Benita Chacko
OTT Streaming

How are women execs redefining the Indian streaming game?

Many OTT platform today are being led by women, redefining the creative direction and content.

"The future is audacious. The future is us and the future is here." These were Guneet Monga's words to all the women, after The Elephant Whisperers won an Oscar for best documentary short. The win is a landmark achievement, not only because the Netflix documentary is the first-ever Oscar for an Indian production, but also because it is directed and produced by two women, Kartiki Gonsalves and Monga.

Gone are the days when women were limited to just being make-up artists or costume designers in the film industry. Today, women are shattering glass ceilings in traditionally male-dominated departments like editing, cinematography, direction and production. And this is not just limited to the film industry.

Among the 40-odd OTT platforms in the country, many women are heading the creative divisions of these platforms. For example, Aparna Purohit is the head of Indian originals at Amazon Prime Video. Monika Shergill is VP- content at Netflix India. Mrinalini Khanna is VP Originals at Lionsgate India. Meanwhile, Nimisha Pandey and Ridhima Lulla are chief content officers at Zee5 and Eros Now respectively. Between them, they are deciding what millions of Indians watch.

What difference do these women leaders make to the content these streaming platforms create?

The 'O Womaniya!' report 2022, created by Ormax Media & Film Companion, highlights a correlation between women in decision-making roles and an increase in women's representation in content. Specifically, when a woman was in charge of commissioning, 68% of films passed the Bechdel Test, compared to only 50% passing the test when the commissioning incharge was a male. In order to pass the test, a film must have at least one scene where two named women are talking to each other about something other than a man. For streaming series, given their longer runtime, the criterion was modified to ‘at least three scenes’.

Keerat Grewal, partner, Ormax Media says as more women are hired for decision making roles, the industry content will begin to see a change.

Prime Video's Aparna Purohit attributes the increasing number of films and series with well-etched female characters to the increasing participation of women in commissioning decisions.

"This in turn is leading to more women taking charge of production and development as well. For instance, a large number of our shows are developed, created, and produced by women - Made In Heaven, Four More Shots Please!, Hush Hush, Modern Love Mumbai and Guilty Minds," she says.

Traditionally, we have been restricted to only one point of view- the male perspective. Women are half the population, yet stories about women from the women point of view have been few and far between. 

How are women execs redefining the Indian streaming game?

Srishti Behl, CEO, Phantom Studios and former head of movie originals at Netflix India, says its important to have a holistic perspective. "Not every piece of content has to have everything but everyone should have something in the content that speaks to them."

Beyond Streaming Platforms

The Media and Entertainment industry has traditionally been male-dominated. The Ormax report suggests that there has been very little progress in terms of women's representation in the Indian M&E sector between 2021 and 2022. Among the top 25 M&E companies, there is only 10% female representation in senior management.

However, there is a more positive trend for women in the streaming domain compared to the theatrical domain, with 16% of female heads of department (HODs) in streaming businesses versus only 3% in theatrical businesses.

How are women execs redefining the Indian streaming game?

While there is clearly a need to hire more women, some film production and distribution companies are also being led by women. Guneet Monga is the founder and CEO of Sikhya Entertainment. Behl is the CEO of Phantom Studios.

With over three decades of experience, Behl has had a ringside view of the industry. She has dabbled in advertising, linear television, theatrical and even streaming. 

She began her career at a time when Bollywood did not have an industry status and it was not streamlined. Women were then relegated to just styling or costume jobs.

"Now women are in-charge and when they give orders people fall in line. The organising came first with satellite TV, followed by streaming. It's only risen strength to strength and now you find more women taking on crucial roles. I don't want to be ungrateful but a lot more needs to happen," she says.

How are women execs redefining the Indian streaming game?

Lionsgate's Mrinalini Khanna says it takes a while to break into an industry completely. "There were certain parts of the industry that have always been open to women. But in the past 10 years women are being a part of other things and we just need a little more time before these other verticals within the industry are a little more accessible to women."

Impact on hiring decisions

More women in decision-making roles also means that more women are hired. The report states that when the commissioning in-charge was female, 17% female HODs were appointed as compared to 8% when the in-charge was male. It is a great way to increase participation of women across the creative work-force. 

One of the ways to do so, according to Purohit, is to keep the door open for other women leaders. "I strongly feel that if that had not been done for me, I would not have been here today. I hope that as an industry, we continue to encourage and support more gender parity, across both productions as well as the corporate ecosystem, bringing more women HODs and leaders in senior positions."

Attaining the right balance

Khanna has over 14 years of experience in the television industry with her stint at Endemol Shine. Compared to television, where there are a higher number of female producers, she finds the corporate setting to still be leaning more towards men. 

"The only way we can make this a little more balanced is by making sure that we bring in women, especially into the old male domains like finance, production, technical, etc. Women are naturally a right fit there. Women have the ability to multitask, be organised and also deal with conflict. There's no magic formula. We just have to hire more women and not in terms of a quota, but always try to see if there is a woman who's better than any other candidate for the job," she says.

Purohit also wishes to see a more balanced representation in times to come, "that goes beyond gender parity, with a workforce that is truly inclusive of people of all forms of diversity. To do so, I believe, we as leaders need to drive the vision of a diverse, inclusive work culture within, as well as outside the organisation."

She urges M&E companies to follow their Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) policies from top-down to ensure that impact flows across all functions and levels of the organisation. "Organisations must have in place robust HR policies that cover diverse groups and are strictly adhered to."

It is equally imperative for players to align with academia, promote upskilling and reskilling opportunities for existing talent pools. Physical safety and hygiene play a huge role as well, and therefore, there must be better quality infrastructure that is more women-conducive such as a safe and hygienic environment at the sets or on locations.

Representation of women on streaming platforms 

Driven by commercial or box office considerations, films or TV could not represent the cross-cultural diversity and complexity of our country for a long time. Free from these considerations, the digital medium is able to create content for more diverse audiences who are keen to explore a wider gamut of narratives, stories and characters.

To create truly immersive, engaging, and relatable content, Prime Video's Purohit suggests measures such as better women-represented writers’ rooms and the use of Bechdel test to create more women-focused narratives and character arcs. "I also believe there is more intentional effort across streaming services to be more inclusive of diversity, and this is powering change."

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