Calling the Shots: A celebration of women directors in Indian cinema at the 49th IFFI

During a special session “Calling the Shots”, women film directors talked about the concept of feminism and the challenges, the prejudices they face as women in the profession dominated by men

By Murtaza Ali Khan

As part of the 49th International Film Festival of India (IFFI), a special session titled "Calling the Shots" was held featuring three of the most noteworthy women directors of Indian cinema—Meghna Gulzar, Gauri Shinde, and Leena Yadav. During the session that was moderated by director Shashank Khaitan, Gulzar, Shinde, and Yadav talked about their struggles during the early years. Shinde talked about how she overcame all odds to finally make English Vinglish. “Nobody was interested in a story about a middle-aged middleclass woman and so when all efforts fail we decided to produce it ourselves,” revealed Shinde.

“My first film was about two women who had decided to have a child through surrogacy not together but where one woman was trying to help a friend out who had fertility issues. And it was perceived that there was nothing in it for men to do. So it was a long struggle to put that film together,” recounted Meghna Gulzar. Responding to a question on nepotism, she added, “I am the best example that nepotism doesn’t exist in the industry. I would wait for hours outside the film studio to get two words in to an actor and I would not say whom I am. And of course they would know who I was but I never got any special access. My first film failed miserably and it took seven years before I could make my next film. It was only after my third film succeeded that it became easier to make my fourth film.”

“When I made Shabd I didn’t think it was a film for stars. I thought it was a very independent kind of a film but my producer Pritish Nandy felt that felt that we should approach the stars. So when the stars agreed to do it I was really shocked,” told Leena Yadav. She further revealed how even her actors weren’t ready for a film like that because all the characters were grey. “It was nonetheless a very interesting journey for me but what happened after the release was another story because I was asked to leave the town literally for various reasons. It was really heartbreaking. I had never experienced anything like that. For next six months I just couldn’t function. It was like standing naked on the road and getting whipped,” recollected Yadav who also talked about the difficulties that she had to face in order to make her second film. “I had always thought that making the first film would be the tough but I found out that it only gets tougher and tougher with each film,” added Yadav.

When asked about her lack of productivity as a filmmaker, Gauri Shinde revealed, “I can’t just keep on making one film after the other. For me it’s important that I have something important to tell and so the feeling has to come from inside of me”. It is worth mentioning here that Gauri Shinde, who made her debut with English Vinglish in 2012, made her second feature Dear Zindagi with Alia Bhatt and Shah Rukh Khan back in 2016.

“Throughout the course of my career I have been warned time and again that what I am doing is not viable but at the end of the day I think it is only because of my self-belief and strong conviction that I am still here,” asserted Gulzar. “When Razi was coming together as a story nobody knew that it would make more than 100 crore. Also, one had to be extra careful in pitching it to anyone because its leading protagonist was a girl. And it did affect all the numbers involved in the making of the film. I think that it’s just getting better,” opined Gulzar on how Razi’s success will encourage more producers to back woman centric films.

Clearing misconceptions on what feminism meant, Shinde asserted, “Feminism believes in the equality of men and women. It is not about hating men but about equality. It’s that simple. We also disapprove of the women who don’t believe in the equality of men and women.” Meghna Gulzar who is currently working on a film on the life of Field Marshall Sam Manekshaw added, “All the three of us are married. So, it has a lot to do with our husbands who hold the fort when we are away doing what we do and they won’t think of themselves as any less. It doesn’t make them feel weaker. There is no insecurity over there and that actually makes us stronger. That is what feminism is. It’s equality of gender. There are no defined roles. The roles keep interchanging as per situations. That’s equality. That’s what we should aspire for actually.”

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