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Calling Mr Woman!
India has the biggest film industry in the world. And we can count the number of women filmmakers on our fingertips. The number of women in mainstream cinema can be counted on the fingers of one hand.
There are lots of women making a name for themselves in the world of documentaries, where budgets are bottom-of-the-barrel low. But where there is big money involved, as always, door are slammed on women. A half-witted male has a better chance of getting funding than a supertalented female.
Now, when raising money is such a struggle, women filmmakers invariably end up making small films, usually things they feel strongly about -- which means women's problems, women's struggles and women's search for identity -- thus willy nilly pushing themselves further into the ghetto.
So people have more reason to say that women can only make 'chick flicks' (the derogatory term coined by Hollywood to describe films by and about women, which some female directors have teasingly subverted to use as a badge of honour.)
This little grumble is provoked by the fact that Kalpana Lajmi's latest Daman (for which Raveena Tandon won her controversial National Award) is about a woman who endures marital violence for years before she gets the courage to kill her brutal husband.
Whether the film is good or bad is another issue altogether, the question is why women filmmakers (or even males making women-oriented films, the most recent example being Astitva), still take up such predictable subjects.
Isn't this counterproductive in a way?
Strong women's subjects are needed, but every time a cliched women's empowerment (which usually happens after she has gone through inhuman treatment!) story comes up, aren't audiences put off by women's films altogether?
Somehow, women directors seem to have this chip on their shoulders about making outright commercial or lightweight films without a some sort of message -- as if they have been brainwashed into believing that it is imperative for them to always present the female point of view.
Women who get the opportunity to make films perhaps ought to give insights into the feminine psyche, since women in Indian films are almost always presented as mother-whore, wife-mistress, sister-bhabhi, secretary-moll stereotypes.
Actress Geena Davis is reported to have commented, "There are only so many bimbos, waitresses, girlfriends and hookers an actress can play" -- this is the situation everywhere!
But then, some of the landmark 'Women's Films' have been made by men. Shabana Azmi -- who has worked with all the major female directors -- Vijaya Mehta, Sai Paranjpye, Aparna Sen, Aruna Raje, Kalpana Lajmi -- feels that Shyam Benegal and Mahesh Bhatt have equally strong feminine sensitivity.
Sai Paranjpye quite rightly protests at being labelled a woman director, an entity somehow different from or inferior to male directors. But hardly any female director in India has been able to get out of the parallel cinema ghetto.
Only Shrabani Deodhar and Tanuja Chandra made mainstream Hindi films, but didn't quite succeed. We don't yet have, say, a female David Dhawan. (Not that we badly need one!)
Sensible audiences would like to see intelligent and sensitive women's films, but would also like to see males from the female point of view, instead of just seeing them as swaggering muscled male fantasy figures.
A piece by Jessica Hundley made an interesting observation about the female gaze. So far male filmmakers have often treated women in their films as sex objects, observing them with the male gaze.
Is the female gaze better? More perceptive, penetrating, sympathetic?
In an industry that has traditionally functioned almost entirely as an outlet for the creative visions of male directors, writers and producers, what the stereotypes have illustrated is the way men (at least moviemaking men) see women.
And the way they've seen them, traditionally, has been with a potent mixture of adoration, lust, loathing and fear. Yet the much-maligned 'male gaze' of film-theory legend has already gotten more than its share of play. What has been woefully absent is any discussion of the female gaze. Few female directors have been given the opportunity to bring their representations of women to the screen, let alone their idealised, fantasy versions of men."
In India, when women do get the opportunity to crash the all-male world of mainstream cinema, they are forced to go by the set rules.
Tanuja Chandra was criticised at a recent seminar for the climax of Dushman, in which the heroine after learning to fight and shoot is tied up by the villain, while the blind hero comes to her rescue. No popular actor will let the heroine steal the climax if he can help it-- so a blind hero is better than a strong, trained-in-self-defence heroine.
The real difference is when female directors take up the same themes as the males and give them a refreshing twist, a unique point of view, and more human characters. For instance, how about a careerwoman who is not a vamp? How about a man who’s not a mama's boy?
How about a dad who doesn't say, "Aaj se iska ghar se nikalna band?" (No more letting her out of the house). How about a mom who doesn't say "Beta bahu la de"? (Son, bring me a daughter-in-law).
How about a woman who doesn't defend herself saying, "Main Ganga ki tarah pavitra hoon." (I'm as pure as the Ganga)
And finally, about how a heroine who doesn't wait till the last reel to kill (male solution to all problems!) her evil husband?
Earlier column: Rethink!
E-mail Deepa Gahlot
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