“Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.” When Nora Ephron said this iconic line in a commencement speech at Wellesley College in 1996, she knew what she was talking about. After all, this was the same writer and filmmaker who had given the world beloved rom-com films. Like “Sleepless in Seattle,” “You’ve Got Mail,” “When Harry Met Sally,” among many more. When talking about heroines, and supporting acts, there are few people I’d trust more than Nora Ephron. (Except, Jane Austen.) She knew her love stories, she knew her independent women, and by god, she knew how to make some really good films.
I’ve been thinking about heroines — in fiction and in our lives — after I came across a survey report on representation of women in Indian films. Titled “O Womaniya! 2021,” the report is a collaboration between Ormax Media and Film Companion and looks at 129 films over five languages to ask, “Where are the women in films?” The answer is, well, nowhere.
90% of head of department positions in film projects are filled by men, the report says. Between 2019 and 2020, 6% of films surveyed were directed by women. The survey devised a Trailer Talk Time test to check who was speaking the most in film trailers. They found that male characters ‘outspeak’ female characters by more than FOUR TIMES. At Vitamin Stree, we do a Bechdel Test every year — and invariably write a “Barely Pass” to the year’s films. In Hollywood, even though more women are working in film, awards like Oscars are notorious for being all about men. (This is to say nothing of LGBTQ representation, which we’ll need another newsletter to address!)
Clearly, heroines are everywhere in our everyday life — but not on our screens. If stories are how we make sense of the world, it’s almost as if our understanding of the world is a little broken. Not because we don’t have enough women storytellers. But because, there just aren’t enough of us listening.
Reading the “O Womaniya! 2021” survey report, I thought of all the women filmmakers, and writers, actors I loved. Who not only gave me memorable lines and scenes, but often offered a guide on how to be a woman in the world. Filmmakers like Sai Paranjpye, Agnes Varda, Aparna Sen and Greta Gerwig. Writers like Nora Ephron, and more recently, Juhi Chaturvedi. Actors like Waheeda Rehman, Rekha, Madhubala who could tell entire stories with a glance of their eye. I am sure as you read this paragraph, you have your own running list of women who made films a joy, and a guide to go-to in baffling times. (Despite the blatant sexism of our most-loved films.)
So, what’s the solution? What do we do with films that treat women only as scenery — just better looking? There are two answers to this. One, which is a simpler one. Look at the credits scene closely, choose films which speak to you, and call out films that are rife with sexism. Even if they are the big blockbuster.
The second answer is tougher — but infinitely more exciting. Take charge of telling your story. You don’t need to make a feature-length film. But wrest control of your story away from others. Write that blog. Even better, write that story.
Like Nora Ephron said, “Above all, be the heroine of your life.” After all, it’s no fun just being the scenery.