Women's Day Special: Candid chat with 8 power women of Bollywood
On the occasion of Women’s Day, eight of the most eloquent industry women reveal what makes them tick and what ticks them off in the male-dominated Bollywood
Q. As a woman, what works for and against you in the film industry? Also, for those who are from outside the industry, what are the pros and cons of being a woman? What kind of discrimination do women face, the inequality in wages...?
Sona Mohapatra: I grew up in an environment where I wasn't treated differently because of my gender. I do come from an army background where it is all about fighting, changing and adapting and being yourself. My individuality was celebrated, but it was during my student days at an engineering college that I started getting aware of the fact that I have a different body. It went to the extent that I was told how I should wear my dupatta. The fact that I wore my watch on the right hand, instead of the left, became an issue. I later went to host business shows on television and I was immediately labelled as someone who is sleeping around. In a small town, doing anything associated with the glamour world involves a lot of graffiti on the walls. You have to deal with the fact that you have probably gotten there because you are only doing XYZ things so those insinuations start. I went on to do an MBA, then picked up a job in the FMCG industry which is testosterone driven. You don't have women heading sales teams and you get by only gaali-galoch (abusing) and that's how you show you can head a team of 100 people who go out to sell 'tel' and 'sabun'. Later, I decided to turn to singing. The stage was my dream. You have to come across as someone who is amicable, blends in, doesn't have a point of view and definitely has no personality. We will put you in your place — in general there is the caste system. It's strange because it's something I couldn't decipher. I had grown up thinking naively it's a beautiful world. It's for you to make your place. I think everybody will have his or her own story, but the good part about this is that we are living in interesting times. Even as a musician, it's not the be-all and end-all of life. We used to celebrate the female perspective more so in the past decades, we seem to have regressed now.
From left: Richa Chadha, Pooja Bhatt, Guneet Monga, Shonali Bose, Kalki Koechlin, Kausar Munir and Shilpa Shukla. Pics/ Rane Ashish
Q. Kausar, as a lyricist in a male dominated industry, did you face any issues?
Kausar Munir: Usually people attribute success to luck, but I feel there is a sense of change and of acceptance. I feel it is on the basis of merit. You are getting work irrespective of gender, but there is a sense of tentativeness when the job is given to you with a disclaimer that if you are not able to do it... it be passed on to somebody else. It means do the job well. I have also seen the flipside of it, where I have been rewarded with the faith being returned and working on more projects with the same people. Writers are at the bottom of the barrel — whether you are a man or woman. You are putting on paper what is going to be shown on screen, but your point of view is least important. You have to make your way in trying to prove that you can do it well and do it without creating any trouble. It is not that there is no light at the end of the tunnel — there is. Largely, my experience has been good. I lack the killer instinct of writing every film and that I should get more and more films. So in some ways that helps.
Q. Talking about aggression, an ambitious woman is looked at differently from an ambitious man. It's looked as a positive quality in a man, but not in a woman...
Guneet Monga: I began at an early age as a DJ and I thought being a woman DJ was cool. I had a say in what gigs I wanted to do. I was the second lady DJ in Delhi and then I moved to anchoring. I loved communicating with the masses. My family was cool with it. They said, "Do whatever you want to." I was in touch with all my male DJ colleagues and they would book shows with me for which they would get paid more as I was part of their team. In Delhi, when I went on to do international films, even as an intern I expressed my opinions. I have never experienced a gender-related issue, I have always behaved the way I am. I have faced age issues as people would say I was too young. I have had lack of support and fund issues, but never discrimination issues. I lost my parents very young and when I came to Mumbai I know many family members said, "Ladki haath se nikal gayi, industry main chali gayi," but that never bothered me. I was so strong inside that this never affected me.
Sona Mohapatra: It's interesting that the DJ thing worked in your favour. For the longest time, when I would say that I will perform with a band, the organisers would say, "Ladki hai.... dance with the group dancers wearing coloured clothes, boys will be with the band. It was tough to convince them. But of course you stick by it and things change.
Q. Kalki, would you have liked to be paid as much as your male co-stars?
Kalki Koechlin: Yes! That will be wonderful. I grew up in a liberal household probably because my parents are French. At 17, when I was dating my first boyfriend, my mom told me about the pill and condoms, so I was on an open page with my family and they supported me in everything. I am a tomboy, but am also feminine. What I do feel is the daily reminder of the sexuality from the time you step out of the house. The watchman is looking at your breasts, you start censoring your moves according to where you are going or what time you are going and when you are coming back. You dress differently at different occasions. Being in the industry there are obvious pressures on the way you look. I have been showed the exact spot where I need Botox. I know young girls who are getting it done. It is just a sign that everyone has to look the same. Before I was known, during an audition, a producer told me, "What a lovely face you have. We need to go out for dinner." I said, "Really? Why?" He said, "Oh just to understand the character." He told me all those kind of things like this is my big break in Bollywood. I got the point and I left. But that was the only time it happened to me. After that, I don't know if it's the way my career went or the choices I made or the fact that I married a man whom everyone was quite terrified of. I didn't feel that pressure. What I did feel is the pressure from society — how they perceive an actress. When I moved out of Anurag's place, I had trouble finding a house because I was single. For them, an actor spelt a loose woman with men and orgies all the time. I wish I had such an exciting life. I was surprised because this is Mumbai and everyone is here to make their career and doing things on their own.
Sona: Has it changed though? Because when I came looking, it wasn't that bad.
Kalki: When I moved to Mumbai in 2007, I had no issues finding a house in Bandra and suddenly now it's a big thing. The other thing is that as I am no longer with Anurag, people are way more interested in my life — everything is associated with me being this independent, heartbroken damsel .
Pooja Bhatt: Why do they think we are heartbroken because we ended our marriages. I think my heart just opened up. It just split wide open.
Sona: I wanted to have an identity of my own, but when I did two songs on Satyamev Jayate with my husband, every interview that followed the second question was about my husband. My identity seemed to have shifted.
Q. So Shilpa, how is it being a single girl in the big, bad city?
Shilpa Shukla: I got married at 22 to my best friend. Coming from a middle-class family, when everyone got to know about our affair, we thought the next best thing to do is to get married. I went to Pakistan and for two years I shot there, so I didn't see the other side of life at all. I love living in my own world. I opened my solo performance and he directed it, but we stopped being together in 2009. So there are reporters who want to know what happened and I am like, "Yaar... we are soulmates and we are best of friends just that we confused it for a man-woman relationship." But I don't try to hide it — that's not the person I am. It's not about who you are. It's about becoming your own person you are, to begin with. I am selfish when it comes to that. As a single woman and as an actress because they call me the bold Shilpa Shukla after I did BA Pass, it was more of a class issue, never a man-woman issue. People in Delhi always told me what to wear, but I was fine with it. I never questioned it. When I was in Pakistan, I covered my head. It was okay with me. I was always someone who wanted to be a part of the crowd, rather than standing out. For the industry, when you have played a certain part they think you are a certain actor, which you are not. You are not even one per cent of what you play, but people start perceiving you that way. I wanted to look soft, so I stopped wearing kaajal and started smiling extra in the pictures. So that was my struggle and it also ended because I am more comfortable with myself. People have changed and perceptions have changed.
Q. Have they really changed Pooja?
Pooja Bhatt: I don't think they have changed at all. I was born in 1972 to my struggling parents who decided to have me anyway even though they had no money in the bank. I remember a letter, which my father wrote to me when he was drunk at Shivaji Park. He wrote to me: 'Be truthful and be fearless for you are a part of divinity and not a sin'. That really became my Holy Grail and I realised that the world that exists within my home. Kalki and I are privileged to have a set of parents who allowed us to recognise our sexuality. So when my father figured out that I have a boyfriend at 17, he said, "Hey... I want to talk to you because your mother will not have this conversation with you even though she should. Please don't get pregnant." There was an uproar. People were like, "What kind of a father is Mahesh Bhatt? He is advocating free sex, he is asking his daughter to not get into a situation." And that's exactly what our parents should be liberating us with. Because I think somewhere along the line either you are born in a situation where they would try to kill you — or they will kill your spirit every inch of the way. Then one day you wake up and realise that my home is very liberated, but the world outside is different. And then not only are you defending yourself, but also you are schizophrenic about what you learning at home and outside. You are having to defend those kind of liberal attitudes as well and then watering it down to please some man, or please some friend or please somebody. Ironically, with all of that even though at 17 I was a huge star, at 22 I was a has-been and at 21, I became India's youngest producer. I made Tamannaah based on female infanticide and then made Dushman and Zakhm, but when I made Jism, then people only remembered Jism. Even with all my success or my ups and downs, at a certain point of my life, I felt that my life would not be complete unless I got a validation from a man in my life. All of us eventually say, "Oh my God, are we going to find that man to give us approval? I searched and searched, but luckily I didn't get married at 22. I chose to have a string of broken relationships and I said, "No man/marriage am I going to hold on to!" I did get married and people gave me two weeks, and it lasted for 11 glorious years where I didn't feel the need to cheat — neither did he. He was my best friend, but one fine day, I woke up and felt achingly lonely and I thought I had to address it to somebody whom I had shared 11 years of my life with. I had the courage to do that. I put it out there before the media could sniff it. But I believe some where down the line it all comes down to pleasing the men in our life — our fathers, our lovers, our brothers, our sons, our dogs, our friends. I think that needs to stop. This whole obsession with body type and we are all different body types, so we are going to grow and expand and contract depending on how our genes are engineered and we are obsessed with Botox. Eventually the key lies with us. Just lead your life and sing your song. I think our grandmothers were far more emancipated. People ask me, "You were an actress how come you are a producer?" In other words, I was a bimbo... how am I managing the figures?
Q. That's another thing — actresses are immediately thought of as bimbos.
Pooja: Oh yeah.
Kalki: Especially if they are really good looking! You can't be good looking and have brains.
Sona: Even if they are not, inherently they have to act like that.
Pooja: When I was 17, I said I have a boyfriend. They said, "Oh! My God! You are going to corrupt the nation." I said, "Are you crazy? If my parents know, why should I hide it?" But then we had Sridevi, who I think is one of the best actresses this country has produced. She said, "I will not kiss on screen because I don't kiss in life," so you see when you have that role model and here you have someone who is 17 running around and saying, "I have one boyfriend, no two, no three"... you are looked upon as evil. Manisha Koirala and I got so much flak and we took it on our chin. Tanuja Chandra told me do not think that this industry is only for the men to inherit, you have that much more reason to claim the industry than 90 per cent of these men out there and that really resonated me. I think eventually you are in the boardroom or in the bedroom if you believe that the Holy Grail lies in the man's feet then you are doomed.
Q. And where does that confidence come from?
Pooja: It comes from falling and then getting up. In my home there is a Mahesh Bhatt and a Mukesh Bhatt born to a same mother. There are different mindsets, my brother is different from me. Alia is also different from me. She is a smart cookie.
Q. But Alia must have learnt from looking at you?
Pooja: Do we learn from looking at anybody? I don't think we do. We only learn when we fall hard and I think we get up and from that comes a realisation that you take forward. I am unafraid of falling. When I was around 19-20, I was rebellious. The truth is when you are 19 and your love life is on the front page of a newspaper, it does irk you somewhere. I don't give a damn except my own conscience. I am now 43 years old. I am single. I am desirable and I have a life ahead of me. And no, I am not heartbroken — my heart is wide open. They ask, "Are you looking for love now?" And I am like what has love got to do with anything?
Q. Richa, you want to talk about that bimbo bit?
b When I did my first film people just assumed that I will not be able to talk in English. They told me, "Aapka kaam bahut accha hai." I would like to take this forum to express gratitude to the commercial side of cinema because I do feel that people in that space tend to look at you at a certain way. It's confused both ways so the arty side of things say, "You are intelligent... why are you doing this song and dance?" And the other side is like: "Oh you are a good actress... Smita Patil died young and all that.... but you can try." I am grateful to people like Pooja who emancipate actresses who want to do all kinds of work, to come forward and say these things and also the fact that people's jaws should no longer drop when you can make a sentence that is perfectly formed or even express an opinion.
Kalki: And also in this line of thought the woman has to either be a sexual person or a goddess or a mother. A lot of people are mothers and are sexual and successful or meek and feminine — you can be all these things in the same woman. We have the potential to be everything — to be motherly, sexy and intelligent — this idea is just so non-existent.
Guneet: I got a lot of flak for shaving my hair. People wondered if things were okay with me!
Pooja: My dad always says we are what we hide — what we don't reveal to the world. If we have the audacity to be what we are, then the society cannot deal with it, then they are like: "Ok where is the mask now? I cannot be bothered with the mask.
Sona: For centuries women have got very few opportunities. When you get a chance to prove yourself, you become more man than you ever should be.
Pooja: There are men who empower the women in their lives and push them to do what they want. Why don't we celebrate those men enough?
Q. Shonali, do you think so?
Shonali Bose: I was fortunate to grow up in an extremely feminist supportive family and I didn't ever had to have a mask, even when I declared that I am bisexual. In Miranda House, during my first year as a fresher just before a concert a guy grabbed and squeezed my breasts. It was shocking and upsetting. Yet, I went up and started the event, but what surprised me was that I broke down when I went backstage. It just felt so humiliating and defeating. My mother was with me and we decided to go to the police. I had to go and identify the guy the next day. They didn't arrest him and that just opened my eyes to how things worked. We called for mass demonstrations from all colleges and I spoke up. When I went back to my college, my principal said a character certificate will not be given when you graduate because you have brought shame to the college. Anyway... that's what happens in India. For me, my struggle has been that all my films have been women oriented. My film Margarita With A Straw is a strong mother-daughter relationship. When I was raising the finances, I was asked whether I would consider making this character male. This is just shocking to me. I am told this is how box office works in India. Kalki is playing this lovely role of a young girl and I have a scene in my film where she masturbates, this is such a huge taboo. People think women don't masturbate. I feel it's important that I will show and break this. Personally I face this because I write women-oriented roles.
Kausar: I had someone from the industry asking me to write a duet song from a boy's perspective also. I said yes. So he was like... how can you think like a boy?
Pooja: Jaisa aap soch saktey hain ke main nahi soch sachti — should have been the answer!
Kausar: I was travelling with my daughter and at the immigration counter I faced this situation. I have retained my father's surname and my daughter has her father's surname, so the officer asked me if I was sure she was my daughter. He took some time and then cockily asked me, "Aap sure hain aapki hi beti hai?" I said, "Dekhiye aap mard hain aapka koi baccha hai toh aap doubt kar saktey hain ke aapka hoga, main toh sure hoon."
Shonali: I just want to add something on a different level. Because I stay in the US, I am asked in interviews that I have must faced a lot of problem shooting in India. They always assume that in India I must have faced issues.
Pooja: I agree with you, they just know.
Richa: I remember we were shooting in Udaipur and everyone was escorted out of the sets when the SP disrupted the shoot. I remember Pooja standing there firmly talking to the SP, "Kya problem hai? Kahaan complain karna hai?"
Q. But as Shonali said there is a resistance to womencentric films. As a producer, do you agree, Pooja?
Pooja: There is a resistance for sure.
Q. Why is making films purely a business decision?
Shonali: It's a problem in Hollywood and Bollywood both.
Pooja: When I did Jism, it was the only film which had a woman on every poster. Sa Re Ga Ma fought with me and told me there was no way this could be done. I said, "If you want to release my movie, you are going to have it the way I want to. If not, you are not going to have the poster. Shonali: Basically you just have to hold on to your ground.
Kausar: The music industry is dictated and monopolised by men. If you have written something. it'll go in the shoot and get recorded. You will then get a call in the middle of the night and usually it's Pritam because that's when he wakes up. The next thing you know is somebody else has written the song. Then you will be told the woman thing and family time as it happened late at night. But even men have family time? But the disparity is still there, male actors are still paid more, they get profit sharing. Also, they have a say in which actress will be cast opposite them.
Pooja: Not anymore. Not in my movies. And like I said, I am making a tiny film and Kalki gets paid the most, than the other two actors in the film. Same with Richa, she gets more than the other actors in my other film.
Richa: This will all go in print haha!
Pooja: It must go in print.
Guneet: I have to say this that in The Lunchbox we picked up the highest collection and stuff. We are talking about women's issues, but for me, every film is a struggle — people are like pata nahi tum kya banate ho.
Pooja: But the truth is, whether you are a man or a woman you have to start from scratch when you walk into that room. You have to say I made this and this.
Kalki: You are only as good as your last film.
Sona: I think all said and done we are living in better times. We are a very young country yet.
Pooja: But that young country is what frightens me Sona, because I find a lot of young people today far more regressive than my great grandmothers and fathers.
Richa: I agree with you.
Shonali: Today's youth is frightened.
Pooja: Let's just be honest, it's a film industry. Whether you are a man or a woman or something in between, you have to make money for them. If you make money for them, they will give you the next film to do. But wouldn't they trust a man more than a woman, even now with money?
Q. What do you think is that one thing which will make a woman's life better here?
Richa: I have just come from watching the news, I am deeply upset that they have banned a documentary which shows a rapist in jail who has the audacity to say things like she asked for rape. We have Navratri, Kali pooja and Ashtami, but what the hell are we talking about? The fact that even if you highlight or protest this on a social networking website you will be abused. It's misogynistic to another level. Why should we only address concerns specific to our country? Are we blind towards the other issues which concern the society? How can you call someone's rape a durghatna?
Pooja: I do believe that there are families which are far more worse. What happens when a girl gets raped by a family member and she is asked to keep quiet because it will bring shame to the family? The word shame has to go from the dictionary. In an ideal world a woman should be able to walk down the streets naked and a man should come and cover her up and say, "Hey... can I drop you home?" But we are not living in that ideal world. Violence against the woman begins in the womb. They want to control you in every manner you know. What we need to do is stop getting validation from men.
Shilpa: Self-esteem I think, at the periphery we all look fine.
Kalki: For me, the big thing is that we need to educate the boy child. We need equality, modern woman is out there it's the men who need to accept it.
Shonali: I would say marriage is an oppressive institution for women in this country. It's outdated and it needs to be smashed and taken on.
Kalki: It's like having a glorified maid.
Kausar: I feel this conversation should not be restricted to boardrooms and women, we should include boys. I have a 13-year-old daughter and I am trying to get the boys also in her group to talk about what periods are.
Kalki: Yes, there are grown-up men, who have no idea what periods are. They think there is a Brahmaputra flowing out there.
Pooja: Ironically, it's a male river.
Shilpa: I feel empathetic towards men. I feel we still get a chance to express ourselves — men don't.
Pooja: I feel there are lots of beautiful men out there, but we put pressure on them that they have to make the first move. I shamelessly woo the men I love!
> Filmmaker Pooja Bhatt
> Actress Kalki Koechlin
> Actress Richa Chadha
> Actress Shilpa Shukla
> Writer-lyricist Kausar Munir
> Filmmaker Guneet Monga
> Director Shonali Bose
> Singer Sona Mohapatra