What's sex got to do with it?

Global accolades notwithstanding, women indie filmmakers in Bollywood are treated with suspicion by producers, says Sharmistha Ghosal

  • Published 15.05.16
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OPEN EYE: Filmmakers Ashwini Iyer Tiwari, Ruchika Oberoi and Sandhya Daisy Sundaram

Have you heard of Anu Menon, who just bagged the award for best director at the London Asian Film Festival for her film Waiting? Do you know of Leena Yadav, whose film Parched has won several awards at film festivals across the globe, including the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles and the Stockholm Film Festival? What about Ruchika Oberoi, who directed the award-winning Island City?

The odds are you haven't, and therein hangs a tale.

Menon and Yadav are among a handful of young woman indie filmmakers who are making a mark globally. But when it comes to working in mainstream Bollywood, these women have a long way to go before they are accepted into the fold.

"We are embraced and praised by audiences abroad, but here you are not even recognised. Nothing has changed for me even after global awards and recognition," says Yadav, who'd earlier directed Aishwarya Rai and Sanjay Dutt in Shabd and Amitabh Bachchan in Teen Patti.

The term indie film is used to describe independent films which are usually produced outside of the major film studio system. Such films are also mostly distributed by independent entertainment agencies.

Although a lot has changed in Bollywood mainstream cinema, financiers and big studios still get cold feet when it comes to giving a chance to greenhorn directors, especially women, with a different story to tell.

Trade analysts and industry insiders feel that to set the box office on fire and enter the coveted Rs 100-crore club, a typical Bollywood movie must contain all the "right ingredients" - superstars, exotic locales, violence, romance and an item song or two. Indie film directors don't go by the rule book and have to pay the price, or so it seems.

Take the case of director Bela Negi. Her first commercial Hindi film Daayen Ya Baayen was released in 2010. Ramesh Majila (played by Deepak Dobriyal) returns to his village in Uttarakhand after a stint in Mumbai and takes up the job of a school teacher. One day he has this odd stroke of luck - he wins a fancy car in a contest - and his life is never quite the same. Interesting? Well, the film sank without a trace.

A still from Island City

"The producer had no interest in pushing the film further and risk more money; he was happy with what he got by selling channel rights. So, despite having a good story, it was barely noticed," Negi says.

Yadav holds that unless stars tell the stories, big financiers are not interested. "But the question is, do I at all want a star to tell my story," she asks.

Another problem with producers is that in their zest to ensure the film rakes in profits, they introduce so many changes that the very essence of the story gets lost, turning it into a typical Bollywood masala film, rues Sandhya Daisy Sundaram, who won an award at the Sundance Film Festival 2014 for her short documentary on Russian women, Love. Love. Love.

Ruchika Oberoi had a hard time convincing big studios and producers in Mumbai to fund her "experimental" film, Island City. "Finally, the National Film Development Corporation gave me the money," she says. But now that her film has been screened at various festivals around the world and bagged an award at the Venice Film Festival, it has helped her gain a toehold in the industry. "At least I get heard now," says Oberoi, whose next feature film is a children's comedy cum adventure.

The filmmakers hold that there is a perception that women can't carry a film on their shoulders. "Direction is still believed to be a very macho thing where you have to command in a loud voice and be in control. Producers doubt if a woman can fit into that role," laughs Oberoi.

Producers in one way or the other probe them about their capability to pull off a project. The question often asked is: " Aap aurat hokey sambhal paogi pura unit? (Will you be able to handle the entire unit, you know, being a woman)?"

The anxiety is manifold when a woman is to direct a superstar. Director Shefali Bhushan says that male actors are reluctant to submit themselves to women directors. "Gaining full faith of producers and actors in a male-dominated industry is tough. Be it directing, editing or producing, the male to female ratio is skewed towards men," Bhushan says.

It took her nine long years to make the film Jugni, which released earlier this year. "The film did not attract much attention despite good reviews because of lack of funds for extensive promos," rues Bhushan, who co-produced Jugni with her friends Karan Grover and Manas Malhotra.

UK-based Menon, director of the Naseeruddin Shah-Kalki Koechlin-starrer Waiting (slated for release in India later this month), agrees that this mistrust of woman directors is a global phenomenon. But according to her, the challenge in indie films is getting people to come and watch a film.

"The distribution is first weekend collection driven," she says. Those depending on a buzz created by word of mouth are at a disadvantage, she adds.

But some production houses are seeking to encourage new talent. Among them is Dhrishyam Films, which produced Masaan, Dhanak, Ankhon Dekhi and Waiting.

"I feel woman directors have a definite style of storytelling when it comes to emotional human relationships," says Manish Mundra, who runs Drishyam. "We have worked with young talents such as Anu Menon and Marria Sayed and we are about to work with Sreemoyee Bhattacharya for her first feature film Dehleez (working title). In fact, it's supposed to be an all-woman crew," he says.

Sundaram is finalising the script of her first full-length commercial feature film with creative producer Fyodor Druzin. But she is apprehensive of the imminent struggle for funds. "Initially I thought that getting an international award would make things easier, but it's going against me since financiers are presuming I won't be able to make profitable commercial films."

Debutant director Ashwini Iyer Tiwari, whose film Nil Battey Sannata has been distributed by Eros International, does not seem to agree with this. "I faced no such difficulties in getting a producer to believe in my script, which is different. Bollywood is quite open to new ideas," she says.

Mundra, on the other hand, acknowledges the problem, but is also hopeful that as more talented women enter this domain, equations will change.

Did someone say "picture abhi baaki hai"?

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