Women Directors in Indian cinema – PART II

    Women directing films within Bollywood are increasing every day. But they still remain a small fraction of the larger horizon dominated by male directors because here too, the numbers are rising both within the national mainstream and regional cinema. Nevertheless, they form a significant minority in terms of the substance, the issues and the content of their films. A few of them have consciously stepped into mainstream cinema, entirely a male domain, instead of focussing only on woman-centric subjects and issues. The emergence of women directors at the turn of the 21st century has seen some women directing alongside men as co-directors such as Sumitra Bhave and Sunil Sukhtankar who always direct together, or, Shiboprosad Mukherjee and Nandita Roy who are very successful in the commercial mainstream and so on. But most of them are confined to regional cinema. For logistical purposes, this analysis will keep them out of purview. So, with Indian women directors who define “The Other” as they work outside Indian shores with foreign funding and often, foreign technicians, are also excluded from this study.  Among these are Mira Nair, Deepa Mehta, Pamela Rooks and so on because they belong to a different culture and their perceptions on exclusively Indian subjects are tinged with the “outsider’s” viewpoint on the Indian condition.

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    Ashwini Iyer Tiwari

    Ashwini Iyer Tiwari’s Neel Battey Sannata uses the mother-daughter story with its few ups and many downs to draw other sub-plots of how determination can overcome the struggles of everyday life. The film scores not only in terms of its simple storyline but also in terms of the screenplay and the director’s ability to flesh out every single character so that they appear credible placed against a reality setting. The director has kept cinematographic and production values distanced from glamour.

    The best part about the script lies in the way it depicts the change in Chanda’s character, the ‘matric fail’ who is determined that her daughter will not be a ‘matric fail’ and finds herself becoming a student after many years. In Neel Battey Sannata, the mother decides to give competition to her unfocussed daughter who has no dreams in life and does not want to pass her matric exam.

    Tiwari delighted us all over again with her wonderfully entertaining Bareilly Ki Barfi. She brings one more subtle feminist statement in Bareilly Ki Barfi, said to be the first Bollywood film to have been shot entirely in Bareilly. The feminist statement is so subtle, that if you do not follow the naughty but open pranks of Bitty, her parents included, you might miss it completely. Tiwari’s two films are polar opposites of each other that testifies that we now have a gutsy director who is versatile, ready to experiment with the mainstream and the off-mainstream and also make a powerful political statement about girls and women not given the choice to live life their own way.

    Leena Yadav

    After 24 film festivals across the world, Leena Yadav’s third feature film Parched (Hindi) has finally struck tent on the home ground. Parched explores, analyses, tries to understand and communicate to the audience this feeling of desperate thirst (parched) women are forced to face, never mind whether it is Janaki, a girl of 14 who chops off her lustrous stresses to avoid being married off to Gulab against her wishes, in vain, or, whether it is the 32-year-old widow Rani, convinced that the only way to rescue her son Gulab from frequenting prostitutes and incurring huge loans is to marry him off to the beautiful Janaki.

    Lajjo, Rani’s best friend is a pretty young wife bashed up brutally by husband Madan who uses sex as a horrific weapon of attack to punish her for her ‘barrenness’ every night. Bijlee is the local sex worker who entertains the village males with her pole dance as the star of the touring carnival that strikes tent in the village. She is a sparkling beauty and crackles like fireworks with her naughty, teasing charm she veils her inner pain with. She throws up alternative ways of behaviour and thinking, changing female-prefixed abuses men generously use by substituting them with male prefixes and shouting these from the top of a hillock with her friends.

    Bijlee offers visions of freedom to Lajjo and Rani from the prison they are caged in. But simmering inside her is the pain of the trap that for her is a no-exit situation where love is as much a mirage as it is for Rani and Lajjo. Leena Yadav’s first two films, Shabd and Teen Patti went unheard of and unsung but they had rather unusual plots and storylines the audience is not familiar with.

    Zoya Akhtar

    Zoya Akhtar, daughter of Javed Akhtar and sister of Farhan, believes in directing mainstream films. Yet, her first film Luck By Chance (2002), was not exactly mainstream. In fact, it was a satire on mainstream cinema, on film schools, on auditions all of which underlined the struggle of young men and women with stars in their eyes who come to Mumbai to enter films but mostly fail. The film’s strength lies in making real actors play themselves as characters strongly tinged with negative shades, barring a few like Shahrukh and Amir. The falseness, the arrogance, the jealousy, the coy manoeuvrings, the pain, the one-upmanship, the film school lecture, the party scene filled with memorized lines from Rani Mukherjee and the rest, come across through subtle, light touches.

    Her second film, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011) is a high-budget, multi-starring male buddy film that fetched her several awards and fattened the producer’s bank balance in terms of the box office returns on the film. It is a spectacular road movie that travels across continents with the three buddies taking their last journey as bachelors stopping along the way to explore the fun in adventure sport ranging from deep-sea diving, sky-diving through running with the bulls right up to the Tomatina festival filmed with the dynamic pace and ceaseless action it demands, spilling over the invite the audience to participate in the fun.  

    Her short film Sheila Ki Jawani within the longer four-short films called Bombay Talkies (2013) is offering a moving insight into enforced gender-conditioning by a dictatorial father who wants his son to become a footballer. But the son hates football and wants to dance like Katrina Kapoor. Her next film, Dil Dhadakne Do (2015) followed her style of high production values, big stars, to narrate a story of a stinking rich family that take a luxury cruise in celebration of the marriage anniversary of the patriarch and his wife when the dysfunctions of the family begin to tumble out.  It is by no means a brilliant film but it has the signature of the director and was a box office hit.

    Reema Kagti

    Reema Kagti made her debut with a sparkling entertainer, a journey film that explored man-woman relationships in different dynamics in Honeymoon Travels Pvt Ltd. (2007) with the stories of four couples off on their respective ‘honemoons’ to Goa on a luxury bus, each with problems of its own. This entirely character-driven film that blends itself into the road movie genre offered delightful entertainment, without big stars, from beginning to end.

    Her second film Talaash – The Answer Lies Within (2012) was a psychological thriller which also made a strong socio-political statement on the position of sex workers in our society. She used a lot of surrealism, fantasy, prayer to departed spirits, automatic writing, a marriage falling apart by a tragedy shared by both husband and wife and a whole lot of issues but did not lose track of the main issue – the criminal marginalisation of a prostitute.

    She is now directing Gold adapting the true story of India’s first ever Olympic medal winner. She has established herself over several screenplays, stories and assistantships as an independent director who manages to tell stories that entertain as well as have social underpinnings. If Honeymoon Travels Pvt Ltd was spilling over with a lot of friendly comedy, entertainment and drama, Talaash took the route of another character-driven story that narrates an unusual revenge drama rarely witnessed in Indian films.

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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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