Women in Indian cinema

We’re delighted to be partnering with the brilliant HOME on their ‘Not Just Bollywood’ film season as a part of their year-long programme ‘Celebrating Women in Global Cinema’. The season runs from Wednesday 11th September – Wednesday 2nd October, 2019 and champions women filmmakers – celebrating contemporary Indian culture, as seen through their eyes. Below, our dear friend Nazma Noor (a top Manchester-based blogger) has written a few words looking beyond the most visible women in Indian cinema to those behind the lens. Thank you, kind Nazma. 

When you think of women in Indian cinema, I’m guessing it’s the leading ladies with their glamour and beauty which first strikes you. Including a number of former Miss World beauty pageant winners, the talented actresses in Indian films don’t just act, they dance and – I’m telling you (WOW!) – their dance performances are epic. Some of my earliest memories of Indian films are these so-called “item songs” from the 70’s and 80’s, I was so in awe of these dazzling beautiful seductive women, with backing dancers and multiple costume changes – usually singing to get the attention of a man!

But look beyond the most visible women in Indian cinema, and you’ll find women contributing to this thriving industry in so many other ways.

I wanted to tell you about some of the women in this industry whose films you won’t see at your usual cinemas, the women breaking taboos with their films, sharing the types of stories that get India’s film certification board all worked up and issuing bans!

Let’s start with Deepa Mehta, whose films take a look at different aspects of Indian life, spanning different time periods, but rather than showing the usual narratives you’d expect, her work takes an uncomfortable look at gender, sexuality, violence and religion in India. Her 1996 film “Fire” upsets the way women are expected to behave in a traditional middle-class Indian family. Her two female leads are both married into the same family, with their unhappy marriages opening the door to an unexpected lesbian relationship between the two of them.

Homosexuality was a huge taboo subject then (and mostly still is today in India!), and the fact these were middle-class women in a family setting made this story all the more scandalous! When the film had its mainstream release in India, in 1998, there was outrage among conservatives and multiple incidents of violence at movie theatres. There was even some unsuccessful attempts to have it banned.

What’s great though is the positive movement that grew from this initial violence – Indian people spoke up to protect the freedom of expression and art, and to ensure that anybody who wanted to watch this film could do so undisturbed.

Fighting to have your film shown in your own country is one thing, but Deepa Mehta has also shown huge resolve and strength when there’s been violent opposition to her films being made in the first place! At the start of production for her film “Water”, a story looking at the treatment of widows in Indian society, a reportedly 2000-strong group of right-wing extremists set fire to and destroyed the film set. This would have been enough to make most people shut down completely for safety. But they held their ground and attempted to relocate and restart. It eventually took a gap of 5 years for her to be able to complete the film, and to do so she had to move from India to Sri Lanka and shoot under a fake name to avoid further violence.

Deepa Mehta’s films in the 1990s and noughties paved the way for newer female voices to make their mark in Indian cinema.

Alankrita Shrivastava is another trailblazing female director, her 2017 film “Lipstick Under My Burkha” was for a time banned in India for being too “lady-oriented”. It delves into the secret aspirations of four ordinary small-town Indian women. It’s the “ordinary small-town” part which is key here. The fabulous modern lives of wealthier Indian women living in big cities is something you’ll come across in mainstream Indian movies and from a real perspective in the celebrity gossip magazines and websites. But ordinary Indian women? Their stories are much less frequently told, and shock-horror-gasp, this film talks about their sex-lives! The film was a huge hit with Indian audiences – the female audiences related to the characters and for some of the male audiences it was an education.

Alankrita Shrivastava has since gone on to co-write and direct episodes from perhaps the best thing I’ve watched on Amazon Prime recently, the TV series “Made in Heaven”. This show offers an alternative look beyond the stereotypical big fat fairytale Indian weddings, looking at the complicated relationships between families, future in-laws, couples and arranged marriages.

Another female director whose films have made their mark on an international stage is Rohena Gera. Her recent film “Sir” was shown at Cannes last year, and it addresses the classist society in India. She drew on her own feelings towards the domestic staff around her, and the guilt she felt because of the society-accepted inequalities. However, she didn’t want to be “preachy or self-righteous” about it, and so her film looks at the life of a maid, who has aspirations to better her life. Her female lead has had a tough life, but she’s optimistic and strong, brave but vulnerable.

These female film-makers and many others are starting conversations, they’re giving previously invisible Indian women a voice, and talking about issues which many people would rather they didn’t. It’s not just in India that these films are making an impact, and I’m not talking about all the awards these female directors have won (of which there are many!)! I’m talking about opening up attitudes on how the world views Indian and other South Asian women.

As a British woman with South Asian roots, I’ve been stereotyped and had assumptions made about me purely based on my heritage. So to see a variety of stories and viewpoints about South Asian women on the big screen is an absolute delight, and even when I see these films they open my eyes and challenge what I thought I knew!

To see the full “Not Just Bollywood” programme including Deepa Mehta’s Elements Trilogy, Lipstick Under My Burkha, Sir and many other films from Indian cinema celebrating female directors, visit homemcr.org/not-just-bollywood

And also, do take a read of Nazma’s first-class blog for some top tidbits of things to do in Manchester.

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These are the last few days, the dregs of 2019. It’s my habit to sit here in the Permit Room at this time. I am the be-stubbled and dishevelled regular, cherishing his precious drink at the end of the bar. Weary, I sit here pondering the year, attempting to figure out what it was trying to teach me. What wisdom can I glean from it?