The Indian film industry has historically been a male-dominated one, but the winds of change are blowing across the country, albeit slowly.
Better-served than the rest of the country is the Mumbai-based Hindi-language industry, where there are several active female filmmakers including Zoya Akhtar (“Gully Boy”), Reema Kagti (“Gold”), Leena Yadav (“Rajma Chawal”), Gauri Shinde (“Dear Zindagi”), Meghna Gulzar (“Raazi”), Shonali Bose (“Margarita With a Straw”), Farah Khan (“Om Shanti Om”) and Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari (“Bareilly ki Barfi”), to name just a few.
“The new generation of young women directors is now making ad films, web series, corporate films, short fiction, documentaries and feature films, so it’s getting to be quite a level playing field,” says Priya Krishnaswamy, who works in Mumbai. Her Tamil Nadu set Tamil-language film “Baaram” is making the rounds at festivals.
Mumbai-based Yadav recalls being amused when a potential second assistant director thought working for a woman director would be good for his resume and then wondered aloud whether she knew her job. “If people have a problem with the fact that I am a woman then I let them deal with the problem and help in whatever little way I can,” says Yadav.
“The Mumbai film industry has far more faith in women directors because they have a history of successful women filmmakers,” says helmer Anjali Menon. “Regional industries that don’t have such a history would not have as much faith.”
Menon works in Kerala state, which has very few women directors, and her credits include the Malayalam-language films “Bangalore Days” (2014) and “Koode” (2018). “Right now we are at the crossroads where there are people who are professional enough to not have such biases, but there are also those who are not used to working with women around and can carry in heavy sexist baggage.”
Menon’s experience is echoed across the border from Kerala in Karnataka, where theater veteran Champa Shetty directed the well-received “Ammachi Yemba Nenapu” (2018), joining a mere handful of women helmers in the state.
“It may be because of lack of awareness and exposure to women directors, technicians of the movie showed their suspicion on my ability at the start of the project, but after couple of days of working together with me, they eventually understood and we started to gel,” Shetty says. “But along the way, I had to put in a lot of effort to maintain my identity as a woman and to prove my ability as a director.”
Rima Das, director of 2018’s “Village Rockstars,” India’s submission to the Oscar foreign-language race, and of festival favourite “Bulbul Can Sing,” faced exactly the same biases as Shetty, on her debut “Man With the Binoculars.” For Das, the problem is broader.
“It isn’t just about the film industry, patriarchy is so deep-rooted in people’s mindsets,” Das says. “The society is so conditioned to stereotype women that some people find it uncomfortable to have a woman in the boss’ chair. Having said that, I would like to acknowledge that there are many male colleagues who have been supportive as well.”
Das works in the northeastern state of Assam. Even further east is Bobby Sarma Baruah, whose 2018 Sherdukpen-language film “Mishing” is set in the state of Arunachal Pradesh, which borders China and Bhutan. Baruah, along with her fellow women filmmakers, is unanimous in the opinion that gender does not matter when it comes to subject matter.
“My films ‘Adomya’ and ‘Sonar Baran Pakhi’ are both based on female-focused topics, but ‘Mishing’ is totally different, it’s a male-protagonist topic,” Baruah says.
“With the emergence of women’s issues in the mainstream, even male directors are making women-centric films,” says Krishnaswamy. She adds that a lot of commercial cinema by women in India focuses on strong, male-driven narratives.
Proving Krishnaswamy’s points is the career of Bollywood’s Farah Khan, whose four features are all male-driven, and Sudha Kongara, who works across the Hindi, Telugu and Tamil industries.
While films that celebrate female sexuality by both male and female filmmakers exist in Hindi cinema — such as Shashanka Ghosh’s “Veere di Wedding” (2018) and Alankrita Shrivastava’s “Lipstick Under My Burkha (2016) — and in Bengali — like Aparna Sen’s “Paroma” (1984) and Mainak Bhowmik’s “Take One” (2014) — they are a rarity in conservative Tamil Nadu. That changed March 1 with the release of Anita Udeep’s adult comedy “90 ML” that polarized critics and delighted and scandalized audiences in equal measure.
Yadav recalls attempts to pigeonhole her as a maker of woman-oriented films with her first feature, 2005’s “Shabd.” She rebelled against that thinking, and against labels, but a film later came her women-centric “Parched” that was the toast of the festival circuit in 2015 and 2016, bowing in Toronto and winning the Impact Award at Stockholm, among many other accolades.
“I followed that up with ‘Rajma Chawal,’ where it was about so many men, but still had such a strong and evident female presence,” says Yadav.
Das offers a different perspective. “Being a woman, if we don’t tell a female-focused story, who will?” she asks. “The main protagonist of my first film was a male. But while making ‘Village Rockstars’ and ‘Bulbul Can Sing,’ I realized I have a deeper understanding of the female characters and their journeys. When making a female-focused film, I think it’s important that it should not be just a gimmick. How you are telling the story is important, you should empathize with the characters.”
“Selecting the topic and subject is also very personal, it depends on the script and what it demands,” Baruah says.
Her words are reflected in the other end of the country where Krishnaswamy chose senicide, the practice of killing of the infirm elderly by their own children in parts of rural Tamil Nadu that affects men more than women purely for reasons of inheritance and inconvenience, as the subject of “Baaram.”
“Most of the main characters in ‘Baaram’ needed to be male simply because of the circumstances in which the story is set,” says Krishnaswamy.
“Whenever any director develops a content which revolves around the opposite gender, the only way to develop content which is worthy of appreciation is when the filmmaker internalizes the other gender’s nature,” Shetty says.
“It is also important to recognize the supreme role of the box office in the Indian film industries,” says Menon, whose “Bangalore Days” is one of the biggest hits in the history of Malayalam-language cinema. “More than any acclaim, when the box office rings aloud, gender bias goes quiet.”