F-Rated is a book by Nandita Dutta that profiles 11 female Bollywood directors. The book shows women as not a homogenous group, but a variety of personalities; each a distinct individual and each with different sensibilities.
Author Nandita Dutta worked up close and personal with each of these female Bollywood directors in an effort to understand how to be successful in the film city if you’re not a man.
EXCERT FROM F-RATED
The personal as political in filmmaking
Margarita: Navigating the personal and the political
The inspiration for her second film lay even closer to home. Shonali’s cousin Malini Chib has acute cerebral palsy. The two women were drinking at a bar in London when Shonali asked her cousin what she wanted for her fortieth birthday. She wanted to have sex, she answered in an unusually clear voice, stunning all those around her. That sent Shonali down the road of exploring the hitherto overlooked marriage of disability and desire. If our cinema has failed in portraying women as multidimensional human beings who are also agents of desire, it has doubly failed women with disabilities in that regard, who are shown either as virtuous sufferers or brave heroes, and are deemed worthy of evoking only awe or sympathy.
Laila, the protagonist of Margarita, with a Straw, was different: she was just an ordinary teenager confined to a wheelchair by cerebral palsy but grappling with a desire for sexual explorations normal at her age. To say that creating such a character was an act of courage would be an understatement. It was radical.
‘I tend to be drawn to write about women. I can’t help it, it’s not like some planned feminist thing,’ Shonali says. ‘It’s just that it’s easier for me to naturally tell stories of women.’
This time around, producers demanded that Shonali cast an A-list female actor for the lead role. She made it clear that she wanted to cast an actor who would fit the bill and her search ended with Kalki Koechlin. There were also reservations about the protagonist’s disability being too much in the face of the audiences that could make them uneasy. After all, Indian audiences were not used to staying this long with a character with an acute disability and see her navigate the ordinary challenges of life. But Shonali was introduced to the CEO of Viacom 18 by a family friend and despite all the seeming odds, the studio offered to produce the film.
Along the way, as Shonali kept writing new drafts of the screenplay of Margarita, with a Straw, her protagonist Laila entered a relationship with a woman she meets in New York who is blind. A woman protagonist, who is disabled, is also bisexual. That was the final nail in the coffin for Viacom 18 and they withdrew half the film’s funding. The film must have looked absolutely unviable on paper. Shonali was not being audacious, but a daredevil in the context of Bollywood. About twenty years earlier, theatres had been vandalized for showing Fire, a film by another woman filmmaker, Deepa Mehta, which dealt with an erotic relationship between two sisters-in-law. Since then, there had not been any significant piece of cinema that ventured into the controversial territory. Besides, Shonali’s love story was going to be between a woman with cerebral palsy and a woman who was blind.
‘When you have half the money, you feel that you can find the other half. It usually happens that way with film projects. But I could never find the other half until the film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival,’ admits Shonali. ‘Nobody got paid for the film and I had to take personal loans to finish it.’
‘The thing is,’ she says, ‘I wrote it from an emotional and personal place and it felt right to me. After I wrote the lesbian angle, it felt fantastic for the script. Then when I lost the money,
I thought – “Are you kidding me?” Then it becomes a political issue. I am not going to be homophobic. I will die but will not make the character straight again. That’s just giving into pressure. I said – “We will have a small release, we will have less money, but I am not going to change it.”’
Through both her films, Shonali demonstrated what a strong-willed filmmaker she was, who wouldn’t compromise and wouldn’t kowtow to the powers that be. She would only have things her way. Because if the system couldn’t bend her, it had to expand to accommodate her.
Margarita, with a Straw (2014) had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival where it won the NETPAC (Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema) award for Best Film and went on to screen at numerous film festivals around the globe, winning several awards. It released theatrically in India in April 2015, with the lesbian lovemaking scene intact (the CBFC initially suggested ‘ridiculous’ cuts, but the review committee passed it almost without any cuts), and managed average box-office returns.
Having taken on such challenging projects, Shonali is acutely aware of the gender bias in the film industry. ‘So, I have done an Amu and a Margarita, with a Straw but I can guarantee you that the studio and the people who know my work and feel proud of it, if there is a big action film and they have a choice of taking a first-time director who is male, they will choose the guy. Because the belief is that if a woman has made intimate, emotional cinema, she cannot do other things. But these big films are child’s play – you have a choreographer doing the dance sequences and an action director doing the action scenes, while intimate films are much harder to make.’
Intimate, emotional, personal: though these are traits usually associated with women’s films – there is no doubt that these films often come from a personal place – these very words can also be used against women to imply that their work cannot be popular or broad-based because they are limited. Historically, women have been denied the artistic recognition and laurels that men have had access to as their art is written off as something born out of their personal grief or loss rather than any artistic impulse. Thus, the same experiences that filmmakers like Shonali have used as their strength can be turned by the male-dominated world into a weakness.
This misconception arises from the notion that men’s experiences somehow are the norm, whereas the experiences of women are special. That a women’s subjectivity, her emotions, her thoughts are something that only other women can appreciate. That somehow the way half the world’s population perceives life isn’t part of the human condition or representative of humanity in general but only relates to a certain gender. Thus, what men make is meant for universal consumption, whereas what women make is only for women. There is no such thing as a ‘men’s film’, but there is something called as a ‘women’s film’. That is why women who make ‘personal’ films are put in a box and denied access to bigger opportunities. The only way this can ever be rectified is by centring women’s experiences and their ways of seeing the world.
The mother and daughter: In life, on script
Margarita, with a Straw opens with a scene that shows Laila’s mother, a strong and tenacious middle-aged woman, driving her family in a mini-van. Laila’s father, in a reversal of conventional roles, is merrily sitting beside the driver’s seat humming a song. Played brilliantly by Revathy, the mother is clearly the force that binds the family together. She is a constant presence throughout, looking after Laila – from shampooing her hair to changing her clothes – until towards the end of the film, when she loses her battle with cancer. The mother and daughter share some poignant moments which are extraordinary in their mundaneness – like the mother tenderly bathing her grown-up daughter or angrily pulling pants up her legs after they have an argument about ‘privacy’. When she discovers Laila’s predilection for watching porn online, she brings it up with her. ‘How dare you? This is my privacy!’ Laila demands, ironically, just after she has been given a bath by her. ‘Privacy, you are asking for privacy from me?’ her mother retorts.
The scene where Laila tries coming out to her mother has been crafted beautifully and organically too, with warmth and ease. In a relaxed mood, sitting across from her on the terrace, Laila breaks it to her that she is now ‘bi’. ‘Am I any less of a “bai”,’ her mother says. Every Indian woman is treated like a ‘bai’ (maidservant) by her husband, she adds, evoking peals of laughter from her daughter. The confession funnily turns into a touching moment of female bonding.
But the stoic and spirited mother who stands strong in the face of her daughter’s disability is withering away in her battle
with cancer, captured in a powerful scene where before going to bed, she stands in front of the mirror, takes off her wig and combs the scanty strands of thinning hair left on her scalp, her eyes expressing sheer helplessness.
She dies in a hospital surrounded by her family. Laila, unable to process the shock, drags her wheelchair to a secluded corner of the hospital’s corridor and lets out a cry. ‘That,’ reveals Shonali, ‘is exactly the way my mother died. She was at the Breach Candy hospital in Mumbai. We were standing next to her, holding different parts of her body. The doctor came in and switched the ventilator off and there was pin-drop silence. I just ran down the corridor and a wail came out of my body.’
Shonali was extremely close to her mother who died tragically from medical negligence when Shonali was twenty-one. Soon after, she left to pursue a Masters in Political Science at Columbia University in America. She felt so angry and frustrated at not being able to save her mother that she couldn’t bear to stay in India.
The mother–daughter relationship is a theme that runs at the core of both Shonali’s films. Amu is as much about its protagonist Kaju’s relationship with her adoptive mother as it is about her discovery of who she is. Just as Laila loses her mother, the person closest to her, Kaju too experiences the loss of her biological mother when she is little.
‘My mother was the centre of my universe. She was my best friend. Like I remember, when I was sixteen and had my first boyfriend, I ran home to tell her –“You didn’t tell me it is so horrible to kiss because our teeth banged.” Then we laughed together about it,’ she reminisces. ‘The mother–daughter relationship is extremely special to me, and so is loss. Both my films have the loss of the mother. It wasn’t a conscious decision to deal with this. But I write from an internal place and it automatically happens that I write my characters this way.’
Writing about her personal experiences is both a refuge and a necessity for her. Initially, when Shonali began writing Margarita, with a Straw, the film was about the protagonist Laila’s search for love and romance and her rebellion against her family. When she had written about ten drafts of the screenplay, the project was chosen as the winner of the first Mahindra-Sundance Global Filmmaking award in 2012, given during the Sundance Film Festival. When Shonali attended the screenwriting lab following the festival, one of the mentors commented that unlike Amu, in Margarita, she seemed to be outside the film. She was not in it. There was something lacking in the script.
‘I instantly felt – yes, I have written about my cousin Malini, I have written from the outside and I have kept some distance from it,’ Shonali admits. ‘Unlike Amu, here I felt, well it’s from Malini’s life and I can’t really own it.’ She then immersed herself into the screenplay again and emerged with a new draft. In this one, she poured more of herself than before. She made her protagonist Laila explore her sexuality and start a relationship with a woman, just the way she had done, when she was in Miranda House. Shonali’s friendship with an American girl from Berkeley had blossomed into romance. Her Catholic girlfriend was in denial of their relationship, but Shonali had accepted it much more easily, although she hadn’t grown up with the knowledge of what it is being gay or bisexual.
‘So that’s when I think I started owning the film. Everything from my life went into it in different ways,’ Shonali says. And subsequently, that is when she lost half the money she had secured for the film.
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RULES FOR THE GIVEAWAY
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F-RATED LAUNCH IN BOMBAY
TLC will be in Bombay for F-Rated the book’s launch on the 25th of August, this year. For those who may not win the giveaway, don’t fret!
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