Smriti Kiran: The first session of the Jio MAMI Industry Programme – How to Build A Woman was long overdue.
Alankrita Shrivastava’s Bombay Begums released on Netflix on the 8th of March. The show has an all-women writers’ room. Apart from Alankrita, it is written by the wonderful Bornila Chatterjee and Iti Agarwal. Atika Chohan came in to work on the show for a month but had to leave because she was committed to Ruchi Narain’s Guilty. Charu Shree Roy has edited the series during the lockdown. More than 50% of the HODs on Bombay Begums are female.
Over the last few years, I have looked at and looked out for the growing tribe of female creators across film industries in India with great pride. Bringing me to think about how powerful these creators are and how they can propel the change within the ambit of the agency that they have created for themselves. Do the solutions lie with us? Can we change the narrative by changing the lens on ourselves? Victims vs Agents of Change?
We were in the room with some of those powerful, incredible creators that I’ve met: writers-directors Renuka Shahane, Ruchi Narain, Arati Kadav, Sonam Nair, Vijayeta Kumar, Megha Ramaswamy, Shilpa Srivastava, Karishma Dev Dube; writers – Anu Singh Choudhary, Arpita Chatterjee, Atika Chohan, Genesia Alves; actor and founding member of WCC Parvathy Thiruvothu, who is writing her first project; and Kalpana Nair, the head of programming at Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival, who co-hosted this session with me.
Alankrita, Bornila, Iti, Charu, congratulations on Bombay Begums. Alankrita, since you are the creator of Bombay Begums, how hard was it to put together a team that was predominantly female?
Alankrita Shrivastava: The producers from Chernin Entertainment and the executives at Netflix were women, they were steering the show forward and they really indulged me to develop the show. I was very clear that I wanted an all-women writers’ room, all the directors to be women, and even most of the HODs to be women. I was quite clear about it. It was much easier because I put it out on the table right at the beginning. I’d always said that since this was a story about five women, I definitely wanted it to have a very clear female gaze. I didn’t have to face that much opposition vis-a-vis wanting to create that kind of a team for the show.
But I definitely feel like if it hadn’t been for the support of the producers and the network, it would have been difficult. Having key female executives really made that difference. For directing, they were questioning me about why I was so stuck on getting a female director. For the writers, it was still fine, but when it came to the directors, I was very, very adamant.
“The only way for change to happen is to do the hiring. I learned this from Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti. If I didn’t use the opportunity in Bombay Begums to make sure I have an all-women’s writers’ room and Bornila directing, then I feel I would have failed myself.” – Alankrita Shrivastava
I didn’t have to fight too much, but I know that there was one point where we had a script consultant whose job was just to look at the initial drafts and give us some feedback on structure. They were very keen on getting this white, American, cisgender man. There I really had to fight. I was like, ‘I’m not going to take any advice from him. I’m not going to listen to that person because these are stories about Indian women.’ I forced them to give me a script consultant who was a woman. I asked them for a woman of colour, which didn’t work out, but finally, we got Shayla Lawrence, who was fab. She has written Gilmore Girls. She was really sensitive. So, there I really had to fight because I think it could have gone in some other direction if I hadn’t fought that fight.
Even with the crew, it was okay. I think people were okay with me having a casting director who is female, our editor is female, our music co-composer is female, the production designer is female and the costume designers were female.
Smriti Kiran: That brings me to a question that I’ve often asked about the importance of creating opportunities – how do you create opportunities? Ava DuVernay just came out with a database called ARRAY Crew that has not only created a database of female creators but is also inclusive, something that we all talk about consistently in terms of underrepresented crew members that don’t get an opportunity to work at all. Vijayeta, your short film (Sunny Side Upar part of Zindagi inShort) dropped on Netflix recently. What kind of response did you get from the industry when you were looking for the crew for your film?
Vijayeta Kumar: When I was crewing up, I was texting some friends of mine and asking them to recommend DOPs and technicians. Everyone sent me long lists, but only men were on that list. Not a single woman was there, not even editors. The women were in the usual departments – a stylist or makeup person – but nobody in the bigger decision-making position. So, that’s when I was like, ‘I’m just going to have an all-women crew, and see how difficult it is.’
It wasn’t difficult at all. The moment I put it out – we started with an Instagram post – I was flooded with women sending me their work and showreels. Even in something like sound, where people say that there are hardly any women who are sound recordists or sound designers, I managed to find someone. I think there are 10 of them in the whole country, and they all responded. They were like, ‘Even if we don’t work with you, just pass around our showreel and our work.’
It was incredible. Working with a team of women was great fun. There was no yelling, there was no screaming, and we were just all on the same page. It was beautiful. Even for my next project, it’s an all-women team. This time it just happened organically, and it’s been going great.
Smriti Kiran: Some people are not even looking for female crew members, but if some creators are looking for them and are also looking to expand the ambit of the people that they know, then why do you think that database doesn’t exist? Parvathy, you are a founding member of WCC (Women in Cinema Collective), a conglomerate that has been created in Kerala, which we don’t have in the industry here. Can you talk about the collective?
Parvathy Thiruvothu: Thank you so much, Smriti and MAMI, for having me.
In most of my career, spanning 15 years now, 90% of the time I was surrounded by men, where it would just be me and the hairdresser who would be the women on set and the rest would be men. It was such a normal thing.
But when the Women in Cinema Collective was formed, because of an extremely unfortunate incident that happened to one of our colleagues, we decided that we were not going to take this anymore, my life changed entirely. Now it’s 99% of women on a daily basis. All my conversations are with women. How it has enriched and changed my radar and filters my understanding of a lot of situations is phenomenal. An axis has shifted. We have 60+ members including 21 of the founding members.
It was not smooth right in the beginning as we all came together to support our colleague, who is an amazing survivor, extremely brave, and still continuing to fight her fight. But then when it comes down to nuances, we are put under extreme pressure because we all come from different departments: acting, direction, editing and several others. We also have some really senior members who have been working in the industry for 30+ years and have different kinds of dynamics with other members of the industry, their past, and they also have their own political dynamics going on. So, when it comes down to actually setting up inclusivity, setting up POSH guidelines, setting up safety guidelines, the pushback that you experience not just as a collective but also individually is bizarre and really confusing. Because we don’t have a precedent, we don’t know what it means for 21 women to come together and spend so much time together.
It was actually quite derailing in the beginning because we all seemed to have very similar experiences, but we somehow didn’t know how to empathise with each other, to be very crude about this. We knew that we had to be with each other; we knew that as women we needed to stick together, but then these little egos and little issues started cropping up, and we were like, ‘Why are we getting sucked into whirlwinds of little fights?’ And we realised that it has all been set up in such a way – women have been set up as individual entities and not as groups before; so we didn’t really know what it is like to co-exist calmly. It was not about bickering and fighting. It was just this very vague lost space, where we didn’t know how to support each other beyond a limit.
Over three years, we’ve finally cracked it to an extent where we realised that extreme honesty and transparency is what helps. It’s not going to be easy. It’s going to be extremely painful to set aside your ego and your understanding of self. The collective has come a long way in terms of supporting each other and understanding privileges because what we realised is that most of us who founded the collective come from a space of already having set ourselves up on a level where we could still get opportunities, but most of the new members were still getting side-lined because of their caste, colour, or plainly due to the fact that they wouldn’t compromise for work. It’s still continuing.
I’ve heard a really famous actor who’s also a director say, ‘I think it’s stupid to want all-female creators. It’s this whole thing against men.’ I keep wanting to say to that, ‘Why is it always put against men?’ What about this as an experience in itself – about just understanding what it is like to open up spaces within you to connect with one of your own? Maybe not even connect, maybe have certain disagreements to a degree that is respectful. So, not always putting it on an axis of comparing it to what it is like with men but rather just having this being an experience in itself.
I had the opportunity to work with Rima Kallingal, who is a fellow WCC founder, actor, dancer and director. She put together a team of 17 members out of which 11 were women and we were acting, producing, directing altogether. It was like going to film school again. It was amazing. It was a four-day shoot. It was amazing to see the experience of the rest of the men in the crew because it was all solution-oriented get together, which was very new for them. There seemed to be fewer ego issues. Everything was like, ‘We have this problem, how do we solve it?’ I remember the cinematographer of this project coming in and saying, ‘There’s this feminine energy.’ Without having to go into detailed definitions of what feminine is, he could find that energy in himself without feeling the need to prove himself on set, which he usually feels on other sets where it’s mostly men. It was amazing to listen to all the men who worked with us talk about how not easy-going but solution-based our coming together was. So, I am all for aiding people to find more women to work with because the elements that we bring in cannot be replaced.
Smriti Kiran: We’ve all seen the numbers, right? If you look at India as a whole, the recorded number of women who are in workspaces where data is available is less than 10%, which brings me to the term reverse sexism. I want to understand what that means when the numbers are so clear, when you’re trying to create opportunities for women, when you’re questioning why women are not there in writing rooms, and when lots of inclusion riders have also come in the Oscars and film festivals.
Ruchi, you made Guilty, which released last year on Netflix and Atika wrote it with you. What was that experience? What do you feel about reverse sexism being thrown our way when it’s so clear where the problem lies?
Ruchi Narain: Thank you, Smriti and MAMI, for hosting such an interesting panel.
All of these terms like reverse sexism really put my shackles up. There’s no such thing. The balance is so skewed in terms of men that I feel that this is just a patriarchal defence mechanism. We all know that nobody is getting anywhere unless you have an opportunity and representation. Initially, you will have to create those opportunities as well. It’s not like anyone is asking you to hire or work with incompetent people. Women, traditionally, especially in these working environments, have to be 10 times more hardworking and 10 times more talented and smarter than their average male counterparts just to be even considered at the same level. So, there’s no question of whether you’re giving someone a handout. Those women probably deserved the opportunity way before than is being provided to them right now.
In my experience, especially with Guilty, it was such a treat to work with other women. Atika’s also here on the panel. She and I had a blast.
Atika Chohan: We did!
Ruchi Narain: I’ve worked with other women on the panel as well, like Arpita (Chatterjee). It’s such an enriching experience because, honestly, when you’re working together at this level, there’s really no ego at all. Everyone is solution-oriented. There is inherently more honesty. You have similar battle scars so there’s less posturing, which I don’t find otherwise. With men in the mix, there is a lot of posturing and condescension. I don’t want to vilify men as a gender. It’s just the way they’ve been schooled, it’s the way they’ve been taught to interact. They are very forthcoming with advice to you without even knowing what you know. These things don’t happen with women. Usually, women are assumed to be in the positions that they are in because they know what they’re talking about. I found that very stark. Even with my crew, like my art director or costume designer, we had such a good time working. I would also love to do an all-women crew at some point in the near future.
“There’s no such thing as reverse sexism. The balance is so skewed in terms of men that it is just a patriarchal defence mechanism to use terms like these. We all know that nobody is getting anywhere unless you have opportunity and representation.” – Ruchi Narain
That’s really what I have to say about this reverse sexism thing. I want to warn everybody about defensive patriarchal backlash because that happens first and it happens really fast, and we definitely shouldn’t succumb to it.
Kalpana Nair: I’m sure, Vijayeta, when you put out that Instagram post, you had men saying, ‘Why are you discriminating against us? Isn’t this discrimination.’
Vijayeta Kumar: Yeah. I actually put up a post explaining how terms like reverse sexism and reverse racism are wrong and that it doesn’t happen that way. As Ruchi said, there was a lot of backlash. Later, I was like if you look at the credits of any movie, any show, there are 99% of men working there. How about that? Why don’t you notice the sexism over there? Why does it only come when someone is taking steps to prevent it or include more women?
Smriti Kiran: Renuka ma’am, Tribhanga was released this year. The journey of the film was really long. It took you many years to put this together, to get the opportunity, despite being a really revered and reputed actor. What was that like? What were your primary challenges considering that it is a story about women being told by a woman?
Renuka Shahane: Smriti, I would echo everything that Ruchi, Vijayeta and Parvathy have said. Being an actor for so many years has not really helped in getting me to put across my stories the way I would want to. It’s only when sensitive people like Siddharth P. Malhotra, a man, and sensitive to the whole human race, steps forward and back films like Tribhanga. It took the longest time to even find a producer for something which talks predominantly about three women. So, all that experience of acting is fine, but you need backers, you need producers, and people in powerful places to put their money on women’s stories.
“I had written a story about three women and it took me the longest time to find a producer. I would only find producers who would say, ‘Hero kaun hai?’ and I would say, ‘Women are the heroes. Excuse me.’” – Renuka Shahane
We’ve seen a whole slew of women’s stories doing incredibly well in terms of even the economics of it. So, I still wonder why we are at a stage where we are still feeling a bit scared about putting out women-centric films. To tell you frankly, we’ve just skimmed the surface. We’ve not started telling women’s stories. There is so much that makes us human on screen that we are yet to achieve. It’s such a long process, but I’m so glad that now there are a lot of women in power whether, in places like the OTT platforms that we have or even women actors who become producers themselves, who want to back stories which are substantial for women characters. That has changed the space we are all working in right now.
I come from a very privileged place so that kind of struggle is not very real for me. I must put that across, and yet just for the fact that I had written a story about three women, it took me the longest time to find a producer. I would only find producers who would say, ‘Hero kaun hai?’ and I would say, ‘Women are the heroes. Excuse me.’
Everybody was so comfortable working with each other on set. There was this great bonhomie, camaraderie and comfort for everybody, not just the women on the set but also all the men. They did actually react and say, ‘We had a gorgeous time. It was solution-oriented and we had the most amount of fun.’ Yes, the equation was different on the set because the men were a bit quiet, which is not normal because there was no chillam-chilli, no ego hassles due to which you have a lot of fights. There was nothing like that. It was a very warm place to be.
We should create those spaces for us. I wish that would happen on television because I feel that, as a comparison, what is being put out 24×7 on our screens is so regressive when it comes to women. Unfortunately, it is women behind the camera, women writers, women in places of power who are still perpetuating this. I wish that would also change. Things are happening in the film and web-series space but not enough of television.
Smriti Kiran: I would like to congratulate Karishma Dev Dube, whose short film Bittu is in the running for the Oscars having qualified in the shortlist. Karishma, tell us about your experience of making Bittu.
Karishma Dev Dube: I feel like I’ve had somewhat of a privileged experience, but it’s a bit of a tunnel experience also because I’m not in the industry in Bombay, which has its own privilege and downfalls. I was in film school when diversity became very sellable. It was very cool to have women at the forefront, even if they didn’t want it to be like that. They wanted to be a part of that dialogue.
I had a film before Bittu. It was called Devi and it had a queer love story at the forefront. I got a lot of flak, even in film school from a lot of my white male classmates because there’s a sense where the film is kind of propelled because there are two brown women kissing each other on the poster. Ultimately, the work had to speak for itself. I was at that point where I was like, ‘I’ll take advantage of the tokenism, but you have to watch the film and you have to like it, and I’m down to work lockstep with these men. So, bring it on.’ I was okay with that.
With Bittu, it’s been a little different. I came to India to make this film, and it was my first, really big, outdoor shoot in India. It’s a short film, but my intention was to bring the best voices I could onto my voice and the story I had written. It just happened that all the voices that I wanted to work with and I thought were best happened to be women. I didn’t hire them because of their gender.
We’re shortlisted, which is a privilege, and I’m very well aware that it’s not my work alone. Everyone on the crew, their work is present in every frame. I was very much cooked as a person in India before I came to the States to make movies. I’m very conditioned. I have a big and great love for Bollywood films. It has its own syntax and it has its own place in my heart, but I did become a filmmaker here. As much as I can, I’m taking advantage of the momentum to tell people that we have a lot more stories in India than they think exists and that Bollywood is not a genre. There’s a lot of things that regional filmmakers are doing that they don’t pay attention to and I think it’s about time.
I’m up against (Pedro) Almodóvar. I was 17 years old when I watched All About My Mother, and I was like, ‘Oh, movies like this can exist.’ Now I’m on a shortlist with him. I’m very well aware of the fact that I’m very privileged and very lucky. I hope I can bring it home, but we’ll see. Fingers crossed.
Smriti Kiran: More power to you! Sonam, you were the only female director that Dharma put their faith in. That’s where the journey of you directing films started. Then you worked in television and came back with Masaba Masaba. What has the journey been like?
Sonam Nair: I didn’t realise it until people started asking me, ‘Are you the first female director that Dharma has backed and produced for?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s one of the things.’ More than my own career, it gave all the ADs and all the interns, who were women, around me the possibility that this could happen for them.
I remember that all the male ADs with me at Dharma were like, ‘We’ll make a film in a couple of years,’ and all the girls were like, ‘We’ll be in costume for three years, then maybe do a script supervisor’s job, then we’ll get there.’ Because I was like, ‘I don’t want to do all that. I want to make a film,’ I just wrote a script. Karan also didn’t think that it was a guy or a girl. He just liked the script and said okay to it. Suddenly, all the girls around me were like, ‘Oh, my God! We have somebody to look up to, somebody who did it. We can also do it.’ For me, that was the biggest thing that happened. Then I went to TV. I did some web-shows that I don’t want to be attached to.
It wasn’t super smooth. It started with Gippi, which was an experiment, about an overweight teenage girl. That’s very niche and experimental. But because it was Dharma, it got some eyeballs. I wanted to continue to tell those kinds of stories but it didn’t work commercially. People aren’t going to keep experimenting because I would like to keep telling intimate women’s stories.
It became very difficult to come back because at that time there was no OTT – there was just films or TV. Thank God, OTT came while I was still young and working. There’s a whole gap in there for such kinds of stories and people actually want to watch them, produce them and make them. I didn’t change the kinds of stories I wanted to tell. I was very clear about that. I was like, ‘I’ll wait for the world to change.’
Smriti Kiran: Megha, what about you? The Odds dropped on Netflix last year, and it did a festival run before that. You just recently directed a short film with Parvathy and Rima. Tell us about your experience.
Megha Ramaswamy: I directly jumped from FTII to working as a screenwriter. I wrote Shaitan many years ago. I feel that there has been a very drastic change in the way women are exposed to working environments now. I was just a happy sidekick. I clearly remember men, who were assistant directors, always had that route and the belief that they would make their films. I did not want to belong to that boys’ club. I really didn’t, which is why I stepped away. After Shaitan, I never wrote anything. I decided that this was the system I wanted to build for myself. So, I started collaborating with very young women. In fact, the writer of The Odds was 16 years old when she wrote it.
It has just been about being a bit self-aware from that point itself because you bore the brunt of patriarchy where men were attuned in our industry to only think of women as fun objects of conversation or desire. Workspaces were very uncomfortable a long time ago.
As much as I love the growth that’s happening right now, I also want to bring to your attention that as women we are capable of great abundance and great mental decay. This is something that, as I grew older, I’m able to articulate better; but as a child in the industry – I started when I was 21 – I found it very uncomfortable. Expressive women are always considered a bit problematic. It’s not our fault. It’s millions of years of patriarchy that has attuned us and attuned the system to make the decision for us.
“I didn’t realise that I was the first female director that Dharma has backed and produced for until people started asking me. More than my own career, it gave all the female ADs and interns around me the possibility that this could happen for them. All the girls around me felt like they could also do it.” – Sonam Nair
How revolutionary an idea is it that Dharma hired a woman director and we are talking about it in a panel? As much as it angers me, it also makes me happy that these conversations are being brought into public memory; and it’s important to keep this conversation going. Also, make healthier spaces – for older women, for younger women, for trans women, for women who don’t fit into a certain mould altogether. I’ve been very uncomfortable. It’s only now that I have wonderful friends in the industry. I’m so happy to have worked and collaborated with so many women on this panel who have given me that platform to thrive, not just as a filmmaker but also as a musician, as a writer, as a director, as a screenwriter. If we can also have that connection for ourselves – to know that we are builders of safe spaces and to pass it on – that would be it.
Kalpana Nair: Just like Sonam has that tag of being the first female filmmaker at Dharma, another filmmaker who got quite boxed was Arati (Kadav) because all the press around the time of Cargo was, ‘The only female sci-fi filmmaker!’ Arati, did you get fed up with it?
Arati Kadav: They even called me the ‘only sci-fi filmmaker’, forget ‘only woman sci-fi filmmaker’!
When I was trying to make the film, I had a one-year-old and I was still nursing her. I was trying to work at various production houses and none of them had rooms where I could go and nurse my baby. So, I had to use the restroom to nurse my child. It was very tough for me.
“There has always been the image of a brooding, good-looking, male director. But there is no mythology around female people working in this industry. That’s what I really wanted to change. Last year I premiered around 12 films on my short films platform, out of which seven to eight were by young women directors.” – Arati Kadav
Now that she’s around five years old, she asks me, ‘What do you do? What work do you do?’ I say, ‘I’m a director.’ Close to my house, there’s the Mehboob Studio square where there is a big statue of a man with a camera. Once I was like, ‘That’s what I do.’ But that’s the mythology of a male director. In a mall at BKC, there is a restroom where there are posters of directors. All of them are posters of male directors despite it being a women’s restroom. We don’t have role models. I mean, there are enough female directors to fill the walls of restrooms.
So, I was thinking about the mythology of directors. There has essentially always been the image of a brooding, good-looking, male director. But there is no mythology around female people working in this industry. That’s what I really wanted to change. Whatever I try to do, I do to change that. I support a lot of short filmmakers – last year I premiered around 12 films on my short films platform, ShortFilmWindow, out of which seven to eight were by young women directors. I always told them to send me pictures of themselves directing, because I want to push it out. I would say, ‘I want people to see you directing, and be comfortable with that image.’ Women doing cool stuff like that. I really want to bring about that change. That’s all.
Smriti Kiran: I must say that it takes very long. People like Sheetal Menon, and a host of others who’ve just turned directors, don’t even say it with any kind of confidence that they are filmmakers. They constantly side-lining their own talent. I am like, ‘You are filmmakers!’ I’ve seen male ADs turn around and say, ‘I’m a filmmaker, yaar.’
Arati Kadav: I know! My father was filling a form once and he asked me, ‘What should I write as your profession?’ I was like, ‘Writer, maybe director.’ I was too scared in spite of making a film.
Smriti Kiran: I was having a conversation with a male filmmaker that I respect, who said, ‘Isn’t it tokenism? Isn’t it like the reservation system when you talk about representation of women in cinema?’ I was like, ‘Think about it this way: you’ve got a choice between hiring a man and a woman, and you may probably not hire the woman because even if she wants to work till 4 am, the country is not safe enough, which is not our problem or job, so you’re going to think about the fact ki ye ghar kaise jayegi? ‘Agar ye set pe hogi toh hum room kaise allocate karenge kyunki baaki saare toh male hi hai.’
These kinds of logistical things people don’t think about. You’ve got mothers who’ve got to take care of things in their family. This is also why a lot of women are dropped out of the workforce or considered difficult. You don’t consider that a person has a child to look after. So, there are also these reasons why paraphernalia needs to be created because our societal structure for the last 2000 years is skewed. You can be that person who says, ‘Ye hamari problem nahi hai,’ but you can also be that person who says, ‘Ye hamari problem hai.’ And agar hum ye problems chhote-chhote levels pe solve nahi karenge, toh kya hoga? And all of us have also had to rewire our head to not think like this if a woman were to come asking for a job who is also a mother, don’t think of it as a problem because even we think of it as a problem, sometimes.
Arati Kadav: I completely agree, Smriti. I had a similar incident recently where I had the choice of giving a contract to a very good guy, who is on top of his game, and a woman who had twins. I was like, ‘How would she handle twins and a night job?’ I was getting so worried about how she’d do it. Whichever meeting I did, I saw that this woman was super prepared. She was so worried that motherhood would work against her that she was working 50 times harder. She really cared about doing that job well as compared to that guy who was so confident that he was not even making it unique or interesting. I eventually decided to give the job to the woman, and I tweeted about it. I got so many responses from men saying, ‘Oh, do I need to have kids to be hired by you?’ They even have an issue there.
I always feel that the benchmark for a good organisation is to see how many women with kids are working there and thriving. For me, that’s how you mature as an organisation. When you’re new, you may find it tough to manage the logistics, but we all hope, and so do you, to grow. You have to, as an organisation, make room for that. Women who manage kids are some of the most precise, punctual people around. They never forget anything. You would essentially be missing out on a great workforce if you did not hire them. You have to make room for your own benefit. Forget about everything else. There are really smart women out there with kids who are doing great stuff.
If you’re saying that they cannot go back at 4 am, you’re saying that you don’t want women at all in your team. What are you talking about? It’ll be such a drab place. I don’t think that even a guy would want to work in a place like that.
Renuka Shahane: For the longest time, in the eighties and nineties, when I was working as an actor, nobody considered that there was any need to think differently about the women on the set. We were just basically made to do things on our own, be it a toilet, which was a basic necessity. We didn’t have those things. In an outdoor situation, we’d just have four hairdressers coming with us, putting the dupatta around, and we’d do our thing, because when nature calls nature calls.
These are things that we’ve come a very long way from. Now, these things are at least considered – producers are thinking of the women on the set; if it’s a late shift then they have cars arranged. So, this thought process has undergone a sea change. Even the biggest of actresses have had to face this. They might get enough money for their performance, but on set, the logistics were completely skewed. They were not thought of at all. It’s a huge leap now that we have makeup vans and space for simple things like changing and going to the loo.
Parvathy Thiruvothu: Around six years ago, I was part of this association – that calls itself a welfare association but isn’t – called AMMA (Association of Malayalam Movie Artists). I’ve just resigned happily from there. I remember going there during one of the meetings, and standing up and saying, ‘We don’t have bathrooms,’ because I had to go on outdoor shoots and hold my pee for over a day and then have a urinary infection. Everybody just treated it as a casual issue.
“Do we need to feel grateful because basic human rights are being given to us? I don’t. I’m saying, ‘That is something you were supposed to do. What are you patting yourself on the back for?’ This was supposed to be done eons ago.’” – Parvathy Thiruvothu
The second meeting I went to, they nicknamed me, ‘Bathroom Parvathy’. I had to go around the entire General Board members to get their signature to say, ‘I am backing this,’ because this association has to take it to the producers’ association to sanction toilets or vanity, which when given are usually only for the heroes, and if at all the heroine gets it, the vanity drivers or the person who maintains it will forbid any other female crew member to enter that vanity because ‘heroine ka hai, so don’t use it.’ I don’t know why. Is it because they consider them to be sub-standard? So, that used to happen.
It was only two years ago that it became a norm to have bathrooms. While it’s a huge leap, in terms of basic sanitation being given, I have come to a state where I’m like, ‘Not enough. This big leap only seems like a big leap.’ I am greedy. We need to feel grateful because basic human rights are being given to us? I don’t. That is something you are supposed to do. I realised that somewhere I was being apologetic, over-grateful and over-sweet with everybody. Suddenly, I’m like, ‘Damn right. You’re supposed to do that. What are you patting yourself on the back for? This was supposed to be done eons ago and because we fought for our rights, you are now saying, ‘Itna toh hai. You didn’t even have this before.” To that, I’m like, ‘Don’t say that. That is not cool to say anymore.’ Just because you’re giving us a bathroom, are we supposed to be grateful for life? No. We are supposed to get equal space no matter what, a dignified workspace no matter what. That’s the bare minimum. Usse niche toh hum lene hi nahi wale hai.
I remember going up to all these men to talk about POSH guidelines and one of the secretaries of the association said, ‘What more do you guys want! Everything that you guys are asking, we are giving.’ It was so vulgar, in that sense, like the grammar of it, their associations with certain words.
Even as a woman, I had to put in a lot of work to even see how I was looking at this. It was a lot of mental work to change how I phrased my sentences with those people. There was so much of ‘please’ and ‘kindly’ added; I had to be careful about the commas and exclamation marks in the email I’d send. Then, I was like, ‘No, no, no. You don’t need to add these things to be nice.’
It’s taking care of our family, taking care of responsibilities at home, be it human children or a dog. Then you have this gender politics at work with regards to the characters that have been given to you, trying to maintain the dignity of the character you’re playing in the script, getting basic human rights and reflecting on how you are a part of this patriarchal system. It is a lot. If we are not coming together to discuss all these things, to say, ‘Yaar, maine na galti ki. I was too grateful over there.’ It requires so much effort to correct ourselves as we go forward.
Smriti Kiran: Renukaji bohot saalon se kaam kar rahi hai. Unhe pata hai ki ye jo chhoti-chhoti cheezeon ke liye un logon ne ladayi ki thi, woh aaj isiliye ho raha hai kyunki unhone uss waqt kuch bola hoga. It’s like a suffragette. You are basically laying the foundation for greater change as it goes along.
I met Anu three or four years ago on a panel at JLF (Jaipur Literature Festival). Anu is an author and had worked at NDTV. She was very keen to become a screenwriter. She’s a mother of two. On top of that, she’s based out of Delhi. So, for her, it almost seemed like an impossible thing to learn a new skill, how to manage a family and what to do. She’s one of my heroes because I know that she did it in a really quiet, resilient way. She’s also the writer of Aarya that came out last year. Anu, please talk about your experience.
Anu Singh Choudhary: Thank you so much, Smriti. I’m so grateful and gratitude comes very naturally to us. We’re all guilty of that. But I’m very, very grateful to be here. I have to admit, I am also guilty of just being very grateful for whatever opportunity that I had managed to get while at NDTV. Smriti, you know how it was, 60%-70% of the newsroom was full of women. So, I came from a system where there were a lot of women around and yet we were conditioned to be grateful. That, I guess, is a conditioning due to patriarchy, even as a mother, even as a wife, even as a daughter-in-law, and so many other roles that you play.
“It is about choosing your battles and saving your energy. I just decided to save my energy for the stories that I wanted to tell instead of picking up fights which would drain me out of my energy.” – Anu Singh Choudhary
You have to negotiate and navigate your way quietly. It’s just about choosing the battle and saving your energy for something bigger. I just decided to save my energy for the stories that I wanted to tell instead of picking up – not mundane because no fight is mundane, no fight is small – those fights which would drain me out of my energy, which also meant that I chose not to speak too much on social media, which also meant that while I was writing women’s stories, I avoided being labelled in a certain way because I just thought that I was saving my energy. It also meant that when I was called in to work on Aarya, the first thing that I was told was, ‘Because you’re a mother and we want a certain kind of voice’ to not take offence at that, but as a compliment – make sure that while you’re working on making the character of Aarya, you’re also working on very macho characters. Give them what you know the best, which is coming from your experience somewhere. You’re not just a female writer. You’re not just a writer who can write for a mother or a woman. In that sense, it has been quite the battle.
I’m very happy and very grateful that I got to be a part of this panel that believes in empowering each other. Smriti, you’d asked why we don’t have a database. One of the reasons we don’t is because we’ve been told again and again that women are women’s greatest enemies. That’s a narrative that has been drilled into our heads. So, probably that is why. But hopefully from here on, and with these little efforts and initiatives that we are all taking, it’s just going to be better – starting from the bathroom to the boardroom.
Smriti Kiran: I want to discuss something that’s been spoken about very often: women being in writing rooms? For some strange reason, every time that topic comes up, people say, ‘Can’t men write women?’ If you’re writing about a murderer, do we need to get a murderer in the writing room? I think it’s a lot of whataboutery.
Arpita, why don’t you start and then Shilpa, who wants to hide her talent consistently and not let the world know that she is there, can continue.
Arpita Chatterjee: I want to start off by talking about what Shilpa does. This has been my biggest frustration with women and this is why I’ve decided to champion women. I feel that women are so embarrassed of themselves and take much longer to feel confident about their abilities. This I realised very early on because men are just so overconfident about achieving so little because that is the privilege they have been given as a society. As a writer, I felt like we needed more women directors because that’s where the power lies. All the women that I met who wanted to direct were extremely under-confident. So, I feel that work is the only thing that can make you confident.
As writers, we can support women directors by writing stories for them. We can help them find their voice. I decided very early on to do that. So, whenever a woman producer or director came to me, even if they had no money—I’m saying this shamelessly, even men have noticed this—I would do whatever I could to prop them up. It was a decision I made because real power comes from working. I want to work with men. I want to work with women. I feel that it is important to work, to get your voice out there, and the more opportunities we create, that talks for itself.
One of the challenging things that I faced was being a woman and having different life things going on. During the pandemic, I really suffered because it was a writers’ room with three men and I was the only woman. It would be a very long writer’s room. If it’s a problem that I am a woman, then it’s problematic. But the sensitivity with which one needs to handle this has to change, the language has to change. One needs to look at how our roles are different because these structures are just keeping women out of the workforce. This was hugely troubling for me. I tried to challenge it, and those who’ve worked with me know that I’m just not the quiet woman in the corner. I railed against it, but I couldn’t get across.
Arati spoke about this – women have their compulsions, but they’re super-efficient. We can create spaces where we can have conversations about this so that more women come into the workforce because things are not difficult for them. I’ve worked with Ruchi, and she is one of the best people I’ve worked with because she makes it into a human experience as opposed to it being a project. She would ask me, ‘Oh, you have a kid. What is convenient for you?’ Not because she was trying to give me a thing because I was a woman, but because she saw merit in my work and wanted to work with me and make it an experience that everybody enjoys as opposed to coming here and doing their set things. A man can do it because he has a wife at home but I can’t.
“I don’t think we should romanticize what we’ve been trained to do, what we are skilled at doing and what we’ve invested in for years to do, as an opportunity. I am as hardworking as any male director out there. So, my workspace is not a space of opportunity. It’s a space of work for me.” – Megha Ramaswamy
I personally feel that there are many parts to this conversation. As a writer, I’ve struggled through many different situations. As women, we don’t allow ourselves to fail. I feel that is problematic. Every failure is a lesson through which you learn and you grow. It’s okay to fail. You will fail. Men fail all the time.
Arati Kadav: Yes. We have such high standards for ourselves and other women that we should not have.
Arpita Chatterjee: Yeah. I want to tell women that they’ll fail but every time they fail, they’re going out there and learning and their confidence is growing. Take that opportunity because men do it all the time. I have failed so many times. Alankrita knows this. But I just keep going. I’m like, ‘You know what, I will learn something from this and move on.’ Don’t be afraid of failure because you’re growing.
Smriti Kiran: Arpita, I don’t think women are worried about failure. I think the system around us doesn’t allow for failure. The moment we get that opportunity we’re so grateful for that opportunity and all eyes are on us. In Venice, there was a female filmmaker, Jennifer Kent, who had her film in competition. Suddenly, that film had to be L’argent. Uske niche toh koi baat hi nahi kar raha hai. We’ve been subjected to male auteurs making crap and watching it in competition in different festivals. Why is talent a fixed resource? I feel that I can do what I can do today because I’ve got 20 years of opportunity behind me.
Arpita Chatterjee: Smriti, I feel that women are afraid to take those opportunities, and I wish more women would just look at it as an opportunity to grow as opposed to winning an Oscar on the first chance. It’s fine if you don’t.
“As women, we don’t allow ourselves to fail. I feel that is problematic. Every failure is a lesson through which you learn and you grow. It’s okay to fail. You will fail. Men fail all the time.” – Arpita Chatterjee
Megha Ramaswamy: As much as we call our workspaces opportunities, they are workspaces for us. We have to run our families, pay our bills. I don’t think we should romanticize what we’ve been trained to do, what we have been skilled to do, what we’ve invested in ourselves, for years to do, as an opportunity. This is where our gratefulness content really has to go down. I am as hardworking or as successful as any male director out there. So, my workspace is not a space of opportunity. It’s a space of work for me. I am making ways by making my domestic space, managing the domestic space, conducting a family, and still working, unlike my male counterparts. I really wish we would stop romanticizing this notion of women at work. Men, especially in India, have this very passionate outlook towards cinema because they’re allowed to. I can’t afford that passion towards cinema. I have to run a family. I’ve been exposed to this bullshit ever since I was a 20-year-old and I want to cut that crap right now because this is our space of work. We need to pay our bills, okay.
Parvathy Thiruvothu: As an actor, I’ve been called in for a lot of script discussions which would go on for months. That’s valuable time out of my day, out of 24 hours, when I’m training as an actor on a daily basis, two to three hours is actually money for me. So, if I’m training for a particular role, my mind space is going entirely into the role, but a writer needs to discuss with me. There is no credit even in the writer’s room for me.
Then I keep thinking, ‘It’s my movie. So, maybe I shouldn’t ask for credit.’ It’s only two years ago when a director said, ‘Parvathy, would you like to do this film?’ I said, ‘There are areas which are problematic, which is very regressive.’ And he said, ‘Why don’t you change it? Why don’t you work on the script and come back?’ I said, ‘I’ll do it if you give me credit as a co-writer.’ I didn’t even ask for money. I just said credit, name. I should have even asked for money. Once you have the opportunity, you’ll be grateful. ‘I got a chance to work on a script,’ or ‘I got a chance to work with this.’ It’s always going to be an opportunity, and we’d need to be innately grateful and all that, and that’s amazing in a manifesting realm, but realistically speaking, I feel like we should value our time and say, ‘I am worth this much.’ It’s so important.
It’s amazing to hear this from women because it’s not often that you keep hearing it so often, but when you suddenly put it into practice, you need to keep hearing it. For that reason, I’m grateful for the members in this panel, because time and time again I’m seeing that you all put your foot down and say, ‘I work and I’m worth this much. Give me this.’ That’s what caused me to also take that kind of a step.
Shilpa Srivastava: I’m not embarrassed by coming in front of people. It’s just that I’m not from a filmmaking background. I stepped into the industry very late. I was doing some other work before that. When I joined the industry, my curiosity was just to learn how films are made. I didn’t even know where I’d fit in, if I wanted to fit in, which direction or which course I had to take. I had no idea.
Starting from being a runner 10 years ago to having my first screenplay (Zoo) on Netflix, it has been a very beautiful and a very unique journey – a haywire journey, all over the place. That self-doubt is due to conditioning, it’s a personality trait, but it’s also genuinely a doubt in your head. ‘I didn’t plan to get here. Am I really doing a good job?’ I also feel that as a creative person, I need to question myself. Otherwise, if I get content, I’m going to get complacent and I don’t want that for myself. So, that self-doubt is sustaining me.
When I came to the industry in my 30s, I started realising that I have been very fortunate to have a very privileged upbringing and workspace. Whether it’s been my house, whether it’s the place I landed in, the men and the women have never let me feel that I’m a woman doing a job or that I’m being given an opportunity. It’s only been once I realised that I started having conversations like this. This panel has been instrumental in opening me up to so many things, which I knew on the surface. It’s very enriching. For me, it has been an eye-opener, constant learning, a work-in-progress kind of a view.
Coming to the stories we tell, I have been approached saying, ‘Ek story hai. UP ki ek female gangster ki story hai. We want you on board.’ I’m thinking, ‘Agar Bombay ki gangster hogi ya gangster hoga, aadmi hoga toh kya main nahi likh sakti hoon?’ I even went on that track. But nevertheless, I was like, ‘Let me take it as an opportunity. I’m getting to be a part of the writers’ room.’ But that question did come to my mind that just because I’m a woman and I’m from UP, why am I being typecast? But I was like, ‘It’s okay. I’ll come to that later. Let me first win the battle of performing.’
That’s when I went and retrospected and realised that a lot of films that have influenced me, primarily Hindi, have had female characters and incidentally all have been written or directed by men. For example, if you take Gulzar sahab’s Khusboo, the characterisation of Hema Malini in that film stems from patriarchal thought somewhere. I don’t think there’s another way to put it. Even Smita Patil’s character in Mirch Masala, or Roja, for that matter. The latter is such a beautiful portrayal of the evolution of a little girl into a tigress and it’s on a screen.
“As a creative person, I need to question myself. Otherwise, if I get content, I’m going to get complacent, and I don’t want that for myself. So, that self-doubt is sustaining me.” – Shilpa Srivastava
Even today, being a woman, I say that all I want to do is tell stories. I don’t want to confine myself to a gender when saying a story. While telling stories, of course, I’d have strong female characters, which is something that I’ve been doing. I don’t know if it’s a vice, but it just doesn’t happen to me that since I’m a woman I want to tell only women’s stories. It just doesn’t come by like that to me. It’s just stories that come up. I want to really navigate into that space and explore that space. I’m starting out. It’s not like I have too much body of work as a screenwriter yet, but I want to delve into those spaces.
“You don’t have to build a woman. You should just move obstacles out of her way. She will build herself.” – Genesia Alves
Smriti Kiran: With Arpita, something happened recently, which I’d like to mention, and why it is important to have the mindfulness of creating opportunity. She found herself in a certain situation where she felt that she was not being respected for her work. But she needed the money, like Megha said we’ve got to pay our bills. She got another opportunity to be in a writing room that is being led by Kabir Khan, who realised how important it was to get Arpita on that story. He made sure that she was on board with proper remuneration so that she could say no to something that she might have said yes to.
The reason why we all need to create these opportunities is because one is getting the opportunity or getting to work or simply because we just want to be part of the workforce. The other thing is retention with dignity. I want to say that we’ve got some very wonderful allies out there who are working on creating those opportunities. But the fact of the matter is that we are underrepresented.
Arpita Chatterjee: I want to ask a question that I don’t really know the answer to. When you’re uncomfortable and you’re feeling that a room or a workspace is problematic, like the one that I was dealing with, how does one address that without sounding whiny or problematic? Because we have signed contracts, we have made commitments, and sometimes you can’t fulfil them. I find that it’s very difficult to negotiate all these things because you’re always looked at as problematic. This has been on top of my mind for the last 10 years. Thanks to Smriti, there’s this platform and I’m just putting it out there that sometime in the future, we can talk about this.
Vijayeta Kumar: A lot of this happens because there is such a lack of women on shoots, in writing rooms. Like Arati said if I’m working with somebody who’s got a young child and she tells me, ‘Look, I need a break. I need to go home,’ I would get it. The world is not coming to an end. And I trust that woman taking care of a child at home to look at her phone and answer a couple of questions. You can still do the work. There are no women on sets. There would be one woman somewhere and you can’t really go and tell her that this is the issue. But women in decision-making positions, in higher positions, can take a call. That’s the only way to normalise this. We are not freaks. If I’m telling you that there is no toilet, I’m not being problematic. It’s a fact.
Arpita Chatterjee: I think one way is to make problematic a positive word.
Vijayeta Kumar: Aren’t men problematic? I have seen men having sissy fits and throwing tantrums on sets.
Arati Kadav: You know, Arpita, I have gone through that phase. I have evolved, in that sense. Five years ago, I was in a room where I could sense condescension and a toxic culture. I would still live through it. At that point, I would be like, ‘I need to get my work done.’ But off late, I have felt that if a room has that problem, it has a lot of other problems as well. It has a culture of gossiping, of favouritism. I recognise such a room very early and try to exit it. And they know that they’re losing out on me. This has taken a long time. But for the longest time, I used to just ignore it. I would go about doing my work quietly because I wanted the opportunity to make my film. Only over a period of time have I become this person who is like, ‘I know that I’ll be very unhappy, so will the other person, because the friction will come out. So, just make it a fun place to be in.’ You have to figure out a way to navigate that. You need to have honest one-on-one conversations. A smart person will understand your problem, but if they aren’t, then it’s okay. You’ll figure out another way.
Arpita Chatterjee: Arati, did you just leave that space?
Arati Kadav: I leave in the sense that I don’t start. I take a lot of time before committing to a project. I start when I’m sure of it. It’s almost like a friendship. You take years before you say, ‘This is my friend.’ So, that’s what I’ve become like. Earlier, I would just live through it very quietly. I would keep my head down and work.
But I want to change that. I remember seeing my mother work. She got up at four in the morning every day for 10 years. She was a teacher. I have to get up at six to do my work. I want young girls today to be wilder. I want them to have a good night’s sleep, go out there and do great jobs. I want to change things for them.
“Younger female ADs tend to be very hesitant and quiet about their filmmaking dreams and aspirations. It’s very important to stay in touch with them and to support them. So, that’s what I do. I make myself available to the younger people on set. I just constantly champion them and say, ‘Be bullish. Go out and do it.’” – Bornila Chatterjee
I feel uncomfortable being quiet now if I feel there’s some problem. I had a very young DA on my set, who was once being shouted upon by the AD because she had made a continuity error, which was a genuine problem. I should have been the one to be shouting. But you should not be shouting. I called the AD and told them that this was not how you talk to young people because you’re completely jacking her confidence for the rest of her life by doing that. So, now, I find it tough to stay quiet to injustice.
Smriti Kiran: Genesia has been a journalist, and she has created a lovely platform by way of a podcast called Thursday Bitches. There is so little spotlight on people like Charu Shree Roy, who’s an editor and has done some stellar work, Iti Agarwal, Karishma Dube, or Shilpa Srivastava, for that matter, or Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh. I didn’t know Shweta Venkat (Mathew) until Devashish Makhija put her in my face. I’m saying that that is the other exclusion that we face. We just don’t know the kind of vibrant talent that exists because they are never in the spotlight.
Genesia Alves: I’m taking notes mentally. I’m like, ‘Where the hell were you guys for 10 years?’
We’ve got all of this baggage coming in. It takes you a long time to realise that this whole fight that you have is systemic. It’s not just your fight. I raise three children – I have two girls and a boy. This title, ‘How To Build A Woman?’ Actually, you don’t have to build a woman. You should just move obstacles out of her way. She will build herself.
I see people like you, Smriti. You changed my view. Two-three years ago, I realised that you would just pull people from nowhere. I’d be like, ‘Who’s this? Who’s that?’ I mean, look at this panel. I know some of you guys. I love some of you guys. But I don’t know about some of you, and it is a systemic thing.
Bollywood gets the biggest spotlight. Bollywood abs get the biggest spotlight. Even Bollywood boobs don’t get the kind of spotlight that Bollywood abs get, right? Even beards. So, I’m saying that it’s my responsibility to find people who need to be promoted, who need to be talked up.
Purnima (Rao) is listening right now. She lives in Delhi. She works with community libraries. She’s amazing. I learned so much from her, for example, trans women representation. Megha brought it up earlier. You don’t look at it any more like something that you should be doing. This is your responsibility.
Megha Ramaswamy: Yes, there is a normalcy to representation.
Genesia Alves: We’ve had different opportunities, different kinds of regrets. I have deep regrets about the way I approached certain opportunities and chances. I didn’t want to be problematic.
There’s this lovely story about the first woman who ran the Boston marathon. Her name was Kathrine Switzer. She was 19 years old. Her trainer was this guy called Arnie Briggs, a really grumpy 50-year-old sports coach. He was like, ‘You are too delicate. You can’t run it.’ She proved that she could run it. And he ran alongside her. At the beginning of the marathon, guys were like, ‘Yes, man! Fantastic.’ Towards the end, there were men running out of the audience trying to pull her out, and all Arnie Briggs was doing was pushing men out of the way. You have to see those photographs. That’s what our job is.
We’re going to find them like that as well because I think patriarchy doesn’t work for men either. We need to be amplifying those voices as well. Men don’t like talking about how easy it is.
Also, the second thing is, working in an all-women’s space is not unicorns pooping rainbows. We are going to have troubles. We are going to bring our egos. Why not? But it’s learning how to navigate these spaces the way we do. If you have to show empathy, that’s fine. Let somebody breastfeed their baby, for God’s sake. Let someone take the day off because their dog is dying. It’s fine. As you said on the podcast, Smriti, ‘If the Instagram creative doesn’t go today, will the world come to an end? Give it another half an hour, it’s fine – you’ll survive.’
These kinds of pissing contests are not good for guys either. They really struggle. And then the entire culture becomes toxic.
Smriti Kiran: We’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg.
I didn’t know Bornila till I saw The Hungry. When I saw it, I was like, ‘A woman has directed this!’ It’s like Smita Singh writing Raat Akeli Hai. I think it’s part of the patriarchy because they always feel that women are going to make issue-based films. Because we are showing women, we have to show issues. Where are the slacker chicks? Where are those people who might be roaming around aimlessly? Aisa nahi ki morcha le ke sab log nikle hue hai.
Bornila, how did you get this opportunity to mount this big project with some of the best actors that we have in the industry. What was that like?
Bornila Chatterjee: Thank you so much! That was very sweet of you.
It was amazing. Back in 2015, Film London and Cinestaan decided to—in order to celebrate Shakespeare’s 400th birthday—put a call out for Indian scripts, both here and in the UK. My writing partner, Tanaji (Dasgupta), and I decided to apply. Long story short, we went there for a boot camp, had to pitch the project to Cinestaan and Film London, and they chose ours. Then, we were like, ‘Oh gosh, now we have to make it.’ That’s essentially how it happened. We won a grant. Neither of us is from Bombay. This was our first time working here. We were very hesitant to approach people, but we did it and the film happened.
What was really lovely about working with Naseer, Tisca, and Sayani was, they all got on board at a very early stage. So they all read a very early draft of the script, and there was a lot of input. They knew that we were doing this on a micro-budget, and everybody went out of their way to support the film. Tisca let us use her office. Sayani helped us so much with getting her jewellery and costumes, and Naseer mentored us from a script level, not just for his own character but just the story in general. If he could, he would have directed the junior artists. All of them pitched in, and they went above and beyond their own roles. It was amazing to work with all of them.
Smriti Kiran: There is a systemic block that takes away opportunities from us, doesn’t allow us to reach our potential, we’ve got a lot of obstacles and a lot of challenges, but women also have a lot of agency. We can start recognising that agency and doing little things in our workspaces to make sure that these spaces are far more inclusive, go out of our way and rectify things that we feel can be rectified or make situations a little conducive for people to come in and work. Now that you are working and have a certain kind of power, what is it that you do on a daily basis to bring that mindfulness to things that you do?
Renuka Shahane: Just the equality that we have on set, even while doing our pre-prod or post; just this fact that you’re creating a safe space for all the human beings on that set. I, at least, don’t take things lying down if there’s any disrespect or there is any condescension of any sort just because I or any other person on the set is a woman or is different in any other manner. I have that kind of consciousness and I try to maintain that everywhere, not just in my work life, but also at home.
It’s a battle sometimes because people are not aware. There is still not that much awareness of how one should be. What is it to be equal? It’s always so much in the head. But one just tries to encourage and be powerful sisters, support each other, even across work, not just within the work.
Parvathy Thiruvothu: I guess what I would do now is attend all MAMI panels because ever since the lockdown what you and the beautiful team have done, in terms of bringing film discussions and inclusion, is unbelievable. You’ve set a certain standard. So, just being part of this community does a lot. Taking notes from your fellow sisters when they say lines like, ‘Retention with dignity,’ or ‘Guilty of gratefulness’, or ‘Abundance and mental decay.’
I’m sure that we agree on the equality aspect that Renuka ma’am spoke about. It is so true. I don’t know if it’s common for everybody but I have a habit of being extremely analytical and I botch up my own mental process and how I think a little, and sometimes I’m quite harsh with myself for having failed myself as a woman, as a person, for having let someone walk all over me, and I think it’s really important to reach out to a sister or a colleague and have a conversation really openly about it and admit, and normalise that. That is something that has taken care of me in the last few years. I really don’t know what I was doing before the collective was formed. I genuinely can’t remember how I held it on my own.
So, utilising my resources very unapologetically and greedily and talking to my fellow women who are paving this path. That’s what I would do on a daily basis.
“I feel that what we lack right now is stories about normal women. Men are only making films about women who go and win Olympic medals. They are the ones doing issue-based films, as opposed to normal women living their lives. We should normalise these stories so that people don’t consider women as a freak of nature.” – Vijayeta Kumar
Vijayeta Kumar: I wanted to mention Bombay Begums and the work that Alankrita has been doing because I feel that what we lack right now is stories about normal women. Whenever people say women empowerment, I think men make more films like that. Men are only making films about women who go and win Olympic medals. They are the ones doing issue-based films, as opposed to normal women living their lives, like in Renuka’s film or Lipstick Under My Burkha, even Dolly Kitty (Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare). We should normalise these stories so that people don’t consider women as a freak of nature. ‘Oh, this woman has ambitions. She’s this flawed character. We can’t handle this.’ So, more stories like that just to tell people that women are human beings. They have the same emotions as men. If a woman can be a murderer, she can also be a mother. There are all kinds of stories about women across the spectrum. We just need to normalise having those stories around. It’s not a niche project, it’s not an experiment, it’s not an issue that we are addressing when we say that these women have ambition, they have careers, so what to do now?
Karishma Dev Dube: Unfortunately, I’m not in a position where I’ve gained enough agency to create more opportunities for women, even though that’s at the forefront of my intentions. I think it’s still a gatekeeper’s issue. More of us in positions of power will start changes.
I’m not trying to instigate a movement with my films, but I am interested in creating matriarchal worlds, not because I’ve made an executive decision to exclude men. I’m just not interested in their experiences. I don’t villainise them in my films either. So, I’m going to just continue making films that investigate the subtleties of girlhood and show pivotal but small moments in women’s lives. They’re pretty interesting.
“With Bittu, my intention was to bring the best voices I could onto my voice and the story I had written. It just happened that all the voices that I wanted to work with and I thought were best happened to be women. I didn’t hire them because of their gender.” – Karishma Dev Dube
I want to say that I haven’t hired anyone because they’re women. I hired them because they’re the best of people. I’ve only just started making work and been far away from home while I’m making it, which has its own specificities. I’ve had to represent my country in 12 minutes sometimes, with a short film, which pisses me off pretty often. But I’ve also encountered a lot of heroes from home, who have been doing it – like I met Bornila at BFI when I was still only three short films old, and I didn’t know any other Indian filmmaker except her. So, I’ve met a lot of heroes and found a lot of support in unexpected places and they just happen to be women. I don’t see any men around me right now who are doing what I’m doing. I’m very excited about that. I don’t think we have to try really hard to create any agency. We just need to keep telling our stories, and I’m just proud to be doing that and I’m really grateful for this space. It’s really cool.
Charu Shree Roy: Being an editor, I’m quite used to being on the margins. These are margins that are set in dark rooms, and you’re pretty lonely there. That’s the kind of lives that we live.
With editors, it’s a very classical gender role, where even the biggest of the studio heads are very happy to hire women as editors, but within that also we are boxed quite often because we are expected to be able to work on a certain kind of film. My own way to challenge that is to very clearly put my intent out that I want to do a mass film where I can focus on the abs of the hero. So, I try to not be the gatekeeper of my own self. From my experience, it also happens that when I put my intent out, sometimes they are surprised that I would want to do a film like that. So, very often I think it’s also the other person who is not aware of the fact that you could be wanting to be part of something like that, something commercial, something massy, and something which is not only about women’s stories. I’m happy to be part of all kinds of stories.
“Women editors are boxed quite often because we are expected to be able to work on a certain kind of film. My own way to challenge that is to very clearly put my intent out there. I want to do a mass film where I can focus on the abs of the hero.” – Charu Shree Roy
One other experience that I’ve had is with sensitive individuals. If you work with sensitive men, they are as good as sensitive women. And ‘No’ as an answer is something that I’ve found women to take much better when said to them as compared to men. But overall it’s the sensitivity that’s very, very important. If you have sensitive individuals and you put your intent out, and I do that quite often, it’s one way to start breaking that ceiling – to show that I want to do this.
Iti Agarwal: For me, I feel like my experience has been constantly trying to unlearn this patriarchy. It’s the society you’ve been brought up in. I don’t even think some of the things I think are wrong until I’m in conversations like these, then you start to realise that you have to unlearn a lot of stuff. For example, when I started out and I was an AD on film sets, and if I’m a first, I’m just trying to be a man, I’m trying to be as aggressive as possible, I’m trying to be loud and abusive. Now I realise after so many years that you don’t have to be that person to be taken seriously, and you’re just trying to be a man for doing something that you can just do nicely, in a respectful way. It’s a constant unlearning. Being around people like Alankrita and Bornila, seeing the way they work on set, you’re just like, ‘Yeah, you can do this differently.’ You don’t have to be an a-hole all the time to get stuff done. That, for me, has been a big learning experience, just constantly unlearning things in the way that I deal with these social, systemic problems.
Alankrita Shrivastava: Well, I really resonated with everything that everyone has said.
When I started working as an AD on Gangaajal, my first film as an AD, there were just three women on a set of 250 men. I internalised a lot of patriarchy on a film set, having worked in that kind of system. So, I totally agree with Iti. I think that it’s a constant process of unlearning, this whole thing of what kind of traits one takes on because you think that’s the only way to be. It’s only when I started directing that I stopped being so aggressive on set.
The only way for any change is to actually do the hiring. I feel I really have learned this also from Zoya (Akhtar) and Reema (Kagti) because I worked with them on Made In Heaven. You just have to make sure you get people into the rooms, onto the sets, and you have to stand your ground in terms of wanting to work with people. If you are in a position of power, you can fight for it. It’s just a thing in our heads that we can’t fight for it. So, I feel like that’s the only way to go. Be clear that you want more women and just go after those women and try your best to make it happen. It’s not about just talking. The moment you’re in a position, you have to take action to empower other people and run with it and do it and have that confidence to tell whoever else that I’ve got their backs, so I’ll take responsibility, but I’m going to hire these people. Whatever it is, I’m going to get them and I’ll manage. That is really what we need to do.
If we don’t keep doing that, there’s going to be no change. For instance, if I didn’t use that opportunity in Bombay Begums to make sure I have an all-women’s writers’ room and make sure I have Bornila directing, then I feel I would have failed myself also, because then I’d be like, ‘Okay, fine, I’m also not changing the system.’ More than talking, I’m like, ‘Get that bathroom built.’ Make it happen.
We have to do those things and not be scared of sticking our neck out for them. I keep getting brickbat for lots of things – for making things about women and why my male characters are the way they are. I’m also at a stage where I’m so immune to things that people say because I feel I have faced so much backlash that it has also made me hardened to this thing; I feel like I can fight that fight. I feel less fear in fighting that fight.
“When I started out as an AD on film sets, I was just trying to be a man. I was trying to be as aggressive as possible. Now I realise after so many years that you don’t have to be that person to be taken seriously. I am constantly trying to unlearn patriarchy.” – Iti Agarwal
Also, when you have more women working with you, it just empowers you. I learnt so much from Bornila. I keep learning from Charu. We’ve been collaborating for so long. Iti finished FTII and the first person she worked with was me. Everyone just helps you grow. I’ve constantly been working with my casting director, Shruti Mahajan. You learn so much. It’s great that we also had amazing female producers, which is why I feel that collaborating with women has always worked out for me. I’ve really experienced the benefit of it – right from the fact that Lipstick (Under My Burkha) was released by Balaji.
Women allying together concretely, by actually hiring and actually working together is really the best way forward.
Smriti Kiran: Alankrita, thank you for doing what you’re doing. Your film, Lipstick Under My Burkha, is really close to my heart because it made me have a very honest conversation with my mother and look at her as a sexual being, and I consider myself woke. Bringing an older woman’s sexuality into focus, because we don’t even talk about older people, we don’t even acknowledge the sexuality of women, forget about older women, was great. So, thank you for constantly doing that no matter how many people think that you’re fighting this fight and it’s so boring. Please keep doing what you’re doing. We are very grateful to you. That is hopefully going to be your legacy.
Megha Ramaswamy: Everyone here has been such a source of inspiration in their own ways. I’ve followed articles on every one. I went and watched Rita on the first day, first show, a long time ago.
What is important right now, for me, as Anu mentioned, is self-preservation. I feel that because I’ve been a part of a generation that had to put up such a strong fight for representation that I stretched myself too thin. Somewhere down the line, the politics of gender became more important to me than concentrating on work. I’m not running or finishing school for ill-mannered boys or misinformed people, at the end of the day. I am going to take two steps back because I also have to preserve myself and my sanity so that I can give agency to my work, in a way. This is what I want to do right now: just concentrate on work and take time out, and also have that opportunity to listen and absorb and learn. That’s about it.
As far as safe spaces go, it’s never been a revolutionary idea for me because workspaces have always been so unsafe and unkind to women that it’s always been a responsibility to have young people, especially young women, work with me, get paid and get spoken about. This is important. There’s a normalcy to it.
Bornila Chatterjee: The girls on set, the younger female ADs tend to be very hesitant and quiet about their filmmaking dreams and aspirations. It’s very important to stay in touch with them, to support them. So, that’s what I do. I make myself available to the younger people on set; if they have scripts, whatever, I just constantly champion them and say, ‘Be bullish. Go out and do it.’
All of us do this. I know we all have had different experiences up until this point, but definitely in your 20s, as a young 21-year-old trying to start off, as Iti said, you feel like you have to be a man. Now, at least in my 30s, I’m definitely in a position to look back at someone younger and be like, ‘No, there is a different way you can do this, and I’m here to support you in any way that I can.’
Shilpa Srivastava: What Iti said was very appropriate. For me, I feel that a lot of things are going to start from an unschooling process at home. There is so much conditioning that has gone into us. Everyone here when they were talking, I was like, ‘Oh, damn. Why didn’t I think of that earlier?’ These are things that opened my eyes. It’s because these guys have faced it, made so much noise about it, that it comes to us easily. It has always been convenient. For me, this panel has given me a huge amount of homework to go back to and also think of stuff from these perspectives that fortunately or unfortunately haven’t come to me on a one-on-one basis.
Also, I’m not in a position to create opportunities. But even now when I get a little bit of a chance, like when I heard a friend talking about setting up an AD team and somebody saying, ‘Ladka nahi, ladki chahiye because she’ll be more sincere,’ it makes me happy, but when it continued into, ‘But baaki sab ladke chahiye,’ I am like, ‘Kyun? Baaki saare ladke kyun chahiye?’ This was from a male director. I did not understand the logic. A girl being more sincere and running the set, I understand. So, I try to poke and prod and say, ‘Where are you coming from? What is behind this?’ So, I am taking baby-steps whenever I can. I try to question and see which direction they are going in.
We are allied with the Black Lives Matter and Dalit Lives Matter movements. Unless opportunities are created, nothing will happen. Smriti, you creating this platform is for people like me. You’re making sure that all these elite people with an immense body of work and experience come together to help me. I feel so blessed to hear them talk. That’s only because you created this opportunity for us. I hope I’ll be in a position soon to create opportunities myself.
Arati Kadav: I’m just so happy to be on this panel. I agree with everybody. I’m going to try to be more conscious, starting from writing. Earlier, when I’d write a boss, I’d write a male boss. So, I corrected it. I asked myself, ‘Why?’ It can be a female, too, right? So, starting from writing to wanting to collaborate with more amazing females.
One thing that I’ve actively started doing, which was also something that I took up as a challenge in 2020, is mentoring girls. I mentored three girls. They may or may not have worked with me. I know that I have really benefitted in my past profession from very strong female mentors. I know there are a lot of girls who are very strong-headed, who have probably not assisted but made short films, having studied filmmaking, who need guidance on the next script that they are writing. So, I’m actively mentoring three female voices. That’s something that I have really taken up. It’s a personal thing. I’m also always available to them, even if I’m very busy. If they call me or text me, I’m there because they are going through everything that I went through, and since I had no one to discuss it with, someone who had a similar experience, who would get it. I still had friends to talk to, I get their problems whenever they go to pitch their stories. So, I actively mentor. My contribution is this mentorship that I’ve started.
Genesia Alves: I’ve been writing about feminism and all of that for quite a long time. My whole job at that time was to raise conversations. I have always had sisterhoods. I’ve not always had the opportunity to create opportunities for other people in terms of active jobs or stuff like that. My whole thing was to try and evolve the conversation.
Over time, I started getting the feeling that we tend to distrust each other. Somewhere down the line it’s very easy to sow the tiny seed of distrust just because you wear lipstick or you wear high heels or you’ve got big hair or you are young or older feminists and young feminists not talking to each other, even married and unmarried feminists. It’s very easy to cleave us.
I’ve used social media extensively to create these very secret sisterhoods, where you’re just like ‘Hey, man, let’s talk.’ I found it increasingly easier to talk to women. This is my project, whether it’s the podcast or it’s what I write, or hopefully in the future, when I get to work with some of you guys, we have to get on the same page where we trust each other. Brotherhoods have this thing of being brotherhoods. We need to do this for sisterhoods. No matter what you look like, where you’ve come from, are some girl from out of town, someone who’s a little too giggly maybe, a little bit low, whatever, you have to unlearn judging people. If we don’t, people find it too easy to cleave us. One dude walks in, he gives some woman the power and suddenly we all start behaving like idiots. I mean, look at this panel or any other all-women panel in general, we all look so different. We are all from such a different space. Our histories, our origin stories will all be crazy, right?
That is my job, I feel. That’s something that I’m doing, and I hope I’m doing it correctly. Raise these ideas. Why are you distrusting each other? Why can’t you work together? It’s a psychological thing. And I’ve really learned so much today. Smriti, I can go on and on about it, you’re really amazing. I think you are so dangerous in this way to patriarchy. Really, thank you.
Megha Ramaswamy: It takes a Smriti!
Smriti Kiran: We can continue talking about this, but you guys are doing such an amazing job. The only thing is, it is our fight and we’ve got to do this ourselves. We have a lot of allies along the way, but I don’t think we should undermine the power that we have. There is a lot of that. All small changes are going to lead to the big stuff.