Behind the Scenes :
A Closer Look at South Asian Women in Screenwriting
Written by: Sneha Nair
Design by: Yash Saxena
Kartiki Gonsalves will go down in history as one of the first Indian women screenwriters to receive an Oscar for her movie
“The Elephant Whisperers.
Is this win enough to make a difference for women screenwriters
across South Asia?
Despite the growing presence of South Asian actors and creators in Hollywood, the stories of South Asian women on screen have been limited and often stereotypical.
Screenwriting is one of the most crucial elements in bringing together a film. It lays out the fundamentals, ideas, imagination, and vision for the film on paper. It's a blueprint of what the film will look like or what it must look like.
Historically, most mainstream cinema has always misrepresented South Asian narratives and is heavily dominated by the ideas and processes of the west. To dig deeper into screenwriting in
South Asia, and examining the role of women screenwriters would require us to ask questions and look beyond the available sources, and sometimes just ask the important questions,
without having all the answers.
ReFrame Report 2022 findings show there was no significant increase in the number of women writers hired across the top 100 feature films
There was also a decrease in the number of women of color hired as writers 2% in 2022 versus 9% in 2021.
But why is it essential to have more South Asian women screenwriters for movies?
They bring a unique perspective to character writing, often infusing their characters with the nuances and complexities of their own lived experiences to portray the intersectionality of identities -
Sai Paranjpye was one of the earliest Bollywood screenwriters, she started her career in the late 1960s and early 1970s when there were very few women screenwriters and directors in India. Her films showed the lives of ordinary people, through her extraordinary storytelling skills. She portrayed female characters through their experiences and life stories, moving away from the usual lens of the male gaze.
In the Indian film "Lipstick Under My Burkha," directed by Alankrita Shrivastava, four women from different backgrounds and ages explore their sexuality and desires in a society that seeks to control and suppress them. The film attempts to bring together how religion, society, and age all play into repressing women. And while it may have faltered in a few areas, the writing was able to capture the intersectionality of feminism that exists outside of the West. The movie was also immediately branded as a ‘lady-oriented film’ and denied a censor board certificate.
Or the film “Namesake” written by Sooni Taraporevala and adapted from Jhumpa Lahiri’s book portrays the character of Gogol Ganguli, who navigates the intersections of his Indian heritage and American upbringing, as well as the generational and cultural gaps between himself and his parents. As the film progresses, Gogol begins to come to terms with his identity and begins to embrace his heritage in a deeper way. Through Gogol's story, the movie explores themes of identity, cultural assimilation, and generational conflict, all of which are shaped by the intersections of race, ethnicity, and nationality.
They also tend to tackle taboo subjects leading to an increased representation of diverse stories and perspectives
In her film "Chashme Buddoor," Paranjpye depicted female characters who were independent, and in control of their lives, which deviated from the typical portrayal of women in Bollywood films. Paranjpye's films also often included moments of female camaraderie and solidarity, in "Katha," for instance, Paranjpye portrayed the friendship between two women from different social classes and the challenges they faced as women in a male-dominated society.
Pakistani filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy won two Academy Awards for her documentaries "Saving Face" and "A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness," which shed light on issues such as acid attacks and honor killings in Pakistan. Obaid-Chinoy has been a strong advocate for women's rights and has used her films to raise awareness about gender-based violence and discrimination.
Or the film “Firaaq” written by Nandita Das examined the aftermath of the 2002 Gujarat riots through the eyes of several characters from different religious and social backgrounds.
Similarly in Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding, Sabrina Dhawan explored the complex layers of an Indian family and talked about issues that exist within almost every family but aren’t addressed. In Monsoon Wedding they touched upon how abuse is often ignored in the name of family values and cultural traditions and how the character navigates through this entire journey.
Despite these examples, South Asian women characters continue to be pigeonholed into specific roles such as the submissive wife or the exotic seductress. This narrow representation has contributed to a lack of opportunities for South Asian women to break into the industry and has made it difficult for them to have their stories told in a nuanced and authentic way.
In a study conducted by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, it was found that in the top 100 grossing films of 2019, only
and just were Middle Eastern.
of writers were Asian,
Although we have a long way to go, there are steps being taken in the right direction, writers like Mira Nair known for her award-winning movies "Salaam Bombay!" and "Monsoon Wedding”, and TV series "A Suitable Boy," being a vocal advocate for greater diversity in the industry and using her success to create opportunities for other South Asian women writers.
Another challenge facing South Asian women writers is the lack of mentorship and support available to them. Historically, an amalgamation of cultural barriers, unconscious biases, and misrepresentation have prevented South Asian women from accessing mentorship and overall support.
But the future has started to look bright for us with shows like “Never Have I Ever” paving the way for global recognition. The super successful Netflix series backed by Mindy Kaling, packed a writer’s room full of first-generation Indian Americans, like herself, intending to deliver a Saturday-night binge that moved its characters away from the model minority myth.
And “Ms. Marvel” featured MCU’s first Muslim superhero Kamala Khan, written by Bisha K Ali who is focused on the solidarity between herself and other people from minority groups within the space.
Here are some incredible opportunities for SOUTH ASIAN women IN SCREEN writING:
1497 Writers Lab mentored by Deepa Mehta, Nisha Ganatra, Minhal Baig, the lab aims to support and lift talent of South Asian descent to reduce their underrepresentation in the U.S. film and TV industry. Sundance in 2023 will feature the festival’s first-ever South Asian Lodge, in collaboration with the 1497 Writer’s Lab.
The Tasveer Film Fund (TFF) supported by Netflix and is now in its third year of providing South Asian filmmakers an opportunity to bring their scripts to life with monetary grants, as well as year-long support with resources and mentorship access.
TakeTen, a joint initiative, in collaboration with Netflix’s fund for creative equity and Film Companion, aims to not just fund but also mentor future filmmakers. The films produced towards the end of the mentorship program will be showcased on Netflix India’s YouTube channel. Applications are restricted to citizens and residents of India over the age of 18.
Chicken and Egg Pictures is a US-based project that supports women nonfiction filmmakers, they run a Diversity Fellows Initiative which supports women filmmakers, including screenwriters, who come from diverse backgrounds. It includes a grant, mentorship, and networking opportunities.
Creator Rooms is a space for South Asian screenwriters to write powerful and fearless stories adapted from reportage, literature, and art. They develop film & series projects centered around the theme of Women & Identity.
The Margins Fellowship by The Asian American Writers’ Workshop offers mentorship, stipend, residency, and resources to emerging Asian American Writers.
The Film Finishing Fund by Women in Film has provided funding to women filmmakers and screenwriters who are close to completing their projects since 1985.
As for South Asian filmmaking, well I think the rest of the world is waiting to see what you're going to bring us next. Is something modern, dark, funny, or offbeat? Something true, that we recognize; something about the weirdness of the world we all live in today; something young. Something entirely South Asian, with no punches, pulled for the West (or the East): force us to come to you, because we will.
- Kate Leys (Script and Story editor)