A Delhi based writer, who chased Indian women directors to discuss how gender-affected their career was, tells us what we don't know about Reema Kagti, Mira Nair, Farah Khan and Kiran Rao
Asking an Indian filmmaker what it means to be a woman in a fiercely competitive industry is not a question many are comfortable answering. "One of the reasons is that they don't want to play the victim card. Their reluctance also stems from the fact that unless the sexism is blatant—like in the case of #MeToo—nobody thinks of it as being an issue of gender," says Nandita Dutta, 29. The writer, who spent nearly six years tracking indie and regional cinema for a popular film website, feels that journalists often resist probing women directors about gender during interviews. "Even if they ask the question, they sound apologetic," says Delhi-based Dutta, an alumnus of Mumbai's Sophia College.
Her debut non-fiction title, F Rated (HarperCollins India), addresses this, as she profiles 11 Indian women filmmakers, who among other things, discuss how their gender feeds their art. "While most of them were receptive to the idea of a book, the moment I started questioning them about how gender determines their choices, and the way the industry treats them, there was resistance," recalls Dutta, who started work on the book in 2014. Zoya Akhtar, in fact, withdrew mid-way, because she got uncomfortable. "She felt that there was a need to move away from this conversation around gender." There were others, however, who were vocal. "Often, we collaboratively reflected on the issue, and that was the most rewarding part of this exercise."
'She was ready to discuss sexism in Bollywood'
Dutta says that Farah Khan wouldn't have agreed to be in a book like this if she had not been snubbed by male filmmakers, after the success of Happy New Year. Khan, who until then had been vocal about not facing a gender bias, said in an interview to mid-day in 2014: "I have never said this before, but I need to now—our country is sexist and so is our industry."
"I caught her at the right time," says Dutta. "That infantilising attitude against her was the defining moment for her." According to Dutta, Khan who is the only female filmmaker in the 100-crore club, is nonchalant about everything she does—right from the movies she makes to her family life. "But, she is invested in her kids. The one time I met her at a cookery show she was hosting, her children who were on set, would come and hug her every time there was a break. And, she doesn't shy away from talking about being privileged, and having two nannies to look after the kids." Her nonchalance, Dutta finds charming. "And despite that, I don't see her as a non-political or unthinking person."
'She has a domestic side to her'
It was after 25 email exchanges that Dutta made a breakthrough with Mira Nair, whose oeuvre includes Salaam Bombay!, The Monsoon Wedding and Vanity Fair. "She invited me to Uganda, where she was shooting the Disney film, Queen of Katwe. Being on the set with her was quite an experience—to see her direct and lead the team. Mira seems to have two very contradictory sides to her: She is a stern director, but once the shot is over, she will go and speak to everyone, ask them if they are okay. It was moving to see that."
Dutta spent eight days, doing extensive interviews with Nair at her home in Kampala. The intimate setting, she says, contributed to the filmmaker opening up about battling depression at 40. It was then that she decided to take a break from the movies to raise her son Zohran, who was six then, in Cape Town, South Africa, where the family had briefly moved. "I wanted to have an accident. I took it seriously after three times of having this experience," Nair told Dutta, who had begun to feel stagnated.
"What strikes you about her is that she is grounded in family life. She spoke a lot about her son, husband and the passing away of her mother-in-law. She also has a beautiful garden [in Kampala] and talked endearingly about her trees. You see her films, and the powerful personality she projects, but you don't quite see the domestic side to her."
'Motherhood and celebrity consumed her'
Though just one film old, Dutta says including Kiran Rao was important to the book, because she wanted to understand how being married to a star put an end to her filmmaking career. "She is consumed by celebrity and an overshadowing figure [Aamir Khan], in her life. At one point in the interview, she says, '[German director Rainer Werner] Fassbinder died at 37, and made over 40 films. I'm already so old...how much work will I end up doing?'"
Dutta finds Rao to be contemplative. "She is aware that she is a filmmaker and that she is here to make films. But the pressure of being a celebrity wife and making public appearances, and later, raising her son, has kept her from pursuing her passion. When I met her [in 2014-15], I think she was still struggling to find the drive."
'Quit alcohol to fight her aggression'
With Reema Kagti, Dutta faced the greatest resistance, because, she didn't want to be typecast as a woman filmmaker. She opened up by the third interview, when she started to talk about her problem with aggression. In the book, Dutta writes about Kagti's reputation preceding her. "She is known to be mercurial. Stories of manhandling the crew often float around," writes Dutta. "That is the one moment when she took cognisance of how aggression in a woman is perceived very differently [when compared to a male director], and why most of the problems in her career have been a result of this," says Dutta. "Back in 2014, when I interviewed her, she seemed pre-occupied with it. She even mentioned that she was consciously working on the problem, as her mother felt she should too. In fact, she had stopped drinking for a while, as one of the ways to deal with her aggression. I don't know how things are now."
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