In a conversation moderated by Badrinath Ki Dulhania director Shashank Khaitan, filmmakers Leena Yadav, Meghna Gulzar and Gauri Shinde spoke about their experiences working as woman directors in Indian cinema.
Yadav, who has made films like Parched (2016) and Rajma Chawal (2018), said she wasn’t taken very seriously when she started out as an editor. “I had a lot of people who refused to work with me back then,” she said.
She went on to recount an incident to make her point. “I remember one incident where these clients walked in and I was hired as a freelance editor,” she said. “They looked at me and said, ‘Aap hain editor [Are you the editor]?’ I said yes. So he told me you should know everything. He took off all the wires and said you should know the wiring of this place. I did all the wiring and then said I don’t want to work with you. And I walked out.”
Yadav said she has stopped thinking about such discrimination, but it exists in some form or the other. “After that incident, I stopped [thinking about it],” she said. “If there is discrimination, it is their problem, not mine. So I stopped bothering about that. I have had some great experiences, collaborations and a great journey from there on. But just to tell you the existence of this even today. My first AD [assistant director] on Rajma Chawal (2018) called up somebody to hire him as second AD. That person said, ‘Oh, woman director hai? Mere CV pe achchha lagega [Will be good for my résumé]. Then he asked ‘Kaam vaam aata hai ya sab humein hi karna padega [Does she know the work or do we have to do everything]?’ ”
Meghna Gulzar spoke about the challenges she faced in making her first film despite coming from a film family.
“If there is a living example that nepotism does not exist in our industry, it is me,” she remarked. “I would wait 12 hours outside a studio to get two words in to an actor. And I would not say who I am. Of course, they would know who I am, but that didn’t get me easy access. My first film failed miserably and it took me seven years to make my next. And it didn’t matter what my last name was. It was only after my film succeeded that it became easier to make my fourth film,” she said.
The fact that her first film revolved around two female protagonists did not help either.
“My first film was about two women who decided to have a child out of surrogacy, where one friend was helping the other out because she had fertility issues. And it was perceived that there was absolutely nothing in this film for men to do. Now, I know science has advanced considerably, but I still don’t think a child can be born without a man’s contributon. So why is it that there is nothing in this film for the men to do? Yes, there is nothing traditionally for them to do. So it was a struggle, it took two years for that film to be put together.”
Meghna pointed out that you need to work with people who are on the same page as you. “Fortunately, a producer with foresight, the late Mr Jhamu Sughand, said I don’t need men to make this film, you get me two strong women and go and make this film. And that’s how I got the break! A woman making a story about two women with not much for the men to do!”
Citing the example of her latest Raazi (2018), Meghna admitted that the economics of a film depends on whether the protagonist is male or female, apart from the subject, of course. “When it was coming together as a story, nobody knew it was going to make Rs100 crore,” she said. “It was always a very careful project because the lead protagonist was a woman and that did affect all the numbers involved in the making of the film.”
Asked if the directors would make films that have a male as the central character, Meghna replied, “When we find a story that appeals to us that we want to tell.”
She also revealed that her next project has a man at its centre. “I am working on a film on the life of field marshal Sam Manekshaw, and I swear as hell he was not a woman.”