Women film directors in India are more sensitive to the nuances of a woman’s life experience, and do not shirk from exploring these in their films.
Rebecca West once said, “People call me a feminist whenever I express statements that distinguish me from a doormat.”
The statement rings loud and true for Indian cinema and, for the way it has portrayed women over the decades. Which is why, you are likely to find more people gyrating to the tune of ‘Baby ko Bass pasand hai’. And, if you ask the same people, if they have watched Nil Battey Sannata, you are sure to be greeted with a blank stare as if you are a PK who has landed from an alternative universe!
However, if you are one of those who have watched Ashwini Iyer Tiwari’s directional debut – Nil Battey Sannata, you would know that some of the beautiful relationships like that of a mother-daughter bond can be brought to life only by a woman! Sadly, our cinema has conditioned people in a certain way that they cannot get past the ‘Barbie doll’ image of a woman! But then, did you know that some of the best Indian movies have been directed by women?
In a world that resonates with words like ‘Women Empowerment’ and ‘Nari Shakti’, there are still innumerable potholes along the way wherein, stories of a million courageous women just fall in and, die without even being noticed once! Even as literacy rates are rising steadily, the basic thought about giving a woman her rightful place alongside man is not acknowledged with absolute conviction.
When Kangana Ranaut, after her success with Queen, went vocal about how gender discrimination in Bollywood was rampant, whispers and hushes on her audacity sang louder than the support for her honesty. Indian cinema has managed well in silencing the brutally honest voices that are shoved beneath louder promotions of male dominated cinema.
But, there are always sprouts of revolution when, stagnancy hits rock bottom! So, while countless auditions in Indian cinema for women were always limited to screening and scrutinizing their curves, pouts and bumps, a few women decided to give a twist to this plot run by the male bastion!
One such woman was Fatma Begum, the first Indian woman director whose directional debut was a fantasy film Bulbul-e-Paristan, directed in 1926. The later eras however, faced a lull when women were more into acting, than into directional ventures. But in the mundane Bollywood world, the pause did not last for long. While men had stories designed to make them saviours, there existed a few creative men who thought differently. Like Dadasaheb Phalke roped in a mother daughter duo from his Marathi theatre group as the female leads in his second film – Bhasmasur Mohini. It was then that the revolution of women getting the lead roles, had begun with a spark!
The wheels of change turned faster, as a few more women braved the strong waves of contempt and, went a step ahead by calling the shots from behind the camera! And, they spun intensely deep, soul touching and sometimes nerve racking movies that finally rattled the raw nerve of gender inequality prevalent across many levels in our society!
In the early days, one could count female directors on one’s hand, and the names never got past Sai Paranjpye and Aparna Sen who glorified art in cinema. Sai’s Sparsh touched a beautiful subject on how intense love in a friendship is and how sometimes, it takes a difficult path to emerge between a couple. 36 Chowringhee Lane, directed by Aparna Sen was a wonderful take on human expectations and disappointments. Despite being Aparna Sen’s directional debut, this movie won her the Best Director Award at the Indian National Film Awards.
In later years, more women joined the fire brigade of these wonderful directors. Revathi, Mira Nair, Deepa Mehta, Reema Katgi, Gauri Shinde and Lakshmy Ramakrsihnan are just a few names. Their success at reaching into the core of people’s minds is attributed to how deeply they perceive human emotions. Be it love, hate, happiness, sadness, euphoria, anger, detachment and, villainy – name them all – a woman feels each of them intensely and deeply.
If you delve deep into the stories that took the form of art in the hands of these incredible women directors, you would know how differently a woman perceives relationships, friendships, emotions and verve, as compared to most men.
There are so many shining examples here.
Mitr, which was Revathi’s directional debut took a simple story to a whole new level, where a couple rediscover a lost friendship and unfathomable love for each other in a unique way.
When Sridevi as the demure Sashi transforms into a confident mom-preneur in the movie English Vinglish, she voices her angst – “When a man cooks, it is art. When a woman cooks, it is duty!” With these lines, Gauri Shinde (director of English Vinglish) ensured that the movie rubbed the raw sore of gender inequality in our society!
But then, gender inequality is just one subject to be reckoned with! Because, Deepa Mehta felt that the society needed to be all ears to matters that weren’t discussed with alacrity! When she fearlessly explored the subject of homosexuality in her movie – Fire, it received a lot of flak for it. But the message was out – Love is a need for a woman, as much as it is for a man. It can be anything but impure. Water, which was also a movie directed by her portrayed archaic traditions on abuse of widows on the banks of Ganges during the Pre-Independence era, and was even nominated for the Oscars. Although, it too courted controversies, her courage to take on such a contentious subject was widely appreciated. After all, a woman behind the camera can reach into the reality of being a woman far better than a man!
Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding subtly, and yet profoundly touched the topic of child abuse without delving deep into its portrayal. The message was loud enough to be heard and yet, was not vivid enough to disturb the audience.
When Zoya Akhtar’s Luck by Chance hit the big screens, it was a delight to watch every actor doing full justice to the character he or she emulated, in a smooth way.
Reema Kagti’s Talash is another great example of a well directed movie, that sensitively portrayed loss and grief in its various shades, not only from the point of view of the female characters, but even that in a man’s mind – for feminism is also about freeing men to be themselves. And, if Talash was dark and thrilling, her Honey Moon Travels Pvt Ltd was surreal and comic! That not only makes Reema a talented film director but also makes her a versatile one at that!
And, who can forget Kiran Rao’s Dhobhi Ghat that made not a human, but a city as the main protagonist in the movie?!
Recent movies Waiting by Anu Menon and Margharita With A Straw (co-directed by Shonali Bose and Nilesh maniyar) are scintillating examples (both with Kalki Koechlin in the lead role) of how characters and situations can be made to bloom on the screen, with such depth.
The change in mainstream cinema brought about by these women directors is slowly gathering pace, and there is great scope for them to evolve into an inspiring brigade of film directors with ground breaking skills!
Down south, Lakshmy Ramakrishnan’s directional debut – Aarohanam has expanded the arena of untouched topics on mental afflictions. Her movie focuses on events happening on one fine day when, a mother of two siblings disappears without a trace! The depth of these gossamer emotions that reflect in the movie wherein the siblings are running from pillar to post in search of their bipolar disorder affected mother, has been handled with élan!
Besides, if we look beyond the mainstream cinema, women have gone ahead and, made their mark in directing documentaries too! Names like Nilita Vachani and Reena Mohan prove, how a woman behind the camera can create magic on the reel! Also, if you remembered a serial named Bharat ki Chaap that was telecast on Doordarshan, you would be surprised to know that it was a first time venture in direction for Chandita Mukherjee! This beautiful serial on science and technology went on to become world famous for its in-depth research and knowledge. Chandita’s movie Totanama also won the National Award in the best Short Fiction category in the 39th National Film Awards.
Essentially, when a woman decides to pursue her goal, she is like the unstoppable river who uses persistence and perseverance to get where she wants, to get what she wants! Sometimes, the river cuts the rock. Sometimes, it slides back. And yet, sometimes she takes another course. That is what women like Aparna, Sai, Revathi, Reema, Deepa, Mira and many more have done. When they reached a dead end, they never stopped. They kept going. Sometimes, they took a different course and, succeeded in reaching their audience with their profound stories!
More power to these women directors in Indian Cinema and, to many more like them!
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