Tanuja Chandra: 'If there are 150 Hindi films in a year, not even 50 are led by female actors'
As part of our #SceneStealers series, writer and filmmaker Tanuja Chandra discusses her brand of women-led cinema, two decades in the making, and why change — although on its way — has been slow to set in
Tanuja Chandra says the rise of women-led cinema has been too slow in Hindi cinema.
Tanuja welcomes the label of women-led films because she considers it a profitable business proposition.
Tanuja reveals she has learnt immensely from writers like Mahesh Bhatt, brother Vikram Chandra and mother Kamna Chandra.
Tanuja Chandra has been making women-led films ever since the start of her career 21 years ago. Back in 1998, she directed Dushman (starring Kajol), followed by films like Sangharsh (Preity Zinta), Zindaggi Rocks (Sushmita Sen), and the recent Qarib Qarib Singlle (Parvathy) in 2017.
While it could be argued that Tanuja made women-led cinema much before the term became fashionable, she disagrees that the genre is in 'vogue'. "If it was, we'd all be extremely happy. I wish it was booming. The number is very small. If there are 150 Hindi films in a year, not even 50 are led by female actors. Any gauging of its commercial viability can only be done if there's a large enough number. What is your statistic based on? Too small a sample," Tanuja told this correspondent, when we met for an exclusive interview at her Mumbai home.
Tanuja confesses she had to make certain creative adjustments when she started off. "Now, the one good thing is someone can make a female-led film and not have a hero. When I started off, you had to have a male hero. And when you had a male part, you had to mould your story accordingly. Otherwise I wouldn't get funding or distribution." Hence, came the role of Sanjay Dutt in Dushman.
Despite adjusting her sensibilities to the requirements of the trade for years, Tanuja has not delivered a “blockbuster” in her over two-decade-long career. However, she still continues to make women-led projects, including an untitled film with a female actor in the lead role, and a web series with a woman as the focal point.
"I never feel like ‘been there, done that’. I don't feel tired or jaded. Had there been a proliferation of female-led films, then we’d get that feeling. I think the change has been too slow in coming. So I'm not in some gleeful or celebratory mood. If this had happened 10-15 years ago, I would've said, 'Hey, some hope! Things are changing'; which means there would have been a bigger change by now. I think the web allows for more unusual female stories to be explored, but Hindi cinema is still quite traditional. We've had a few around the year but overall, we've only stuck to the template," she says.
Harsh? Perhaps. But Tanuja’s clarity comes from years of encountering rejections whilst attempting to tell stories the way she wanted to. Not that her spirits seem bogged down by the constant need to conform. She still laughs with abandon, and remains uncompromising where the intention of her storytelling is concerned. She may come across as pessimistic but she is not. She chooses not to romanticise the idea of female empowerment, yet can lift your mood in an instant with her infectious humour.
Tanuja insists that promoting women-led cinema for her is not only about giving more prominence to female stories but also about presenting a whole new genre of filmmaking. "We keep on repeating so many ideas in our films. It'll be great if women-led films can serve as a truly unexplored genre. These days, people have a lot of issues with the label of women-led cinema. But I want and demand the label. I welcome the label. We need that label. If it was a fair world, where half of the films were about women as they were about men, then I'd fight against the label. Right now, I'd want the label to be admired, and considered a good business proposition. It's a label because it's an unusual thing. It will go only when there's an organic need for it to go away," says Tanuja.
She tells me that contrary to popular belief, it is still difficult to make women-led films materialise. "It's because of how the world is. It is geared to suit men's sensibilities and gaze. Movies can only replicate, and at best enhance, what's happening in society. So there's this river of culture that has been flowing for centuries. One change that could battle this is a surge in the number of female filmmakers in the industry."
When Tanuja started off, according to her, there were only four or five female filmmakers in the Hindi film industry. Now, there are about 20. "Again, the change has been very slow. It should've been at least 100 or 200. Then mazza ayega. Then we're talking!” she says. “There surely is a fraternity of female filmmakers. There's a larger one in the television industry. But even in cinema, there's a feeling of sisterhood. If the group grows in number, the affection will only grow as much."
However, she does not agree that every female filmmaker needs to pass the agni-pareeksha of the Bechdel Test. "One should have the freedom to tell the story she wants, whether a male (centric) story or a female (centric) one. I don't think that should be a stipulation because then, once again, you're creating rules that shouldn't be there in the first place. The only thing I'd add to that would be… anything that creates a feeling of female subjugation or the idea that a woman has to curb her ambition, desires and needs, I'd want that to reduce. I think all the work women have done for centuries would get a beating otherwise."
She also does not subscribe to inclusion riders being enforced for films. "You can't really make a clear rule about that we must have these many women. This can be requested,” she explains. “But yes, on the set, there has to be absolutely zero tolerance for any exploitation or sexual harassment. There can't be any compromise on that. It's happening now, after the #MeToo movement. But it should become as routine a process as your pre-production, production, and post-production."
Tanuja points out that despite gradual change, there are still two major hurdles in equalling the number of men- and women-led films. Firstly, she reveals many writers have been asked to change the gender of their protagonist to make the film more saleable. ("It's not that easy, you know! Changing just the gender won't do. The way a woman experiences something is very different from the way a man experiences the same thing. It changes the whole story!") The other constraint has been the limited budgets assigned to women-led films. "The reason why it takes me so long to come up with a film is because after the extremely long process of writing, I have to spend as much or even more time to get a producer," she rues.
After her last feature film Qarib Qarib Singlle, she will start shooting her next only in 2020. In the two years since, she has directed a couple of short films for OTT platforms, along with her maiden documentary on her two nonagenarian aunts, titled Aunty Sudha Aunty Radha, which had its Indian premiere recently at the Jio MAMI 21st Mumbai Film Festival in October. The film focuses on the bond between two women in the autumn of their lives.
"The world is all about the youth but it isn't true that old people have nothing left to teach us!” Tanuja exclaims. “One of them is 94 years old! How can they not give us something of value? I've known them [aunts Sudha and Radha] all my life. I know they are funny but I didn't know what to expect from them. They were complete naturals in front of the camera. That's how an actor should be. Also, I'm the kind of person who talks about death in a very heavy tone. But what I realised from them was not to obsess over it, and address it in a matter-of-fact way. That's what I want to incorporate in my films: to say serious things in a lighter tone but not at the cost of seriousness. We think as filmmakers, we need to add either humour or drama to make things more cinematic. But I realised that was not the case."
Over the 22 years she has been a part of the Hindi film industry, Tanuja has worked with a wide variety of screenwriters. She also belongs to a family of writers. Here, she talks about their influence these various writers have had on her process as a screenwriter.
Yash Chopra and Aditya Chopra
Back in 1997, Tanuja co-wrote Yash Chopra's blockbuster romantic musical Dil Toh Pagal Hai, along with Aditya. "He has a great command over emotions. But what I learnt most from that experience was to engage the audience even when the plot does not consist of big events. Dil Toh Pagal Hai was very different from the kind of cinema I went on to do, which was in the hard-hitting thriller space. That's exactly why I found it both challenging and exciting," she says.
Tanuja made her film debut by co-writing Mahesh's 1997 film Tamanna. She went on to collaborate with him on films like Zakhm, Dushman, and Sangharsh. "He's the one I started out with. I've learnt from him how to make the emotions very real, and at the same time, touch upon areas Hindi cinema doesn't often do. I got a good lesson in incorporating strong emotional flair in my writing, and have characters that have a passion for life in them. Because that's how he [Bhatt] is,” Tanuja says, adding, “I also developed a ear for music that would gel well with the narrative. Also, another thing I've learnt from both him and Mukesh Bhatt is how to make a film within a tight budget. If you spend a lot of money, the producer gets jittery because you have to ensure higher returns as well."
Tanuja says of her mother, who wrote the screenplays of films like Raj Kapoor's Prem Rog, Yash Chopra's Chandni, and Vidhu Vinod Chopra's 1942: A Love Story — "The seeds of her stories were inspired from real life. That's something I want to do now. I want real life to percolate as much in my stories, so that the characters are relatable."
Tanuja’s brother is a novelist and has written critically acclaimed tomes like Sacred Games. She says of Vikram: "First of all, fiction writing and screenwriting are very different worlds. He's an extremely curious person. He and I like to meet people, and learn what makes them happy, what makes them sad. All that you learn about people finds its way into what you write. Our films shouldn't be limited to our limited circle. There's a whole new world out there, and films can become richer by looking outward."
"Another thing I've learnt from him is he equally admires a piece of great art and something very mainstream,” Tanuja adds. “He doesn't stand in judgement. I am personally anti-purity. When tones and textures collide, art comes out of that. Sacred Games is literary but is replete with abuses that people use on streets. Those two are not mutually exclusive and can co-exist in a piece of great art."
Of her niece, who has become a successful author at a very young age, Tanuja says, "She is extremely funny. She makes you laugh, and is a delight. What I've learnt from her is to be able to find humour in the most insufferable situations. If I'm not getting my writing right, or getting a yes from actors, or a green light from the producers, I just take to humour. It doesn't help the situation but it gives you swagger to deal with the situation. It's important to be silly at every age."
About her sister Anupama, who is a reputed journalist and writer of books on cinema, Tanuja says: "She is a person of infinite patience. She has an equanimity in dealing with crisis. I think she has got that from my father, and I've got the volatile personality from my mother.
Gazal Dhaliwal and Hussain Haidry
Tanuja worked with the two young writers on films like Qarib Qarib Singlle and A Monsoon Date. "There are a lot of writers now. Five years ago, writers were looking for jobs. But that's not the case now. Both Gazal and Hussain are capable of really good humour and deeply felt tragic drama," she says.
FIRST — AND LASTING — IMPRESSIONS
Five individuals who have worked with or known Tanuja, shared their impressions of the talented filmmaker.
Konkona recently played the lead in Tanuja's Eros Now short film A Monsoon Date. She says of her director: "I think Tanuja has a terrific sense of humour. She laughs out loud, and also makes you laugh with her wicked sense of humour. She has a vast body of work but doesn't give that impression when you meet her. She's always carrying a book to set, and is keen to learn something new every day."
Tanuja and Parvathy worked together on Qarib Qarib Singlle. Parvathy says, "Tanuja has an empathy radar that is the most endearing as well as trustworthy aspect of working with her. She would weave the narrative for the author-backed roles but this radar makes it impossible to miss out on representing the most human characteristics of even the most 'unlikeable' characters too. She has always portrayed women with impeccable detailing but I don't think that is ever limited to just women. Her men are as nuanced."
"It's rare to come across people who, without an iota of envy or selfishness, push other artists to excel. She truly sees people for the best they can be, and she makes them get there. Her generosity and kindness are unparalleled, and they sparkle in her cinema as well," Gazal says.
"Tanu has great affection for her characters, which is why they are human,” Anupama says. “We shared a room till I got married, and she's one of my three best friends. And she's been more of a mom to my kids than I have.”
For Haidry, the thing that’s most striking about Tanuja is "there's always so much insight, and an assured sense of underlying wisdom in the things she says — all of it with hope, positivity, and a smile”.
— Photos by Rahul Sharda
Read more from our 'Scene Stealer' series here.
Bhediya is presented by Jio Studios and Vijan's Maddock Films.
Produced by Dinesh Vijan, Bhediya will release in cinemas in April 2022