Since 2016, Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari has made a total of 4 films, if you count the Tamil remake of Nil Battey Sannata. From the terrific Bareilly Ki Barfi to Panga, which released on January 24, Iyer, who has a background in advertising, has made films with solid female characters who anchor the plot instead of being mere props, as seen in several mainstream Hindi films.
While both Bareilly and Nil Battey did fairly well, Panga has had an under average run at the box-office, despite strong critical acclaim and steady word-of-mouth publicity.
What failed? Why did it fail? What are the repercussions when a film directed by a woman doesn’t do well commercially? Do they suffer more compared to men?
Over steaming cups of tea at Mumbai’s Soho House, Ashwiny Iyer decodes the many battles of Panga, the ways in which she consoled herself, and why she’s bouncing off to do some yoga.
Do you think Panga, despite being a well-made film, didn’t do well because the other big release, Street Dancer 3D had much more number of screens?
The film came in a very cluttered environment. We had Street Dancer and Tanhaji, which was doing really well. Which, from an industry point of view, is great. Then there were South Indian films, a T20 match. Maybe all of it played a part. But frankly, it’s all a gamble. Even the films that we think could do really well fail. In this case, everything was so good. All the actors were great, there was no commotion on and to be very honest. Kangana too respected me as a director and was a great partner on this. As a director, I’ve got a lot of praise. Even people who wouldn’t want to call Kangana called me to say that it’s a beautiful film. I feel that art has a capacity to bridge gaps. How do you question this? One day you find out you’re lucky and some other day, not so much.
As a director, how do you deal with this disappointment?
You can be a good gambler but how do you know what day you’re going to get lucky? No one knows that. But thank God, producers don’t look at it that way. I’m currently working with Balaji on a project that was announced a long time back. People can see my capacity as a filmmaker through Panga.
How do you console yourself? Does talking to Nitesh (Tiwari, husband), who’s also a filmmaker, help?
We talk about it. And it helps.
Even Fox Star Studios has been really kind to me and asked me not to worry. In fact just today morning I spoke to Vijay Singh (CEO, Fox Star Studios India) and I told him I’m going to go on a long holiday now, I’m just going to go for a yoga course and that I’d come back and catch up with him. He asked me not to worry and said that there’s always been good energy between us. It’s been like that. The support system helps because I feel responsible. I also feel like that there’s nothing that went wrong with the film, everything was correct. Every department from writing to production to our budget, the marketing and distribution, was all on point. But what can you do when there’s only so many screens and so much competition?
Even Deepika Padukone’s Chappak didn’t do well. When subjects such as these get rejected, do you think it reveals more about us as a society, which is yet to fully embrace powerful female narratives?
I’ve wondered a lot about this. We say that we are progressive and we are moving forward, we want to believe that and we have a lot of men who are feminists. But if we really look deep, are we that progressive? It’s known that women have to try much harder than men to succeed. Till the time we have categories such as ‘women-centric’ and ‘women-led’ that will always be the case. True equality will be when these labels become unnecessary. Just because I made a bunch of films that have women in pivotal parts doesn’t mean I can’t direct, say a condom ad or an action film. These assumptions need to vanish.
Okay, let’s get a little into the head of the film. One thing some felt that there wasn’t a strong conflict. Almost all of them were quite easily resolved. Was this by design?
Obviously, it was deliberate. Conflict points are not necessarily supposed to be shown all the time. In a film such as this, the conflict is in the head: it’s internal. To do or not to do. To figure out life again or let it just be. And come to think of it, in all our battles, that’s the biggest conflict. The external bit is just melodrama and I didn’t want to go there.
The husband, played by Jassi Gill, was ideal and perfect, perhaps to a fault. My reading of him, and other characters such as the coach etc, was that the film is daring to imagine what a world without misogyny looks like.
It was a wish-fulfilment fantasy. During my advertising days, we’d do a lot of market research. In one such, we found that most women, almost 80 per cent from our sample size, wished that their husband would come back in the evening and ask her if she’s had food rather than letting her be the last person to eat. I wanted that to be depicted on screen to subvert the traditional masculine roles. Show what the best versions of men can look like. If we, as storytellers, do not show this version, how are men going to internalise that whole thing? I want men to watch the film and shift their ideals of what masculinity means.
They also have a gentle, lowkey intimacy which is depicted through conversations instead of, say, physically
Reintroducing intimacy doesn’t always have to be about sex. I showed them get close but I didn’t show anything beyond that at all. Now that was also because the film is largely filtered through the lens of the child. What do people long for? That one moment of intimacy. Where the husband says that hey, everything is okay, just come here and hug me. After her boss screams at her and she comes home, the first question she asks is if their son has slept and that he didn’t even talk to her. But the husband just comes in and asks for a hug. What else do you need at that point of time?
When Jaya goes to meet the coach, you just expect him to be an entitled, sleazy, arrogant type but are taken by surprise when he turns out be nice. Technically, the bar for men is so low that not being oppressive in itself is considered wow
(Laughs) I purposely did that. The character of the Bengali coach, he’s not at all coach-like, the way one expects him to be. He is a guy who has a strong effeminate side and someone who’s also understanding and empathetic. You need empathy. The main coach played by Rajesh Tailang, is not a typical man with villainous undertones. There is no need for those undertones, every time you don’t need to have a villain. I wanted my characters to have the eyes of empathy. I didn’t want them to be flirty or sleazy or nasty. It’s a very delicate line.
Society plays a very important role, it is the biggest villain in the way that you move ahead in life. Nitesh (husband) had gone for a PTA meeting at our children’s school and the teacher told him that maybe because Ashwiny isn’t home right now, your daughter must be feeling a little lonely. Nitesh told her firmly that’s not the case. But it started playing in my head and I asked my daughter if she conveyed to her teacher about feeling lonely because I then started feeling guilty about it.
Another example: I’m a single child to my parents and my mother was aware of everything in my life, from where I went to drink to the boyfriends I had in college. But marriage as an institution comes with such strong conditioning, even the most progressives might fail. One day, after I had married Nitesh, I woke up at 9 am and Nitesh was already up. My Mom pointed out that my husband was up and I was still sleeping! That’s my mother who’s extremely independent about everything in life! I briefly felt guilty. Very briefly.
So much of the film is the exploration of guilt women feel while reclaiming independence, pursuing a career, making their own choices...
Oh the guilt! I’m working day in and day out on a film that’s talking about liberating women. At the same time I’m calling at home and apologising for being late for dinner and thinking that after the release, I’ll be okay and I’ll be spending more time at home.
But then Nitesh asked me a question which put things in great perspective: the way women and men respond differently to the same situation. He said that when he was directing Chichchore, he was getting late too and he never called home to inform but I called every other day. One evening, after I finished the film, I went out with the entire team for dinner. I messaged Nitesh saying that I feel bad but I’m going out with my team. He said that he didn’t even understand why I sent him that message and that I shouldn’t have to. That’s how deeply entrenched patriarchy is.
The captain of the kabaddi team has some unexplainable hatred towards Kangana. What was that about?
It’s very carefully written because she says that she doesn’t think Jaya is capable but she has to think about the team at that point. She’s not saying that she’s a less player or not the star that she’s made to be but not just good enough in her opinion. I feel women compete with women more. That’s why we say that we need more women representation so the system starts encouraging women. Men are friends and protect their own as a result of which women compete.
You don’t believe in the sisterhood?
Of course, I do, but I feel it’s still very minuscule. Brotherhood is always more. At any workplace, women compete with men and women because having always been denied opportunities, we’ve to try to prove ourselves and therefore compete. Men don’t compete because they already hold power and the power structures favour them. Men do recommendations, women hardly do them.
I don’t know if that’s statistically true.
In my earlier years, it was pointed out to me that I barely have any women on my team and I didn’t realise it until it was told to me. So I hired a whole lot of women after that, that idea has been internalised. You want to encourage more women to be out there. That’s what happens now when I direct a film. We have a lot of women out there. I encourage my colleagues to hire more women too.
Let’s talk about the kid, he’s really sassy.
I wanted someone who’s not irritating. I wanted someone to pass out one-liners and be happy about it. I could get the acting out from him, I only wanted him to be someone who could remember his lines because that is something I cannot help. Everything he said was written. I had given him the script 2 months prior, held workshops for him. His father left his government job in Uttaranchal and moved to Mumbai after the film happened. But we were very clear that we won’t have the kid on-board unless he’s going to school here. I requested Fox Star to pay for his education, which they did, and we got him enrolled in a school. He’s a smart kid and I really hope he gets more work because he’s effortless in front of a camera.
Did you ever feel that the kid may come off a little too mature?
There are some kids who are extremely intelligent and appear ahead of their age. My kid is the same as his and some of the questions he asks surprise me. One night, after a long shoot, he asked me, how am I getting home? We were dumb when we were 9, these kids are very smart so I didn’t worry about him too much.
Did he want for his Mom to play or for the country to win?
He came to support India and suddenly sees his mom there. What I did was, I never showed her playing in front of him. The moment he saw her on the floor standing there, meant that she was playing, as opposed to sitting on the left side. I played it as subtly as I could. Suddenly he sees her and goes, “Oh!” So he’s come for the country and gets to see the Mom play too.
About Richa’s part. Was there a bigger part that was trimmed down?
There’s nothing like that. I can put a screenplay out there. People love to spread rumours.
Why is she under special appearance?
Because she asked for it. Right in the beginning, she asked. She felt like this is her kind of a film and she’s doing it for the love of the story and she’s always playing lead roles in such films. Since here she wasn’t, she took special appearance.
Was there no conflict between Kangana and Richa?
There was no conflict. Each and every scene has been used. Whatever has been written has been put out there. Extra scenes have been put too, like the Bengali scene which was taken off in the beginning because we thought it was too long but we put it back at the end. Nothing else has been cut short or taken off. In fact, Richa contributed so much to the film such as the line about ‘cruel mother akeli peeche baithengi’ when they come down to Mumbai.
How much of a role does Nitesh have in your filmmaking process? He’s been credited here for additional dialogues and screenplay.
Nikhil Mehrotra and I wrote the script. After writing for a year, you start losing perspective. So you usually give it to someone you know to read and to see if you need to connect the graph or find a missing dialogue, because you’re so into it, you need a pair of fresh eyes. Nitesh read the script and he gave some feedback.
I read all his scripts and give my perspective on it. But we are two different directors. I gave my first draft preference point for Chhichhore as well. He can take it or leave it. But it’s important to give critical feedback. We never interfere in the direction style.
He says that when I go on his set, no one questions or says anything, but when he comes on my set, people always think he’s come for direction and that’s really unfair on me. I even told him I’d give him credits for additional dialogue but he refused because everyone would think he’s the one who’s written all of it. I said, as a professional, I would’ve done that for someone else and I don’t care what the others have to say.
Do you all sit on each other’s edits?
Finally, what has been the most special moment about making Panga?
To see my own experiences reflected in it in so many ways. Kangana rightly says that it’s my biopic partly. Just like the husband in the film, Nitesh too pushed me to make Nil Battey Sannata (Tamil version) when he was shooting Dangal and I was in two minds about it. That kind of support system can go a long way. And like it was for Jaya, winning isn’t always about reaching the finishing line. That’s not why she did. It was about her being able to do it at all. What does she do after winning? She doesn’t join the team. She calls her family up and wishes that they were there, and when they say they were, that’s her joy. Her joy was hugging her husband and her child. It’s not about becoming a winner for the world but to become a winner in her own eyes.