We are made to feel grateful to be in the room: Five filmmakers on being women in cinema

Priyanka Chopra
Netflix womens day

Seher Latif, Sooni Taraporevala, Ruchi Narain, Anvita Dutt and Shivani Saran were part of Netflix roundtables.

Sooni Taraporevala (writer-director, Yeh Ballet), Ruchi Narain (co-writer-director, Guilty), Seher Latif (producer, Maska), Shivani Saran (producer, Maska) and Anvita Dutt (director, Bulbul) are united not only by Netflix - courtesy their respective collaborations with the streaming giant, but also by their everyday struggle as female filmmakers in Hindi cinema.

In an interaction with indianexpress.com, the five creatives - each one in a different stage in their careers - spoke about the various stereotypes, prejudices and casual sexism that Hindi cinema doles out, irrespective of the work they offer.

What's your biggest fight as a woman in cinema?

Shivani: I wouldn't call it a fight. But probably re-sensitisation time and again that a woman producer is a producer. A woman director is a director. Perspectives are different, styles are different and work habits are different, but a director is still a director. So, I think reminding people about that, again and again, has been a challenge. I mean for me a woman DOP is a DOP. I don't expect her to do the job any differently, except bring in her personal style to it and that's more of a technical and creative reason why we have hired that person.

So just reminding people that sometimes they have to drop the female thing to be able to realise that we are really talented people and we work exactly the same way as anybody else. I wouldn't call it a fight. It's more polite. (laughs)

Anvita: The biggest lesson is to accept ourselves. Accept all the broken bits, all the sharp edges, all the flaws. This is who I am. Gender happens to be a part of it. First, it starts here. If we are not comfortable in our skin, no one is going to be comfortable with it. They would find reasons to hurl problems at you.

Once you are comfortable, you don't even need to make a statement. It is only about what you do and what you bring to the table as a friend, human being, writer or director. Gender is one part of the story. It is your collective experience as a human being, that's more important.

Sooni: My biggest struggle has not been gender-related but kind of fighting with the star system. My biggest struggle has been trying to tell stories, which for better or for worse might be called non-commercial, without stars. In this regard, Netflix has been fantastic because I have been able to make a film with a budget that would traditionally be only given to large commercial films with stars.

Do you not feel that even when it comes to "non-commercial" or independent spaces, male filmmakers still have the edge over their female counterparts? That a male filmmaker making independent films would be more trusted and revered than perhaps a woman doing just that? That like in commercial Hindi cinema, even parallel cinema has a boys' club?

Anvita: Like Sooni said that Netflix allowed her to tell the story she wanted to say. The great thing about this platform is that it is not about indie or commercial. It is about stories. You are telling a great story. You are making a great film, and that is what matters.

The club doesn't exist when it comes to OTT because it is not a gang and there is no boarding school, playground type politics going on. These platforms strip you of all of that. It is equalising. It is for everybody to watch across 190 countries!

Seher: It is changing. The fact that more women are coming, it allows parents to think that it is okay that my daughter wants to do this. It is a question of time, and then that volume will increase.

Ruchi: It has been going on for a while. The fact is it is still tough for women who are in controlling positions, which are producers and directors, to get a chance in the theatrical space. OTT has completely shattered it.

There has been some kind of club and though they haven't put a sign outside it, 'Women not allowed,' somehow we don't get to go in very often. We keep looking, and everyone keeps saying, 'Hey, hey!', but the door rarely gets opened. So, that is a fact. It is not stated explicitly, but the numbers, the reality speak for themselves. But OTT has 100 per cent changed that. I can say this from my personal experience. I have not worked so much in my life before! So, it's a great time because OTT judges the story and gives screen to the voice of the makers.

Sooni: I have been around for a long time, but even in Hollywood, women DOPs traditionally had a very hard time. I guess that is because men don't trust women with large machines. I don't know what it is! And that's all changing, which is great.

Seher: Yeah, all those notions like 'Women can't do technical stuff', 'Women aren't ambitious' and 'They can't handle money.' It is always asked, 'Producer! Can she?' But all that is now being challenged.

When I see a panel with men, the kind of questions the audience would ask would be very different from those asked to a panel with women. Somehow there's this sexist notion that when men are in strong positions and are quite intelligent, while women are in art because they didn't want to do anything else. Many times even the questions that are asked to women somehow revolve around their male contemporaries.

Anvita: Look at this table. Right now if there were men here, none of the problems that we are talking about would be up for discussion. We would just talk about the upcoming film and other projects.

Seher: What's the box office collection!

Anvita: Fortunately, for us, that's not there. Yes, that becomes the narrative, and the girl is there like a flower vase, 'Ghar ki shobha badhane ke liye'.

Shivani: It's also because history has been miswritten. Everyone remembers Picasso and his muse. No one knows that his muse was also a very well known artist.

So, it's the way that's presented. If you look at our filmmakers here as well, or artistes across the board, there are a lot of women. It is just that it is not upfront in historical texts. And that's one beauty of things becoming accessible, those who want to know more about the actual truth of history are doing that. So, hopefully, in some time, the questions asked to us will change.

Ruchi: I, in fact, complained once to the organisers of a festival. They had so many panels over three days, and I had just made an animation film, and I was there on my panel with all men. I bumped into a woman who said, 'Oh! you are also here for the panel on women in cinema?'

And I was like, 'No!' And I checked all the panels of the festival. Except for the panel on animation, the only panel that had women on the panel was about women in cinema. But there should be women in all the panels because there will be women who can talk about any of those subjects. So, it's also the way traditionally things get curated.

Like you said, even in parallel cinema, you will say, 'Oh that director is a genius,' but if she is a woman, you will not use that word for her.

Anvita: You will say, 'Female director.' She is a director who happens to be a woman.

On the internet, a hugely successful female director's description would be 'She is one of the most successful female filmmakers,' while a male director would be described as one of the greatest directors.

Sooni: I get a lot of messages calling me 'Sir' because the default position is if you are a director, you must be a sir.

With platforms like Netflix and Amazon, what has happened is that people know who is the director, the writer behind a show or a film. This is something my father does after watching something on these platforms. He googles the creators' name. This doesn't always happen with a big screen experience because you watch a film with your family, have a great time, come back and forget it. Later, you judge the film by its box office collection.

Seher: And the stars! It is about 'How great the star was', 'How well she dances,' and that's it. This set format is also changing now. This platform definitely opens it up for us.

Anvita: It absolutely breaks the star system!

Seher: I think we do have to credit Netflix because the focus is on the material. Right from the start, there hasn't been a single thing like 'Oh! You aren't a big producer so you will be treated a certain way!' And I will add, everyone we have dealt with across the board at Netflix has been women in positions of power. The team has been incredible. It's a fact. We have worked with other platforms, and it's not the same sort of equation.

Ruchi: I have to add something here because one has worked in the industry and mostly with men. Now, we are getting a chance to work with other women and women work really well together. We also have fun while working. Even if a story is serious, it is just a joy rally. All these things have been really good experiences, and I feel it is important to say these things because other narratives are always built, but that's not the truth.

Last year at a panel discussion, I asked Kareena Kapoor, whose Good Newwz with Akshay Kumar was slated for release, if she was getting paid on par with Akshay.

She looked at the film's producer Karan Johar and said, "Please pay me as much as you paid Akshay Kumar, I’ll run out of here!” It made me think that Kareena, who is at par with her male co-star in terms of stardom and has given huge hits throughout her career, does not even expect that she has to be assertive to demand a certain paycheck. In your careers, do you feel you haven't been that assertive because you knew you wouldn't be paid as much as your male contemporary would?

Shivani: I haven't felt that. But then I am also a Punjabi! I don't think we shy away from asking. Personally, I at least don't shy away from asking what I want for myself, the project or the company. I don't shy away from fighting for a particular director, technician or anybody in the film. We have always pushed.

Anvita: I know it exists for actors. That disparity is huge. Before this film, I was a writer and lyricist, and I have not faced it.

Seher: I don't know if it was vis-a-vis a male counterpart, but certainly I have had those arguments. I know I have lost jobs also because someone was undercutting, which is a business practice. But I do feel that women hold themselves back in multiple aspects. I don't think it is only related to money.

Anvita: We are conditioned to be like that.

Ruchi: And just be grateful to be 'allowed' to work.

Anvita: It is not just professional. It is how we are brought up. Things are changing because now women like us are mothers. Not that I am dissing the older generation because they were also then brought up like that. They were conditioned like, 'This is how you sit.' Like the way I am sitting, all my life, I had to battle this thing.

Ruchi: One of my friends runs a big organisation in the UK. About two years ago, there was a huge controversy about the BBC pay disparity, so suddenly this discussion opened up there, and a lot of women were in shock. And I spoke to her, and she said, "You know it's true because as a person who is hiring, I am as hard-nosed with men and women, but the women never negotiate. I tell them, and they agree. The men, even the least talented person, will negotiate harder. Not just for the pay but for raise, perks and everything than the smartest woman in the same job!"

Sooni: Which is why you should never negotiate yourself and have a good representation, which I have had for the past 30 years. I would never go into that.

Seher: There's a Ted Talk by Reshma Saujani, where she talks exactly about this conditioning. Men are conditioned to be brave, and women are conditioned to be perfect.

Anvita: Yeah, you have to say thank you!

Ruchi: You are always made to feel grateful to be in the room.