CultureCinema Feminism and Film-making: An Insight Into Indian Filmmakers

Feminism and Film-making: An Insight Into Indian Filmmakers

Feminism and film-making when combined, forms an intense duo because both sustain the propensity to bring a change in the society.

Posted by Prateek

The world had just stepped into the 20th century when Alice Guy-Blaché released The Consequences of Feminism in 1906 which became the first ever movie to lay out an honest depiction of a rather reversed patriarchy where women were envisioned to roam freely in the society enjoying leisure activities while their male counterparts were demoted to child-rearing and household jobs. This daring portrayal despite being a menace in such an era marked the beginning of a sub-revolution for women filmmakers and directors who are still grappling to raise their heads up in this highly male dominated field of art. The strong trail of the first women filmmakers putting their foot down then began with Lois Weber and Dorothy Arzner in the US, Tazuko Sakane in Japan, Germaine Dulac in Europe and finally Fatma Begum in India, who started her own production company and directed Bulbule Paristan, in 1926.

It is 2016 now. The skyscrapers are up, technology is on fire, people have urbanized; but subjection still lurks, perhaps in a more modernized approach. Yes, the one where humor wins. It’s incredibly irksome to note that filmmaking while being considered a much liberating field of work hasn’t been able to emancipate itself from the dirt of sexism and misogyny and there are various connotative descriptions, incidents, anecdotes and cases to prove that. Incidents are small and casual, but provoke a larger pressure and you’ll be astonished to know there exists a Tumblr page just for blogging these which goes by the name Shit People Say To Women Directors. One of the many posts on this page reads:

“I was at a film festival fundraiser in LA with my husband and we were talking with a few people about the film we were working on together. Some random guy joins and derails the conversation, and then turns his sights on me. “You,” he says. “I’m really good at guessing people’s jobs in this industry. You’re a makeup artist!” I reply, “While that’s a completely legit job, it’s not mine. I’m a documentary Director and Editor. But thanks for assuming!”

The quotation above can provide you a glance to how, in a so-called modish societal worldview, such offhand attempts to degrade the already oppressed gender still exist in a particular workplace.

A recent study on gender inequality in Hollywood conducted at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism brought into limelight the initial disadvantages women directors have to face from the start of their careers. The study found that women represent 28% of the directors of narrative shorts. “Female film directors face a fiscal cliff in their careers after making a short film,” noted smith, one of the researchers. “For males opportunities grow, while for females, they vanish.” In the period of 2002 to 2014, female-directed movies comprised just 4.1% of the total top-grossing movies.

Now, let’s take a few steps back into an even darker demographic state where people cling so tight to the tag of ‘Bharatiya Nari’ but fail to provide women even the basic sense of respect or dispensation. Film-making in India for women is one of the most arduous decisions taken as a career choice because of an established patriarchy that hasn’t left a single area uninfected. The problem here doesn’t even begin with workplace sexism but starts right from the beginning when a female student in her early twenties aspires to pursue a career in films, because here we hardly consider girls to even see a career, let alone movie-making. A lot of such dreams are crushed; some manage to not give up and grow out like a tuft of grass from a crack in the rock, only to later find themselves surrounded by sexist decision-makings and misogynistic set ups offered by the film industry.

Starting from the prominence of directors like Fatma Begum and Arundhati Debi to the contemporary stardom of Mira Nair and Deepa Mehta, India has produced some of the most influential film artists till date and it is quite natural that each one of them carries an invisible weight of oppression they underwent to emerge in their careers. Another issue is the lack of takers of women directors in making larger feature films. While a few possess the economic privilege to venture out of the country and carry on with the production, the hassles stand adamant for the ones still living in India trying to alter their lives and the world with their movies.

Deepa Mehta while making the Elements Trilogy – Fire (1996), Earth (1998) and Water (2005), which was wholly based on the oppressive traditions of Indian culture, had to face numerous objections from religious organizations and wasn’t allowed to direct it within the country until she finally decided to shoot it in Sri Lanka. This is just the tip of the iceberg and we know of it because it was in the news at that time. Think about the ones, we don’t get to hear of, the ones that take place behind closed doors, the ones that some women in the industry – actors, directors, cinematographers, keep buried in their selves fearing the unsavory prudence of the society.

The denotation of sexism in earlier times was characterized by blunt confrontations and straightforwardness of male oppression, now it has been transformed into a milder structure of self-righteousness and casual humor, the idea behind it still speaks the same and harms even more because it comes as an indirect blow to the achievements of women, even among filmmakers. It’s not just about the directors and writers, but other jobs such as cinematography are often seen more of a masculine worthy area of work and the case of Priya Seth, the much appreciated cinematographer of a recent Bollywood movie Airlift  is a serious illustration to this fact. In a recent chat with The Quint she said:

“The opportunities are fewer because you’re judged already right at the beginning on the basis of gender. I don’t understand what a ‘physical film’ means! I don’t understand why a man can shoot this and I can’t.”

The quotation above can be tethered to a comment by a reviewer who casually expressed his surprise towards a cinematographer ending up being a woman. The critic tried to make an appreciative statement, but went off-road formulating a pre-conceived and generalized assumption, making it sound like benevolent sexism and then entered – yes you guessed it – feminism-bashing.

Dude, she is a feminist, so be careful.”

This widely used sentence has a significant place in maintaining the base of gender inequality in India. The reason this phrase is included here is because things are no different for women who dare to call out sexism and misogyny in the film-making business. The moment Priya Seth gave her statement about the gender bias, the anti-feminist brigade spun out from all corners with their ‘respectful’ language and gestures and ‘#notallmen’ flashcards trying to discern how we all should just take a break.

Another setback that flows around the film-making community is the assumption that women don’t really mind ‘minor issues’ very much and a case of copyright violations filed by Jyoti Kapoor against Kunal Kohli is a screaming example of it which a lot of us missed when it first came in sight. Quoting from a detailed description by the TOI :

Jyoti’s ordeal began when her agent emailed her script to Kunal. He met her and they discussed money and credit. She wanted top billing since she had given him a bound, 90-page script. But Kunal wanted certain changes and wanted to buy the script without giving any credit to her. The deal fell through…..
….Kunal has been asked to withdraw the defamation case against Jyoti. He has called her names in the media like ‘extortionist’ and ‘publicity hungry’.”

Because, since it’s a woman you are talking about here, she won’t really mind it, nor does the scenario requires much attention. Wrong! It does, because one doesn’t need a history lecture to comprehend a trail of cases and incidents where women are shunned and hushed indirectly for speaking up against the system and living in this fear a lot of them do not actually open up.

When it comes to the recent efforts in breaking the barriers, the name of Jennifer Siebel Newsom comes to mind, a feminist director who wrote and documented the under-representation of women in positions of power and influence and challenged the limited and often disparaging portrayals of women in media in her film, Miss Representation. Featuring a group of influential women like Gloria Steinem, Nancy Pelosi and Condoleezza Rice, Jennifer not only exposed the sexualized objectification of women in mainstream advertisements but also highlighted the unending stream of machismos faced by female politicians like Hilary Clinton – the kind where females are often interpreted as ‘complaining’ while males tend to ‘state their opinion’.

When I started the film I wanted to make a feel-good film, but I could not. In a way I feel bad about it, but I felt like it would be good to share a real story. When you take the story to the people there can be discussion. Importantly, I want to talk about something. I wanted to do this film also because it challenged my own notions as a feminist from an urban area.”  — Director Nishtha Jain on her film Gulab Gang. (Full Interview here)

Nishtha is one of those few Indian feminist movie directors who decided to capture the rural theme and did a wonderful job by featuring the infamous group of women (Gulabi Gang) at Bundelkhand led by Sampat Pal Devi, revolting against patriarchy and caste oppression in one of the most conservative locations of India. Such influential movies and their independent makers usually go inconspicuous in the rabble of ‘enjoyably’ sexist comedies and regressive thought-clinginess of the public.

Nisha Pahuja, Anjali Menon, Ajita Suchitra Veera, Sonali Gulati; these are some of the names you might not have heard of on a very regular basis, obviously not as much as you have heard of the male directors but when you watch their films which have touched a sea of festivals around the world, you can feel the immensity of their talent, their passion and the message they attempt to send out with their films and workability and there is a website on the internet that is helping this happen.

Women Making Films founded by Vaishnavi Sundar is a recently launched website dedicated to establishing an appreciable connectivity among women filmmakers within India as well as the world. Vaishnavi herself being an emerging young director/writer and a feminist decided to create a forum and organize an online campus for the promotion of filmmakers, their works, blogs, workshops and mentorship programs for everyone including those who are passionate to pursue filmmaking. On the Facebook page, you can find daily featured posts capturing women artists from all over the world along with their achievements and stories. Vaishnavi has written and directed three major films to this date under her own company Lime Soda Films, one of which attained the fame of becoming India’s first ever documentary on fossils.

We have walked into a new yet strange world of complex upshots in which we are bound to doubt the fidelity of progress because of the rigidly existing vicious circle of wrongness, discrimination and tyranny hidden in laughs, adjustments and teasing. Every time a woman marks a peak in her career, be it art, science or sports, it is seen as a revolutionary move but the very same crowd that appreciates it also undermines it in the sense that it is this gender who did that, the gender that wasn’t expected to and the gender that usually is supposed to be regulated by our system. We try to arrange chunks of great progressive achievements by women in filmmaking but we are also very keen to see the world get rid of measures and actions formulated to stand against oppression that we have been overlooking all this time and which is still there, hiding.

Feminism and film-making when combined, forms an intense duo because both sustain the propensity to bring a change in the society and the names mentioned above are just the dawn of it. Appreciation, recognition and consideration have helped and will help but to get this artistic field liberated from the chains of patriarchy, the base needs to be shaken. A necessity of more forums like the Women Making Movies (USA) and Women Making Films (India) still stays determined to strengthen the solidarity of women in media and to glorify this aesthetic subculture of womanism and celluloid because as Edgar Degas put it, “Art is not what you see but what you make others see.”

Prateek is 22 years old, currently an undergraduate in psychology and a professional Taekwondo athlete. He lives in a small town in Madhya Pradesh although he travels all over the country. He is now on his way to finish graduation and has further plans to major in clinical psychology. Becoming an atheist opened up the real passages of overlooked oppressions for him which one actually needs to care about in this cruel disintegrating world. Feminism, he believes, along with a movement is also an ardour for freedom and needs to be pushed a long way for women to live in that unshackled air. Personally, he is a stray soul who seeks solace in backpacking a little nihilism along while also wishing for people to live better till existence. It’s complicated.

Disclaimer: This article originally appeared on Nirmukta blog on 25th February 2016 and has been re-published with due permission. 

Featured Image Credit: Women Making Films – India

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