Watching a film, The Souvenir, at the MAMI Film Festival, made by a female director, Joanna Hogg, which was about a woman unable to get out of a toxic relationship with a drug addict, it was a bit disconcerting to see such a pathetic portrayal of a promising young film student. Which is not to say that women directors are obligated to make films only about strong heroines, but any little bit that adds to positivity around women helps.
Female filmmakers bristle at being labelled thus, and most of them feel that they should have the freedom to make films about anything they like, not just women’s issues; it is also equally true that some of the best or, most progressive films about women have been made by male directors—the recent mainstream release, Saand Ki Aankh, directed by Tushar Hiranandani is a case in point.
So, casting an eye on the Indian films in the MAMI programme made by women directors, still woefully few in number, but hopefully that will change over time: The film that has been winning accolades is Gitanjali Rao’s debut animation feature, Bombay Rose—her short films, Printed Rainbow and True Love Story were praised sky high too. Bombay Rose, using meticulous hand-painted animation tells a classic ‘filmi’ love story between Kamala, a Hindu flower seller and dancer, and Salim, a young Muslim man. After its premiere at the Venice Film Festival, Leslie Felperin wrote in The Hollywood Reporter, “…there is a palpable sense that this was made by someone who knows Mumbai backwards and truly loves its ochre-colored streets, cluttered sidewalks and peeling billboards advertising old movie releases, right down to every frayed shred of paper.”
The other film festival favourite, was Sapna Moti Bhavnani’s Sindhustan, a personal and very whimsical story of a women discovering her Sindhi roots, and getting the stories she hears from Partition survivors tattooed on her legs, while, in another strand, a loving aunt makes Sindhi curry from scratch.
Tanuja Chandra’s debut, Aunty Sudha Aunty Radha (written about in an earlier column) is a charming study of her father’s elderly aunts, leading a utopian life in a picturesque Uttar Pradesh village.
Actress Seema Pahwa makes her debut as filmmaker with Ramprasad Ki Tehrvi, a light-hearted family drama, that she wrote and had to direct when the male directors she approached told her to make it herself. She did just that, with the support of Drishyam’s Manish Mundhra, got an enviable ensemble cast, and from all accounts has done a terrific job.
Another actress, Tannishtha Chatterjee makes her directorial debut with Roam Rome Mein, which also made a few festival rounds and won an award or two, before landing at MAMI, a film about a man who goes looking for his missing sister in Rome. In the process, according to the synopsis, “he meets some magical characters who take him through his own journey of self realisation and make him question his own deep rooted patriarchal beliefs and his oppressive family structure.”
Aarti Kadav’s debut feature Cargo is set on a space ship and mixes a sci-fi with Hindu myths about death and the afterlife, which attracted Anurag Kashyap enough to co-produce it. It is undoubtedly an audacious and original idea.
Deepti Gupta’s documentary, Shut up Sona records over three years, singer Sona Mohapatra’s fight with sexual harassment in the film industry, as well as fringe elements objecting to one of her songs as “vulgar.” Her voice is brave, her ideas unshackled and the message of the film speaks for every woman tackling the perils of patriarchy.
Sumitra Bhave’s Marathi film Dithee (she has made several films with Sunil Sukhtankar over a thirty-year creative collaboration)—is about a man’s spiritual unravelling after the after the death of his son.
The stories these women directors—who, of course, would have no need to be ghettoized if they weren’t so few of them—tell, are interesting, touching, heart-warming, but would be able to reach a wider audience if they were welcomed into the mainstream—of this lot, only Tanuja Chandra belongs to Bollywood commercial cinema.
After directors like Sai Paranjpye, Aparna Sen, Aruna Raje, Kalpana Lajmi led the charge, Hindi mainstream cinema is slowly opening its doors to women directors, more of them are getting their breaks and having their work noticed–Ashwini Iyer Tiwari, Gauri Shinde, Alankrita Shrivastav to name just three; Nandita Das, Shonali Bose and Konkona Sen Sharma have made artistically accomplished films. Farah Khan, Zoya Akhtar, Reema Kagti and Meghna Gulzar have gone from strength to strength and Kangana Ranaut made a contentious debut as filmmaker.
When raising finance is such a struggle, so many women filmmakers invariably end up making small films, and usually about things they feel strongly about– which means women’s problems, women’s struggles and women’s search for identity– thus willy nilly pushing themselves further into the ghetto. So people have more reason to say that women can only make ‘chick flicks’ (the derogatory term coined in Hollywood to describe films by and about women, which some female directors have teasingly subverted to use as a badge of honour.)
It is certainly not imperative for female filmmakers to always present the female point of view, but women who get the opportunity to make films perhaps ought to give insights into the feminine psyche, since women in mainstream Indian films are almost always superfluous, or at least interchangeable.
Sensible audiences would like to see intelligent and sensitive women’s films, but would also like to see men from the female point of view, instead of just seeing them as swaggering muscled male fantasy figures.
It was time for female directors take up the same themes as the males and give them a refreshing twist, a unique point of view, and more relatable characters. One can certainly celebrate the fact that this year’s entry for the Oscars, Gully Boy, was made by a female director—Zoya Akhtar—and it is the story of a talented young man achieving his dream, but also has a fiery female lead.
(This piece first appeared in The Free Press Journal, dated October 24, 2019)