Female protagonists are often the biggest stars in Bollywood films, but behind the scenes, it is still an industry dominated by men. Tired of being sidelined, women workers are banding together to ensure their voices are heard – on set, and off.
“We would have at least 80-90 people on a set and only three or four of them were women,” said Petrina D’Rozario, a film producer.
“We would bump into each other [and say] ‘Oh, my God, why can’t we get a toilet?’,” said D’Rozario, founder and president of Women in Film and Television, India, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Mumbai – the heart of the country’s film industry.
Besides the dearth of toilets, she said female staff had to contend with a lack of childcare facilities, lower pay and late-night shifts with no thought given to their personal safety – problems film industry trade unions have failed to resolve.
That has driven D’Rozario and other women working in India’s huge film industry to form their own groups outside the traditional trade union framework to lobby on issues related to working conditions and gender-related inequalities.
“In my mind, most of the film fraternity is a boys’ club,” said Fowzia Fathima, a cinematographer and founding member of the Indian Women Cinematographers’ Collective, a group of female cinematographers.
While her organisation – like D’Rozario’s – lacks the bargaining power of a traditional union, it provides a forum for women to find work, seek advice on cases of workplace sexual harassment and share professional tips and industry news.
“It’s a safe space to discuss specific concerns which practising women face. That is going to be needed until many things get discussed in the open,” Fathima told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
In India’s 2.1 trillion-rupee ($25.47bn) movie business, men outnumber women in Bollywood film crews by five to two, according to research by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences.
In Hollywood, the ratio is similar, with about a third of key behind-the-scenes crew jobs occupied by women.
India’s film industry is the world’s most prolific, churning out approximately 2,000 films each year and employing all kinds of artists including actors, musicians, fight masters, pyrotechnicians, stunt performers, costume designers and dancers.
But women who work in Bollywood struggle to get hired, said Darshana Sreedhar Mini, an academic at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who studies labour organisation in the Indian movie industry.
Sreedhar said part of the imbalance is linked to women’s unequal representation in unions, and the lack of women in leadership roles.
Women only occupy about 10 percent of senior management roles on set, found a 2022 industry report by media consulting group Ormax Media and streaming platform Amazon Prime Video.
“Many organisations have one or two women,” Sreedhar said, referring to female union representation. “But the overall picture remains very bleak.”
Union leaders are concerned about the issue of women’s under-representation in their ranks and the wider industry, said B N Tiwari, president of the Federation of Western India Cine Employees (FWICE), an umbrella organisation for 32 established industry unions.
FWICE told Context that 50,000 of its 289,000 members – just 17 percent – were female.
“There’s a lot of women not taking union memberships, but there are lots of women working. They don’t earn as much so they don’t join the unions,” Tiwari said, adding that many film industry workers were on short-term contracts and that there was discrimination in recruitment.
He said the absence of women in the industry trade unions was a “point of shame” for his organisation and promised to raise the issue at the federation’s next meeting.
“We will work towards making the industry a better place for women to work,” he said.
But it is not just in Bollywood that Indian women are underrepresented in trade unions.
Only 10.7 percent of India’s more than 500 million-strong workforce are union members and women are half as likely to be enrolled as men, according to the International Labour Organization’s 2018 India Wage Report.
In Bollywood, said Sreedhar, that may be because women have not benefitted equally from the gains of collective bargaining power – from securing wage hikes and reasonable working hours to advocating for safe workplace environments.
Discrimination by male-dominated movie unions was spotlighted in a 2014 Supreme Court ruling that ended a nearly six-decade informal ban on women being employed as makeup artists in the film industry.
Charu Khurana led legal proceedings against the Cine Costume Make-up Artists and Hairdressers Association, an industry union, which had informally decided that only men could work in the role, and obstructed her from working on sets.
“They said … they would never employ female makeup artists because if they allowed women to work, all the actors would only choose women, and males would be deprived of a livelihood,” Khurana said by phone.
She recalled having to hide in actors’ vanity vans and give credit for her work to junior male makeup artists to prevent union action against her. Her application to join the union was stonewalled for more than a decade.
Since the verdict, Khurana has worked on some of Bollywood’s biggest hits and has seen the number of women enrolled in the makeup artists’ union expand significantly.
Nearly a decade on, the industry’s gender pay gap is the most pressing concern, said Sreedhar. She said female crew members continue to face a multitude of other challenges such as getting jobs and feeling unwelcome on set – particularly if they work in technical roles.
By connecting with other women’s organisations, D’Rozario said her group had been able to help women get scholarships, internships and networking opportunities.
“We went through so much fire of trying to raise funds, beg borrow and steal to make events happen,” she said. The payoff, she added, has been seeing female filmmakers blossom in the industry, though much still needs to change.
“There is an iceberg of issues, we are just about touching the surface.”