16 January 2017

Women on the verge

What might we learn from Hindi films directed by women filmmakers in the year gone by?

Anu Menon (dir: Waiting); Leena Yadav (dir: Parched); Gauri Shinde (dir: Dear Zindagi)

2016 might just have been the year of the woman director in Bollywood. Don't get me wrong: the proportion of women directing films is still microscopic — out of 225 Hindi films released in 2016, only nine were directed by women, while one (Sanam Teri Kasam) had a woman (Radhika Rao) co-directing with a man (Vinay Sapru). And that tiny number isn't particularly different from what it was in 2015. (Two of the few established female directors in Bollywood — Zoya Akhtar and Meghna Gulzar — had releases in 2015: Dil Dhadakne Do and Talwar respectively. As did another woman making her second feature, Madhureeta Anand, who followed up her 2009 feature debut Mere Khwabon Mein Jo Aaye with 2015's Kajarya, on the necessarily worthy subject of female foeticide.)

But for some reason, the work of women stood out for me this year. Perhaps it was the fact that the women who came out with films this year aren’t names to reckon with, and unlike Zoya Akhtar and Meghna Gulzar, don't have filmi fathers. Perhaps it was the fact that many of these women were making their feature film debuts, making it feel like a new crop of filmmakers. Or perhaps it was simply that they managed to represent a range of cinematic styles and interests while also providing a perspective that seemed distinctively female.

The procession began with fanfare in January. Shefali Bhushan's debut Jugni had a female protagonist grappling with creative ambition and social difference. Sudha Kongara's sports-themed romance Saala Khadoos — while being an overcooked Hindi version of Kongara's simultaneously released Tamil film Irudhi Suttru — gave us a charming heroine who was convincingly brattish and even more convincing in her romantic coming of age (I would, for instance, choose Ritika Singh's hot-headed, kooky Madhi over Kajol's precious Anjali from Kuch Kuch Hota Hai any day).

February offered more predictable fare from women directors: Sanam Re directed by Divya Khosla Kumar (wife of T-Series music moghul Bhushan Kumar), and Sanam Teri Kasam. Then came Jasmine Moses D'Souza's One Night Stand, starring Sunny Leone, which I missed then but now can't wait to watch, especially after reading an interview where D'Souza asks all-important questions about sexual double standards in our society: “For a man, we justify by saying that he has his needs. Can't a woman have her needs? Can't she get carried away? And if she does, does it make her bad?

In May, came Anu Menon's Waiting, a quietly atmospheric drama that pitches an older man (Naseeruddin Shah) against a younger woman (Kalki Koechlin). Menon, who debuted with 2012's London Paris New York, here, crafts an affecting intergenerational relationship whose instantaneous intensity is made entirely believable by both protagonists' partners battling death in a Kochi hospital. In different ways, Jugni, Saala Khadoos and Waiting all challenge the boundaries of who women can fall in love with.

Leena Yadav's Parched is a much more self-consciously feminist take on women's lives and their sexual needs — its occasional missteps in the seductive tourist-y direction somewhat compensated for by a rare, affectionate depiction of female friendship, its frank bawdiness a rare treat on the Indian screen.

I was apparently among the rare people to enjoy Baar Baar Dekho, directed by first-timer Nitya Mehra. Her use of a comic time-travel premise to portray a checked-out husband seemed a great way to communicate with audiences who may not have taken too well to a flat-out melodramatic message about what long-term relationships mean: I met an Uber driver watching the film on loop and pondering the too-little-time he spent with his wife.

Ruchika Oberoi's Island City, one of the year's finest films, is not centred on women, but both Amruta Subhash's housewife who finds herself liberated from a domineering husband and Tannishtha Chatterjee's quiet girl blossoming in a secret romance are superb characters. Although not the main focus, Subhash's relationship with her mother-in-law and Tannishtha's with her mother portray complexity with rare economy.

In Saala Khadoos, two sisters battle each other for a man's attention, which seems to stand for the world's praise, while in Parched, women strive to keep their connection alive despite being given sharply different statuses by a male world. In Waiting, Koechlin's Tara angrily unpicks a female friend's pious platitudes. Meanwhile two very different films — Ashwini Iyer Tiwari's Nil Battey Sannata and Gauri Shinde's Dear Zindagi — dealt movingly with fraught mother-daughter relationships. The strength and tension of relationships between women might well be the theme that women directors brought to the table last year.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, Jan 8, 2017

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