm voice, and continued to dig deep till she found what she was looking for. The series was too long and occasionally unwieldy but it had one of the strongest and most memorable female protagonists who stood tall and proud in the messy narrative and communicated the invincible strength of a woman.