Will gender neutral acting awards be the new norm?

While such an idea sounds like a monumental achievement towards eradication of gender biases in the film industry, it might have its downsides as well

When Kangana Ranaut delivered a stellar performance in Vikas Bahl’s Queen (2014), it was touted as the year’s best. Similarly, when Alia Bhatt depicted a 20 year old spy in Meghna Gulzar’s Raazi (2018) – no one matched up to her. What if the acting awards were gender neutral? Then Bollywood might have honoured these women with the “best actor award” – giving their male counterpart a tough competition for the trophy.

Recently, the prestigious Berlinale film festival was held. This time, what was unique about it was that they introduced gender neutral acting awards. Announcing this decision last year in August, it is the first major festival to let go of the discrimination – which was the norm since 1956.

“We believe that not separating the awards in the acting field according to gender comprises a signal for a more gender-sensitive awareness in the film industry,” festival directors Mariette Rissenbeek and Carlo Chatrian said while publicly putting forth their decision.

Naturally, such a bold and historical step was lauded by many. Cate Blanchett, who has always been vocal about various issues including gender inclusivity in the film industry, praises such a move. “It’s just such a waste of life; you know life is too short for this. And so I’m really happy to hear that about Berlin and I think it’s pretty much inevitable that everybody will follow. It’s just obvious to me,” she was quoted saying in an interview.

She also added: “I have always referred to myself as an actor. I am of the generation where the word actress was used almost always in a pejorative sense. So I claim the other space.”

Well, one really cannot deny the fact that this issue – denoting female performers as “actress” has been a topic of debate for quite some time now, in both Bollywood and Hollywood. No matter what the gender – it’s better to be termed “actors.” And rightly so, this trend is in vogue in websites, channels, magazines, film awards and more. Can you recall the last time you heard someone welcoming an “actress” on stage? I guess not!

But then making the awards gender neutral is synonymous to putting this thought (or words) into action. This could be a big step towards a more progressive and inclusive film industry, free from gender biases and pay gaps.

In Hollywood, a host of actors (women) like Emma Watson, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, among others have come forward to speak up openly about this issue. But unfortunately, this is yet to gain momentum in Bollywood or other film industries in India. Though, just about recently, Ayushmann Khurrana lends his voice about this issue to a news website.

Khurrana, speaking to deadline.com, said: “Gender-neutral awards should become the norm. I wholeheartedly laud the Berlin Film Festival’s decision to award gender-neutral recognitions and I hope all film festivals across the world and India follow suit.” “We are all actors at the end of the day and gender divisions only highlight the long prevalent divisive nature of societies. I seriously hope all award functions in India take a step in the right direction and do what is the most obvious thing towards having a more progressive society. For me, good performances are good performances and they should be seen without the gender lens.”

While such an idea sounds like a monumental achievement towards eradication of gender biases in the film industry, it might have its downsides as well. Oftentimes, we have seen how the “best filmmaker” category in award shows (be it Bollywood or Hollywood) contains lesser women than men. Be it Oscars (where only five women have so far been nominated for Best Director out of which only one has won the award) or Rajeev Masand’s director’s roundtable (which often has one or two woman maximum and rest five or six men).

But here, the reason isn’t that the award shows or the interviewer are being biased towards men.  Rather, this happens because the majority of well-known filmmakers are men. Such might not be the case with acting, but again the parity exists. And not to forget, bigger budget films in India are mostly helmed by male actors.

Thus, until a level playing field is being offered – maybe such a step as to neutralise gender based awards might not give the desired results. Again, that could also be the stepping stone to create more opportunities for all genders – not only men and women, but third gender and others as well.

(Cover:  Joaquin Phoenix accepts the Actor In A Leading Role award for ‘Joker’ from Olivia Colman onstage during the 92nd Annual Academy Awards // Credit: Getty Images)



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