Is there too much sex in web series – and does its uninhibited and graphic depiction objectify women rather than allow them to freely express their desire?

These questions, which have bothered conservatives and feminists alike ever since streaming platforms caught on over the past few years, were tackled at a panel discussion in Mumbai on Friday. The discussion was a part of an event titled MeToo - Impact On Women In Media, organised by the Screen Writers’ Association, Laadli and the United Nations Population Fund.

The discussion was moderated by actor and filmmaker Tannishtha Chatterjee (Road, Movie, Parched, Angry Indian Goddesses). On the panel were screenwriters Mayank Tewari, Smita Singh and Manu Sharma along with writer-director Karan Anshuman and actor Anupriya Goenka.

According to Tewari, whose screenwriting credits include Newton (2017), the erotic web series XXX: Uncensored and the upcoming The Accidental Prime Minister, one reason for the sexual nature of web programming is because titillating content is the lowest hanging fruit for a medium trying to establish its commercial viability.

Manu Sharma, who has written for both television and the web, agreed. “We’re still figuring out the rules of the web,” Sharma said. “The web will find its place and with more feedback, hopefully we’ll have better stories to tell.”

Two of the most talked-about and well-marketed web series this year, Netflix’s Sacred Games and Amazon’s Mirzapur, are both crime dramas headlined by men. In such a landscape, how does one make female characters count? Smita Singh, the show’s only female writer, said she was initially wary of the “masculine world” of Sacred Games. “Now when I look back, I’m so happy that I muscled my way in and I wrote those characters,” Singh said. “The more that world kept becoming solid, the more I enjoyed it – writing a gangster, a cop. As for the female characters, the source text [Vikram Chandra’s novel of the same name] is driven by two male characters. Every other characters [even male] is in service of the male protagonists.”

Merely having female protagonists does not translate into progressive content, Singh added, pointing to the domestic dramas on cable television.

Karan Anshuman, who works with Excel Entertainment and has directed the gangland drama Mirzapur and cricket-themed Inside Edge for Amazon, admitted that it was a challenge to develop female characters. “Both Inside Edge and Mirzapur are very testosterone-driven,” Anshuman said. “From the first day, we were clear that we have to make women an integral part of these shows. I think we went very far with Inside Edge, where our lead character [played by Richa Chadha] was a woman. With Mirzapur, it was a much tougher thing because we had to try to be real to the world in which it was set.”

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Mirzapur (2018).

Is there pressure from financiers to appeal to a predominantly male viewership? Anshuman said he had not faced any pressure, but Tewari admitted that unconscious biases may be at play. Alt Balaji’s XXX: Uncensored for instance, Tiwari said, ended up working within male-driven ideas of feminine desire and sexuality. “In the web space especially, I think we will continue to see sexually driven content because we are a repressed society,” Tiwari said.

Anupriya Goenka, who has appeared in the film Padmaavat (2018) made her web debut with the first season of Sacred Games as the ex-wife of Saif Ali Khan’s Sartaj Singh, said she would not be in a show in which she feels she is being objectified.

A more collaborative process between actor and writer or filmmaker is important, Goenka pointed out. “If you are asking me to play a role, please do understand where I am coming from or what I think about the character,” she said. “Sometimes actors are expected to just do what they’re told to.”

The bold sexual scenes in Sacred Games were among the topics for discussion. The intent behind a scene is crucial, Goenka pointed out. For instance, a scene involving frontal nudity, in which Kubbra Sait’s character reveals herself to be a transwoman, was important for the plot. Another scene involving nudity was between Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s Ganesh Gaitonde and his wife Subhadra, played by Rajshri Deshpande. Goenka admitted that she was not sure whether that scene was needed at all to depict the relationship between Gaitonde and Subhadra.

Smita Singh too had reservations about this scene. “But if the writers aren’t in the room when the scene is shot, what can they do?” she said.

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Sacred Games (2018).

The panelists agreed that consent and comfort are very important, and that scenes need to be filmed in a manner that is fair to the actors. The atmosphere on set makes a huge difference, Tannishtha Chatterjee said. “Who are those people? Who is your DOP [director of photography]? Who is your co-actor, what is that touch, what is that scene trying to do?” Chatterjee explained.

Directors need to ensure that actors are consulted every step of the way over explicit scenes, Karan Anshuman added. “Obviously there has been exploitation and that reality exists,” he said, “Right from casting, that conversation about comfort [at Excel] starts, and all the way to the shoot and even in post-production.”

Writers and actors too should assert themselves, he added. “If you’re not comfortable on set, you have to say it, that you’re not ready to do something.”

One way forward could be to change the expectations of both storytellers and audiences from web series. While the lack of censorship on the internet can only be a good thing, the resultant boundary-pushing needs to go beyond sex and towards other topics, including politics, Chatterjee pointed out. Viewers too need to embrace more meaningful programming, Smita Singh said. “Unless there is an organic cultural shift towards more profound storytelling, it will not be reflected,” she said.

(L-R): Mayank Tewari, Manu Sharma, Anushree Goenka, Tannishtha Chatterjee, Smita Singh and Karan Anshuman.
(L-R): Mayank Tewari, Manu Sharma, Anushree Goenka, Tannishtha Chatterjee, Smita Singh and Karan Anshuman.