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.
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.
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.