F-Rated: Being a Woman film-maker in India
by Nandita Dutta
HarperCollins Publishers India
How many times have you thought that ‘content is king’ in Indian cinema, especially Hindi cinema? In F-Rated, the writer Nandita Dutta qualifies this statement. She does agree that movies different from traditional blockbusters – what used to be called ‘hatke’ movies a few years ago – are appearing in greater number now in India. But movies by and about women in the country are still few. In her introduction to this must-read book, the writer comes up with a telling statistic: “… [O]ut of the 116 Bollywood films released in 2018, only seven were directed by women.”
Dutta is a PhD candidate at University College, London, according to her Twitter bio. Her varied research for the book has given her a rich box of ‘thinking lenses’, which allows her to look at her subject from many angles. She is an interdisciplinary writer – she has clearly researched the history of Indian cinema and the process of film-making, as well as gender issues and feminism.
She also writes non-fiction well, deploying myriad tools of the writerly trade such as scene, dialogue, and pacing. Because she is dealing with film-making as a subject, her own writing acquires some characteristics of cinematic style. This is seen vividly in her dramatic but even-keeled way of depicting the conflicts in the lives of her interviewees; also her delightful style of providing us with flashbacks in the lives of her interviewees.
The book mainly deals with those female directors who make Hindi movies, but there are exceptions. And what a list of interviewees it is. The full list is: Aparna Sen, Mira Nair, Tanuja Chandra, Farah Khan, Shonali Bose, Reema Kagti, Anjali Menon, Nandita Das, Meghna Gulzar, Kiran Rao, and Alankrita Srivastava. You will doubtlessly notice that this list does not include Zoya Akhtar and Deepa Mehta; nor does the writer explain the reason for their absence. Which does not detract from the merits of this well-researched and well-written book.
Underestimated by the industry
Time and time again, the writer emphasises the challenges that the women film-makers have faced – from being patronised on set by actors and subordinates, to being underestimated by the industry, or even insulted by the press for being women.
Though Dutta never generalises about her interviewees, in some cases the common motifs in their lives jump out. For instance, motherhood. Time and again Dutta shows how women have to juggle their traditional roles as mothers with their work. The writer says, “… [W]omen filmmakers – even the most famous ones – are constantly trying to strike a balance between family and work.”
Some of the most intriguing bits of the book are where Dutta looks at how the beast of the film industry deals with women. For instance, Dutta analyses in a capable manner the reason why Hindi films don’t do well when they put their female leads in the foreground (no spoilers, because it wouldn’t be fair to the writer). I was also impressed with Dutta’s explanation of the reasons why at least some female directors put ‘item numbers’ in their films, and why some female actors look forward to doing ‘item numbers’, regressive as these songs are.
It is good to see that the writer assesses her interviewees fairly; and most of them are the recipients of her admiration. Even where she critiques them, her analysis is directed not at the directors themselves but at their films. For instance, she points out that Farah Khan directs “big-budget, big-canvas blockbusters even if it is at the risk of objectification and dumbing down of female characters...” Farah Khan’s cinematic sensibilities are critiqued sharply but fairly: “From epileptic seizures to gays, intellectual filmmaking to art-house directors, nothing and no one is spared. In her cinematic world, only entertainment is sacrosanct and a show of intellect unwelcome.” As for Alankrita Srivastava, maker of the successful Lipstick Under My Burkha, her first film is critiqued thus: “… the premise as well as the politics of Turning 30 comes off as muddled and confusing...” Such plain but decorous speaking is most welcome.
The link between these directors’ movies and their lives is explored in detail – take the chapter on Aparna Sen for example. The writer stresses the fact that like Sen herself, Sen’s female protagonists are “ordinary women who negotiate the patriarchal world to find their place and identity”. Also, it is emphasised that Sen’s female protagonists are “strong-headed yet vulnerable, heroic yet fallible, perfectly containing dualities within them”. It is a most welcome fact that the writer has shown the interplay of these directors’ personal and professional lives. In particular, I was moved by the chapter on Shonali Bose, especially the part where she willed herself to script her movie even as she was working with her feelings about losing her son. This is especially relevant because, as the writer says, Bose brings a lot of her personal life into her work.
Importance of female perspective
Throughout the book, the writer’s argument is well brought out that greater diversity in the filmmaking world makes its stories more varied and interesting. This is summed up by these thrumming lines that establish the writer’s confident voice and her sharp thesis: “To not have women participate in storytelling is to deprive people of a female perspective on things. There can be nothing more dangerous than popular cinema producing and reproducing an extremely lopsided and homogenous male view of the world that begins to seem representative of the entire human experience… Anyone is considered a captive audience for a man’s story because it is the story of humanity. But a woman’s story gets labelled as a ‘woman-oriented’ film.”
For the sheer quality of its writing and research, and for being a pacy page-turner, F-Rated is highly recommended for the general reader; moreover, it will be of special interest to observers and students of film and gender studies as well as journalism.Suhit Kelkar is a freelance Journalist. He is the author of the poetry chapbook named
The Centaur Chronicles.