ENTERTAINMENT
27/02/2019 12:42 AM IST | Updated 27/02/2019 10:40 AM IST

Meet Guneet Monga, The Indian Producer Whose Film On Menstruation Just Won An Oscar

Monga's journey has been fraught with oppression but she's finally getting her due.

MUMBAI, Maharashtra—It was an award long due for Guneet Monga. 

Minutes after the Academy announced an Oscar for Rayka Zehtabchi’s Period. End of Sentence for the Best Documentary (Short Subject), Indian Twitter erupted with jokes about Versova finally nailing the most coveted award in cinema.

Versova, a bustling pocket in Western Mumbai, is home to several boutique production and casting companies, and is synonymous with the quintessential Bollywood hustle.

Located right at the edge of the coast, Versova, a small suburb that commands high rent and higher hopes, epitomises the Mumbai film industry.

On the sea-side are luxury high-rises populated by actors and filmmakers who’ve experienced some degree of success and on the opposite side, are rows of pocket-sized cottages and galas, salons and offices, gyms and gourmet cafes, yoga studios and yogurt shops.

These are spaces where dreamy-eyed youngsters spend countless hours, auditioning for roles, pitching scripts, sipping coffee at Leaping Windows, a hipster cafe down the road, in the hope that someone important will notice them and life will change. They will finally graduate from Versova to Juhu, Khar, or Bandra, addresses that validate your celebrity in a city obsessed with perceptions.

Adjoining the popular Cat Cafe Studio, an intimate space known for hosting open mics for aspiring and seasoned comedians, is the small, barely discernible office of Sikhya Entertainment, the company founded by 34-year-old Guneet Monga.

In the ten years that she’s been producer, Monga has faced plenty of challenges, from not being taken seriously in an industry that largely operates as a family business, to being dismissed and termed a ‘fluke.’

However, Monga has consistently challenged prejudices and naysayers, hopping from Cannes to Zurich, Amsterdam to Toronto, all this while, working out of the tiny, rented space in Versova. In March 2018, the US trade publication Variety, named her as of the 50 women from entertainment doing ‘extraordinary things on the worldwide stage.’

But it hasn’t been an overnight success. Behind the golden trophy are endless days of struggle, loss of family, violence, and hours spent doing odd jobs such as scanning and photocopying documents at a production company. 

So when Period. End of Sentence, a film Monga produced, won the Oscar, she was cheering the loudest, so much that she later apologised to AR Rahman, who was in the row ahead of her. The team of the documentary, which is about how the stigma surrounding period in India affects the menstrual and academic health of women, had decided that only the director, the teacher from Oakwood High, a LA-based school, and the students who conceptualised and raised funding for the documentary, would go on stage. Zehtabchi, the director, gave a shoutout to Monga, saying, “I can’t believe a film about menstruation just won an Oscar.”

What was going on Monga’s mind when the victory was announced? “It still hasn’t kicked in. It’s surreal. We won an Oscar?” she says, over a phone call from LA. “It’s all thanks to the girls, from LA to Hapur, the NGO Action India, and the voice of the film, Mandakini Kakar.”

The high school girls from LA’s Oakwood school, who raised money for the film through yoga-thons and bake sales, are hosting Sneha, Suman, Sulekha and Ajeya, three of whom are from the Hapur district in UP. They also appear in the film, sharing stories of how the lack of sanitary napkins has resulted in several village girls dropping out of school. It was the first time the women sat in a plane. Yesterday, they even visited the Universal Studios in LA and were left starry-eyed. 

“From someone who hadn’t been in an aircraft to taking a 31-hour-long flight to LA, it’s been quite a journey,” Monga says. “Sneha used to say she wants to become a cop to make her father proud. Yesterday, she told me, that after breaking the Oscar news to her father, she feels she has already made him a proud Dad.”

While the road to success has been a turbulent one, the result has been worth the wait. Monga, who has festival-trotting films such as Gangs of Wasseypur, Masaan, The Lunchbox, Monsoon Shootout, to her credit, feels that despite the Oscar win, the hustle is far from over. 

“On a basic level things are still the same. I am still flying economy, my office is tiny and on rent, I am still waiting for my other films to be green-lit, and there are still people who feel this is just luck by chance for me, that I am a fluke,” she says. “Hopefully, I will be able to buy the cottage we work out of someday!”

The dismissive attitude from some people within her circle peaked when, in June 2018, she became a voting member of the Academy. “They said I am there to tick a box, the diversity one, the woman one, the inclusivity one. When The Lunchbox succeeded as a truly crossover project, they said it was luck. When our film, Masaan, went to Cannes, they still said the same,” she says. “But I’m not bothered. I work bloody hard. My work is for all to see. Constantly putting Indian films on the map doesn’t happen by fluke, it takes a lot of relentlessness, a lot of hard work.”

Monga is hoping that the Oscar win will make it easier to raise money to produce films that tell stories worth telling. “Will Eros International please release Peddlers now?” she pleads. 

Vasan Bala’s Peddlers, one of Monga’s earliest productions about the narcotics trade in Mumbai, played at the International Critics’ Week, a parallel section at the Cannes film festival, 2012, but Eros, the Indian distributor, has been sitting on it for years, without giving it a release.

“What will it take for them to release the film?” she questions.

Monga isn’t new to her films being stalled.

To raise money for Peddlers, she put the script online, to generate buzz for Anurag Kashyap’s That Girl In Yellow Boots at the Venice Film Festival, she ran around, plastering the walls at the festival venue with posters of the movie. Monsoon Shootout, another one of her co-productions, starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui toured several festivals including Cannes, but struggled for years to get a respectable release in India. The Danis Tanovic-directorial Tigers, which was the story of a whistleblower at Nestle, was all but derailed thanks to the conglomerate’s enormous muscle power. 

In the past, Monga has spoken about how age and gender work against her in an industry where the power structures largely rest with men. 

“I think there is a generation of boys that has grown up feeling entitled to their privilege. They are not ready for an independent Indian woman. They have seen women around them serving and being there for their needs. Suddenly, when they grow up and meet women who don’t do that, they don’t know how to deal with it,” she was quoted as saying in the book, Changemakers: Twenty Women Transforming Bollywood from Behind the Scenes.

However, today, she feels hopeful.

“All I’d tell another young woman starting off as producer is to show up everyday and keep working. Keep believing. There were two years in my life where I was lost and depressed and didn’t know what to do. But I never gave up on stories that I wanted to tell. What else is there to do?”

Monga is referring to the time when Anurag Kashyap’s production company, Anurag Kashyap Films Pvt. Ltd, shut shop.

Monga was the CEO and was suddenly left directionless, despite working on films such as Wasseypur and Shaitan

Although Kashyap encouraged her to find a path for herself and become an independent producer, she felt betrayed.

“I took it personally,” she says.

“He used to tell me to start my own company. To release films on my own. I couldn’t because I didn’t believe in myself. But today I feel, he believed me in me more than I did. To do all this, it has taken 2 years of depression and 2 years of my work,” she says.

“I cried, howled, rebelled and nearly gave up. But bounced back.”

Has their relationship taken a new turn today?

“He tweeted to me after our win,” she says.

And?

“I wrote back to him, thanking him. I have nothing but gratitude and love for him. Like I said, he’s my genius mentor.”

And what’s the one thing she’s looking forward to after she lands in Mumbai next week?

“To bring the Oscar to Versova.”