Mumbai: 'Changemakers' Authors on How Women Are Transforming Bollywood

Courtesy of Mallika Kapur & Gayatri Rangachari Shah

Journalists Mallika Kapur and Gayatri Rangachari Shah's book 'Changemakers: Twenty Women Transforming Bollywood Behind the Scenes' spotlights the Indian women who are creating stories that are "more relevant, more contemporary, more real."

Reflecting wider Indian society, Bollywood has traditionally been dominated by men. There have always been, of course, stratospherically popular female stars such as Sridevi and Priyanka Chopra, but behind the camera, in the writers rooms, the executive offices and boardrooms, men have held sway. 

But that power dynamic is shifting, and more markedly and rapidly than people realize, according to Changemakers: Twenty Women Transforming Bollywood Behind the Scenes.

Written by journalists Mallika Kapur and Gayatri Rangachari Shah, the book was released in October 2018, coincidentally just as the #MeToo movement made a breakthrough in India and led to a wave of allegations against prominent men in the entertainment industry. Changemakers spotlights a diverse group of 20 women that includes studio heads, producers, directors, makeup artists, stylists, screenwriters, lyricists, editors, choreographers, stunt artists, set designers and others working in Hindi cinema. Mumbai Film Festival board of trustee members Anupama Chopra and Kiran Rao are among the women featured. 

The book charts how these women have overcome the challenges of institutional sexism, ageism and other hurdles to not only find success in the industry but also transform it from within, shifting the focus of the stories put out by Bollywood and by extension change the conversation in Indian society. 

In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Kapur and Shah discussed the inspiration behind their book, how entry into Bollywood has become more meritocratic and the challenges that still face women working in the industry. 

What inspired you to write the book? 

KAPUR: Gayatri and I were both living and working in Mumbai [in 2012]; Gayatri as a print journalist, while I worked in TV. Part of the reason we returned to India was the economy. It was booming. There were jobs, there was optimism and there was growth. But we were surprised to find that despite a growing economy, the number of women in the workforce was declining. Against this paradox, one industry stood out: Bollywood. Historically known as a boys' club, something strange was happening in this male-dominated space. There are a record number of women working behind the scenes than ever before. And this, we found out, was a recent trend. The change started taking place only around 15 to 20 years ago.

As journalists, we were intrigued. Remember, Bollywood isn't just an industry in India, it's an emotion. The country is obsessed with Hindi films and they influence the way we think, dress, speak, love and live. Having more women working in this space had the potential to change the industry — and our society — in a seismic way.

At the same time, following the brutal gang rape of a young woman in 2012, the role of a woman in Indian society had become front and center of the national conversation like never before. As journalists — and as Indian women — we were part of this conversation. And we wanted to keep it going.

So, we started digging around for information. Who were these women working in Bollywood? What are their stories? How are they changing Hindi cinema? The more research we did, the more convinced we were that we had to record this moment in our history and that we had to shine a light on these incredible women who are changemakers.

How long did you work on the book and how did you pick your subjects?

KAPUR: We worked on the book for around a year and a half. We approached the project like we would any other news story. We did extensive research. Read everything and anything we could get our hands on that had been written about Hindi cinema. We spoke to people in the industry, both onscreen and those who work behind the scenes. We pre-interviewed a number of women we wanted to profile. We got a lot of invaluable advice from director-choreographer Farah Khan, who is a very successful woman and gutsy in Bollywood. At the end of the day, though, we profiled women whose stories spoke to us.

SHAH: [Mumbai Film Festival board member] Anupama Chopra redefined what it means to be film journalist in India. She was one of the first people to look at film journalism through a news lens and not write gossipy news about stars, which was pretty much what film journalism had been about. She has a nose for news reported extensively on the underworld financing movies. Those she has interviewed speak of her dogged determination — that she will not put the phone down or end an interview unless she's gotten all her facts and context from them.

And Kiran Rao created a space for indie cinema via MAMI (Mumbai Academy of Moving Image). MAMI was languishing until she took charge. When she joined, one of her priorities was to give indie cinema the space and attention it deserves — and ensure there is an audience for it. She did just that in a very short amount of time.

The women featured all work in Bollywood but got there with "no prior connections." Is nepotism a real problem in the industry? How can more women from non-industry backgrounds break into the business?

KAPUR: Yes, [no prior connections] is a point we really wanted to highlight. I think it's safe to say the era of needing to be the son or daughter of a film star or a top producer/director to get your foot in the door has gone. We're not saying it doesn't happen — but the entire industry is more professional and more democratic now. Almost all the women we feature in our book come from non-filmy backgrounds. Charu Khurana, the makeup artist who moved the Supreme Court to give women the right to work as makeup artists in the Hindi film industry, grew up in Delhi, far away from the bright lights of a film set. Stunt woman Geeta Tandon suffered an abusive marriage for years before she found work in films. Gauri Shinde worked in advertising before turning to films. And Shanoo Sharma, the highly sought after casting director, regularly holds open auditions. Any one can send in an audition or come in for one. Casting calls go out on social media so that anyone and everyone has a fair chance at becoming the next superstar.

Changemakers celebrated its one-year anniversary this month. What impact has it made in that time? Have there been noticeable changes to the conversation since it came out? And what changes have there been for the women featured in the book?

SHAH: The book marked one year — yes, one year! During this time, our women are pressing on being the amazing changemakers they are. Guneet Monga co-produced the documentary short Period. End of Sentence that won an Oscar this year. Writer and lyricist Anvita Dutt is directing her first movie, Bulbul.

What's important to note is that the content of Hindi cinema is changing as a result of more working behind the scenes. They bring a different sensibility to their craft — their approach is different. Perhaps it feels more relevant, more contemporary, more real. If you think of some of the most well-loved and well-received Hindi movies over the last few years, there's a good chance a woman — perhaps even one of our 20 women — was behind it. The Lunchbox was produced by Guneet Monga. Rock On! was edited by Deepa Bhatia. Piku was written by Juhi Chaturvedi. Did you ever think a film that revolved around constipation would resonate with the audience? Juhi showed it did!

Is the future of women in Bollywood a positive one? What do you see as the biggest challenges that remain? 

SHAH: So, yes, change is occurring. Are there any challenges? Sure — many in the industry talk about the wage gap. There are also issues of ageism. Guneet recalls coloring her hair gray when she was in her twenties to be taken seriously. Also sexism. None of the women we interviewed said they had experienced a #MeToo moment but say they have been subjected to sexism — for example, a business decision made between two male execs while out on a smoking break, instead of one made collectively with a team. But, there is a vocabulary to call out this behavior now, which wasn't the case earlier. So, yes, there is progress, which is heartening.