Ordinary Women: Mumbai A profile series by Sarah Matthews

One of the best things about travelling is the extraordinary people that you can meet each and every day, and the bustling city of Mumbai, India is absolutely full of them.

Wherever I went, I was particularly in awe of the women that I encountered. I was in awe of their strength, their wisdom, their courage. Women were the ones carrying the heavy loads, braving the storms, and inviting you into their homes.

It can be difficult to be a woman in India, but things are improving every day, and it is because of women like these.

The following profiles tell the stories of three of the incredible women that I had the privilege to meet. They are the women who are dedicating their lives to creating change for those who come after them..They are the women who are working towards gender equality in India in unique and inspiring ways.

These are the ordinary women of Mumbai, and they are doing extraordinary things.

Upasana Dasgupta
"Just because a woman panics doesn’t mean she is not strong. She is strong because she can resist and she can get through it."

At just 20 years old, Upasana has ambitions for greatness. As an aspiring film director and self-described feminist from Mumbai, Upasana is passionate about the representation of women in Indian film and TV. With the strict censorship of a great deal of content in the Indian media, the government has a lot of control over the way that people are depicted. This can mean that representations of women are often two-dimensional, unrealistic and sexist. Upasana wanted to see real women in the visual media she watched, Women that looked and spoke and acted like her. Women that she could relate to. But because of India’s censorship rules, there was only one place that women like this could exist: the internet.

A new surge of web series has emerged from the fringes into the mainstream, with millions of young people in India turning away from their televisions and going to Youtube for their entertainment content. Upasana had the opportunity of a life time when she took an internship with the screen writer at one of the most successful online content production companies, Y films. Her first project? A show that was all about showing the good, the bad, and the ugly sides of being a young woman living in Mumbai. The show was called Ladies Room. Upasana was in her element.

“When I went in it was a little bit of a different scenario because, you know, for commercial movies we (women) have a stereotypical role. We know that there’s a little bit of patriarchy and we know the hero wins and that’s how Bollywood’s always been made.”

“So when I walked into Ladies Room there was no male characters. It was about two women.”

Upasana says that one of the things that she found so empowering about working on the show was the lack of censorship, and the way that it showed things that had never been shown before on television.

“There was a mention of weed in a train washroom in the first episode. This is the kind of thing that is usually not shown. And that was the things we hit, the things that are not shown.”

“We did not censor anything because that was our basic requirement. If we had to censor we would not make this. It’s the censored things we want to show. “

“And it was really fun because it was quite a reflection of reality.”

The show breaks a lot of cultural taboos surrounding women and how they should act, as well as sexist attitudes toward women. As is the same in Hollywood, the roles of women in Indian film and TV are romantic or sexual objects, whose role is to look perpetually beautiful.

“We wanted to show how we also face problems. Where a man faces a problem a woman probably faces a problem too.”

“A woman should always be the one whose subtle. A woman should always be the one who has to look pretty. A woman can’t look pretty in all her phases. It’s not natural. We can look ugly. That’s there. Because that’s the mood of being ugly,” Upasana says of the role of women in Bollywood.

“A man can look really handsome or he can look really messed up. But for a woman, you always have to look pretty. That is what we try to hit, that we also have our ugly times where we don’t look pretty and we don’t want to look pretty.”

"A woman can’t look pretty in all her phases. It’s not natural. We can look ugly. That’s there. Because that’s the mood of being ugly.”

As is often the case with projects that challenge gender norms, Ladies Room proved to be quite controversial amongst some. With the series covering a range of contentious issues such as abortion, drug-use and casual sex, the writers and directors of the series faced some serious backlash from concerned members of the public.

“We had people saying, “you’re hurting Indian sentiments. You’re hurting our culture.”

“So we do get a lot of negative feedback as directors or as screenplay writers, we get a lot of threats.”

“But because our motive was hitting the stereotypes, we felt we succeeded.”

Upasana says that the rest of the industry is slowly but surely moving in a positive direction, as more and more people in India are demanding more modern and realistic representations of women in the media that they consume. And, Y-films is leading the way in this regard, by using their incredibly large audience base to work towards more diversity in terms of representation in the industry.

“All the directors and all the writers they try to get out of the stereotypes. They try to make something that is different. Because they want people to know. It’s kind of like awareness through entertainment.”

“Y-films gets a lot of audience, so we use the audience.”

Ladies Room has been described as a “feminist comedy” and compared to other shows out of the United States that have also received the label of “feminist” such Broad City and Girls. This label can be considered contentious, but Upasana doesn’t dispute the fact the Ladies Room is, indeed, an act of feminism.

“Feminism is taken the wrong way. They often confuse feminism with matriarchy which is very sad.”

“So, when people say that it (Ladies Room) is a feminist thing I would not really disagree. We are being feminists here because we need to be feminists here. We are showing that we are still not equal.”

“The writer definitely had that in mind.”

What is perhaps the most wonderful thing about the series is its global relatability . As someone who stumbled upon the series whilst trawling through my Facebook feed and immediately identified with the themes and story lines. I laughed at the situations that the two main characters, Dingo and Khanna got themselves into, only because I had been in those situations myself. I asked Upasana about the way the internet has allowed for global interconnectedness and a shared narrative amongst young women.

“I think that the struggle of a woman is not restricted to culture or a country. The struggle of a woman is similar throughout the globe.”

“Building up a web series means getting in everyone. You can access it from Australia, and I can access it here, and probably in both cases you face the same problems and you can relate to it.”

“Our intention was to reach to a global audience. And it is reaching, in a good way, and in a very impactful way. And i think that’s the best thing about the show. That’s when we can call it a success.”

The series has gained audiences from all over the Western world, and Upasana said that they have received praise from the United States as well as the United Kingdom. As it turns out, relatable characters surpass cultural and geographical boundaries.

“A professor from Cambridge University wrote to us…she really liked the two characters. She liked that they were strong but not all the time. Sometimes they would panic.

“But just because a woman panics doesn’t mean she is not strong. She is strong because she can resist and she can get through it. We showed them in their worst, panicking and pmsing and getting worried over little issues. But they all resisted whatever came their way, and that’s how we built the character of a woman who is strong. Strong means that she can always fight it.”

The complete first season of Ladies Room is now available to watch on Youtube. Check out episode one below.

Anjana Sofi
“I thought, you know, I had this privilege of education. Why not teach others?”

“Ah, the warden has arrived,” someone says. I look up and see a woman with a smile so radient that it can be seen from the doorway as she enters the room. Today she is wearing a deep purple sari, covered in beautiful and intricate embroidery. It is a special occasion. Her name is Anjana Sofi, but she tells me that I can call her Sofi or Sofia, whichever I prefer. Sofia is an incredibly busy woman, and her skills as an education professional are in demand. She currently works as the head warden at two difference universities in the vast and exciting city of Mumbai, India. She is firm but kind. The students call her Mum.

Born and raised in a village near the city of Masurhi, in the state of Bihar, Sofia was educated in an environment where young girls seldom were. Thanks to a government initiated literacy program, she was able to gain a basic education. She then went on to further her studies, and developed a passion for educating others, and particularly for educating girls.

Although statistics would suggest that the disparity of education rates between males and females has improved a lot, the gap is still well and truly existent. Currently, the youth literacy rate is around 88.4% of males in India to only 74.4% of females. Sofia says that this is due to a mentality within a traditional Indian family unit that tends to value the education of males of the education of females.

“There is too much difference between bringing up a girl and a boy. Even in the same family…still they hold more hope for a male child than a female."

“They always try to send male children to school and educate them. They see a future in them. But for girls they think they will get married they will leave the house so we won’t benefit anything from them. This is the gendered mentality in India.”

Sofia speaks about the challenges that exist for young women growing up in India’s villages like the one she is from.

“Most people (from my home village) work in the fields. They don’t have their own field, they work for their landlord.”

“They don’t have work all through the year. They have patty transportation and then harvesting, there’s only two seasons. For the rest of the time, because they’ve had no education, they can not work in the offices. They have to sit at home.”

So she decided to do something. She left her home village to undergo training to become a teacher as part of a program called the Bihar Education Project.

“I actually started working for these people basically because I wanted to teach children because there was very less literacy here, they were not educated.”

“Their options are restricted just because they don’t have education.”

She then went around her own and nearby villages and found that many young women had dropped out of school. These were the young women that she would teach to be teachers.

“I found all the dropouts of seven standard onwards and I made them all teachers through a seminar for a week. And whatever I learnt in my training I would teach to them free of cost.”

“There is too much difference between bringing up a girl and a boy. Even in the same family…still they hold more hope for a male child than a female."

What resulted from Sofia’s work was not only eduction, but liberation. Many of these women were previously confined to their homes and the restrictions of domestic duties. Now they had opportunities that had previously been completely inaccessible.

“They (the women) didn’t have money to go for training and not even time. And, their parents wouldn’t allow them to go and get training even if it was free. They weren’t allowed out of their homes.”

“Because they were out doing something that was very much restricted. And who are they out meeting with, they should not be meeting with boys. They are very much protected. They have some kind of insecurity regarding the girl child.”

Sofia hopes that this cycle of education will continue so that, one day, all children in India will have the opportunity to be educated, regardless of their gender. Despite everything, Sofia remains incredibly humble about all of the work she has done.

“I thought, you know, I had this privilege of education. Why not teach others?”

Roopa Rao
"Equal rights and people treating you equally is just a side affect of acceptance."

Around five years ago, Roopa Rao resigned from her job as a project manager for an IT company to go to film school. Now, at 35 years old, she has made several feature films and short films. However, with selections from both the New York City Web Fest and the Miami short Film Festivals, perhaps her most successful project has been her web series, The Other Love Story. Set in 1990’s India, “in the era of love letter and land line phones,” The Other Love Story tells the story of two young women who fall in love. Despite the simplicity of its concept, this is somewhat of a first in the Indian film and TV industry, but Roopa says that it has been a long time coming.

“I didn’t want to get involved (in the project) it just involved me. It wasn’t a conscious decision.”

“I had written this story long, long ago and I was just hoping that somebody someday would make a movie.”

“And then it was 10 years later and nobody had. So I was like ‘okay, maybe it’s time I take it up myself.’”

One of the first things that Roopa realised after she began this project, was how incredibly difficult it was going to be. Because of a number of cultural and religious factors, as well as the issue of government censorship of all mainstream media, LGBTI individuals are almost nonexistent in terms of their representation. This made Roopa’s project all the more challenging, and also all the more important.

“Only when I took it up (the project) did I understand all the problems and stigma that people talk about. I hadn’t really experienced anything first hand.”

“But I am the kind of person that once I started, I had to see things through. And, here we are today.”

According to Roopa, it is still incredibly difficult to be queer, and particularly to be a queer woman in India. When I told her that in Australia, we are fighting for equal rights for the LGBTI community, Roopa said that in India, LGBTI people are still fighting for basic acknowledgement of their existence.

“I don’t call them queer or LGBT or anything because the way I see it is that they are falling in love with another human being who happens to be of the same gender. So just to accept that fact in their own heads, that is the first step.”

I talked to a lot of my friends when I was writing the series, and often when they come out to their parents of family, they don’t even know such things (being queer) can happen in the world.”

"That is where Indian society is struggling… Equality and equal rights, all of that comes much later.”

The hard work that Roopa has done has gone far from unacknowledged. In fact, the positive reaction from fans of the show has been overwhelming. Roopa still receives messages from fans every day who are so grateful for what she has created. She says that fans from more rural parts of India have been particularly vocal, as they are restricted even more so in the kinds of narratives that they have access to.

“I didn’t know it (The Other Love Story) was so important until I started getting the messages," Roopa says of the popularity of her show.

“I really didn’t think that they would love it so much. I sometimes have tears while reading some of the messages.”

“A lot of my messages are coming from not such big cities. It’s one thing to be in a metropolitan city where its much easier to talk and to find your people, but to be in places like that, it is still like how it is shown in the 90’s in India.”

"Stories do this. Just to know that these things happen in the world, that kind of gives you freedom, somewhere."

And herein lies the beauty of the internet, and global interconnectedness. Thanks to the monetisation of Youtube, Roopa has been able to create something for those who want it, and give it to them exactly where they are. If it weren’t for the use of Youtube for the release of The Other Love Story, Roopa says that she probably would never have been able to create anything like it.

“Because in India we have censorship for feature films. It’s not an honest art for me.”

“To find a producer who would want to make it (a story about queer women) into a film and in feature films, there is a third party involved before you go to theatres. Convincing him to release the film, at that may never happen because they all have the same mindset.

“But with Youtube it is between me and my audience. There is nobody in between.”

A series like The Other Love Story has made a tremendous impact on many members of Indian society. Having the opportunity to see oneself reflected in art or media is something that everyone, everywhere, deserves. Although there is a long way to go for the LGBTI community in India, every brave and generous person like Roopa, and every project like The Other Love Story, helps to pave the way for a better future. Stories like Roopa’s are powerful, and their power should to be underestimated.

“Stories do this. Just to know that these things happen in the world, that kind of gives you freedom, somewhere, and suddenly it makes you feel belonged.”

“Once you feel belonged, the next step is to feel accepted, and you accept yourself.”

The Other Love Story is currently up to episode 9 of 12, and is available to view on Youtube. Check out episode one below.

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Sarah Matthews
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