Year 2019, in many ways, had been a year of embracing changes. Take Hollywood for instance. It is an industry which is typically perceived to be male and white. But last year, against all odds, it opened up its doors to inclusivity, making room for women and underrepresented filmmakers.
Close to 11 percent of Hollywood’s highest-grossing films in 2019 were directed by women, according to a study. It is still small, but in the year before (2018) women directors made up only 4.5 percent of the top 100 films from Hollywood.
Two of the top 10 highest-grossing movies in 2019 – Frozen II and Captain Marvel – were co-helmed by women. Additionally, women-led films like Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart, and Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers, have also prompted a monumental shift in the director’s chair. And for all we know, this trend might have dominated 2020 too – the line-up includes Mulan, Black Widow, Patty Jenkin’s Wonder Woman 1984, and Eternals.
But this is Hollywood, where female filmmakers have claimed their place behind the camera after years of being outnumbered in the movie business.
Where does India stand though, in this equation?
In 2019, the domestic box office had a huge hit from a woman director – Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy, the 100-crore club member which eventually became India’s official entry to the Oscars. Apart from this, there were a few other notable releases like Shelly Chopra Dhar’s Ek Ladki Ko Dekha To Aisa Laga, Pia Sukanya’s Bombairiya, actor-turned-director Kangana Ranaut’s Manikarnika, Shilpi Dasgupta’s Khandaani Shafakhana, and Shonali Bose’s The Sky Is Pink.
Nuanced, layered, and rooted in storytelling, these films may have been moderately successful at the box-office, but they are a sure shot indicator that a women-led wave in filmmaking is blowing across the country. In fact, more women are getting behind the camera in regional cinema too, and winning the hearts of audience and critics alike.
Screenwriter and director Anjali Menon is to the South what probably Zoya Akhtar is to Bollywood – both rake in the moolah. In fact, Anjali has been deemed to be a rarity in Indian cinema, capable of not only capturing the hearts of her audience and critics but also the box-office numbers.
Her 2014 blockbuster Bangalore Days churned in an impressive Rs 45 crore at the box-office, putting Malayalam cinema on the national streaming list.
Anjali has not made many films in her almost two-decade long career. And yet, her Midas touch is evident in every project she associates with. Her 2012 film, Ustad Hotel (pregnant and confined indoors, she wrote the screenplay for this movie) was a commercial hit and even landed her the National Award for Best Screenplay.
Before that, her debut feature film, Manjadikuru, bagged the FIPRESCI (Federation Internationale de la Presse Cinematographique) Prize for the Best Malayalam Film in 2008.
Anjali, besides helming relevant films transforming cinema, is also a founding member of the Women in Cinema Collective – an organisation fighting gender discrimination within the Malayalam film industry.
Honoured as one of the ‘50 Most Influential Young Indians’ by GQ magazine, Rima Das is truly a one-woman army. Born in a village in Assam, she rose to prominence in 2018 when her coming-of-age film, Village Rockstars was submitted for the Academy Awards.
While the Assamese film – first ever to be submitted for an Oscar consideration – could not bag the golden trophy, it went on to turn heads in the domestic grounds. It won the National Award for Best Film and Best Editor, putting Rima – the writer, director, editor, and the producer of the movie – on the global entertainment map.
But Village Rockstars isn’t Rima’s only claim to fame. On the heels of its outstanding critique, the self-taught director made another masterpiece in 2018: Bulbul Can Sing, which went on to be premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.
We have one word for why you need to know and follow the work of Priya Krishnaswamy: Baaram.
The Tamil-language film written, edited, directed, and produced by Priya tells the story of Thalaikoothal or the traditional practice of senicide (killing of the elder members in the family when they become a burden) in certain parts of Tamil Nadu.
And while touching upon the age-old tradition, Baaram (which literally means ‘burden’) attempts to spark a dialogue, relaying the message to the viewers that “killing people can never be a solution.”
No wonder then the film piqued such curiosity, both nationally and internationally, landing its director her second National Award – her first was for the 2003 documentary, The Eye of the Fish - the Kalaris of Kerala.
Indian filmmaker Leena Yadav made her directorial debut in 2005 with the Aishwarya Rai-Bachchan starrer, Shabd.
With relevant content and apt storytelling, the producer-director has been navigating the world of OTT streaming in recent times. Her Netflix release Rajma Chawal (2018) had grabbed eyeballs.
But it is perhaps her 2015 drama, Parched, that is her most memorable work. The film, featuring Tannishtha Chatterjee and Radhika Apte, told the story of the many societal evils, practices of patriarchy that still plagued the rural pockets of Rajasthan while presenting a liberating side of the women.
In cinema and filmmaking, male gaze is a recurrent subject of conversation. How women (and the world) are portrayed on screen from the masculine, heterosexual point of view has been a bone of contention. Even as debates and discussions rage, not much has actually changed in practice. The reason? Women-centric stories are not funded well in this country.
“The perception in the industry is that large audiences will only come if there is a male protagonist,” Indian filmmaker Shefali Bhushan has said.
Clearly, the perception is far from the truth as proven by Shefali herself. Her debut feature film Jugni (2016), which follows a female music producer through rural Punjab, not only garnered rave reviews but also won over the cinema lovers with its soulful music. After all, there is little that can go wrong when you have AR Rahman himself lending his voice to the soundtrack.
(Edited by Javed Gaihlot and Athira Nair)