Alankrita Of ‘Lipstick…’ & Kanika Of Manmarziyaan: Rise Of Meaningful Cinema With Nuanced Female Roles

Posted: January 17, 2020

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More women are making their mark in Bollywood now, say Alankrita Shrivastava (Screenwriter & Director, Lipstick Under My Burkha) and Kanika Dhillon (Screenwriter, Manmarziyaan).

For about a year now, I’ve been writing about movies and pop culture. From the #MeToo movement, to depictions of toxic masculinity on screen, to the social responsibility of film makers, to the issues of representation on screen, the past year has truly brought some completely new discussions and debates to the fore.

So when I got the opportunity to speak with Alankrita Shrivastava (Screenwriter & Director) and  Kanika Dhillon (Screenwriter), both of whom are on the speaker panel for the Orange Flower Festival, I knew I had to ask them about these issues and more.

The conversations I had with them, about their own choices as creators, and about Bollywood in general were insightful and thought provoking. Here are the highlights.

2010-2019: a decade of personal achievements

Both Alankrita and Kanika have created stories that find a mention among the best of the decade. Not surprising then, that for both of them, the decade has been about finding their voice as creators.

“For me it has been an eventful decade because, Turning 30 and Lipstick Under my Burkha were released in this decade, and the show that I wrote and co-directed, Made in Heaven, also released. It was a coming of age professionally,” says Alankrita.

The sentiment is echoed by Kanika. “The artist in me is very grateful that in this decade I did find a very distinctive voice, be it with my films Manmarziyaan, Kedarnath, Judgementall Hai Kya, or be it with my characters, Rumi, Vicky, Robbie, Bobby –each one spoke about things that really mattered, and each one encouraged and started a debate and a discussion that kind of transcended the screen reality for which they were created and they actually became a topic of conversation in drawing rooms and in the public sphere. So, as an artist that is very fulfilling, and that is what I would consider as my achievement.”

Bollywood’s achievements during the decade

From the perspective of a layperson, I myself find an ocean of difference between the Bollywood of 2010 and the Bollywood of 2019. It was gratifying to know that these industry insiders agreed. They particularly called to attention the fact that Bollywood today is way more welcoming of stories about women.

“We now have more content driven stories, more layered stories, more stories with women in lead roles,” Alankrita opines.

Kanika highlighted that Bollywood is becoming more socially conscious and actors more risk taking. “Bollywood wants to tell stories that are socially relevant, that travel and engage with a huge audience and that kind of affects the public consciousness in a very important manner. We always knew how important Bollywood is in the culture that we have in India. To be able to take that responsibility forward — that entertainment and that responsibility forward is Bollywood’s biggest achievement.”

Dealing with Bollywood’s patriarchal culture

Even though Bollywood is becoming more welcoming of women’s stories, and even though there are more women in the industry, it still remains a patriarchal space. We still have movies being made which have a “male savior” narrative, if not outright misogyny. The #MeToo movement has only highlighted how unsafe it is for women.

Both Kanika and Alankrita are quick to point out that as Bollywood is not isolated from the rest of our culture, and because our culture as a whole is still patriarchal, the same reflects in the industry.

“For me, the struggle to make the kind of movies I want to make and get them out into the market…is an incessant struggle in a patriarchal system. Particularly the fact that Lipstick Under My Burkha was banned, that really hit home that we live in a patriarchal society,” Alankrita shares.

For Kanika, it is not possible to “quantify the kind of problems we as women face in a patriarchal set up.”

“One is judged in every way for being a woman. We want to take it up as a challenge. We don’t want to keep a log of our struggles, we would rather talk about what we’ve achieved,” she adds.

Narratives of sisterhood

Sisterhood is a strong recurring motif in both their work.

Who can forget that bittersweet last scene of Lipstick Under my Burkha? As someone who found that scene incredibly meaningful, I had to ask Alankrita why she chose to end it that way.

“The decision to end the film there was an edit decision,” she explains. “It is just that realization that you are not alone, and that everyone has their own battles to fight, some bigger than others, some smaller. It is that one moment of understanding and knowing, that there is another person who has empathy, and that one moment of laughter that you can see on their faces, in the midst of something tragic that has happened –it enables you to carry on.”

Isn’t there a similar message of sisterhood in her upcoming movie, Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare as well? Is that intentional?

“It is a coming of age story of these two characters who enable each other to find themselves and find a certain kind of freedom,” she agrees.

However, she doesn’t want to force a sisterhood narrative on screen. After all, she points out, “it is important to allow female characters to have that space to not always do the right thing, and that could mean that they have an oppositional or confrontational relationship with another woman. It’s not that “oh I have to show sisterhood” so I’m never going to show two women at odds with each other. But there is a certain sense of shared truth, a sense of empathy that passes from one woman to another, and it doesn’t have to happen in the most obvious way, but even when two women are opposed to each other, sometimes there is a sense of understanding.”

That said, she does like to explore sisterhood on screen. “That kind of feeling is something that I do like to explore and that comes up because I’m very interested in female characters and not enough stories have been told about them or from their point of view. The relationships women share with each other are very special and those are the relationships that sustain women and enable them to live in spite of the patriarchal structure of society.”

Sisterhoods help women stand up to patriarchy

This idea of sisterhood as being the thing that helps women stand up to patriarchy is something that Kanika agrees with as well. So for her, the sisterhood motif in the stories she has written is both intentional, as well as something that has emerged organically. For example, the character of Bobby in Judgementall Hai Kya, that she wrote, takes her responsibility towards other women very seriously, and wants to protect them. This is a reflection of Kanika’s belief that sisterhood should be taken seriously, even in real life.

“Sisterhood is something that should be taken very seriously. It is not something that should be taken as a whim, or something that you do for a connection –it should be taken as a responsibility.

That is how we pave the way for the next generation to come, for them to breathe a little easier and thrive. The women who came before us –they had a sisterhood and they paved the way for us to have so many things, and do what we are doing right now. So, sisterhood is a responsibility that we all should own up to, and we should work towards deliberately,” she asserts.

Writing unconventional characters–both male and female

While Bollywood is evolving with respect to how women are being portrayed in screen, the portrayal of men still sticks to the same old hackneyed definitions of masculinity. Which is why the character of Robbie in Manmarziyaan, and his confident masculinity are refreshing. On being asked about Robbie and what inspired his character, Kanika enthusiastically replies, “Robbie is a self assured man. He has a certain physicality, but his masculinity comes from his attitudes to the women in his life, and his relationships. He is secure enough to say that the woman I have chosen has a past and has had sexual relationships in the past. He is self-assured enough to say that if my past is forgotten, or forgiven, or irrelevant to my relationship hereon, so isn’t it fair for his woman to do it too? And that is the real definition of “manning up” –when you treat the other sex as equal. A man who extends the same yardsticks of judgement –be it of character, be it of relationships, be it of choices that he makes, he extends the same to the woman…that is the kind of man I look up to. And Robbie is a personification of that.”

Similarly, her female characters, don’t always fit the “strong woman” box either. For example, they aren’t necessarily financially independent, and as Kanika has pointed out in other interviews, even women who don’t go to work or earn can be feminists and strong women. Is that an intentional message?

“Absolutely! There is a deliberate attempt on my behalf to keep harping on this again and again…I can’t say it enough. There are few women in our country who are financially independent, but that doesn’t mean we take away the freedom of choice and the umbrella of feminism away from women who are not the breadwinners. They do an equally important job. Homemakers for example, contribute so much to the economy but they never get their due. They raise children and keep households running and to exclude them from the definition of strong, independent women is a gross injustice.”

The question of who to cast, and how

There has been conversation recently about representation on screen –the Saand Ki Aankh ageism controversy is perhaps the most famous example, but there have been questions raised around a few other films too. Neeraj Ghaywan recently was trolled for his job call for people from Dalit and Bahujan communities. So casting and representation on screen are a hot topic and I wanted to know from Alankrita, show she as a director made decisions about casting.

“I like casting actors who I feel will bring something to the part. I need to feel a sense of connection with the actor –that is important. I just want to cast actors who feel true to the part. Like in Lipstick I cast Ratna. I like working with actors who are willing to give 100% or more of themselves to the part. It has been a joy and a pleasure to work with actors who are more interested in the telling of the story and who are willing to be everything to aid that.” Alankrita says, while also pointing out that casting is a collaborative and not an individual decision.

Finding the balance in writing socially responsible characters

There is a lot of discussion nowadays about the need for films to be socially responsible. Kabir Sigh especially received many brickbats for its portrayal of an abusive male character.

In an interview with Scroll, with reference to Kabir Singh, Kanika had said, “we should be responsible, but we should also trust the intelligence of the audience. The debate and discussion should happen, but the audience’s conscience shouldn’t be a burden on a character.” How does one, as a writer, find that balance between trusting the audience and ensuring that the film does not glorify toxic masculinity, for instance, I wanted to know from her.

“I follow my intention. If my intent to write a character is in the right place, if my intent is not to titillate, if my intent is not to objectify, if my intent is not in the wrong place, I would go ahead and walk that thin line, where there could be a scope of misinterpretation and explore that grey area of a character.” Kanika confidently answers.

The need for an official body to advocate for women

The film industries in other parts of the country,have organizations that specifically advocate for women in Cinema (not just actresses but even those who work behind the scenes) like Women in Cinema Collective in Malayalam cinema, or Voice of Women in Tollywood, and South Indian Films Women Association, based out of Chennai.

Both Kanika and Alankrita agree that an association for women is a great idea, and that there should be one. Alankrita points out that women cinematographers in India have a collective and that they do help each other out. Female directors are friends with each other; they have an informal network, and they have come together when something has happened –for example, they made a statement together when the #MeToo movement broke in India.

She adds, “This is something that would definitely be something that would be very useful, especially to women who are entering the film industry because they are the ones who need a lot of encouragement. Generally also, whether in terms of sexual harassment or equal pay, and things like that, it would be great.”

The #MeToo movement and making Bollywood safer

It has been more than a year since the #MeToo movement came to Bollywood. While there is a sense of disillusionment and disappointment with the fact that there haven’t been too many changes on the ground, Alankrita and Kanika acknowledge that it has brought about awareness about sexual harassment, and started the important conversations, both within the industry and outside it.

“One thing that did come about is that men would now think twice about harassing women, because there is now  sense of shame associated with it,” Kanika says. “Women feel that they can speak more openly about these things – at least with each other, even if they don’t want to make it public,” Alankrita points out.

Coming to what can be done to make Bollywood safer for women, both of them have clear and defined ideas. “Hire more women –a crew that has more women is always going to be a more comfortable space. Next is to take complaints seriously. If somone complains, there shouldn’t be  delay in dealing with that complaint. We should also create a culture that is not toxic. A culture where it is not okay to crack sexist jokes or misogynist jokes. A culture where women are respected and taken seriously. Because that kind of culture is what creates an environment that makes it easier for women to speak up and that is also acts as a preventive measure –a discouragement for sexual harassment. It would be great even if we could just start by building a work culture that is more feminist, and more accommodative, having more women in positions of authority, and decision-making positions. In that kind of an environment, one is more hopeful that it will slowly start building into a safer space,” Alankrita opines.

Kanika stresses on the need for a professional, independent and fair body to look into sexual harassment complaints. “We need to have a governing body with set rules and regulations that gives proper representation to the victims as well as to those who have been accused. There should be no unfair or undue advantage taken, nor should there be any unfair or undue pressure – the people we are talking about would be at different levels of power, so we need a separate, independent and fair body to come into action.”

She is also quite clear that the responsibility for the safety of the women who work for various production houses, lies with those at the top, echoing Alankrita’s point about creating a non-toxic work environment. “Whoever has ownership of the production house has to take ownership of the safety of the women who work under its umbrella –be it by having rules and regulations in place, giving out signals that we have a strict policy against sexual harassment. It all comes from the top and percolates down.”

Advice for women wanting to break into the industry

“This is a fantastic time to come into the industry. It is a time when storytellers have all the freedom in the world, especially women story tellers or if you want to tell stories about women, it is a great time because the people are opening up, the market is opening up, to stories about women,” Kanika affirms. “I’d like to tell them one thing –take ownership of what you write. When we came in, we didn’t know how much we can own the thing that we create,” she says, adding, “When you create something it is beautiful and it also gives you a lot of power. Understand the power of being a creator. Otherwise you will be short selling yourself everywhere –be it with production houses, be it with studios, be it with directors, be it with actors, you need to be aware of your power as a creator, and be confident. If somebody is sitting across the table, listening to your story and negotiating with you, that means that what you have created has travelled and has touched a chord. Have faith in that and be confident sitting across a negotiating table. You will be worth what you think you are worth. That is something that they should really remember.”

Alankrita stresses on the importance of perseverance and emotional resilience. “The film industry unlike other industries is not a predictable space, and it’s not like 2+2 is going to equal 4 every time. The important thing is having the spirit of not giving up, and the spirit of perseverance. A lot of people are talented, and what really sees one through is perseverance and emotional resilience. There are a lot of rejections, a lot of waiting, a lot of uncertainty. The difference between the people who are able to get their work out there and the people who are still struggling to do so is the one who is willing to persevere.”

What we can look forward to

So, what projects are they working on, that we can look forward to, I asked. Kanika laughs, and answers, “Right now I can only tell you about the film for which shooting is starting now –Haseen Dillruba. Vinil Mathew is directing it. I’ve written it. I’m also co-producing it,” adding that announcements about other projects will be made by the producers/ directors as and when they are ready. “There are very interesting and exciting stories that I’m very happy about that will be coming out his year,” she says.

Alankrita too has some great projects under her belt. “As of now I’m waiting to release my new feature film called Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare, which has Bhumi Pednekar and Konkona Sen Sharma. I’ve also created a series called Bombay Begums for Netflix, which I’m currently shooting.”

We will be keeping our eyes peeled for these and for everything else that these amazing women create. One thing is for sure –with women like these behind the scenes, the future of Bollywood is looking very bright indeed.

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Vijayalakshmi Harish is a book blogger and writer. To paraphrase her librarian, she is a

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