A film should make all its viewers a little less lonely: Alankrita Shrivastava
“We need more women. We need women in every writers’ room,” says Alankrita Shrivastava, 42. The filmmaker and writer was behind the feminist indie cult hit Lipstick Under My Burkha (2016), director of the subtle and layered film Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare (2019), and creator and co-writer of this year’s Netflix series, Bombay Begums, the story of four ambitious women in Mumbai’s ruthless corporate world.
She’s happy to see more diversity on screens because better representation, for women, Dalits and other marginalised groups, allows stories to dig deeper, reflect the real, make the viewer “a little less lonely, a little more human, a little heard and understood”, Shrivastava says. Excerpts from an interview.
How have things changed in your 18 years in the industry?
I started my career as an assistant director on Prakash Jha’s Gangaajal (2003). What was interesting was that on that crew of at least 200, there were only three women on set, behind the camera — a costume assistant, a hairdresser and me. At the time, this was the norm.
But a change on screen comes from dynamics changing behind the screen. Now there are so many women on sets, in various departments. There are still a few departments I feel need more women, such as sound and cinematography. There are a lot more female writers and filmmakers too.
The increased number does not mean that all women must make films about women only, but it changes the culture. More female filmmakers and writers do mean women as central characters are much more fleshed-out.
What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in the way women are written?
The world is not black and white, and women don’t exist in boxes like vamp, virgin, goddess, slut. They used to be portrayed as men wanted to see them, serving the patriarchy. Now women, and men, write more from lived experience and the result is that there are all hues of grey in women, they are dynamic, and their moral compass may shift depending on the situation, making them interesting, endearing and real. We still have a very long way to go but the balance is shifting.
Both Dolly Kitty… and Bombay Begums are peopled by women who are not always likeable...
I’m drawn to women who exist in a grey landscape because I feel that’s how we all are. For me, Dolly (played by Konkona Sen Sharma) and Kitty (Bhumi Pednekar) were trying to get some sense of freedom and agency where they could. Bombay Begums for me is largely about female ambition. I like exploring women who are on the brink of making difficult choices. Both the films were about making difficult choices.
Why does it matter that women are written better?
It’s a deeper question of what purpose culture and stories serve in our society. Our culture needs to reflect the voices of the other, and not just the narrative of the dominant and the privileged (in our case men and the upper classes). Films and stories of all kinds should make one think, feel, reflect. Also, women should have the feeling of resonance while watching a story on screen. A film should make the audience a little less lonely, a little more human, a little heard and understood.
What bothers you most about the trope of the old-school Bollywood vamp?
I always loved watching actors like Helen or Bindu playing exciting characters who were not toeing the line, who were freer. But eventually they were always bracketed as negative, bad.
Another weird thing was how these films would depict rape. A woman who was raped would kill herself or be shot dead by the villain. She wasn’t allowed to have a life anymore. And while they would never show consensual intimacy, these movies loved to show rape scenes in detail! It was so problematic.
What’s the next step for the storytelling industry, in your view?
We need more women. We need half the shows to be made by women. We need women in every writers’ room. Even male characters get more fleshed out when there’s diversity in the writers’ room. If there is more diversity in the people telling the stories, the stories can dig deeper. Having better representation in terms of caste is a key thing and we need to work towards that in popular culture too. We need many more Dalit writers and filmmakers.