"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.