In the traditionally male-dominated Hindi film industry, a few brave women—actors, producers, directors—are charting their own paths. More power to them!
The Hindi film industry has always been a man’s world. It still is. If films starring Amitabh Bachchan had made actresses redundant in the late 1970s, those with Shah Rukh Khan can replace one female lead with someone else and make the cash registers ring as much in modern times. How, then, is the woman becoming more assertive?
Because some actresses are turning producers and acting in their films as well. Among them is the odd one, who has risked her money as producer and cast herself once her career never quite took off. What is important, however, is that a start has been made. And, also, that everyone who is turning into a producer is not a never-had-been.
In 1926, Fatima Begum became the first Indian woman to direct a film titled Bulbul-e-Paristan. That momentous event is finding new followers, day after day, with every passing year. Only the fortunate one can access big money, either because she is friends with a man with financial clout and stardom or since she is a privileged insider. However, there are those for whom the big idea is what matters. Think Kiran Rao. In spite of being the wife of Aamir Khan, she chose to make the small-budget and unusual film Dhobi Ghat (2011).
The task of today’s actresses is extremely challenging because of the enduring influence of actresses like Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil in the arthouse space; Madhuri Dixit and Sridevi in commercial cinema, and other extraordinary predecessors. Because of them, the definition of the screen image, primarily in commercial cinema, has transitioned through the decades.
Where, then, are more modern-day actress fetching high marks? It is because they are acting in more woman-centric films than ever before, and also contributing to the larger idea of the Presence of the Talented Woman, which has enhanced manifold in terms of sheer numbers in the three key areas of direction, production and acting.
This is how the script of reality reads.
Adventurous indie film producers need to find innovative methods to acquire funding for their idea-driven films. One person who sparkles with her approach is Guneet Monga, a 32-year-old maverick who runs her production banner Sikhya Entertainment and has also produced films for Anurag Kashyap’s Anurag Kashyap Films Private Limited (AKFPL).
Named by US film magazine Hollywood Reporter as one of the “12 international players to watch out for” in 2012, Monga is a prolific producer who has worked on films like Monsoon Shootout (2013), The Lunchbox (2013) and Gangs of Wasseypur (2012).
The right person for first-timers looking for a break—but her track record shows her high standards, Monga’s enterprise has enabled her to get a few of her indie films co-funded by international production houses. Taking a step forward, she raised Rs 1 crore by posting the script of Peddlers (2012) on Facebook. That was half of the film’s shoestring budget of Rs 2 crore. Now, when did any of our internet-trotting filmmakers plot such a move, men making indie films included?
If Monga is 32, Ashi Dua is even younger. But she can be appropriately seen as someone who picked up a few of Monga’s magic tricks to produce Bombay Talkies, a low-budget anthology of four shorts directed by big names Karan Johar, Dibakar Banerjee, Zoya Akhtar and Anurag Kashyap. The sequence of stories paid homage to 100 years of Indian cinema by showing how Hindi films impact the lives of ordinary people. Aided by the participation of Viacom 18 Motion Pictures, a confident Dua told The Tribune on 16 June 2013, “I feel if you have good content, someone out there backs you and you can make it.” After her first masterstroke, she had every right to respond the way she did.
Among those in the business of entertainment, few have been as successful as Ekta Kapoor. A producer who doesn’t seem to care at all for critics in the media, Kapoor, after the unprecedented success of her small-screen soap operas, turned to films.
She has produced the period gangster flick Once Upon A Time in Mumbai (2010), which even received reasonable critical acclaim. She co-produced Shaadi Ki Side Effects (2014) starring Vidya Balan and Farhan Akhtar with Pritish Nandy Communications. The sequel to the sleeper hit Pyaar Ke Shaadi Effects (2006), the presence of an untried but gifted lead pair in her co-production, promised recovery of budget and some more, she appeared to know.
She was right.
Finding the idea of adult comedy irresistible, she launched the Kya Kool Hain Hum (2005) series. The failure of the third instalment shows that public interest has withered, but the first two had made enough already.
She co-produced Ragini MMS (2011), and turned the concept of the supernatural horror film on its head and Sunny Leone into the centre of attraction in the independently produced sequel marketed as “horex”—a film that merged horror with sex. Ragini MMS2 (2014) was a hit.
Kapoor surprised everybody by producing The Dirty Picture (2011), a drama allegedly based on the life of the late Silk Smitha, which the makers firmly denied. While Balan excelled as the protagonist in the engaging film, it had its share of bold scenes, which, one suspects, made many viewers gravitate to the theatres. The Dirty Picture turned out to be a three-National Award-winning blockbuster.
What about the actress-turned-producer?
After an undistinguished career as an actress, Dia Mirza ventured towards production. Love Breakups Zindagi (2011), in which she also starred, tanked. In 2014, she co-produced Bobby Jasoos (2014), a heroine-centred detective film, with another extraordinary show from Balan.
Othe actresses who have turned producers include Shilpa Shetty—Dishkiyaoon (2014), and Preity Zinta—Ishkq in Paris (2013), but have been unauccessful so far.
Quite a different case is Anushka Sharma, just 27, who forayed towards a dangerous highway with her co-produced thriller NH10 (2015), a sleeper hit. Moving through the badlands in Haryana, the story about a couple’s attempts to save their lives amidst rampant violence earned acclaim: and enough money to generate the idea of a sequel.
In the directorial space, Farah Khan is a phenomenon, reveling in big-budget films that are “paisa vasool” blockbusters. Three of her four films have starred Shah Rukh Khan, each of which were huge box office hits (The exception, Tees Maar Khan, starring Akshay Kumar, was a commercial dud).
Her films use classic Hindi film formulas—lost-and-found in Main Hoon Na (2004), reincarnation in Om Shanti Om (2007), and daring heist in Happy New Year (2014). But all her films also reference the formulas in a user-friendly manner, which is a rather unique trait: wink, nudge, enjoy, immerse. And she also has her close friend SRK backing her to the hilt, which makes Farah the most commercially viable woman director in the history of Hindi cinema.
Unlike Farah, Zoya Akhtar started with the relatively low-key Luck By Chance (2009), starring her brother Farhan and Konkona Sen Sharma. It took a dig at the Hindi film industry, that made the viewer reflect, and break into the occasional smile. For example, when actor Macmohan, remembered only for his role of Sambha in Sholay, gives away awards in an acting school, or Sanjay Kapoor, playing a debutant director, flaunts posters of films featuring him on his office walls that spoof Clint Eastwood Westerns and are named A Fistful of Rupees and The Good, The Bad, The Worst. The film wasn’t a commercial success, but Zoya Akhtar, the director, had arrived.
Relying on mild humour and exploring that delicate space of friendships, Akhtar’s Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011) produced her best moments as a director with commercial viability. An enjoyable film hinging on an all-boys road trip, it was a fast-moving bromance made for evolved audiences for whom intrusions of wit aren’t synonymous with escapism. Akhtar’s next full-length film Dil Dhadakne Do (2015) disappointed because of its loophole-strewn script; but, rest assured, she is going to be a major player, competing with brother Farhan for a long time.
Atmospherics ruled the slow-paced Talaash: The Answer Lies Within (2012), a dark supernatural thriller helmed by second-timer Reema Kagti that had Aamir Khan in the central role. After a gripping first half, the film faltered in the second, but not before Kagti had been able to make an individualistic statement of her directorial skills. The light-hearted modestly-budgeted Honeymoon Travels Pvt Ltd (2007) had started her career as a filmmaker. The Aamir Khan starrer would have made many aspiring women filmmakers hopeful about finding their way into the industry, and working on idea-driven projects with big stars.
Some exciting talents have worked in small-budget films: Kiran Rao’s Dhobi Ghat was a nuanced portrait of Mumbai. Anusha Rizvi’s Peepli Live, a stinging satire centring on farmer suicides, brought to the fore an entrant with a voice and style of her own. English Vinglish (2012), deftly directed by Gauri Shinde, had Sridevi in a captivating performance as a simple homemaker who learns English in her quest for self-respect.
The cause for worry: these makers have slipped into silence for a while. However, even if Rao, Rizvi and Shinde wait for the perfect idea to come along, that will not influence the larger picture in which women will play an increasingly significant role as directors and producers.
Much has been written about the commodification of the female body in Hindi films through item numbers and depictions of partial nudity. Motivated by the desire to act in meaningful films in which they appear in central roles and not as decorative add-ons, several actresses have taken the small and medium budget routes.
In Fashion (2008), Kangana Ranaut played a successful model, whose downfall is facilitated by drug abuse. In Queen (2014), her character of a simple girl who discovers her real self after she is let down by her would-be husband, left an indelible imprint on the viewers’ minds. Ranaut won National Awards for both performances. And don’t forget Tanu Weds Manu (2011) and Tanu Weds Manu Returns (2015), in which Ranaut as the loveably eccentric Tanu ruled the screen. The sequel did the sort of business Salman Khan would have been happy with.
From playing the seductress in Ishqiya (2010), to a voluptuous actress with a tragic personal life in The Dirty Picture, to a pregnant woman searching for her missing husband in Kahaani (2012), another National Award-winning actress Vidya Balan has done them all. It’s been a while since she shone with one of her solo acts, which fans of her woman-centric films must be waiting for.
Apart from her National Award-winning turn in Fashion, Priyanka Chopra played the legendary boxer Mary Kom in the eponymously titled film (2014). She even played 12 girls with different character traits based on their zodiac signs. Sadly, the film turned out to be Ashutosh Gowariker’s painfully long yarn What’s Your’s Raashee? (2009). Vishal Bharadwaj’s 7 Khoon Maaf (2011), in which she goes about murdering her husbands in her maniacal hunt for genuine love, is a highlight of her career.
Rani Mukherjee’s character of a chain-smoking, expletive-uttering scribe in No One Killed Jessica (2011) had a lot in common with many modern urban women. They may not be role models, but they are around. Mukherjee followed it up with another strong character: that of a no-nonsense cop in Mardaani (2014), who uncovers a human trafficking racket.
Even Deepika Padukone, who tasted blood after playing the seemingly cool and relaxed girl in Finding Fanny (2014), peopled by eccentric characters, came into her own with Piku (2015). The story of a father-daughter relationship—the father was played by Amitabh Bachchan—Padukone was the dominant one.
Does this story of recent years read like one in which man rules with the woman playing the second fiddle?
It does not, the woman having found her place under the sun. Superficial numbers may be disguising the big truth.
Only exceptions like Farah Khan can direct cash-guzzling, marketing-driven extravaganzas. When a woman approaches a producer to finance her project, her gender is viewed with cynicism. If a major male star acts in the central role in a medium-budget film, his fee is usually higher than that of the seriously popular leading actress in a woman-centric film made with a similar budget.
So, how can the woman actor/ director face up to this challenge?
She needs to take one step at a time, be circumspect lest she trips and falls, and gradually attempt to make an across-the-board mark in that elusive world of big-budget films dominated by men, which is the source of not just wealth but reach. Right now, she just needs to focus on good content, even if the budget is not a huge one.
Most big male stars appear to be oblivious to the need for addressing mature audiences. But some women have been doing just that, which is the source of their increasing power and visibility in the Hindi film industry.
Others need to join them.