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Tanuja Chandra, the co-writer for the hit movie Dil Toh Pagal Hain, and an acclaimed director too, now debuts with a book, Bijnis Woman.
There would hardly be a few among us who have not heard the name of Tanuja Chandra. After making her directorial debut in 1995 with the highly-acclaimed TV Series, Zameen Aasman and Mumkin, Tanuja co-wrote the screenplay for Yash Chopra’s Dil Toh Pagal Hain. Thereafter, she collaborated with Mahesh Bhatt to write the screenplay of the critically acclaimed film, Zakhm. She then went on to direct women-centric movies and is best known for her movies such as Dushman and Sangharsh.
Tanuja Chandra is a multifaceted artist whose beliefs and passions make her a force to reckon with. Recently, she ventured into writing and presented the world with her book, Bijnis Woman.
In Tanuja’s family, everybody is into the creative arts except her father. Since the time they were young, the children were highly encouraged in their house to read and write, to be creatively rich and to fulfil one’s creative urges. It was a fertile ground for pursuing direction and writing. Despite being into the creative arts for so long, it took her a while to write her first book because she found it very intimidating, since every word counts and affects the impact of the story.
Tanuja loves to read, and feels that one will go through life with nothing but touching the tip of the iceberg of literature or art. Though she generally prefers reading emotional, dramatic, and heavy literature, she also enjoys fluffier stuff like chick-lit with a bold sense of humour, edgy tone, or a striking worldview.
However, she had been thinking about writing her own book for over 10 years. The stories in Bijnis Woman are some that she has heard as a child. These were from her family’s experiences, revolving around the childhood of her parents and of her extended families. She enjoyed them as a child, and wanted to hear them again and again. She felt a certain affection for these stories. So, she didn’t have to form the plots but had to bring her understanding and vision to them.
She thinks that short stories are interesting since they need not have a formal structure. “You can start at a high point and you don’t have to introduce something. You can end before the ending.” The entire writing process for Bijnis Woman took her a year, including editing.
Bijnis Woman is a collection of short stories that deal with ordinary people and ordinary lives. However, these are people with unique qualities. While writing the book, she felt affection for even the most difficult or flawed character. Hence, her writing was encompassed with a feeling of friendliness and compassion for the lives they lived.
The title of the book comes from the last story. Many of these stories have female characters but there are unusual male protagonists too. According to her, there aren’t enough women’s stories, or enough writers writing women’s stories. She feels this is still a vastly unexplored area, especially in India. Some of her stories in Bijnis Woman talk about the perseverance of women in difficult situations.
When she ventured into script writing and direction, Bollywood was largely a male dominated industry. She managed to make her mark and flourish by looking for like minded partners who consider feminism to be an important part of our lives, who treat women as equals. While starting out, she veered towards producers who had these qualities so they were encouraging and supportive.
Those days the team was largely composed of men but now there are more women in film crews. However, she still believes that till half of the crew is women we cannot really call it an equal and fair world. Even though there are many more female directors today, she still feels that their number isn’t close to enough.
It was in fact, tougher earlier for women directors as now there’s an openness in the industry as well as the audience. For example, during those days, even in a female-protagonist film, directors would have to cast a well-known male actor in the man’s role or else one wouldn’t find funding for the project. Now, there is a bigger chance of having a strong female protagonist and not have to cast a star in a male role.
Tanuja doesn’t like making a big case about her so-called struggle because in an environment like this, it is important to understand that it’s not necessarily that men are against women, it’s more about the cultural conditioning that one has to try and change. Some men have problems taking instructions from a female boss but slowly they come around to it. She also makes sure that she doesn’t behave like a ‘chick’ on the sets as she’s not interested in being a ‘victim’. In her job one must lead from the front and at the same time one must work as a team-player, and rally everybody around, one cannot do that if they’re constantly self-conscious about their gender.
However, at the same time, she tries to constantly try and make a case for more women in the workplace and fight for greater equality. She doesn’t have problem with people calling her a woman director instead of a director. The distinction is important to shed light on the fact that there still aren’t enough women directors.
Until it’s a just society, she feels the need for talking about women as well as other minorities in any sort of environment, because at present there’s still no equal pay and equal rights. This needs to be spoken about in terms of gender. She emphasizes however, that the work produced should not be impacted by one’s gender. She doesn’t ask for special treatment because then she would find it difficult to get the credit for her work, so it’s a tricky situation where one must find a balance.
Tanuja’s feelings for the stories she’s telling, be it through her films or books, are as much a part of the story as the plot and characters. For her strength is not necessarily only aggression, courage can be feeling fear and weakness and still moving ahead. The longings of her characters, their wishes, sadness, hopes, all those are very important to her and comes from some part of herself. These are the stories that she’d consciously chosen to tell, and given a choice, she wouldn’t choose others. She feels a bond with her characters, she feels them, she understands their helplessness. She thinks human emotions are universal, irrespective of financial and cultural backgrounds.
Tanuja Chandra is obsessed with women’s issues and the equality and justice for all people irrespective of their religion, sexual orientation, or social strata. She dreams of equal rights in education, healthcare, and legal issues. She says, “The law comes originally from our scriptures which were basically written by men. So, power was vested in men. Right from the beginning, it has been tilted against women’s rights. We must, each one of us, fight for an independent and free justice system. Women have always had to move against the tide. It has been a struggle and it is still a struggle. We are nowhere close to the finishing line.”
She also cares about the welfare of children and the right to education of poor children. Her father is passionately involved in social work, environmental issues such as solar power, and education, especially for girls. She thinks that women need to be aware that they have equal rights as society teaches them to be subservient, so all of us need to work hard to spread this awareness in our daily interactions.
Tanuja wishes that movies could bring about huge changes in society but she feels in reality, it is the other way around. Since, movies come from society, from one’s conditioning, so change must come first in the world we inhabit. Since movies mostly speak for equality and justice, they might work as a starting point of dialogue and discussion, but that is nowhere close to enough. But even then, according to her, one should certainly make movies with an understanding of the inequalities in life. ‘Our films should have more depth and be about diverse subjects.’
She thinks that television can serve an important function in changing society’s mindset. TV has the space to tell stories with greater detail. It has the power at its disposal to talk about life in a more nuanced way right in our living rooms. It can use a treatment which is engaging yet one that everybody can enjoy.
‘Finally, possibly, literature has a greater impact,’ she muses. ‘It comes from a deeper, rawer place and unlike movies, it need not be made palatable for the audience. Literature remains relevant after centuries even and that’s something amazing.’
‘I’m a pathological encourager of working women who are trying to make something of their lives. The onus of doing what you want to, lies on you. Even if the environment is not conducive toward fulfilling your desires, you must make a damn good attempt of doing it. So that those less privileged and those that cannot possibly flex their muscles might possibly have a shot at it someday, too. If you want to write a book, write it. If you want to make a movie, make it.’
She thinks that while the popular tendency to romanticize the arts, where one is supposed to catch hold of a muse, or retreat to a beautiful place to write, might be wonderful, it’s possible to get down to it even in imperfect situations. She also thinks that one must keep studying but instead of wasting time talking about writing, she feels it might serve one better to just do it. Her mantra is: ‘Study, read, write, and keep repeating this cycle. Easier said than done, I know, but there doesn’t seem to be any other way.’
Tanuja has recently finished shooting a film. So, her role as a director is still very much on. Writing fiction is something that she entered later on in her life but the journey so far has been exciting. She thinks that since films are a team effort and subject to censorship, while writing books one can get away with much more. She is currently working on her novel, which she originally started much before this book and she hopes to finish it soon. She dreams of continuing writing books along with directing films. Unlike films that are collaborative in nature, she thinks that since writing is an individual effort, that makes it scary but it also gives one greater independence and fulfilment.
Images source: Tanuja Chandra
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I read like a maniac, like my life depends on it. I also write and
This is a lovely post. I gathered as much about the author of this book, as the content of the book itself. She seems like such a successful yet, unpretentious person. You have done a wonderful job giving us insight into what drives Tanuja to write and do the things she does. I loved the little nuggets relating to women’s issue with equal work/ equal pay; the task and creativity of writing/movie making.
Thanks a lot for reading and commenting, Sonia. It was indeed a pleasure interacting with a celebrity who was so down-to-earth.
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