Rohini Kejriwal, speaks to artist Shivani Gorle, on gender, movies, feminism and why heroines can be badass too
Encircled illustrations of strong female characters from Bollywood and Hollywood films with an inspiring quote is what Queens OnScreen is all about—a simple, wonderful art project by 22-year-old Mumbai-based illustrator Shivani Gorle. But there is so much more than meets the eye for this young visionary, who uses her love for art and films to speak her mind on feminism and a woman’s place in society. Gorle took some time out to talk to us about the multitude of factors that led to this project, her cinematic influences and what makes her art so special.
Tell us a little about your education and foray into the arts
I’m 22. I was born in Nagpur, after which my family and I moved to Calcutta, and then finally settled in a cute suburb called Thane near Mumbai. So I’m a city girl. I spent six teenage years at a boarding school in Pune, where I picked up most of my art and craft skills in classes I took since 9th grade. Fun fact: I ran a little temporary tattoo shop from my bedroom when I was 8 years old. I painted little butterflies on my girlfriends’ wrists in exchange for candy. I graduated in 2015 from KC College, Mumbai with a bachelor’s degree in mass media, specialising in advertising. In the past year, I’ve been studying, travelling, interning and drawing as a freelance illustrator. I’ve previously interned at Ogilvy and Mather in the creative department and WTD News in the graphic design team. I’ve always liked drawing but I only started digitally illustrating six months ago. I wanted to update my skills, as should everyone with advancing technology. So as soon as I got my own little Bamboo drawing tablet, I kept learning from my mentors at WTD News and practicing by myself until I was able to create graphics without assistance.
I’m currently in New York, attending grad school at School of Visual Arts for their Masters program in branding.
When and how did the idea of this project come to you? Clearly, you being an artist and a woman and a movie buff all came together in this grand way.
This is true. Queens OnScreen lies at the center of a very convenient Venn diagram, with the 3 overlapping circles of artist, woman and movie buff. I couldn’t escape circles if I wanted to.
Ideas catch us off-guard, walking back home, folding laundry or showering. This one came to me on a lazy evening of Netflix browsing. Besides the usual suggested categories of comedies, documentaries and “because you watched Barry…”, there was one called “movies featuring a strong female lead”. I realize this was just Netflix’s way of remaining relevant to certain audiences and riding the feminist wave, but I thought it was pretty neat that actresses were finally getting their due credit and recognition for the powerful roles they play in both Indian and Hollywood films.
It became apparent though, that women still needed a separate category to prove that they could play a character as successfully as their male co-stars. This felt (a teeny tiny bit) like racial segregation, because I hadn’t seen a category for strong male leads yet. All the movies I watched already had them. So I decided to react to this development with an illustration series about heroines who are just as badass as the heroes.
Queens OnScreen is as much an act of rebellion as it is a way of appreciating and representing artists who are seriously changing the game, and redefining what it means to be a movie actress. These women are extraordinary, sensational beings who can’t be relegated to one measly Netflix category. They deserve to be celebrated in the same way heroes populate our movie posters and mobile screens, and not just for their appearances but their words and deeds.
So the project is a commentary on gender and feminism…
It’s a careful and conscious commentary on feminism. The feminist movement in India has definitely taken root but leaves much to be desired. Feminism in Bollywood is sometimes thin as paper and reeks of double standards. Deepika Padukone portrays powerful characters in award-winning films, but is reduced to her cleavage at a movie promotion. On the other hand, Salman Khan’s questionable past and commercial films attract the masses, who turn a blind eye to his misogynistic comments about feeling like a raped woman.
I chose to focus on the queens of cinema rather than the kings to showcase the poignant but untold stories of women in my life, my country and the world.
I was born as an only girl child to two middle-class parents from a small Indian town. Never once did they insinuate that I was in any way ‘lesser’ or inferior to a boy. I’ve lived in a double-income household for as long as I can remember; my mom resumed her office work two and a half years after I was born and my dad continued to work his way up from salesman to CEO. So I’ve never been made to believe that I couldn’t rise to my highest potential. In our little family of three, we haven’t factored in gender or religion in any important discussion. My dad used his hard-earned hand-to-mouth salaries to fund my education in the best schools. I also realize that we developed this pragmatism because we left my native town to live in the city as soon as I was born. The constant feeling of adjustment and newness prevented me from settling into the traditions of a more rustic life where gender roles were not so flexible. And for that, I am supremely glad.
I realize that there are women in the world that haven’t been as fortunate and have had to fight deeply embedded notions and stereotypes. The female movie characters that I feature in my series reflect those struggles and I think it’s important to acknowledge them in order to truly appreciate the progress we’ve made in gender equality.
Take us through your journey as a film lover. What were the films you grew up watching? Which films have you binge watched repeatedly?
This may seem strange but I swear by Mean Girls. I know the film inside-out, dialogues et al, and I think the plot line casts a larger commentary on Girl World. I was too young to watch it at 12 but I did anyway, and I learnt how the only flaws Cady thought she had was bad breath in the morning, Regina proudly strutted down the hallway in a top that was cut up to embarrass her, and Mrs. Norbury told us not to call each other sluts and whores. This movie taught me to stop comparing myself to other women and support them instead of putting them down. And that’s just like, the rules of feminism.
As for Indian cinema, a big part of my interest in Bollywood can be attributed to my hatred for Indian TV. I grew up watching the same patriarchal TV nonsense as my mother, but we would watch it in jest, amused by how dissimilar our own lives were. The women in these shows would be portrayed as docile, domesticated housewives whose lives craved emotional drama, while their husbands were businessmen, slightly patronising but rational beings.
The TV industry still suffers from a massive misrepresentation of women, but film writers and directors are slowly refreshing their scripts to reflect a reality that aligns with those of today’s Indian women. The typical Indian heroine doesn’t subscribe to society’s expectations anymore. She is liberated. Whether she gives up her career to raise a baby or chases a career by avoiding one, she has the freedom and the power to choose. It’s the responsibility of mainstream Indian media to effectively portray that choice.
As a child, I watched the same films as any average middle-class family took their children to on the weekends. But I’m grateful that for every Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, there was a Black; for every Kahaani Ghar Ghar Ki there was a Page 3; for every Kasauti Zindagi Kay, there was a Swades. Actresses in India have come a long way, and now they get to play the Indian Women’s Hockey Team in Chak De India, Aisha in Wake up Sid! and Devi in Masaan. It’s an admirable feat by some important stakeholders in the industry.
In a time and age when women characters are in the forefront and entire scripts are written around a strong woman lead, which films drew you to this format?
Here are a few I remember really enjoying in recent years:
10 Things I Hate About You: Kat Stratford, you are my hero(ine).
The Help: an all-female cast with a no-bullshit plotline.
Australia: Lady Sarah Ashley goes to Australia to acquire her cattle ranch, and my heart.
The Hunger Games Series: Loved watching Jennifer Lawrence kick some royal ass every step of the way.
Honorable Mentions – Changeling, Spy and Room.
Was it a conscious decision to include both Bollywood and Hollywood queens?
I alternate between women from both worlds. It proved more difficult to come up with Indian heroines than Hollywood ones.
How did you come to this specific style of illustration within the circle with a quote?
I chose the circular layout for three reasons:
And how much time do you spend on each illustration , from the conception to the final artwork?
It would take roughly 5 hours to complete one illustration. It would definitely take longer, though to select a character and choose a fitting quote, because that would usually involve referencing scenes from the movie and a quick re-watch. I use Adobe Illustrator to create these vector portraits. I use my stylus and the brush tool as I would a normal pencil.
Have you ever considered experimenting with a longer format, perhaps as a comic strip?
I haven’t considered any experiments lately because grad school is taking up all my time, but I really do love Maria’s Hatecopy series on Instagram, with Lichtenstein-esque comic illustrations of modern Indian women. If Queens OnScreen was a comic strip that I collaborated with her on, that’s what it would look like!
What’s the deciding factor for adding an actress to your repertoire when you’re watching a film and decide to use a character for an artwork? I saw some requests for character illustrations – do you consider the crowdsourced ideas at all?
I do – Ryan from Gravity was a requested feature.
I restrict my featured heroines to only those from movies that I have watched, the main reason being my need to understand where my queen comes from, her thoughts, aspirations, fears and longings. So sometimes, I re-watch a particular film to look for a dialogue conveying that spark about her; a statement that summates who she is as a character and why she is powerful. As for the picture, I usually take a screenshot from any of the frames that portray her face and upper body clearly; an upright stance is essential to the composition of the illustration. What’s common to all the heroines is their thirst for life, their desire to break through conventions and ability to inspire.
Your project has the power to reshape the way people view women by virtue of the fun, appealing format. Do you see that as a role beyond that of an artist?
Reshaping the way people view women – a responsibility that’s hard to shrug, and it belongs to everyone. Netflix is doing a commendable job by shifting the dialogue around female-centric plots. I just feel like we as humanity will have really progressed when we stop labelling these works as feminist series and include them as part of mainstream viewing instead.
Queens OnScreen seems to be on a hiatus until July, when I’ll graduate. But I do follow other artists online who operate from a similar space. I really like Sally Nixon’s art. She hand-draws and paints girls as their un-glamourized selves, performing everyday activities like eating toast by the dining table in their robe. I also love Gemma Correll’s illustrations. A friend recently introduced me to them and I identify with her doodles of women’s everyday worries. On the Indian front, there’s Taarika John’s Illustrated Glossary of Female Masturbation, which intrigues me more with each post.