The many facets of Gul Panag
“I’m just an ordinary girl who rides a bike. But if I do something within my limits that can inspire someone else to think outside of their limits, it will lead to growth and push our limits and lead to empowerment,” says Gul Panag, actor, entrepreneur, social activist and former Miss India.
In a conversation during Women on a Mission, Gul talks about her acting career opening up new opportunities for her.
“I have always considered that my acting career should allow me to do much more in life. I want to be much more than an actor. Acting was a means to a greater end. It is not only money, fame or contribution to society in some way. But that end is indefinite and fluid,” says Gul
Gul recently starred in and produced the short film ‘Manoranjan’ which was made under the banner of Royal Stag Large Short Films.
Her role as a housewife who reveals her darker side when her holiday plans are disrupted has left audiences both scared and intrigued. For Gul, the role addressed several issues.
“I wanted to do something that would challenge me as an actor and a producer. The lockdown gave me the opportunity to reflect: what would you do when your best-laid plans were disrupted. At the start of the lockdown, both of our plans were disrupted. I also wanted to explore the unsung role of the quintessential housewife through the character of “Lalita” who prioritizes the needs of others over her own dreams. She is also a small attempt to address mental health and how our family can address or ignore our mental fitness,” she explains.
The female gaze
As an advocate for women’s rights and gender awareness, Gul describes the portrayal of women in film and television as both symbolic of society and completely flawed. She gives the example of her film Golden where she played one of the lead roles alongside Ayesha Takia and Shreyas Talpade. Her character Zeenat is a woman who attempts to save her husband from a murder trial and in the process forges an empowering friendship with a newly widowed Meera played by Ayesha.
“Dor was one of the milestones in my acting career. He addressed the portrayal of friendships between women in Indian film and television, which is deeply flawed. Women are shown competing against each other – they are seen as competing for a man, for a job, for looks. Sisters compete with each other, a daughter-in-law competes with her mother-in-law. However, friendships between men are still presented as empowering. Women are often not portrayed as facilitators for each other. This is because those who have been privileged by patriarchy see women empowering and empowering themselves as a threat to their privilege.
She adds: “Cinema is a reflection of a society dominated by men. As women take on more leadership roles, we will begin to see a reflection in art. It’s symbiotic. As society changes, cinema will tell stories from the female gaze and incorporate the female gaze.
The Changing Content Landscape
The popularity of OTT (over-the-top) as a source of entertainment has changed the experience of how we consume content. Gul believes that content nowadays is more democratized and appeals to everyone rather than a handful of viewers.
“Before, shows and movies were made with averages in mind, which were masses ticking off certain criteria. But OTT uses an algorithm-based system to cater to what each of us would like to see. This strengthened the power of the masses. Now that we watch things based on our demand, we consume a lot more content today. This amount has also empowered the writers, creators, and people associated with creating the content,” says Gul.
Thoughts on beauty pageants
Gul, who was crowned Miss India in 1999, believes beauty pageants play a bigger role than setting beauty standards. She gives examples of former pageant winners like Dia Mirza, Priyanka Chopra, Sushmita Sen and many others who have used the platform’s influence to work for bigger causes such as environmental protection, health, education, green energy and many more. But she also reflects on the flip side of standardizing a subjective concept like beauty.
“Let’s face it. There is also a social media-triggered beauty standard that has been established. But beauty has always been subjective. What one judge in a contest finds beautiful, another judge may not share the same view. But the most disturbing thing is that today men and women are constantly compared to the perfect version of beauty. These standards are set every day on social media. The impact is subconscious and insidious.
Work for a cause
Gul works for various causes such as gender awareness, education and disaster management through his NGO, Colonel Shamsher Singh Foundation, named after his grandfather. She describes that social activism was sparked by a realization.
“I was appalled to find that my district of Punjab had the lowest sex ratio in the country, according to the 2001 census. It made me realize that my destiny was determined solely by the accident of birth. Here I was living my dream but there were some girls maybe just a few doors down from my home in Punjab who were not allowed to pursue their dreams some were not even allowed unborn. This led to a conversation with the district commissioner about the various government gender awareness programs. I felt that maybe I could do something to bring some enthusiasm to the programs and make them reach the masses,” Gul recalled.
Today, her NGO works with women and children to fight gender differences. The team aims to change people’s mentality by making them see women as assets rather than a burden.
Many thanks to the sponsors of Women on a Mission Summit 2022, an initiative of HerStory, YourStory – Presenting Partner BYJU’S, and other sponsors – Kyndryl, Sequoia Spark, Zilingo, Atlassian, Akamai, Freshworks for Startups and Netapp Excellerator .