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When women call the shots


In recent years especially, women directors in Bollywood have had a lot of success with their films. Among these are Meghna Gulzar (Talvar, Raazi), Leena Yadav (Teen Patti, Parched) and Gauri Shinde (English Vinglish, Dear Zindagi) whose films have left an indelible mark on Indian cinema. And as part of the IFFI 2018, in a session ‘Calling the shots – female directors in cinema’, the trio sat down with director Shashank Khaitan to talk about their films, about being ‘women directors’ and about their journey so far.

While it is common for questions of whether it was tough to break through being a woman to crop up, Shinde states that she never thought of it that way. “I just took it for granted that if you have a dream, you should go ahead and do it,” she said.

Yadav meanwhile started out as an editor. And she admits that at first a lot of people refused to work with her. “On one occasion when I was working as a freelance editor, the client walked in and on learning that I was the editor, took out all the wiring and told me to put it back as I should know to do everything. I of course knew how to put the wiring back following which I said I wouldn’t work on that project and I walked out,” she revealed. After this, Yadav stated, she chooses not to think of any kind of gender bias and has stopped bothering about it completely. She further revealed that even as recently as working on her new film ‘Rajma Chawal’, she had this kind of an issue while trying to hire the second AV guy.

As the daughter of lyricist and poet Gulzar and actress Raakhee, Meghna Gulzar stated that she is a living example that nepotism does not exist in the industry. “I used to wait outside a film studio for 12 hours just to get two words with an actor, without saying who I was. Also my first film (Filhaal) failed miserably and it took me seven years to make my next film. It didn’t matter what my last name was,” she said.

Infact just like Gulzar, Yadav’s first film (Shabd) too didn’t fair well at the box office. And they admit that it did affect them both emotionally and mentally for awhile.

Post the release she was asked to leave town. “I got a PHD into how film industry politics works. It was heartbreaking and for six months I couldn’t function. It was like standing naked in the middle of the road with everyone looking at me from all over the place,” she said. But she then decided to focus her mind on writing and wrote her next film. “I always thought making my first film would be the toughest but then I realised that it just gets tougher and tougher,” she said. The first film though is the purest, she believes, as you are not trying to censor yourself. “It comes from a place of such beautiful innocence and I am constantly trying to go back to that place when I made my first film because even though it didn’t work I’m very proud of it,” she said.

Gulzar on the other hand admitted that she was told that her first film Filhaal wouldn’t work. “That wasn’t even the first film I had written. The first film I wrote was a dark comedy which may have been more commercially viable I think but this was the story I wanted to tell. I have always held on to conviction right through my entire journey,” she said.

When it failed, she admitted that at first she did begin second guessing her decisions, her sensibility and wondering whether she should align to mainstream sensibilities. In fact, she did try writing a few scenes along the mainstream lines but realised she would not be able to execute this. The film reviews which got personal were also demoralising. “The only thing that kept me going was perseverance. You have to keep writing, keep deleting, keep trying for your avenues and keep hoping you get lucky. It doesn’t happen overnight. You need guts of steel,” she said.

Shinde’s first film English Vinglish meanwhile was a huge success. This despite her initial struggles to get a producer. “A protagonist from a middle class, simple, non glamorous background was not very exciting. But I didn’t want to bend the story. I would rather not make the film than do that. So my husband and I produced it instead. And the love I got for it reassured me that I should stick to what I believe and honestly feel. What the audience wants is a failed question, what you want and what drives you is the question you should be asking,” she said.

But Shinde admits that once she was done with it, making her next film was just as hard. “Once that was done, I forgot about it. For me every film is a fresh start, with the same nervousness, same insecurities. The first day on set I feel like I have never shot anything before and that I have forgotten how to do so,” she said. And while people told her to make her second film quickly following the success of her first film, so that the audience does not forget her, she chose to pay no heed to this.

Being a woman director, questions whether they are taken seriously enough by the cast, especially the bigger stars, are often thrown at them. But Gulzar believes that there is no real biased treatment here. “All the actors in the initial process of interaction will test you to see how much you know. It is about you winning their confidence. It has nothing to do with gender and it happens with a male director too,” she said.

In fact, Yadav states that her actors know that she knows the characters better than they do, something which Ben Kingsley also voiced while working with her in Teen Patti.

“When the actors come onboard a film, they are not stars, they become co-workers and while I have a tremendous respect for their craft and talent, it’s about the team and what we can do together,” added Shinde.

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