women's narratives

A campaign reminds us of the missing person on the director’s chair

52 Films by Women asks its users to pledge to watch a film by a woman every week. How does India measure up?

Dharm is a Hindi film about a revered and austere Brahmin priest who is compelled to revaluate his idea of religion. Marathi film Kapus Kondyachi Goshta chronicles the struggles of a fierce young woman and her three sisters as they grapple against insurmountable odds to keep their farm thriving after their father’s suicide. Irudhi Suttru is a Tamil film featuring the relationship between a grumpy boxing coach and his spirited protégé. These markedly diverse and entertaining films share an interesting commonality: they have all been directed by women.

Women in Film, an organisation in Los Angeles that focuses on enhancing women’s participation in the entertainment media, has launched a campaign titles 52 Films by Women. The initiative asks users to pledge to watch one movie by a woman every week for a year and post about it under the hastag #52filmsbywomen. The campaign is part of a larger initiative called Trailbazing Women, which aims to “raise awareness about the underrepresentation of women in positions of power” within the entertainment industry.

Women have long been condescendingly credited for influencing historic social changes from behind the scene. In the cinematic world, however, that position has been usurped by men. Women direct, write and produce an appallingly small number of movies the world over. In the Indian film industry, the gender ratio is abysmally skewed at 6.2 males to every female, according to the report of a study funded by the Oak Foundation. The report also revealed that only one in ten Indian directors is a woman (9.1%).

Indian female directors are attempting to find a foothold in an industry that has always been dominated by men, but are finding that that is particularly tricky for them to balance between artistic sensibility and economic returns. Yash Raj Films, one of India’s major production houses, has produced only one film directed by a woman (Bewakoofiyan, by Nupur Asthana) since its inception in 1970. Barring a few directors such as Farah Khan, Zoya Akhtar, Reema Kagti and Leena Yadav, female filmmakers are forced to make small budget or art house films.

Viewers who pledge to include a movie made by a woman in their weekly filmic diet are likely to also discover some fascinating small budget films directed by Indian women. For instance, Shonali Bose’s National Film Award winning Margarita with a Straw is details how Laila, a teenager afflicted with cerebral palsy, discovers herself through her sexuality. Manjadikuru, Anjali Menon’s Malayalam film, chronicles the experiences of a 10 year-old Vicky as he returns to his mother’s ancestral house after his grandfather’s death.

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‘Manjadikuru’ by Anjali Menon.

Deepa Mehta and Mira Nair have repeatedly proven their cinematic acumen with films like Fire and Monsoon Wedding, which capture a plethora of female experiences with wrenching insight. Leena Yadav’s Parched has also attracted praise for its frank portrayal of female sexuality.

Since female directors are few, they are tasked with the heavy responsibility of authentically depicting female experiences, and featuring believable female leads. However, Indian women have also made movies that offer alternative perspectives on masculinity, prominently featuring male perspectives without compromising on strong female voices in their narratives. Reema Kagti’s psychological thriller Talaash captures the grief of a man who has lost his child, but doesn’t neglect his wife’s anguish. Konkona Sen Sharma’s A Death in the Gunj deconstructs contradictory notions of masculinity.

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‘Parched’ by Leena Yadav.

Just as they bear the burden of intelligent representation, most films directed by women are also required to adhere to an intellectual standard that is not demanded from other cinematic efforts. They are often expected to contain grave ruminations about social and cultural realities, dissecting human emotion with restrained flourishes.

Indian female directors occasionally attempt to defy this notion, producing films that are either incisively witty or absolutely ridiculous. Consider Sai Paranjpye’s cult classic Chashme Buddoor, which features a trio of feckless college boys trying to woo a woman. Gauri Shinde’s English Vinglish retains comic moments even as it addresses the subtle but constant shaming that Indian housewives endure from their husbands and children. On the other hand, Farah Khan’s commercially successful films Main Hoon Na and Happy New Year completely abandon logic in their quest for humour.

As female directors start the tedious process of breaking the glass ceiling in Indian cinema, their work is gradually attracting attention. The Mumbai Film Festival’s 2016 edition has instituted a new award for the Best Indian Female Filmmaker. The need of an award that is marked with gender offers a painful reminder that movies made by women are still considered deviations from the norm.

But the few women who have made a place for themselves behind the camera are narrating diverse, vivid and compelling stories. And if cinema enthusiasts decide to engage with at least 52 of these narratives, they will get the audience they deserve.

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‘Dil Dhadakne Do’ by Zoya Akhtar.
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London then and now – As experienced by Indians

While much has changed, the timeless quality of the city endures.

“I found the spirit of the city matching the Bombay spirit. Like Bombay, the city never sleeps and there was no particular time when you couldn’t wander about the town freely and enjoy the local atmosphere”, says CV Manian, a PhD student in Manchester in the ‘80s, who made a trip to London often. London as a city has a timeless quality. The seamless blend of period architecture and steel skyscrapers acts as the metaphor for a city where much has changed, but a lot hasn’t.

The famed Brit ‘stiff upper lip, for example, finds ample validation from those who visited London decades ago. “The people were minding their business, but never showed indifference to a foreigner. They were private in their own way and kept to themselves.” Manian recollects. Aditya Dash remembers an enduring anecdote from his grandmother’s visit to London. “There is the famous family story where she was held up at Heathrow airport. She was carrying zarda (or something like that) for my grandfather and customs wanted to figure out if it was contraband or not.”

However, the city always housed contrasting cultures. During the ‘Swinging ‘60s’ - seen as a precursor to the hippie movement - Shyla Puri’s family had just migrated to London. Her grandfather still remembers the simmering anti-war, pro-peace sentiment. He himself got involved with the hippie movement in small ways. “He would often talk with the youth about what it means to be happy and how you could achieve peace. He wouldn’t go all out, but he would join in on peace parades and attend public talks. Everything was ‘groovy’ he says,” Shyla shares.

‘Groovy’ quite accurately describes the decade that boosted music, art and fashion in a city which was till then known for its post-World-War austerities. S Mohan, a young trainee in London in the ‘60s, reminisces, “The rage was The Beatles of course, and those were also the days of Harry Belafonte and Ella Fitzgerald.” The likes of The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd were inspiring a cultural revolution in the city. Shyla’s grandfather even remembers London turning punk in the ‘80s, “People walking around with leather jackets, bright-colored hair, mohawks…It was something he would marvel at but did not join in,” Shyla says.

But Shyla, a second-generation Londoner, did join in in the revival of the punk culture in the 21st century. Her Instagram picture of a poster at the AfroPunk Fest 2016 best represents her London, she emphatically insists. The AfroPunk movement is trying to make the Punk culture more racially inclusive and diverse. “My London is multicultural, with an abundance of accents. It’s open, it’s alive,” Shyla says. The tolerance and openness of London is best showcased in the famous Christmas lights at Carnaby Street, a street that has always been popular among members of London’s alternate cultures.

Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)
Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)

“London is always buzzing with activity. There are always free talks, poetry slams and festivals. A lot of museums are free. London culture, London art, London creativity are kept alive this way. And of course, with the smartphones navigating is easy,” Shyla adds. And she’s onto something. Manian similarly describes his ‘80s rendezvous with London’s culture, “The art museums and places of interest were very illustrative and helpful. I could tour around the place with a road map and the Tube was very convenient.” Mohan, with his wife, too made the most of London’s cultural offerings. “We went to see ‘Swan Lake’ at the Royal Opera House and ‘The Mousetrap’ by Agatha Christie. As an overseas graduate apprentice, I also had the pleasure to visit the House of Lords and take tea on the terrace.”

For the casual stroller along London’s streets today, the city would indeed look quite different from what it would’ve to their grandparents. Soho - once a poor suburb known for its crime and sex industry - is today a fashionable district of upmarket eateries and fashion stores. Most of the big British high street brands have been replaced by large international stores and the London skyline too has changed, with The Shard being the latest and the most impressive addition. In fact, Shyla is quite positive that her grandfather would not recognise most of the city anymore.

Shyla, though, isn’t complaining. She assures that alternate cultures are very much alive in the city. “I’ve seen some underground LGBT clubs, drag clubs, comedy clubs, after midnight dance-offs and empty-warehouse-converted parties. There’s a space for everybody.” London’s cosmopolitan nature remains a huge point of attraction for Indian visitors even today. Aditya is especially impressed by the culinary diversity of London and swears that, “some of the best chicken tikka rolls I have had in my life were in London.” “An array of accents flood the streets. These are the people who make London...LONDON,” says Shyla.

It’s clear that London has changed a lot, but not really all that much. Another aspect of Indians’ London experience that has remained consistent over the past decades is the connectivity of British Airways. With a presence in India for over 90 years, British Airways has been helping generations of Indians discover ‘their London’, just like in this video.

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For more information on special offers on flights to London and other destinations in the UK, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of British Airways and not by the Scroll editorial team.