~Women Directors - Gauri Shinde, Leena Yadav and Meghna Gulzar discuss gender equality, women-centric stories and more~

One of the most interesting sessions of IFFI 2018, “Calling The Shots”: Women Directors in Indian Cinema, saw some of the most prolific filmmakers in India – Gauri Shinde, Leena Yadav and Meghna Gulzar engage in a conversation on gender equality, women-centric stories, and their journey in the film industry, moderated exceptionally well by filmmaker Shashank Khaitan.

Leena Yadav, Gauri Shinde and Meghna Gulzar

Usually a good male director is a ‘genius’, ‘has an eye for detail’ and ‘knows what he wants’, but his female counterpart is usually perceived to be ‘finicky’, ‘too rigid’, and ‘too authoritative’. When asked if this perception has changed, Meghna quipped, “I hope not. We ARE finicky, we ARE detail-oriented. We like it like that. That’s what shows in our work and that’s what you as an audience like.” Meghna, the daughter of noted lyricist Gulzar, directed her first film Filhaal that dealt with surrogacy, in 2002 and followed it with films like Just Married, Talvar and Raazi.

Gauri Shinde’s film English Vinglish when looked in isolation is about a great character. But when looked through the lens of gender, it becomes a strong ‘female character’ who breaks through after being subdued in society. When asked if she was subjected to questions surrounding gender and feminism a bit more, because of this, Gauri said, “I had never thought that a film about a middle class women and her middle class life could touch people’s hearts. I used to be offended with words like ‘female director’ and ‘female protagonist’ but after some time I learnt that I want to be proud of it. If this is what someone wants to call it, why not? I want to tell stories about women that are not told so often.”

Narrating her ordeal of entering the film industry, Leena Yadav said, “I had a lot of people refuse to work with me because I am a woman. I experienced harsh discrimination but I stopped working with such people. I have had a great journey from there on. But I experienced the existence of this recently when my first AD called up a potential second AD to hire him. The candidate said that working with a woman director will look good on his CV, and followed it up by asking, ‘Does she know anything or do we have to do everything?’”

What does the commercial failure of the first film do to the filmmaker mentally, and to the prospects of the next film? Leena Yadav, whose first film, Shabd wasn’t received well at the box office, said, “Post the release, I got an instant PhD into the politics of our film industry. It was heartbreaking; I had never experienced anything like it. I couldn’t function normally for about six months. It was like standing naked in the middle of the street and being whipped by everyone from everywhere. I then focused all my energies into writing. I wrote my next film which I thought nobody is going to do but I got to make my film. I think that’s what the journey is. They say, the first film is the toughest, but the truth is that it only starts getting tougher.”

While speaking about her film Parched, Leena said, “When Parched was travelling at film festivals worldwide and winning accolades, a common question that people there asked was, “Are people in India going to see the same film as the international audiences?” When we were called by CBFC, we realized that they were slightly on the backfoot because of the awards that the film had won internationally. They told us that the film would be given an ‘A’ rating, which we were fine with. Then they pointed at the chest area and said that ‘it’ will have to be blurred, referring to the scenes involving frontal nudity. I asked them, “It what? Breasts?” The panel members jumped in shock at my utterance of the word. It is sad that in a country that gave the world Kamasutra, we are hesitant to talk about sex, because well you know, children in India are found in temples and sex has nothing to do with it.”

In a society that is still trying to understand and be comfortable with gender equality, it is quite possible that women directors may be treated or looked at differently by big stars? When asked about if they ever experienced this, all three answered in a negative fashion, thereby dismissing the notion. Meghna said, “All actors will always test you to see how much you know about your craft. It is about winning their confidence. It has got nothing to do with gender.” Leena while agreeing with the thought, added, “All the actors that I have worked with – they know that I know their characters better than them. I have never had any issues. Working with Amitabh Bachchan and Ben Kingsley (on Teen Patti) was amazing.”

Film critics talk about the blurring line between mainstream and critically acclaimed cinema

The day also saw some of the leading film critics of the country engage in a conversation on the new age of cinema and how the lines between commercial mainstream cinema and alternative cinema are blurring. This elite panel included critics Bhawana Somaaya, Rajeev Masand and Anupama Chopra along with trade analyst Komal Nahata, filmmaker Shaad Ali (Bunty aur Babli, Saathiya) and Ankur Mehra (Facebook)

Bhawana Somaaya, Rajeev Masand and Anupama Chopra along with trade analyst Komal Nahata, filmmaker Shaad Ali and Ankur Mehra (Facebook)

This is especially true in a year where some of the biggest films have been those without stars but with amazingly fresh storylines. These include films like Badhai Ho, Stree and Raazi.

Starting of the panel on a light note Komal Nahata said that, “Because we don’t pay for our tickets and popcorn, we try to save other people’s money by giving a fair opinion.” Rajeev Masand added that “a lot of people don’t know what we do”, to which Mr. Nahata retorted, “Even I don’t know what we do.”

Things soon took a serious turn with conversation veering to how films are judged in India. When asked about his opinion filmmaker Shaad Ali mentioned that, “Films should not be judged by how much money is spent on them. Everyone works equally hard on their films.”

Throwing light on the role of exhibitors and their perceived knowledge of what works and what doesn’t, Komal Nahata said that, “All the exhibitors understand is that ‘if the film gets an opening, then it will be a hit and if it doesn’t then it will flop.’ I don’t agree with that. That is why I like to see the film with the audience. The opening day figures of a film are not as important as the feeling and mood of the audience when they are watching a film.”

Speaking on the on-going audience evolution and their changing tastes as far as cinema is concerned, Anupama Chopra said, “There is no art-house cinema or mainstream cinema. What is Andhadhun? What is Badhai HoWhat is Sriram Raghavan? Is he an art-house filmmaker or a mainstream filmmaker?? Now the lines are blurred, almost extinguished.

Rajeev Masand added that, “It’s really an exciting time. Ideas and themes that wouldn’t usually be touched upon by the mainstream are today getting funded.” Komal added, “The audience has evolved, they see world cinema on their smartphones, they are receptive to different themes now. Therefore they appreciate films without a star-cast or middle of the road.”

The audience peppered the panel with questions on what the future holds for Indian cinema and how they see the market evolving further.