Some of us — critics, movie lovers, feminists — spend days demanding Hindi films that treat women as real people. We write, we chortle on social media, we argue with friends who whine, "But entertainment hai yaar" and hope that Bollywood will make films that talk about women in a way it matters. And then one weekend a Great Grand
Bullshit Masti releases and promptly goes on to make Rs 100 crores at the box office. At least, as audience, we have the luxury to drown our disappointment in alcohol and declare, "No more Bollywood for me".
But what about filmmakers? Ones who are in the Bollywood pond and are trying to play against the rules of the big fish? What happens when you approach production houses, investors and Bollywood biggies with the power to make films happen with a script on women, and one that has no role for a big, male star?
We spoke to four makers of proudly feminist films about the much touted "change" in the industry and what really happens when someone tries to make a movie that deviates from the tried and tested formula, without the safety net of big, crowd-drawing stars.
Avinash Das, Director, Anaarkali of Aarah
When I moved to Mumbai to make Anaarkali of Aarah, of course I had trouble. Who has time for a completely unknown newcomer in this industry? I faced an insane amount of rejection. But all of that taught me how to make my approach even more compelling the next door I knocked on. After hearing "no" 99 times, I knew how to sell my story the 100th time. While pitching the film to our producer, I didn't mention consent. Producers are not interested in making public awareness campaigns; they want to make films that will make them rich and famous.
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Do you think I would have gotten money to make a movie about consent in a male-first industry like Bollywood?
I sold Anaarkali as the story of a naachnewaali girl from a small town. Do you think I would have gotten money to make a movie about consent in a male-first industry like Bollywood? Personally, I still don't think of my film as a movie about consent. It is a movie about Anaarkaliand women like her, and the question of consent happens to be a very important part of their experience. The issue of consent is not a force-fit. When we made the film, the producer could see that talking about sexual consent was a very natural progression in the story and Anaarkali's journey.
I often hear people wonder if things are changing and if audiences are maturing, which is why we can make movies like Pink and Anaarkali of Aarrah. I find that very condescending. The audience has never been stupid; they are 10 times smarter than us. Men not understanding consent is not a new problem. It existed 5, 10, 20 years ago as well. The problem is with us. We don't react to what is staring us in the face quickly enough. And when we finally make movies about age-old problems, we call ourselves "progressive".
The problem is not with people, the problem is that too many movies are less like stories and more like sermons.
If such a movie does well, we take the credit for making a good film. But if the movie does badly, the audience is "not ready" or the movie was "ahead of its time". How can reality be ahead of its time? The problem is not with people, the problem is that too many movies are less like stories and more like sermons. We need to understand that real life is made of situations, not speeches.
It is wrong to say that big actors don't want to play characters that are different from the formula, masala fare.
It is wrong to say that big actors don't want to play characters that are different from the formula, masala fare. See Alia Bhatt in Udta Punjab. Her character is so rustic, but strong in a very real, undramatic way. It fits with how you would expect a migrant, uneducated worker from the hinterlands to be. If she had been asked to play the same character, but with unrealistic inspirational scenes randomly thrown in, in the name of feminism or woman power, neither the audience nor she would have been able to swallow it. And for every unknown Avinash Das, there is also a Swara Bhaskar somewhere who will go out of her way to ensure that a good story ends up getting made. But first, at least write that good story, instead of making a caricature of reality or an issue!
Alankrita Shrivastava, Director, Lipstick Under My Burkha
In Mumbai the film industry is very star driven. If a star is acting in your film, you will get the money, I think. I have been fortunate enough to have a producer who is not bound by Bollywood's typical constraints and hang-ups. He liked the script, believed in the film and decided to fund it — no questions asked about the cast or anything. But Mr Jha is a rare producer. He is brave and a visionary, so he was willing to take the risk. I doubt any studio would have funded this film. I think independent films have a tough time getting funding and an even tougher time getting distribution.
In the creative arts, we really need to question the kind of notions we're perpetuating by creating what we do.
But I hope things start changing for the better. Audiences, studios, exhibitors, distributors... everyone needs to take a step forward for anything to change. In the creative arts, especially popular cinema we really need to question the kind of notions we're perpetuating by creating what we do. Popular culture and films obscenely pander to the male gaze. How else do you explain the ridiculous item songs?
The problem is that in the name of commerce, even the creators wash their hands off taking any responsibility for the politics that the content perpetuates. "Because it sells" is the answer to everything. So we continue to objectify women and show stalking as love, eve-teasing as courtship, and either glorify or vilify female characters — refusing them the space to just be – ordinary and flawed. Audiences and creators then together continue to solidify the status quo.
Educated people are also so conditioned to patriarchal cinema that they consume everything without questioning it.
We need to examine popular culture through the prism of feminism versus patriarchy. I remember that soon after the gang-rape in Delhi in 2012, there was a lot of protest about India not being a country for women. A few months after that, a film released, that totally glorified stalking, and everyone heaped praises on it. What I found so odd was that there was zero debate, discussion or conversation about what the film was saying. Educated people are also so conditioned to patriarchal cinema that they consume everything without questioning it. And the way they casually laugh off sexism only perpetuates it.
But I feel that now at least there is some discussion on feminism. We should at least be aware of the culture we are consuming. And we must question why alternative points of view in cinema should be silenced, both as artistes and as audiences.
Rahul Bose, Director, Poorna
I think we're operating at a time when things are changing, but how much of the change is here to stay and how deep it has penetrated is something we'll need to wait and watch. I can't say that things have conclusively changed, but there's definitely a growing appetite for good, meaningful stories.
It's true that women are still being portrayed in very thoughtless ways in many mainstream Bollywood films. But we're certainly moving in a direction where the audience is engaging with the cinema they're watching, as limited as their engagement is and as few and far between as women-centric films might be. I am hopeful that we're moving ahead, both as filmmakers and consumers, in our quest for good cinema.
One can argue that Queen did well because it had Kangana Ranaut, but it was also a very well made film.
The one thing that is indisputable, though, is that having a big name attached to your film does give it the kind of leg-up that small films, no matter how brilliant, will very rarely have. You are guaranteed a big opening when you have a Vidya Balan, Kangana Ranaut or Priyanka Chopra headlining your film. But yes, after that, the story and the filmmaking will have to step up to prove the film's merit. One can argue that Queen did well because it had Kangana Ranaut, or Mary Kom did well because of Priyanka Chopra, but they were both also very well made films.
While there will always be people who will invest only in a certain kind of money-spinners, I believe that investments in films come down to one thing: knowing your objective worth at the box office and operating within a realistic budget keeping that worth in mind. Every person brings a certain value to the film.
Leena Yadav, Director, Parched
The first thing people want to know when you approach them with the proposal for a film is "hero kaun hai?" When the conversation starts on that note, where do you go from there? When you tell them that there is no hero and it is a "woman-centric" film, they pause. The next thing they want to know is "star kaun hai?" It's very clear in the producer's head: the money they invest depends on the star cast of the film.
When you pitch movies like Parched, you start with an apology to the prospective producer for not going to them with a film about a man and his heroic exploits.
Even now, we're more interested in the set-up of the film, not its content. When you pitch movies like Parched, you start with an apology. You call it women-centric, and you've already put it in a box, in a way apologising to the prospective producer for not going to them with a film about a man and his heroic exploits.
It's high time we stop calling ourselves "women directors" and our films "women-centric". We're half the population of the world. Our stories need to occupy half the platform, as well. We shouldn't feel the need to classify ourselves into a genre.
Even today, when you're looking to make a movie that doesn't fit into the mainstream Bollywood template, it is very difficult to get funding. I don't think any regular Bollywood financier would ever have invested in Parched. In the initial days, I spoke to some of the bigger industry names, but I quickly realised that none of them had the courage that my current cast has and if I wanted to make an un-compromised film, I'd just have to forge ahead any way I could. We invested everything we had to make Parched. The only thing left to do was sell our house, which also we would have done, if it came to that. Fortunately, we did find a private investor who was convinced that Parched was a movie that needed to be made and showcased at film festivals.
Sometimes, when something catches people's fancy, it leads to a spurt of similar art. I think that's what's happening with feminism right now.
I want to think things are changing, but it's a marginal change. I think sometimes, when something catches people's fancy, it leads to a spurt of similar art. I think that's what's happening with feminism right now. Even so, it does give me hope when mainstream actresses get more involved and start actively seeking and creating platforms that offer them more than the glitz of Bollywood. The new spate of filmmakers, for whom the story and the art of filmmaking more than starry dreams, is another reason to continue being hopeful.