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Woman Power Behind Camera

Updated: December 8, 2012 11:04 am

While it is true that there has hardly been any film in world cinema without female participation, in one form or the other, whether in front of the camera or behind it, it is also true that not many women have succeeded in wielding the megaphone in any sustained manner. Since the advent of sound cinema, even in the West, not many women have succeeded in breaking the unwritten law. Barbara Streisand being one exception, Thelma & Louise and The Color People though ascribed otherwise had actually been the handiwork of men. Kathryn Bigelow works in male-dominated genres like science fiction, and horror. Dorris Dorrie landed a box office hit with her satire Men. Italian Lina Wertmuller has directed a great number of popular films on the war of the sexes, with various artistic successes. Catherine Harwicke was very successful with her film Twilight.

In comparison, Indian women seem to have scored over their counterparts elsewhere. Available records indicate that though belonging to a conservative Muslim family, Begum Fatima wrote, produced, directed and acted in a big budget, special effect film, Bulbul-e-Paristan way back in 1926, while TP Rajalakshmi, otherwise a conservative Tamil Brahmin converted her novel, Miss Kamala into a feature length film in 1936. There had been a void after that till a rejuvenated effort seems to have gone underway across the globe. In India, this happened with the first lady of Hindi cinema, Devika Rani officially taking over as a producer, at least.

Amongst the earliest, that now almost sounds mythological names, the pride of place would go to Alice Guy-Blaché, ostensibly the first woman filmmaker who is reportedly to have been involved in the making of over a 1,000 films, including more than 100 synchronized sound films between 1902 and 1906; actor-dancer, Leni Riefenstahl who began her career by making Blaue Licht and went on to become a legend in German cinema; otherwise an accomplished dancer, choreographer, cinematographer, Maya Deren has been hailed as cinema’s greatest experimental film-makers. Meshes of the Afternoon and At Land registered as all time greats; Agnes Varda, most famous of the French new wave film movement with mastery over both fictional and documentary is still remembered for La Pointe Courte and Cléo de 5 à 7; Kathryn Bigelow—who has made films, since the early 80s, like Point Blank and The Widowmaker—was the first woman to win the Best Director’s Award for her masterpiece The Hurt Locker.

One of the most critically acclaimed female film-makers in recent history, Jane Campion has a distinguished career of directing bold and artistically stunning films. While she stresses that she doesn’t identify herself as a feminist film-maker, her films are full of fiercely strong, independent women who often clash with society. She gained early notoriety for Sweetie, a black comedy about a severely dysfunctional family. However, notoriety turned to fame and acclaim with the release of An Angel at My Table, dramatisation of the life of famous New Zealand author Janet Frame. However, her most famous work is The Piano, a film about the tribulations of two women in nineteenth century New Zealand. The film won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and snatched three Academy Awards.

The Danish director Lone Scherfig has just begun to receive acclaim and fame in the States with the release of her film An Education. The film was the story of British journalist Lynn Barber’s early life and her quest for identity. However, for those who know a thing or two about European cinema, Scherfig has been one of their most acclaimed female directors. She first gained recognition for Italian for Beginners, a film that was made as part of the Dogme 95 movement. This comedy won the hearts of audiences at the Berlin Film Festival where it won the Jury Grand Prix Silver Bear. She would continue to make several critically acclaimed films such as Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself. Her last film was One Day starring Anne Hathaway.

Amongst the contemporaries, the most charismatic name is that of Sofia Coppola who not only showed a way to succeed both critically and commercially with her very first film The Virgin Suicides. Her subsequent work Lost in Translation, Marie Antoinette too has had the audiences spellbound. She now seems to have come to complete film making grips with Somewhere which won the Golden Lion Award at the 67th Venice International Film Festival, the first American woman to have achieved the feat. All that is making the audience and the critics feel that she is carrying the legacy of her famous father, Francis Ford Coppola like no one else before her. And she is barely 40.

2012: Mira Nair achieved yet another landmark, doing what no other Indian film-maker could even dream of. She has successfully adapted Salman Rushdie’s infamous The Midnight’s Children into a successful movie in English. No Indian film director has climbed the peaks of success that Satyajit Ray did—in recent times Shekhar Kapur to a certain extent, and M Night Shayamalan who achieved world fame with Elizabeth and The Sixth Sense though many others like Ashok Amritraj and Jagmohan Mundra also made attempts. So as compared to film making elsewhere, there has been a large contingent of purely home-bread, home consumable women directors for Nairs to draw sustenance from. First big name that comes to mind is that of Sai Paranjpe, a writer and a Marathi playwright who in her cinematic attempts explored non-feminine aspects of human existence. Her films, Chashme Badoor (being remade by a male mainstream director called David Dhawan), Sparsh, Katha, Chudian and Papiha made an impact before she went into oblivion. And none of them can be called feminist. Prema Karanth is yet another pioneering name whose cinema sought to explore the female psyche. Her films Phaniyamma, based on MK Indira’s novel and Band Jharoke sought to place women not as weaklings but as inspiration, even though invariably overdone by male dominance.

Deepa Mehta, Gurinder Chadha and Aparna Sen, despite inherent handicaps, are the other known names that have sought to impact cinema both at home and outside India. On the home front there have been Farah Khan, Zoya Akhtar, Meghana Gulzar, Pooja Bhatt, the late Pamela Rooks, Tanuja Chandra, Kiran Rao, Reema Kagti, Anusha Rizvi, Anusuya Roy Choudhury, Sanghamitra Chaudhri, Aditi Roy, Nandita Das, Alankrita Sarivastava, Deepti Naval, Leena Yadav (in Bollywood); down South there have been Bhanumathi, Suhasini Maniratnam,Vijaya Nirmala, Janaki Viswanathan, Priya, Dhavani Desai, Arundhati Devi, Sharda Ramanathan, Anitha Udeep, Anjana Ali Khan, Nandini Reddy, Anjali Menon and, of course, Nandini JS, director of the successful Tamil romcom Thiru Thiru Thuru Thuru produced by Satyam Cinemas and Real Image. The list is by no way comprehensive.

Why has this huge galaxy failed to play a sustained innings? Why have their works, again with honourable exceptions, failed to make an impact on the box office? Why have most of them given up the game after the first round, or midway? Well, there don’t seem to be any convincing or logical answers, and one can only hope one of these young Indian film-makers will succeed in emulating the feat of Sofia Coppola, the seniors are past their primes, anyways.

By Suresh Kohli

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