With the Covid-19 lockdown, we saw the rise of OTT platforms and experimental narratives. Since the platforms are less corporately structured, storytellers have the power to influence people and bring marginalized communities to light. It has the ability to either conform to or subvert the dominant culture.

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OTT platforms enable filmmakers and storytellers to bring us stories that are largely uncensored and enjoy greater artistic freedom. As a result, minorities of sexuality, gender, religion, and caste are becoming more visible. Previously, movies were marketed as “mainstream” and produced by high-brow production companies. These narratives are finally being questioned and reassessed.

Representation is an important aspect of cinema. It is about more than just the minority struggle; it includes people living on the margins and reaffirming their existence beyond constraints.

Feminism In India

Positive queer portrayals have been few in Indian films and shows. Post the decriminalization of section 377, directors and producers started dipping their toes into queer representation. Shows like Made in Heaven (Amazon Prime), Four More Shots ( Amazon Prime), Feels Like Ishq (Netflix), Ajeeb Daastaans (Netflix), and Call My Agent (Netflix) feature queer characters as the lead.

Feminism In India

Most recent queer stories portray a privileged, urban lifestyle where homophobia can be ‘cured‘ with melodramatic dialogues. More often, they are mere tokens who never even utter LGBTQ+ terms. Queerness is not solely the domain of the rich and the privileged. Centuries of institutionalized patriarchy, structural failure and religious homophobia is ignored. Netflix anthology Ajeeb Dastaans represented Dalit, LGBTQ+ and people with disabilities in a sensitive manner. Neeraj Ghaywan’s Geeli Puchhi stands out as a nuanced depiction of caste, patriarchy, and queerness with an honest narrative of a complex society.

Bharti belongs to the Dalit community whereas Priya is an upper caste married woman. Through Priya’s constant reminiscence about her childhood friend, Kavita, and a video on Bharti’s phone, their sexualities come across. Their relationship blooms until Priya finds out Bharti’s caste and ends the friendship because of the differences. Without using any queer terms, the complexity in accepting and embracing one’s sexuality is visible. Conforming to heteronormativity brings respect with their caste and gender, but not individual peace.

Set in 1982 Kovai district, Thangam from Paava Kadhaigal, is the story of a Sathaar is a transgender person who faces ostracization, ridicule and harassment. Sathar’s father and the villiagers abuse him for his gender identity. Transness was criminalized under the British rule and the legislative discrimination has not evolved much today. Similar to  this short movie, the stigma eventually kills Sathaar. Not only transgender, but queer identities face oppression from societal institutions such as family, law, religion, etc.

Sex education in India has met several obstacles. Because of limited access to information on sexual and reproductive health, there are myths and misconceptions around it. When there is a lack of sex education false information misguides and adds stress. Misrepresentations in Laxmi, Dostana, Kal Ho Na Ho, Raja Hindustani, etc. stereotype queer identities. Other Indian movies and series that portray authentic representation include Aligarh, My Brother Nikhil, Margarita with a Straw, Super Deluxe and Bombay Begums. The roles brought awareness and helped normalize queer identities.

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Woman have also found a bigger space now. Bollywood has been and still considers men to be the staple of financial success and erase women from the stories and promotions. From Delhi Crime and Aarya to Pagglait and Feel Good, OTT platforms are leading the charge on gender representation and none of them need cisgender male saviors. Delhi Crime was a women-led show that won the Best Drama Series at the 2020 International Emmy Awards. OTT platforms have given actors a wider experiment space and dispelled traditional stereotypes, like “shelf life”.

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This freshness is being appreciated and made even more now. Acknowledging the real stories about women with different layers, straying from the “good virgin wife” trope makes for good content. Be it about dreams, desires and struggles of urban women in Bombay Begums, the journey of a woman who takes up the responsibility of her corrupt family business in Aarya or playing a real-life inspired police officer who is caught between her job and personal life in Delhi Crime, these roles are bringing more narratives. Stories like these were dubbed “indie” and removed from mainstream dialogues in the past.

The role of women generally in cinema too has evolved a lot from what we used to see earlier. Though there were strong women characters in films always, they were few and far between. Now with OTT, the volume is large and hence more opportunities

-Divya Dutta, actor

Films and series that would otherwise struggle to get producers and distributors are being supported by streaming services. Many opportunities, big roles, well-etched characters have all become mainstream for women in an industry which propagated male heroes. OTT has taught Bollywood that stories of women of all classes and castes can translate well to a mass audience. Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare and Maharani showcased complicated, diverse women who are strong in a myriad of ways. Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare sways seamlessly between the personal and the political. The women are realistically flawed everyday people, navigating treacherous territory without a safety net. On the other hand, Maharani sees a simple maid from a village become the CM of Bihar, against all the powerful political men. 

OTT content is also doing a better job at depicting women in risky and rare avatars. Sanya Malhotra as a young widow trying to discover her identity in Pagglait, Jennifer Winget’s Major Monica Mehra in Code M, Kirti Kulhari’s middle-aged single mother in Four More Shots Please Season 2 are examples of how OTT is giving diverse opportunities to women to experiment. 

There is also an increase of content around powerful leading women over 40. Sushmita Sen, at 45, took the online world by storm with her powerful central tum as a doting mother and housewife forced into the narcotics trade, a role that she never got while being type casted as a simple beautiful teacher. Shefali Shah, after 25 years of acting, got her long-overdue recognition with her role in Netflix’s Delhi Crime. Furthermore, actresses like Madhuri Dixit, Kajol, Pooja Bhatt and Raveena Tandon have also been seen in powerful roles on OTT platforms.

While streaming services have definitely helped champion female-led stories, progress still needs to be made concerning the inclusion of women in the top decision-making roles throughout the entertainment industry. Including more community input, from pre-production to finishing touches in post-production, will deepen sensitive portrayals and provide more distinct voices. People do not want to see queer protagonists written by cisgender and heterosexual people or powerful men written solely by men.

The fact that the OTT space redefines the ‘mainstream‘, away from the censor board approved, hero-led narrative is promising. However, there is still a long way to go in terms of representation and non-appropriation.