Wonder Woman, A Death in the Gunj show the term ‘female director’ must become obsolete

Pradeep Menon

Jun,06 2017 13:43 46 IST

As you read this, Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman is enjoying its run in theatres, already claiming the largest opening ever for a film directed by a ‘female director’.

While that stat is undoubtedly heartening, and is a vindication for Jenkins (considering how long she tried to make the film before she finally did), perhaps it’s time we stop qualifying films according to the gender of the director. Because, more often than not, it comes from a place of patriarchy – the same patriarchy that Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman smashes (along with many other things) in the latest superhero flick from DC.

Gal Gadot in and as 'Wonder Woman'

Gal Gadot in and as 'Wonder Woman'

Indeed, despite the thorough entertainment on offer through Wonder Woman’s idealism and some unique, well-choreographed action set-pieces, there were those who wrote that Jenkins isn’t an action director and was probably a token hire, considering the times we live in.

To them I’d like to say, Robin Wright’s Antiope leaping into the air, swivelling around and firing three arrows at once, each hitting its mark, is a scene for the ages. (Baahubali and Devasena would beam with joy at Antiope’s gorgeous technique.)

Wonder Woman is a terrific addition to the DC line up, a character whose future course in the DC universe would intrigue many; and the prime reasons for that are the director and lead actor of the film.

At the other end of the slam-bang spectrum lies Konkona Sen Sharma’s gentle, staid debut feature, A Death in the Gunj —Its layered writing of a motley crew of characters; the near-perfect casting; the feel of 1979 (the year the film is set in); Konkona’s visual grip over the story; so often saying nothing through the dialogue, but everything through the images on offer; simply put, the craft on display in this one is outstanding.

Konkona Sen Sharma brings with her a certain gravitas that will rarely make anyone look at her as a ‘woman director’, and that, precisely, is how those in the arts and media should learn to look at it.

There has been an interesting range of debut films (in Hindi) out in 2017 so far – Shlok Sharma’s Haramkhor, Anshai Lal’s Phillauri, Sankalp Reddy’s The Ghazi Attack, to name a few. But without a doubt, none comes close to the maturity and control Konkona has displayed in her debut feature.

It may or may not have anything to do with the fact that she’s a woman, but it has everything to do with the fact that she is an intelligent and sensitive artiste, who made a remarkable film because she had an interesting story to tell, and was equipped with the craft she needed to tell it well.

One of the poster's of A Death in the Gunj.

So even as Sofia Coppola won Best Director win at Cannes for The Beguiled, and Ava Duvernay’s Netflix documentary, 13th, continues to garner acclaim for the way it delves into issues of race and justice in the US, there is still the need to talk about them being ‘female directors’, usually with an unavoidable sense of surprise that women can make successful films.

At Cannes, a jury member actually had to clarify that Coppola’s win wasn’t just tokenism.

Back home, Zoya Akhtar, Gauri Shinde, Farah Khan and the likes have each carved out a space for themselves. They are filmmakers whose films now come with expectations, because they proved more than once that they could make cinema that finds its respective audience.

While Farhan Akhtar may have been the one to bring about the change in the way ‘youth’ was portrayed in Hindi cinema, it is Zoya who is easily the more accomplished filmmaker. (Her next, Gully Boy, sounds like one of those you can’t help but look forward to.)

Farhan displayed his shortcomings as a filmmaker rather glaringly in Don 2, while Zoya has just upped her game with every film. It isn’t a competition, of course.

The comparisons are meant to show that as far as the critical reception and box office performance of a film is concerned, the gender of the director shouldn’t matter, and now more than ever, it doesn’t.

Every new female director is going to inspire a whole generation of women to come forth and become visual storytellers if they so wish. But also, every time the rhetoric surrounding a filmmaker repeatedly talks about the director’s gender, spiralling into a condescending gaze if the gender so happens to be ‘female’, it chips away at the achievement of filmmakers who’ve worked hard to get where they are, reinforcing patriarchy in an age of awakening.