Women Directors in Indian cinema – PART I

    As filmmakers, women date back to World War I, but in terms of numbers, they are minimal. If and when auteur critics and film scholars turn to the study of women directors, they typically look for ways in which women directors conform to or diverge from patterns followed by men directors. With the Western tradition of dividing human nature in dual but parallel streams, attributes traditionally associated with the masculine are valued, studied and articulated, while those associated with the feminine tend to be ignored.Male directors shift genres more smoothly and fluidly than their female counterparts. Judith Mayne observes that “surprisingly little attention has been paid to the function and position of the woman director.” In fact, the entire concept of authorship itself, traced back to Cahiers du Cinema’s auteur theory transported from France to England, and America, is historically encumbered with patriarchal overtones. Kaja Silverman has stated that Roland Barthes, while announcing the “death of the author”, sought to elide not only the author as an institution, but also as the occupant of an exclusively male position.


    Leap to the Eighties

    The Eighties mark a watershed in the entry of women directors. They are educated, urban, progressive, and contemporary even if are distanced in terms of geography, background, training and age. Their films often, not always, reveal a feminine point of view, are expressive of a feminine ‘voice’, collectively presenting, consciously or otherwise, a feminine sensibility distanced from the masculine sensibility. These women point out possibilities of women’s statements/comments/opinions about the patriarchal society in which they live from the specific discursive context of cinema, and how these possibilities can be translated into actualities. These, in turn, give “insight into the specific structures of patriarchal power and the possibilities of resistance to it.” However, their open reluctance to be ‘ghettoized’ as women directors is to be understood in the larger context of spectatorship. The same applies to their hating to be labelled as feminist filmmakers or as filmmakers who make feminist films. Because, it is problematic for any creative filmmaker, especially if she happens to be a woman, to take up positions which might alienate certain sections of a politically heterogeneous audience.

    This world comprises of Vijaya Mehta, Sai Paranjpye, Prema Karanth, Aparna Sen, Kalpana Lajmi and Aruna Raje. Interestingly, the first three women have their origins in theatre and are well trained in this performance art. Lajmi inherited her artistic choice from her famous uncle Guru Dutt, though she trained for ten years under another renowned cousin, Shyam Benegal since Dutt passed away when she was still a child. Sen entered films as a schoolgirl in Ray’s Two Daughters. She went on to become one of the most prolific and renowned actresses of the Bengali screen. She has the cinema in her blood. Aruna Raje is the only one to have received formal training in cinema. Earlier in her career, she co-directed with her husband but subsequently turned an independent director.

    Vijaya Mehta is perhaps, the only woman director who made the man the protagonist in her second film Pestonji. Her first, Rao Saheb, was the filmic adaptation of a popular play Barrister, in Marathi, by Jayant Dalvi. Rao Saheb has the eerie quality of the unreal, probably because it belongs to a bygone era we cannot identify with. It operates at several levels – the agony of being a woman who has to walk two steps behind the man whether married, maiden or widow; the agony of being Rao Saheb, a man who is rooted to his country. The vicious circle of social morality at the turn of the century invests the film with a dark, depressive mood. Mehta does not run away from usual cinematic clichés. On the social level, the intellectual exercise of trying to improve a lot of women as against those who are trying to keep women tied down to traditional roles is futile, as we see the clock turn the full circle with the young Radhakka withdrawing into the shell society has built for her.

    Sai Paranjpye worked in Marathi theatre before she stepped into cinema. The few films she directed do not deal overly with any feminist issue. They are tinged beautifully with black humour after Sparsh. Sparsh (1979), bagged three National Awards the following year but its release was held back for five years. the film is set in an authentic school for blind children. It unspools the story of Anirudh Parmar (Naseeruddin Shah), the blind principal of the school who is obsessed with his independence despite his handicap. Into this ambience enters a young widow, Kavita, (Shabana Azmi), attracted to the young principal. She finds it problematic to cope with this unusual man who interprets every effort to care as an intrusion into his painfully acquired and fiercely guarded independence. There is no effort to sentimentalize the lives of the children.

    Chashme Baddoor (1981) proved that Paranjpye could make musically enriched romantic comedies rooted in the Delhi middle class during the time the film was made without top stars or big budgets. Katha (1983) was an outstanding comic take on the famous Aesop’s hare-and-tortoise fables set against a Mumbai chawl and its middle-class residents. It has repeat value for the audience and defines a model lesson on black comedy. Disha (1990) starring Nana Patekar and Om Puri, explored the jhuggis of Mumbai inhabited by immigrant workers have come to Mumbai to make a living. Saaz (1997) explored the love-hate conflict between two sisters talented in music. Enriched with a melodious musical score, the film lost half way through because Paranjpye lost control over her own script. was an outstanding comic take on the famous Aesop’s hare-and-tortoise fables set against a Mumbai chawl and its middle-class residents. It has repeat value for the audience and defines a model lesson on black comedy.

    Kalpana Lajmi made her first film Ek Pal, based on a Bengali novel by Maitreyee Devi. It is the story of an adulterous affair of a young, married woman with a philanderer she knew from before marriage who enters her life when her husband is away. The husband comes back to find that she is pregnant but respects her choice and accepts her pregnancy. The strongest point is the girl’s exercise of her reproductive choice despite the fact that the child she carries does not have legal sanction and is the result of an adulterous relationship. Her parents do not approve in principle but lend her moral support. The star image of the three actors, Shabana Azmi, Naseeruddin Shah and Farooq Sheikh dilutes the intensity and honesty of the content to some extent despite excellent performances by all three.


    Her second film, Rudaali, adapted from a famous novelette by Mahasweta Devi, is merely a skeleton of the original story. For those who have no clue about Mahasweta Devi or the original story, Rudaali can be watched as a film independent of any literary source. Then, the audience may accept it at face value without the literary association with the original novella. The film explores the psyche of professional mourners of Rajasthan, a vanishing breed of desperate women who sell tears for sheer sustenance. The story revolves around Sanichari, who has a cursed life and owes her name to her penchant for attracting death and bad luck wherever she goes.

    Lajmi is a filmmaker whose signature carries a lot of pomp and style. She chooses themes that revolve around women. But she loses out to the lavish mounting and the musical gimmicks of commercial cinema. She ends up denying her films an identity of their own, either as films directed by a woman or as films revolving around women. She is overly obsessed with spectacle. Problems begin when fondness for spectacle cuts into and dilutes the intensity of the film’s final statement – if there is one. Darmiyaan dealt with a transgender little boy whose actress mother forces him to be a “boy” which is he not. He grows up believing he is a boy but the world teaches him differently. It was a very powerful film but lost out because of a raging war between the producer and the director.

    In her directorial films, Aparna Sen brings something genuinely personal to her subject/s as per Truffaut’s definition of the true auteur. Not one of her films is “a tasteful, accurate but lifeless rendering of the original material.” Most of her directorial films are based on her own story and screenplay. 36, Chowringhee Lane dealt with loneliness and isolation of a minority person in Calcutta. Parama gave adultery a different definition within the upper-middle-class Bengali ambience. Sati, on the other hand, redefined in a different way, the evil custom of Sati that victimised Bengali women of a bygone age. Picnic, a telefilm, explored the conflicting relationship between two sisters. Yugant, which she directed after a long gap, questioned the institution of an Indian marriage in a post-Modernist, urban setting. Calcutta – The Undying City, a telefilm, followed the search of an Indo-Anglican girl for her Calcutta roots, a city she belongs to, but has never seen. Paramita Ek Din explores a rather unusual bonding between a mother-in-law and her daughter-in-law, a relationship that is fragmented when the latter leaves the house to marry a second time, leaving the older woman to die, more of loneliness and isolation than of old age.


    Sen’s critique of images of women in dominant cinema comes from within the structure, cinematic voyeurism and certain integral elements of dominant cinema itself. Her films are brilliantly mounted, for instance, and have an apparently conventional narrative structure. But her films began to decline with It Mrinalini, a kind of autobiographical narrative that failed to work.

    Stage personality Prema Karanth guarded and sustained her own creative space within which she worked independently. Prema ventured into direction with Phaniyamma (1986) a feature film in Kannada, adapted from a Kannada novel penned by M.K.Indira in 1976. The novel’s protagonist, a mid-19th Century widow, resurrects a stereotype from reformist fiction. It draws its emotional capital from powerful and deeply embedded cultural formations. It is emblematic of the way Swadeshi formulations of gender, nation and feminism had reappeared and are renovated in the literature of the late 70s and 80s. Based on the actual life story of Phaniyamma (1870-1952) who lived in Hebbalige village in Malnad district of Karnataka, the film is based on her story as unfolded to Indira by her mother. Phaniyamma is a strong statement coming from a woman director. It is also a very honest statement about how a widow can make her life significant and independent without apparently disturbing the family values that bind her.

    The other directors, since Prema Karanth, have not been either consistent or prolific. Among them is Aruna Raje. Her first film Rihaee starring Hema Malini and Vinod is a scathing attack on the promiscuity of male migrant labour vis-a-vis their assumption of sexual fidelity from their sex-starved wives. Set in Gujarat, noted for its male migrant labour, Rihaee’s main thrust is on the married woman’s right to an active sex life. Bijoya Jena of Odisha made two directorial films, Tara and Abhaas. In Tara, she reversed the mythical contention of sacrifice for the Goddess Kali by demonstrating Kali herself as the object of sacrifice. She used a low-key narrative for her statement. Abhaas is a sensitive human drama that discusses some forbidden themes which border onto almost incest, adultery and lost youth love and aborted lives in a spontaneous and subtle manner where the characters are given full freedom to exploit the best and worst in the human spiritual aptitude Santwona Bardoloi debuted with Adajya, which won the prestigious Special Jury Award at the IFFI’98. The bold and radical film studies the shifting moral and social values of widows in feudal families of Assam through three widows of three generations of the same family. Satarupa Sanyal’s films Anu, on a gang-raped girl’s problems with her husband who fails to consummate his marriage to a rape victim, and Atotayi, about an extremist group active in North Bengal, failed to carry much promise and the same applies to Kalo Cheetah. Her later films deal with o\out-of-the-box subjects but somehow fail to make the grade. Her latest film Onno Apala is collecting honours from different film festivals.

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    Shoma Chatterji
    Shoma A. Chatterji is a senior journalist, film scholar and author based in India. She specialises in Indian Cinema, has won the National Award for Best Writing in Cinema twice. She has done her P.Hd and post-doctoral research on Indian cinema. She has authored 24 books of which more than half are on cinema.


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