F-rated: Author Nandita Dutta on bringing together the diverse stories of 11 women filmmakers in India
Nandita Dutta, the author of F-rated, talks about why she insisted, the 11 women filmmakers she spoke to for her book, to see their lives through the prism of gender.
Nandita Dutta, who works at the Centre for Studies of Gender and Sexuality at Ashoka University, in her first book, F-rated, explores the lives of 11 women filmmakers — Aparna Sen, Mira Nair, Farah Khan, Meghna Gulzar, Nandita Das, Shonali Bose, Tanuja Chandra, Anjali Menon, Reema Kagti, Kiran Rao and Alankrita Srivastava — in order to determine their contribution to Indian cinema. Excerpts from an interaction with Dutta below.
The variety of filmmakers you have interviewed for the book suggests that the women directors are as diverse as any heterogeneous group. Then why do you suggest their stories have heralded a new style of storytelling in Indian cinema?
Women directors are not a homogeneous category. Of course, they are diverse, and thank God for that! What I am trying to say in F-rated is that women bring their unique sensibility to the table, be it in the way they run their film sets or in the way they deal with the characters in their films. Besides, women are more likely to present women as complex characters with rich inner lives in their films. That is not to say that no man has ever done that, but I feel like having to give that caveat defeats the purpose of writing this book.
Most of the people you have interviewed do not want gender or any label to be attached to their profession. Why did you insist they look at filmmaking through the prism of gender? Why was it important?
I have been very careful in letting both the points of view come across very clearly in the book: how would a woman director like to be perceived, and why is it that I insist that gender is inextricable from her experience as a filmmaker. If you ask me why is it important, I would say in order to get to the heart of the question of why are there so few women directors in India and the rest of the world. Whether one wants to acknowledge it or not, gender shapes one's subjectivity and also dictates the kinds of opportunities or challenges the world will throw at one's feet. And filmmaking does not operate outside of this framework.
Why do you think women, as only directors, can bring to screen stories of other women? Can they not function as mere women writers, such as Juhi Chaturvedi and Gazal Dhaliwal? Or as a producer, like Ekta Kapoor and Guneet Monga?
Of course, they can. I am a big fan of Juhi Chaturvedi and Gazal Dhaliwal among contemporary women screenwriters. Producers such as Guneet Monga and Ekta Kapoor have been doing a wonderful job as well. What I am saying is we need many more of them. What I am also saying is that being a director comes with immense authority, power, and responsibility, which is why I am very keen to see more women assuming this particular role.
Do you agree with Aparna Sen's deduction that a director's job is like a mother's, where you have to pamper actors like your children and run a set like home?
What Aparna Sen is quoted saying in the book is that being a director, like being a mother, is a combination of showing affection and disciplining, of pampering your actors and yet setting boundaries. This is a unique analogy that only someone who has been a single mother to two children and a successful filmmaker can make, and is entitled to make. Unarguably, most women bring an ethic of care and empathy to the film set, and that is something every director, irrespective of their gender, should aspire to.
What is your take on the "mother's guilt"? Do you think mothers should take their children to sets (like Konkona Sensharma, who became a director herself) or should they leave their children to supportive family members or outsourced help?
What I have tried to highlight in F-rated is that balancing motherhood and filmmaking, pretty much like any other profession in the world, is not an easy task as the responsibility of childcare falls disproportionately on women. In fact, the anxiety is only enhanced by the fact that filmmaking is a consuming and round-the-clock commitment that lasts for several months at a stretch. Hence, negotiating family and films is a theme that runs across the stories of Aparna Sen, Mira Nair, Nandita Das, Anjali Menon, and others. It is eye-opening to hear about these terrific, successful women having had to struggle with it and that is when the reality of gender dawns on you.
Now that Rohit Shetty is backing a Farah Khan film, do you think male directors are more welcoming of women filmmakers?
It's risky to generalise based on an exceptional collaboration of this kind. Also, what do women filmmakers need men's validation for? Bollywood is a fiercely competitive world where everyone is struggling to survive. So long as the powerful men can keep their blatant as well as unconscious bias in check, I think women directors will do just fine on their own. Having said that, it would be great if some of those powerful men consciously made an effort to promote new female talent.
There were reports of HBO showrunners hijacking creative control from Andrea Arnold on the sets of Big Little Lies season 2. Do you think women filmmakers will ever be free? What should be their plan of action?
What happened to Arnold on Big Little Lies sounds horrific! The American film and TV industry is way more entrenched in a gendered and racial hierarchy like that, but they also have women who are much more angry and vocal against the system than we have here because of the wider culture that enables that. I can't speak for women writers-directors in the US, but what we need here is a) awareness, and that there is a problem, b) women standing up for other women and coming together to form some sort of a collective, such as the Women in Cinema Collective in Kerala.
Do you think the vulnerability of characters is a trend made famous by women filmmakers?
Aren't vulnerable characters way more relatable and alive than characters that shoulder the burden of being unnecessarily heroic (read: masculine)? I loved Ranveer's (Singh) character in Gully Boy and Arjun Mathur's character in Made in Heaven for this reason. I wouldn't call it a trend. It is the ability to create a well-rounded character that is capable of feeling a wide range of emotions.
What changed within you after you wrote this book? Or was there some reassurance of any kind, of something already present within you?
It was an extremely rewarding journey for me, personally and professionally. I think I grew a lot in the process of writing this book, in multiple ways. It has shattered a lot of binaries in my mind, for instance of the artist and the mother. I no longer believe in the masculine myth of the artistic genius that withdraws from the world in order to create art. I might also have stumbled upon a few truths in the book that will resonate with women artists at large.
All images from Twitter.
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