How Female Filmmakers Are Transforming Indian Cinema

India Illo Cannes - H 2017
Steve Scott

Against difficult odds, women are claiming their place behind the camera, delivering a welcome dose of diversity to the old formulas of the country's cinema (with a little help from Netflix and Amazon).

As women directors and executives in Hollywood continue the fight for fair representation in the film business, female filmmakers a world away in India are waging a similar campaign in the face of their own country’s deeply entrenched patriarchy.

Across the wildly diverse landscape of Indian cinema — spanning countless genres and nearly a dozen languages — women filmmakers are challenging the status quo, be it at the art house, regional cinema or from within mainstream Bollywood.

Indian filmmaking history, of course, has numerous examples of standout female directors, such as veterans Aparna Sen (1981’s 36 Chowringhee Lane) and Sai Paranjpye (1981’s Chashme Buddoor), or more recent international crossovers, such as Mira Nair (2016’s Queen of Katwe) and Deepa Mehta (2012’s Midnight’s Children). But female representation behind the camera remains dismally low, even by the still unequal international standards.

Over the past few years, however, a new generation of female Indian filmmakers has begun to shine on the global stage, suggesting promising signs of change for the country’s often backward-looking film sector. In 2015, Ruchika Oberoi won the FEDORA prize for best new director at the Venice Film Festival with her first feature, Island City. Similarly, actress Konkona Sen Sharma’s directorial debut, A Death in the Gunj, won her a best female filmmaker award at the 2016 Mumbai festival.

And at Cannes this year, the only Indian entry is from a female director, Payal Kapadia, a student at the Film and Television Institute of India. Her 13-minute short, Afternoon Clouds, is the first Indian film to be selected for the Cinefondation section, which chooses entries from film schools worldwide.

As they work to gain a foothold in an industry dominated by men and often formulaic fare, India’s women filmmakers also are introducing narrative experimentation, as seen in Leena Yadav’s Parched, a drama that revolves around rural women in Rajasthan challenging conservative sexual mores.

“I never thought I set out to tackle a feminist theme, as Parched happened organically,” says Yadav, explaining that the idea for the film fully took root when actress Tannishta Chatterjee, who stars in the film as a widow struggling to support her teenage son and aging mother-in-law, mentioned how women in rural India are more open to talking about sex than urban women. Yadav researched the subject further and “began to question how women are being treated in Indian society” — especially in light of the 2012 fatal gang rape of a young woman in Delhi, which sparked nationwide women’s rights protests.

Featuring actresses Radhika Apte, Surveen Chawla and Sayani Gupta, Parched premiered at the 2015 Toronto festival, where it received a standing ovation. “That’s when I understood how [the film’s themes] connected with people from different backgrounds,” recalls Yadav.

But feminist issues are still underrepresented in Indian cinema, according to Alankrita Shrivastava, who had to battle India’s censorship board to be granted permission to release her feature Lipstick Under My Burkha — even after it had won accolades at numerous international festivals from Glasgow to Tokyo. Lipstick centers on four small-town Indian women, ages 18 to 55, who assert their personal and sexual rights.

“I think we are very far from telling enough stories about women,” says Shrivastava. “We are half the population. Until half the films made are about women, we will have miles to
go.… And there needs to be an equal number of women behind the camera.”

Shrivastava adds that on top of just featuring more female protagonists, Indian cinema should “change the lens and prism through which we look at female characters.” Given the ongoing male-dominated nature of Indian society, “it is convenient to portray women in a way that continues to feed patriarchy — and all this is done in the name of commerce,” she notes.

The first practical hurdle most women-centric stories always face in India is financing, says Shefali Bhushan, who made her feature debut with 2016’s Jugni. The film, which includes songs by Oscar-winning composer A.R. Rahman (Slumdog Millionaire), follows a female music producer (played by Sugandha Garg) on a journey in rural Punjab in North India. “The perception in the industry is that large audiences will only come if there is a male protagonist,” says Bhushan.

Shrivastava argues that true challenges to the status quo currently can be found only in Indian independent cinema because, she says, mainstream movies like Pink and Dangal, “though dealing with female protagonists, ultimately glorify the power of the man to save the woman.”

The recent Indian launch of the American streaming giants Amazon Prime Video and Netflix, however, are starting to offer a lifeline to filmmakers interested in diversity. Since their introduction in 2016, both video services have been signing deals to acquire titles and produce originals across genres in indie and mainstream categories. Following their theatrical runs, Parched and Jugni were licensed to Amazon and Netflix, respectively. Amazon has been particularly aggressive in partnering with major Bollywood and regional studios; the service now has deals in place for no less than 30 Indian originals. “Digital platforms have given a new lease on life to indie cinema,” says Bhushan.

Looking ahead, the demand for forward-thinking content, according to Yadav, “also will have an impact on creativity — pushing the envelope is inevitable.”

This story first appeared in the May 22 Cannes daily issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.