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She has stories to tell: Women directors find their voice in Bollywood

There’s been a spurt of films by women directors in Bollywood, though they too face the familiar problems of lack of contacts or little interest in alternate cinema

long reads Updated: Jul 16, 2017 19:41 IST
Poulomi Banerjee
Ratna Pathak Shah in a scene from Lipstick Under Mu Burkha. The film, directed by Alankrita Shrivastava, releases this month.
Ratna Pathak Shah in a scene from Lipstick Under Mu Burkha. The film, directed by Alankrita Shrivastava, releases this month.

The Celluloid Ceiling report of 2016 by the San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film found that 2016 had not been a good year for women filmmakers in Hollywood. According to the report, women made up just seven per cent of all directors on the top 250 films, a two per cent decline from 2015. Back home in Bollywood though, at least in terms of critical mass, 2016-17 has seen some good films being made by women – Anu Menon’s Waiting, Gauri Shinde’s Dear Zindagi, Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari’s Nil Battey Sannata and Konkona Sen Sharma’s A Death In The Gunj, to name a few. Alankrita Shrivastava’s Lipstick Under My Burkha releases this month. How do these women view Bollywood – an industry often perceived to be a boys’ club?

“For Me, The Bigger Battle Is Content”

Alankrita Shrivastava
Director, Turning 30!!! and Lipstick Under My Burkha

Alankrita Shrivastava is busy. Her second film, Lipstick Under My Burkha, will finally release on July 21. Finally, because the film had run into censor trouble earlier this year for being “lady oriented” and showing “their fantasy above life”. Shrivastava moved the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal and was allowed to release the film with an adult certification and a few cuts. “There is enough sexual content in Indian cinema, but the fact that women are telling stories, having agency over their own lives they viewed it as a threat to patriarchy,” says Shrivastava.

“I feel not enough has been done with women characters. If you see a film like Dangal, which is a lovely and entertaining film, at the end of the day it is a man’s, it is the father’s wish being fulfilled. If you see a Pink, it is a very good film, but ultimately Amitabh Bachchan has to come and save them (the female characters). There is something off about that,” says Shrivastava. And the reason for that, the director agrees, might be because there are still very few women making films in the industry, so perspectives differ.

Shrivastava remembers her first experience of working on a set in Prakash Jha’s Gangajal in 2001. “There were 200 odd crew and there were only three girls, including me. There was one costume assistant and one hair dresser and a couple of female actors in the film,” she says” she says. But she is quick to add that she never felt discriminated against. “I think at that time it was a given. I didn’t even think of the fact that there are only three women on the sets. It just seemed that there are not enough women who work in films and it’s a very male atmosphere. I don’t think I gave it that much thought,” she says.

Alankrita Shrivastava, director of Lipstick Under My Burkha (Burhaan Kinu/HT PHOTO)
“I think the biases really are if you are making an independent film versus a mainstream film.”

The reasons for the shortfall are many. “It’s tough to break in. It’s a very dynastic industry. So if you see, most of the women directors too, they come from film families or their husbands are film-makers and that’s actually how they started - not to take any credit away from them, but all that I am saying is that it’s a very tough industry to get a break in,” Shrivastava explains. There are also internal battles between one’s own aspirations and social and family expectations. “It takes a lot out of you, especially for an independent film-maker. You really have to give it your whole life. Women often have other responsibilities, for instance family,” she says. “So while there are many women who are assistant film-makers, somewhere down the line they digress – pick up channel jobs or something else. And it’s there the world over. There are many girls in film school, but they don’t all end up making films. Whereas for the men, many more of those who start off as assistant directors go on to make their own films.”

Where both partners are interested in film-making, the man’s aspirations take precedence, says Alankrita. “His dream is way ahead of her so she will take up a stable job to support him. But now there are more women who are directing ads and with the whole digital space coming up there are many more women and that’s great even if you don’t immediately make features,” she says.

For herself, she says the first discrimination she experienced was once she turned director. And that, she says, had more to do with the kind of film she was making than her gender. “I think the biases really are if you are making an independent film versus a mainstream film,” she says. Shrivastava recalls the first day of shooting for Turning 30!!!. “For two months I had been asking for a particular camera because I had to do hand-held shots with it. And the production guys didn’t send that camera the first day of the shoot,” she says. Alankrita delayed the shoot for hours, till that camera was brought in, simply because she felt she couldn’t set a precedence of being bullied this way. “Even at the post-production stage, the studios would give me 3am and 1am kind of slots, when you are really not at your creative best. “

Her experience with Turning 30!!!, made her more careful while shooting Lipstick… and she says she was careful not to work with a single person who would be disrespectful of the film simply because it was not a big-budget, mainstream cinema.

“So for me the bigger battle is content,” she says. “The kind of films I make always put you at a disadvantage. Distributors are not interested in this kind of film. It’s a deep level of discrimination – it’s both small budget and not star-driven and about the lives of ordinary women, so it is seen as having no commercial potential. The experience of making a Kahaani is quite different from that of making a Lipstick… in that respect.”

“What Matters Is A Good Story”

Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari

Director, Nil Battey Sannata

Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari, director of the film Nil Battey Sannata.
“Not just on the floor, the number of women producers has gone up. Out of the major studios nearly three to four are headed by women. There are very good women editors and cinematographers.”

“I don’t like being tagged as a woman director,” says director Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari. “No one tags a male film director as such. And unlike four-five years back, there are enough women in the industry now.”

The director feels gender tagging is an outside phenomenon and does not exist within the industry and among the film fraternity. “It is true that a female perspective will be different from a male perspective. Even in the past there was Sai Paranjpye who was making all these lovely films. You can’t imagine anyone else making those films,” points out Tiwari. “But back then there was little focus on the filmmaker. Now because of the social media, there is more interest in who is the person behind the film – yes, it does lead to the filmmaker and writers being celebrated which is nice, but it also leads to the tagging.”

Tiwari feels it is especially unfair to restrict a filmmaker by her gender identity because “it’s not as if women filmmakers are only making films that are women-centric. My next film is a quirky, entertaining comedy set in small town India.”

Tiwari, who is married to Dangal director Nitesh Tiwari, agrees that it is true that for a long time there were few women in filmmaking. And the reason, she feels, is that till recently films were not really a profession. “It was very family-oriented. Only those who were born into film families would take it up. But now that it has become a proper profession – film-making is something that is taught in schools now – the number of women entering the profession has also gone up. Not just on the floor, the number of women producers has gone up. Out of the major studios nearly three to four are headed by women. There are very good women editors and cinematographers,” Tiwari says.

Swara Bhaskar in a scene from the film Nil Battey Sannata.

And if the percentage of women film-makers as compared to male filmmakers is still low, the reason, feels the mother of two, is that it’s a tough job. “You are out of the house for 12-14 hours while shooting. There are outstation shoots. If you have a family, it becomes difficult. But there is no gender discrimination or insensitivity,” she says.

The experience might be different with people who are not part of the main industry. “When you are out for a recce for example, the line producer who is a local guy from some small town might initially have a problem accepting you – because they are not used to seeing women in these roles. Sometimes they address even women directors or seniors as “sir”. But once they get used to seeing you in that role, they are quick to adapt,” she explains.

What matters finally, feels Tiwari, is the story .–“If you have a good story, you get a studio on board and everything sorts itself out.” Cinema goers have also evolved. “There is appreciation for good stories and they are not only being critically acclaimed but also doing well commercially. Every movie doesn’t have to earn 100 crores to be successful – recovery, success and appreciation are related to the investment of key people involved,” she says.

“The Audience Should Watch More Non-Star-Driven Cinema”

Anu Menon
Director, London Paris New York and Waiting

Anu Menon, director of London Paris New York and Waiting.
“Even though we are seeing more women-centric films, they are still mostly a man’s idea of an emancipated woman – and we are still viewing them as victims.”

“I only get called when it’s a story like this – on ‘women’ filmmakers,” says the London-based Anu Menon, making you aware that gender typecasting goes beyond the film fraternity. The director who is basking in the success of her second directorial venture, Waiting, says the London film industry is much more of a boys’ club than Bollywood. ““It is much more difficult to get an entry if you don’t look like them, or talk like them. In that way Bollywood is more like Hollywood – if you have a good script you can make a film. People are always looking for a good script,” says Menon, adding, “The real problem in Bollywood is that there are not enough actors.”

Having said that, the director does agree that while the number of women directors has gone up in the industry, it’s less than the number of women producers and script-writers. The reason, she feels, might be because films are finally a director’s medium, and traditionally, people might not have wanted to give that kind of control to women. “Even Sophia Coppola (daughter of acclaimed film-maker Francis Ford Coppola) complains of inequality,” she says with a laugh.

Menon insists that there is a need for diverse people telling stories. “Perspectives are shaped not just by gender but also by where you grew up, your upbringing, your travels, your experiences. So we need different voices, even among men – people with different experiences, because that’s what will give variety,” says Menon. “And a woman director will have a different perspective not just on women characters, but also the male characters.”

Naseeruddin Shah and Kalki Koechlin in a scene from the film Waiting

Right now, says Menon, “even though we are seeing more women-centric films, they are still mostly a man’s idea of an emancipated woman – and we are still viewing them as victims. The stories revolve around how she is victimised and how she reacts to that. There are not enough films being made on strong, positive women. We are not doing enough to present them just as people. I think we need more films in which the lead is a woman – but it could easily be a man too – the roles are not gender specific,” she says.

And to play those characters, she says, Bollywood needs more actors. “This is where many women filmmakers lose out. Because if you are not buddies or really well connected, it is difficult to get the kind of actor you want. Even that is changing because success gets you that access – like it’s heartening to see Zoya Akhtar or Meghna Gulzar or Gauri Shinde making big movies.” she explains. “The industry needs to give a chance to more actors – and the industry should invest in more actors.”

Some of the responsibility lies with the audience. “They are not watching enough non-star-driven cinema. The good news is that now they don’t only want star-driven films, they want content plus stars. But they should watch films by more actors so that the industry also gives a chance to more actors.”