Changing Trends in the Portrayal of Female Subjectivity
and Sexuality on OTT Platforms in India
Dr. Lima Antony
The paper analyses the changing trends visible in the portrayal of Indian female subjectivity and sexuality on OTT platforms. Indian women on screen never enjoyed any freedom as society and all its institutions are under the clutches of patriarchy. But now a slow revolution is cropping up through the OTT platforms which is analysed in this paper.
Key Words: Female Subjectivity, OTT, Indian Films, Female audience
Indian society is multicultural, multilingual and multi-religious. The production and consumption of digital media content in India demands a perspective which should take into consideration all the above features of Indian society. Cinema as a powerful medium to address the social and cultural issues of the multidimensional Indian society and the popularity of OTT (over-the-top) platforms after the advent of the Covid 19 pandemic, ushered in new entertainment products such as web-series. The emergence of OTT platforms also gave digital entertainment a new freedom and space to explore many taboo issues in society, especially female sexuality. The aim of this paper is primarily to study the web-series on OTT and the changing trends in the portrayal of female subjectivity on these platforms. The fact that subjectivity in general, and female subjectivity in particular, is determined to a great extent by cultural and linguistic factors is also analyzed.
The vicissitudes of female subjectivity assume grave dimensions in the contemporary Indian society which is functioning in a visual media dominated culture. The increased access to satellite TV and internet and now the increased consumption of OTT content, though useful for entertainment and education, has the impact of reducing Indian female subjectivity to objectification of images of women for exploitation, dominance and even violence. An exploration and analysis of the objectification of the Indian female self in literary texts and the visual media as an object of gaze, exploitation, domination or violence can be clearly illustrated by studying the visual culture of Indian cinema and web series on OTT.
The problem of female subjectivity getting lost in the images of the female body for commercial exploitation is a common phenomenon accepted with least resistance by Indian women. The body has a dynamic and vital role in structuring our subjectivities, perceptions, and understanding and has been a theme of feminist philosophy. Simone de Beauvoir, for example, argues that women’s subjectivity and social oppression is partly an effect of their embodiment (334). Their biological role in the reproduction of the species gives men the opportunity and the power to position women in the role of dependency. In the Indian context, the invisibility of female subjectivity under widespread exploitation of female bodily image, demands thorough exploration of her contemporary identity, selfhood and subjectivity in spite of the expectations of a patriarchal society.
John Berger in his book Ways of Seeing observes: "Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of women in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object—and most particularly an object of vision: a sight” (41).
The advent of the Covid 19 pandemic slowly hushed in a revolution in the digital space in India. Glued to the TV and Digital devices the Indian audience slowly began to explore the new web series on OTT platforms and thus, is bringing about a slow revolution. When viewed from a female perspective the change is very positive as there has been massive exploration of taboo themes in the Web series that could alter the perception of Indian female sexuality. As observed by Eliana Dockterman, “we live in a culture consumed by sex, and yet it is still rare to see realistic portrayals of female sexuality.”
Fareeda Ahmad in her article “Representation of Women in T.V. and Films in India '' gives a brief description of the history of representation of women in television. It is interesting to know the beginning of visual representation of women in India:
Historical background of women in television: Women in television started in the 1960s with countries like the U.S.A., U.K., U.S.S.R and other developed countries. In the context of India it started after the 1960s only where Doordarshan played an important role in it. Major serials like log bunniyad (sic) which attracted all sets of people. The serial which was shown was glamorous which made an idea that television was meant for glamour. It was the starting of women to be commoditized as a glamour doll as well as to show their body of advertising big MNCs and big businessman (sic). It was during 1991 where satellite channels as well as cable channels came into force where woman were used as a commoditized objects in major channels for making audience attracted and improving their rating, catering, youth programmers, business were all advertised by women as a commoditized girl (sic) (Ahmad 3).
It is interesting to examine how the Indian female subjectivity has been increasingly influenced by Indian films. Over the years the popular cinema perpetuated images of women rooted in the patriarchal norms of society. The women portrayed in traditional Indian films were mainly stereotypes who were epitomes of traditional Indian values. The theme that was a taboo to the Indian audience was that of female sexuality. As Gokulsing remarks, “The Indian cinema excels in the matter of disguised acts of sexual excitement by operating on the basis that the female form nude is less exciting than veiled” (sic) (Gokulsing 78). The changing conception of women and femininity was visible in the New Cinema in which directors explored “women not as objects of male desire, but as products of diverse social formations and seeking to transcend their sordid circumstance” (Gokulsing 80). The change that was visible in New Cinema was taken to new heights with the advent of OTT platforms in India.
The lead role of women on OTT platforms is also a trend which attracts much of the female audience, though not much statistical data or studies are available other than newspaper articles. But the increasing popularity of the shows and the response of the female audience is a measurable factor. The “Delhi Crime” was a popular series released on Netflix on 22 nd March 2019. It was the first Indian series to win the Outstanding Drama Series award at the 2020 International Emmy Awards. The lead role is played by Shefali Shah who portrayed the role of a bold and duty bound Deputy Commissioner of Police, Vatika Chaturvedi. The series stands out in its portrayal of female characters as very realistic and convincing and also daring and bold. The gang rape victim also is shown in a new light which shows her desire for justice and wants her rapists to be punished by law even in dying moments.
“She” was one of the top ten most watched shows on Netflix in India. The story is that of a cop named Bhumika who goes undercover as a sex worker while serving in the Anti Narcotics Group to fight a major drug lord. At home she is trying for a divorce from her alcoholic husband. She is the only earning member of her family and has huge family responsibilities. The series shows how a woman’s body can work well to control her surroundings. “Four More Shots Please” was another Web series released on Amazon Prime Video in 2019. It explores the lives of four females who lead a care-free life doing things that they like. They challenge all the patriarchal norms and cause uneasiness for the male audience. Sugandha Rawal in her article “Bold and Edgy: OTT Breaks Sexual Taboo” observes, “For decades, female sexuality has remained a hushed topic on screen, with no focus on the demands, needs or pleasure of a woman. But not anymore, as the OTT space scripts a change in the narrative, while stripping off the taboo around such subjects, changing mindset — one show at a time” (Rawal).
The changing viewership habits of the Indian female audience in the new digital platforms also have to be studied in great detail for making conclusive remarks. But studies show that viewers are increasingly attracted to women characters in the new digital entertainment who are more ambitious, bold and outspoken unlike the traditional Indian women portrayed in the popular Indian cinema:
OTTs offer a view at home experience which allows women to throw their numbers behind the audience profile, as opposed to the cinema going audience. Therefore, OTTs have to cater to them by offering narratives they can relate to and emulate, as it is a market demand now. Women are tired of being portrayed as selfless and sacrificing. They also want it to be okay for them to be ambitious, fun and have memorable life experiences… all things which till now were the sole bastions of men,” (“Female’s The Way on OTT”).
Sugandha Rawal says that “over the last few years, female sexuality is being explored with a new gaze in the digital space, stripping off the taboo around it.” She further observes:
There was a time when the subject of sex came with a bundle of awkwardness, sometimes wrapped together with suggestive lyrics, or visual metaphors like brushing of flowers or dimming of lights. Yet, sex was hardly a female affair, and that is what the filmmakers are out to change now. Be it a story of four friends exploring their sexuality in Four More Shots Please!, or importance of consent in Aahana Kumra’s Marzi, or a more complex look at sex play in recently launched, Bombay Begums. (“Bold and Edgy: OTT Breaks Sexual Taboos”)
“Bombay Begums” is an Indian drama web series released on Netflix on 8th March 2021. It explores the lives of five ambitious women. Set in Mumbai city it takes us through their desires, dreams, disappointments and personal crisis. It predominantly explores their sexual desires in a way that is not seen in the popular main stream cinema. The lead role played by Rani is immortalised by Pooja Bhatt. Fatima who works under Rani is also an ambitious woman. Lily, who was a bar dancer, is trying to get a respectable job. Ayesha is bisexual and is trying to climb the social ladder.
Another OTT release film which explores the theme of female sexuality is “Lust Stories.” It consists of four short film segments based on the anthology film “Bombay Talkies.” Critics praised the film for its portrayal of women and their sexual desire in a novel way. Alaka Sahani states that “the feeling of lust is not exclusive to men. Yet, women rarely express it.” Sahani further observes:
Women characters and their desires are at the heart of each of these stories. Their desires are not always of the purely sexual kind. Instead, they are associated with the search for their identity, struggling to live life on their own terms and discovering life’s many pleasures. So finally, these Hindi filmmakers seem to be digging deeper into the subject that has, so far, remained under wraps, just like a woman’s body is draped in a dupatta, unless we are counting the popular movies of the yore in which it’s only a ‘vamp’ who was shown lusting after the ‘hero’. They were mostly condemned or suffered ignominy.
“Lust Stories” explores the theme of female sexuality in a new light that has not been seen by the Indian audience. As the title would signify, the lust of women is the central theme of the stories. According to Imtia Ali, the filmmaker’s sexuality is used as a weapon to repress people and he comments that “OTT platforms allow the point of view and the duration to look at women in a more multi dimensional manner. I am particularly pleased by that,” Ali, who created “She,” tells us (Qtd in Rawal) “Sexuality is something that in our society is often used as a weapon to repress people. And being able to make a story about that was very interesting for me” (Qtd in Rawal).
The women characters who have emerged in the new web series from 2019 to 2022 are portrayed as multidimensional: some are struggling with sexual orientation, some are experimenting with sex and many others are confused but seeking it outside marriage. Most of the women who are shown in the series speak about sex and are no longer shown as having guilty conscience as the heroines of Indian conventional movies used to be. They are no longer under the clutches of patriarchy and want a liberated space of existence just like her male counterpart.
The new OTT platforms have many movies and web-series which reflect the changing viewership habits of the Indian audience. Slowly but steadily, if not controlled by the censor board, the Indian OTT platforms will reform and question the notions of female sexuality and liberate it from the clutches of patriarchy if not in real life at least on screen.
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De Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex. Knopf, 2010.
Dockterman, Eliana. “Sex, Women and TV: 21 Shows That Changed the Way We See Female Desire.” Time. July 10, 2014/https://time.com/2969986/masters-of-sex-television-female-sexuality/ Accessed on 29th Dec.2021.
Gokulsing, K. Moti, and Wimal Dissanayake. Indian Popular Cinema: A Narrative of Cultural Change. London: Trentham Books, 1998.
“Female’s the Way on OTT: Women-Fronted Stories Rule the Web.” Hindustan Times, 31st Dec. 2021, https://www.hindustantimes.com/bollywood/female-s-the-way-on-ott-women-fronted-stories-rule-the-web/story-LAKPLLs95YGRt4wtXga3ZL.html. Accessed on 29th Dec.2021.
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Rawal, Sugandha. “Bold and Edgy: OTT Breaks Sexual Taboos” Hindustan Times, 31st Dec.2021. https://www.hindustantimes.com/entertainment/web-series/bold-and-edgy-ott-breaks-sexual-taboos-101616770709622.html. Accessed on 29th Dec.2021.