All actresses need to treat women-oriented roles as an agenda, says Tanuja Chandra | brunch$feature | Hindustan Times
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All actresses need to treat women-oriented roles as an agenda, says Tanuja Chandra

The filmmaker talks about woman protagonist films, lesbian movies, and desi Aesop’s fables

brunch Updated: May 27, 2017 21:33 IST
Tanuja Chandra’s first two films in the ‘90s had women in the lead, and she has been slotted for life.
Tanuja Chandra’s first two films in the ‘90s had women in the lead, and she has been slotted for life.

All internet research about Tanuja Chandra inevitably leads you to one phrase: ‘woman-oriented director’. Her first two films in the late ’90s, Dushman and Sangharsh, had women in the lead, and since then she’s been slotted for life.

“I think producers always expect an angry woman story from me,” she laughs. “But the truth is I have done movies with male leads. So I don’t know why I’m only known as a woman-oriented director.”

While Dushman did well at the box-office, Sangharsh tanked and Tanuja’s subsequent films went largely unnoticed. Perhaps that was a matter of timing: nearly 20 years after her first film, more female-centric films are doing much better than before.

“You see a lot more women in lead roles, whether it’s Neerja or Mary Kom or Dirty Picture. But they’re still far and few between,” says Tanuja. “One every two years, and then we talk about it for five years!”

“If all the top actresses would do one film from their five films in a year at a lesser rate, then we’d see a lot more woman protagonist films.”

For Bollywood to actually perceive a feminist philosophy, feels Tanuja, all the women in the industry need to treat it like an agenda. “If all the top actresses would do one film from their five films in a year at a lesser rate, then we’d see a lot more woman protagonist films,” she says. “I think Anushka Sharma is actively trying to do that, but I wish other actresses would too.”

Female love

While homosexuality has been occasionally touched upon on screen, sometimes maturely, but almost invariably in camp caricatures, one never sees a film about lesbians. How come? “Women will be much later because it’s a much bigger problem for people to handle than even male homosexuality - to see two women kiss onscreen. The supreme court of all institutions that I have great faith in should not have decriminalised homosexuality. It’s just wrong!” says Tanuja who’d happily make a movie about a lesbian relationship.

But would she get actresses to star in it? “Actresses I’d get for sure, they are gutsy. But you may not get funding for it. And you can bet there will be censorship issues.”

“Women will be much later because it’s a much bigger problem for people to handle than even male homosexuality - to see two women kiss onscreen.”

Having come into the industry at a time when there were hardly any women directors, did she face any sexism? “Not directed at me personally. It was always about the subject of my films. They’d say, can’t you make it around a man, it will sell better. The strange thing is, even when you get a top actress as the lead, the question producers always ask is ‘but who is the male with her?’”

Screen to print

With her last film released over a decade ago, one wonders if she dropped off the radar in disillusionment. “I haven’t gone anywhere or left the industry in any sense. I’ve been writing two scripts,” she says. “The fact that neither of them unfortunately became a film is another thing. But you have to just be tough and keep moving on, that’s how I’ve made it till here.” She now has a movie coming out – what she calls “a Hindustani romcom” starring Irrfan Khan.

What has also brought her back into the spotlight is her debut collection of short stories, Bijnis Woman, folkloric fables centred around women from Uttar Pradesh. It’s an oral history of sorts, told to her by her mausis and buas.

“The most important thing about writing this was that the narrators, their points of view and what they feel about the character are as much a part of the story. They humanise it,” she says. “People say they might have added their own stuff to it, but that’s a story as well.”

Having travelled to UP several times as a kid for holidays, Tanuja was familiar with “the smell and culture of the place”. So what’s been the strangest reaction she’s received to her book? “My niece Zuni Chopra, who is, by the way, a 16-year-old published author, when she read one of the stories said, ‘Not only do you mention the word faeces, you also go ahead and describe it. Eww, that’s disgusting!’” she laughs.

Coming from a largely creative family - her mother Kamna Chandra is a well-known scriptwriter, her brother Vikram Chandra is a novelist and her sister Anupama Chopra is a film critic who’s married to director Vidhu Vinod Chopra, whose opinion about her work does Tanuja fear the most? “Not my mother for sure, she loves everything I do!” she smiles. “I’d say it would be my brother-in-law, because he’d say it most openly and frankly.”

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