A Guide to Contemporary Indian Cinema Led By Women

India has been the largest producer of films since 2007. With an industry valued at $3.7 billion, more than two thousand films are produced in various languages each year. After cricket, grand weddings, religion and gold, Indians are obsessed with cinema. From the era of the silent films (1890s-1920s), the Talkies (1930s-mid 40s), the Golden Age (1940s-1960s) to classic Bollywood (1970s-80s), the larger narrative of films was dominated by men behind and in front of the camera. The themes explored in these films were directly inspired by Italian neo-realism and investigated rural life issues related to social justice and working-class urban life. This was a time dominated by the Bengal-led Parallel Cinema, populated with the likes of Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak who’d go on to influence and give shape to the Indian New Wave.

Female actors were often cast as the love interest of romantic pursuit of the male lead. This led to the rise of several superstars like Madhubala and Nargis who are known for their timeless Indian beauty and on-screen charisma. Amidst this, Fatma Begum became the first Indian female director to make Bulbule-e-Paristan, an Urdu language fantasy film, in 1926. Her peer, Paluvayi Bhanumathi Ramakrishna is associated with more than two hundred films in her repertoire spanning 1925-2005. P.Bhanumathi was recognized by her contemporaries for her brave and honest portrayal of female sexuality on-screen. B R Vijaylaxmi was the first cinematographer as lead DOP in the Tamil film Chinna Veedu.

The legacy of strong female leadership in an industry that’s extremely male-facing has led to a surge of women dominating behind the cameras. There are a few female directors who’ve made an indelible mark on the industry whose work is worthy of exploring and whose legacies will inform the future generation of film-makers to come – men and women alike. Deepa Mehta is an Indo-Canadian film-maker who has garnered acclaim for her Elements trilogy – Fire, Earth and Water. Loosely based on Ismat Chughtai’s Lihaaf, Fire is one of India’s first mainstream films to depict a lesbian relationship and to explicitly show homosexual relations. After its Indian release, activists in India staged several protests leading to public discourse about homosexuality and freedom of speech – two aspects in India still shrouded in a fair bit of controversy. Earth, a period romance drama set in the time of the Partition, was India’s 1999 entry to the Oscars and Water explores the lives of widows in Varanasi. Later, she went on to direct Midnight’s Children based on the seminal Salman Rushdie novel about two newborn babies swapped in a hospital in 1947 and compelled to live each other’s lives in a country that’s going through cataclysmic changes. Anatomy of Violence dissects the 2012 Nirbhaya gang rape and murder in Delhi. Leila is based in a near-future dystopic India in a world that’s fraught with post-water wars and where religious and class divides have deepened.

At a similar time, Mira Nair — a young Indian-American film-maker whose production house, Mirabai Films, focuses on Indian films for the international audience — was creating her footing in the industry too. Her remarkable body of work soon grew big enough to include Salaam Bombay, a hard-hitting neo-realist film about the day to day life of children of Mumbai’s slums. Mississippi Masala is a romantic comedy film that explores the interracial romance between a Black man and an Indian-American woman. Karma Sutra: A Tale of Love is a historical erotic romance film that explores desire between women from largely different classes. Monsoon Wedding examines the very relevant themes of family secrets and the beauty and ugliness of Indian weddings. The Namesake, based on Jhumpa Lahiri’s seminal book of the same name, chronicles the struggles of first-generation Indian immigrants in America. The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a political thriller that explores the ethics of journalism following a kidnapping in Pakistan.

The original queens that imprinted India on the world’s larger cultural map paved the way for younger, fresher voices from both mainstream cities and regional areas in India where mainstream media often forgets to shine a light on. Assamese film-maker, Rima Das, burst onto the Indian film-making scene with assurance and authenticity. A one-woman show, she’s best known for her films Village Rockstars and Bulbul Can Sing, which was India’s official entry for the Oscars. Rima’s work focuses on simple storylines about children growing up in her village in Assam.

Her counterpart, Alankrita Shrivastava made her debut in 2011 with the film Turning 30 but really came into focus in 2016 for the black comedy Lipstick Under My Burkha. The movie shows the secret life of four women in small-town India in pursuit of their own freedom, featuring India’s first on-screen female orgasm. Meghna Gulzar, daughter of the legendary poet and lyricist Gulzar, received critical acclaim for Talvar, which follows an investigation into a 2008 murder case in an Indian suburb that was distorted highly by the Indian news channels. Raazi holds the honor of being one of the highest grossing Indian films. Chhapaak shows the life of an acid attack victim survivor.

Leena Yadav, an outspoken Hindi film industry veteran, cemented her position as one of India’s most sought out women directors with Parched, a film that takes a searing look at gender politics at play in a village in rural Rajasthan. It seeks to highlight and uncover uncomfortable truths about social evils, violence against women and child marriage.

This article would be remiss not to mention the works of Nandita Das, whose 2008 and 2018 films, Firaaq and Manto, opened to resounding critical acclaim within India and abroad. Firaaq is a hard-hitting drama about the divisive effects on the lives of regular people after the 2002 Gujarat riots. Based on religious tensions, Manto is a biographical drama about one of India and Pakistan’s most important literary voices: Saadat Hasan Manto.

Shonali Bose‘s 2005’s film Amu revisits the anti-Sikh riots that ravaged parts of northern India in 1984 and forever altered the relationship the Sikh community shares with the Indian establishment. Her 2015 film Margarita With A Straw is a trailblazing film about the sexuality of people with disabilities on-screen.

These are all examples of women directors whose works are systemically changing the position of women in the Indian film industry. Honorary mentions include Zoya Akhtar, whose filmography consists of heavyweights like Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, Dil Dhakande Do, Gully Boy, India’s most famous web series. International audiences might be familiar with her due to Made in Heaven (an Amazon original) and two Netflix originals, Lust Stories and Ghost Stories. Initially critiqued for only capturing the lives of the Indian elite and skimming the surface of deeper issues like patriarchy and class divide purely for entertainment value, Zoya turned that criticism to appreciation with the success of Gully Boy, a coming-of-age story about an aspiring street rapper from the slums of Mumbai.

It can be argued that direction is essentially an androgynous craft and in order to masterfully tell a story, there needs to be empathy for the characters, irrespective of gender. Dividing directors into the categories of female and male can be considered reductive. However, India currently has about 9% female directors, 12% female writers and 15% female producers –- which is still below the global average. While women film-makers in India tend to gravitate towards issues that still plague Indian society, they’re immediately slotted into the ‘small budget’, socially conscious category. Or, if they put together a big-budget potboiler and hit the box office numbers, then the critique is often that their work lacks integrity and adheres to established industry norms.

This often causes women film-makers to be in a double bind. Certain grim realities like gender pay gap and funding issues remain true when applied to women film-makers. That being said, the aforementioned women make for a strong case for art born in the face of resistance. Ruchi Narain, producer, says “there was a time when we were meant to be grateful to be even allowed in the room.” The emergence and meteoric rise of OTT platforms like Netflix and Amazon have contributed to levelling the playing field to a large degree. This has allowed film-makers to focus on creating works of art that don’t necessarily fall into the “masala” category while enjoying the funding for the same which is usually considerable. As Katheryn Bigelow once said, “if there’s specific resistance to women making movies, I just choose to ignore than as an obstacle for two reasons: I can’t change my gender, and I refuse to stop making moves.”

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