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Thursday, 21 February, 2002, 08:40 GMT
Women directors scale Bollywood
Filhall
Filhaal: Perceived as a feminist project
Female directors have been a rare commodity in Bollywood despite women's success in front of the camera. But that is finally changing, reports Suniti Singh

The release of Bollywood movie Filhaal this month marked the entry of another woman director, Meghna Gulzar, to the male-dominated industry.

A film graduate from New York University, Ms Gulzar is the daughter of renowned Indian film director and writer, Gulzar, and actress Rakhi.

On her return to Mumbai, she had many offers to act. But she chose to handle the megaphone, instead.

"I had this interesting story in mind that I wanted to make a film about,"says Ms Gulzar. "But from the day it was launched, my film was perceived as a feminist project".

Ms Gulzar may be the newest member of that rare group of women directors in Bollywood, but what she faces is an old bias.

Meghna Gulzar with Filhaal cast
Meghna Gulzar with Filhaal cast: Good marketing and distribution
"If you look at it impassively, there's no difference between a male or a female film director," says Aruna Vasudev, editor of popular film journal Cinemaya.

"Both can be sensitive and passionate about an issue, but the projects of women directors are generally categorised as feminist work."

Demoralising

This means that women directors find it difficult to raise money and market their films. In the past, this has discouraged many women from taking to film direction.

Even those like Sai Paranjpaye, Aparna Sen and Kalpana Lajmi - who did dare to call the shots - getting into the mainstream of Indian cinema was difficult.

They were mostly working on tight budgets and their films were not marketed well.

The most demoralising aspect, however, was the branding of their films as "alternate cinema" forcing them and their films to remain at the fringe.

Some films made by women directors have been even denied a commercial release and have not been screened beyond film festivals.

Filhaal cast
Ms Gulzar had to cast a male model and pop singer as her male leads
"The industry is now definitely more open to women directors than it was a decade back, but some basic problems remain," says Ms Vasudev.

Like getting a good male lead for the film. Ms Gulzar had no problems signing two of the top actresses for Filhaal, but getting a male cast of her choice was a problem.

Frustrating

"Every leading actor presumed I was making a feminist film. For a woman director it's always an uphill task to cast the male characters," she says.

She ended up signing a well-known male model and a pop singer, who obviously looks uncomfortable in front of the camera.

Ms Gulzar's contemporary, Tanuja Chandra, has faced similar problems.

In the three films she has directed - Dushman, Sanghursh and Yeh Zindagi Ka Safar - Ms Chandra managed to cast Bollywood's topline actresses.

But her leading men were either upcoming actors or those on the downslide.

She finds it immensely frustrating when people define her work by her gender even now.

"It's true that I have explored unusual themes and have stronger women characters in my films, but that does not mean I am a female-oriented feminist filmmaker," she says.

It is almost as if to prove a point that Ms Chandra has decided to make her next film on a male-oriented subject. And even this is getting talked about.

Bankrolled

"Male directors have always been making films about both men and women. Then why aren't female directors attributed this flexibility?" asks Ms Gulzar.

Ms Vasudev believes that pre-conceived notions about woman directors have hindered their commercial success.

Film distributors think their films will only address a limited section of the society and are not too enthusiastic about selling these films.

But Ms Gulzar and Ms Chandra have changed this somewhat. Their films were not only bankrolled by big Bollywood financiers, but also marketed and distributed well.

Some say this has been possible because of the changing attitude towards women in the Indian film industry.

Others attribute it to the backing the pair have received from well-established names within the industry.

Whatever the case, it is the beginning of a process that may encourage other women to take up film direction and change the way the industry perceives them and their films.

See also:

13 Feb 02 | Business
Bollywood's hopes for Oscar dollars
06 Feb 02 | Film
Bollywood goes to LA
05 Oct 01 | South Asia
Bollywood suffers from US attacks
25 Jul 01 | Film
Cash boost for Bollywood
24 Dec 01 | Film
Bollywood blockbuster falters
26 Jun 01 | Oscars 2002
Lagaan breaks the mould
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