Cinema has the power to chronicle every little change in society. In contemporary times, women filmmakers are challenging the stereotypes of a male-dominated film industry and in the process, they’re making their presence felt, too. The change isn’t just evident with female directors narrating stories, other fields of filmmaking have also seen women make a mark. In a no-holds-barred discussion, directors Nandita Das, Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari and Tanuja Chandra talk about women filmmakers taking the charge in cinema. They debate on the commercial prospects of stories driven by female characters, general perceptions around women being in charge on a film-set and the fact that even female-centric films can at times, be misogynistic in nature. Excerpts…

Fatma Begum in 1926 is cited as one of the earliest examples of a female filmmaker in the Indian film industry. In fact, actress Shobhna Samarth launched her daughters, Tanuja and Nutan, in films as a filmmaker, too. And yet, even today, there is still a niggling need to underline the fact that you are a woman helming a film. What are your thoughts?

Ashwiny: Can I ask you a question: are you a female mother? Since you don’t differentiate between parents, why do it with professionals? As filmmakers, we have come a long way but we’re still outnumbered by our male colleagues. The silver lining is that the number of women directors in India is way more than it is in the West. It was underlined at this year’s Oscar Awards ceremony that not one woman director was nominated for an award there. In the same year, Filmfare Awards lauded two women directors for their films (Konkona Sen Sharma for A Death In The Gunj and Ashwiny for Bareilly Ki Barfi). I remember Nandita also got an award for her debut feature Firaaq. We didn’t win these awards because we’re women. We won them for our work. This encourages younger girls to consider filmmaking as a viable profession. Corporatisation has only made it more streamlined. Sheryl Sandberg (technology honcho, activist and author) had once walked out of an office because it didn’t have a woman’s rest room, which means the company had never considered women to be worthy of jobs. Small acts like hers can make a huge difference.

Tanuja: I don’t completely disagree with that classification because until there are half men and half women in every profession, it will have to be underlined, emphasised and stressed upon. Until then, it’s important to state that you are a woman working in an institution run by men. I am proud of the fact that I am a woman director. When I started out, there were probably only as many as you’d count on your fingers. Today, there are many more women, but in comparison to the male heads, the number is miniscule. It just makes me happy that our numbers in every profession are on the rise.

Nandita: While directing a film, we’re not conscious of our gender. For instance, I have multiple identities — Indian, half-Oriya-half-Gujarati, Delhi-bred. Many different aspects of my life influence the way I look at films and characters. Gender also plays an important role. When you see some films, you immediately think that they are possibly made by a man; the male gaze is that apparent. Similarly, there is a female gaze. I quite agree with Tanuja, that till there is no level playing field, we cannot shy away from the fact that we need more women to step out there. And therefore, if we are counting heads, we need to count them just to know how much ground needs to be covered.

A level-playing field is a utopian idea but do you think we can even get close to it?

T: Women make for half the world’s population, and yet, most of them remain unutilised or under-utilised. What business sense does that make? I am amazed by the limited thinking and vision of men who can’t see this as a potential area to tap into. Women are smart, meticulous and hard-working. How will we strive to make it a level-playing field? By simply being dedicated to our professions. I love being a filmmaker; I am always going to be on the crease. As a woman, I seek more women to work with because I like working with them. I just had four girls in the crew of my first film Dushman (1998). On Qarib Qarib Singlle, I had 15 in a crew of

120. Now, why should there not be more women on a film set?

A Bombay Times feature revolving around female cinematographers threw light on their professional hazards. Cinematographer Sunita Radia told us about a review that praised her work, but addressed her as Sunit Radia, assuming that the cinematographer was a man. That’s an example of how deep-rooted and gender-specific the perception is for certain film-related professions. Now, won’t changing this be a long battle?

T: I remember, Reese Witherspoon had said that the glass ceiling wasn’t created by women. While I don’t mind taking on the responsibility to break it, why is it my responsibility solely to do so?

N: It’s not a man versus woman thing. It’s a larger issue that deals with conditioning and that will take some time to change. Women are conditioned to take the shorter end of the stick. We also have to work on our confidence and tell ourselves that it’s okay to dream, seek pleasure, and take home our due. We are always hesitant and guilty about what we do or don’t do. As mothers, we are always on the home-or-work crossroad. Once you become a mother, just about everyone wants to know where you are planning to leave your child when you are at work. Even women make you feel guilty, as much as men do. So, I don’t want to use the word fight, but we have to work at it. It takes one generation to change things. When Ashwiny’s kids grow up, it will be normal for her daughter to have late hours and her son will not judge the women in his life for making their choices.

A: We’re always being scrutinised — right from our homes. We’re conditioned to overthink. Sometimes, it helps to think like a man. They don’t feel guilty if they are late. It doesn’t make me a bad mother if I have had late hours. This yin and yang phenomena has come in only now. For generations, women have successfully handled careers and homes. My biggest inspiration is my house-help. We’re still privileged but they’re not and they still do a lot.

N: I find it amusing to be called a great multi-tasker. That is not an award that I really want. I want to be able to shut off everything and focus the way a man does, which will happen when they share home responsibilities. In a lot of our feminist movements, most of the work has focussed on women who are questioning, shouting slogans and doing the drills, but not enough has been done with men. They have to be taught to not feel threatened by a woman’s presence, feel okay about crying and not feel henpecked if they listen to their women.

Male actors who work with a woman director are often asked ‘Female director ke saath kaam karke kaisa laga’. Even Ashwiny’s husband, director Nitesh Tiwari was asked how it was taking directions from her since she was directing Bareilly Ki Barfi, penned by him.Does the sexist undertone of such questions annoy you?

A: Why just that? I have often been asked that if you stay out, bacchon ko home-work kaun karata hai. When Nitesh says that he gets it done, it shuts people up. Maybe, they don’t expect that answer. It annoys me that they’re not as interested in the film as they are in how I manage home and work.

T: That’s cool. Let them ask. This question used to piss me off initially and I would wonder why no one ever asks an actor how it was to work with a male director. I’ve realised that the reason it’s not asked is that everyone knows how it is to work with them.

N: Manto was Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s second film with me. Whenever he was asked, he said, ‘For me, it’s my director’s word. It doesn’t matter if it’s a he or a she.’ On the set, he said, “Aap jo bolte ho main kar deta hoon. Kuch aur filmein hoti hain jahan dimaag lagana padta hai kyunki pata nahi kya karva rahe hain aur kyun.’ There is a sense of submission here and also a rapport. With women directors, actors tend to have a different bonding. Age, and sometimes, the fact that I have been before the camera, comes in handy. I’ve worked with men and women directors. With women, there’s warmth, eye for detail and even things like menstruation are discussed freely.

A: Besides, we don’t have bro-gangs; we involve everyone when we’re at work. Our reactions are instinctive and our intelligence is driven by emotions.

It’s felt that women have always had it tougher than their male counterparts to get their first films off the ground. Is that a myth or a reality?

A: I don’t think I got the help from Aanand L Rai’s company for Nil Battey Sannata, because I am a woman. I got the help because he loved the story I was attempting to say.

N: I think it is still difficult. Just the fact that you take up positions, presumably belonging to a man, can make it a tad uneasy. Until recently, women couldn’t become make-up artists. How archaic is that? We are so educated today that no one says, ‘Oh, you are a woman, and so…’ It would have been easier to tackle a direct attack like that which comes from a sexist, misogynistic character. Since the attacks are indirect, we have learnt to subtly deal with them.

Could you please elaborate?

N: You can’t pin-point it, but you can feel it. At times, you sense that you wouldn’t be spoken to in a certain manner if you were a man. I felt this more while making Firaaq. If I raised a concern more than a few times, I was told to ‘Stop whining and complaining’. As directors helming projects, hierarchically, we’re at the top end of the ladder. We’re more collaborative as creatures; we seek opinions, we are okay with being vulnerable and a little low on confidence at times. Men can easily be assertive, but if we do that, it’s labelled as throwing our weight around. We’re constantly reminded that we’re women, which is not easy to negotiate. A: Although I have never faced something like this in my corporate jobs, I was advised against hiring girl assistants for Nil Battey Sannata. I was told they may not be able to handle the crowd on the set, but they did their job well. So, it should be about capabilities not the gender. I have to walk into the room as an equal. If I am dumb, it will come across, but don’t label me one because I am a woman. Often, line producers call me ‘sir’ because they’re so used to taking orders from male directors.

N: The line-producers in smaller cities look at my male colleagues while talking to me. This doesn’t happen in urban setups like Mumbai. People here are more used to women being in commanding positions; the story is different outside our metros. These are problems we have to tackle while making our first few films.

T: The difference in approach is a cultural thing. Humour comes in handy while dealing with such situations. But to add a dimension here, I think more resistance comes for female stories. God forbid, if it doesn’t work at the box office, everything is pushed on the backburner. Now, we’re getting into a space where we don’t have to cast an A-list hero for a female story.

At the time when I started out, we had to have a role for an Alist hero, even for a story led by a female character. By doing that, you go wrong at the script level itself, but you have to do it for the sake of the film. Today, for a film with an A-list actress in the lead, you won’t be forced to have a male A-lister.

But most A-list actors wouldn’t be keen to work in a film that has a lesser part for him to play…

N: You have to get an actor who is not A-list. I have been asked several times as to why I have made a film about a man when I talk so much about women. Why a film on Saadat Hasan Manto and not Ismat Chugtai? The reason is I was more impacted by him than her! A film having a female gaze is different from a film that has a central character who is a woman. People easily confuse these two and assume there may not be much for an A-list hero to do. How you deal with the characters in a film is what it all boils down to. Even if they make a female-centric film in mainstream Hindi cinema, it doesn’t always have a feminist angle. It’s actually more misogynistic.

A: The problem lies with us. We dissect our work more than the audience. Yeh female-driven film hai, yeh masala film hai. The audience sees a movie as a movie. As a fraternity, we compartmentalise things. For years, people didn’t realise that Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love In The Time Of Cholera, a quintessential love story with a female gaze, was the work of a man. Similarly, the gaze of a film has nothing to do with the gender of the director or the characters of the story.

What apart from casting impacts a female-centric film?

T: The distinguishing factor is the budget, which is still decided on the basis of the hero. Budget is calculated on the assumption that a male star’s film will bring more money on the table. A large part of the audience even today goes for a hero-centric film because this is a world wanting to see a male story. A Hindi movie with the biggest female star will be way lower in budget than a film with a male star.

N: We have built heroes in a way that we haven’t built heroines. We have usually seen them as the love interests of heroes. There are exceptions but this practice has existed for ages now. If you argue too much, you will be subtly told to shut up. These boundaries of perception will break with time, when more women start making more movies.

Also, despite the variety in the repertoire of female filmmakers, the perception is that they can only make serious films.

T: It’s conscious labelling that people do which is also very limiting. Right in this room, you have three women and we have all made distinctly different films. Farah Khan, Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti occupy different ends of the spectrum… N: Someone who watched Manto told me that had a man directed it, the film would have been very different. The stories that I have depicted in the film are very sexual in the way they describe things. I am sure even if Manto had wanted to shoot them, he wouldn’t do it in a manner that the stories focussed mainly on sex; he, too, would have shifted their focus. There is not one way to make a film and that applies to both genders. Yes, I am comfortable with the stereotype that I can only make serious films. No point trying to battle that. People say that I can be very funny, but when I ask them if they’d cast me in a comedy, they look away. Now, isn’t the line of thought very clear?

A: If we are aggressive, we are seen as witches with claws. Men have two sides to their personalities, so do we, but we are told that we’re being aggressive. If a man does it, then they say that he knows what he wants. If we know our mind, it is a problem.

In over 100 years of cinema, women are still fighting to find their voices in the film industry, irrespective of their backgrounds and skill sets. What do you think you can do to make it easier for the next generation of women to rise and shine?

T: When I hear a young girl is aspiring to make movies, I advise her to do it. Men and women both don’t have it easy, so why give up? Also, I’ll work towards increasing the number of women in my crew. The change we want won’t occur magically.

N: I’ve virtually been a fringe-dweller in this industry.

From where I see it, younger girls are taking less bullshit, while we as the older generation still look for ways to negotiate our space. Frances McDormand, at the Oscar ceremony, insisted on a clause for inclusion — a rider that will make it necessary for teams to include women across departments. Tanuja’s thought was spot on, that people will have to actively seek female talent in every space. If an A-lister creates the inclusion rider, what is seen as dispensable today, will become a necessity tomorrow.

A: A man in power should learn to congratulate and appreciate his female colleagues for what they achieve.

Sadly, it doesn’t happen too often, but it must.