In this age of surveillance, shrinking spaces and censorship, we need to fight not as warring armies do but by being heard from spaces of resistance that cinema offers,” addressed Myna Mukherjee, cultural curator and director for over 15 years with transnational arts and human rights organisation Engendered, to a rapt audience comprising film giants, academicians, students, and of course, the media. The massive turnout on the opening day, 2 March, of Engendered-sponsored I View World Film Festival’s debut edition in Delhi made Myna rise in an exuberant swell as she went on to say, “This is homecoming for many of us.”
For several years in New York, Engendered had been furthering a public dialogue over gendered identities, stereotyping, bias and sexual choice, in fact everything related to affirmation or violation of human rights through South Asian cinema, visual arts and performance. The I View World film fest has had innumerable successful runs there. With an eclectic range; from mainstream favourites like Prakash Jha’s Jai Gangajal, to experimental films like upcoming director Payal Sethi’s Leeches, and of course classics like Mira Nair’s Mississippi Masala; the screenings of the first ever edition in the capital is spread across the British Council, the American Centre, Alliance Francaise, along with special campus screenings at St. Stephen’s College and JNU’s School of Arts and Aesthetics.
A red carpet welcome and a brief tete-a-tete with the cast and crew of Parched was quickly followed by the first of its kind Indian premier of Sarah Gavron’s Suffragette at the British Council on the opening day of the fest. Introducing the film as a path-breaking one in recent years to have had a female writer, director, producer, and inevitably an overwhelming number of women facing the camera, Tannishtha Chatterjee read out the director’s note: “I hope this film is a reminder of how precious women’s rights are and how important it is to speak out. Equality is good for all and not just for women.” Gavron had gone on to describe how the historical movement for women’s suffrage had for a long time been a hush-hush matter in society, removed from school textbooks too. “I came to know about it through Mrs Banks in Mary Poppins. So it was important to resurrect these women who changed the course of our history.”
Tannishtha has had the privilege of starring for Gavron’s 2007 film Brick Lane. At I View World film fest, she was celebrating along with director Leena Yadav and co-actors Radhika Apte, Monica Dogra and Sayani Gupta the premier of Parched at the Toronto Film Festival held last year. The Leena Yadav directorial pens the lives of four ordinary women Rani, Lajjo, Bijli and Janaki and their struggles in the parched (metaphorically, devoid of socio-economic privileges) backdrop of Gujarat. “The social mission of fests like I View World is important. The fact that we are making issue-based films is because we want it to reach the masses,” Leena Yadav told Gurdian 20. But the actualization of the non-commercial efforts of such festivals as spaces for free thought and sincere discussions on prevailing socio-cultural trends are often put to question. Hence when asked about the trickle-down effect of the fest, Leena simply put it as “The system, that is, the organisers have to support us to be able to make it more widening in terms of approach and availability.” Radhika Apte, whose powerful role in Sujoy Ghosh-directed short film Ahalya, was quick to interrupt, “I beg to disagree with you on this. Dissemination of films today is wider than you can imagine. You have short films, for instance, which you can watch on your cell phones if you want to. We no longer belong to the era of only big-budget films.”
In fact during the third and final segment of the fest, in a panel discussion on “changing portrayals of women in Indian cinema”, veteran actor Sharmila Tagore strongly voiced out not only the freedom with which female actors today choose their roles but also the freedom with which contemporary directors fashion those roles. “When Raja Harishchandra was made several years ago in 1913, nobody wanted to act in films. Men were playing the female roles. Fifty years later when I was given the offer to act in Apur Sansar, I was asked to leave my school. And I wonder if I were a boy, would it have been the same?”
“We were the very early generation of working women when work itself was frowned upon and working in films was doubly frowned upon. But yes things have changed now and acting is considered a very coveted profession. Although we got a lot of screen time but the roles were one of more hand wringing, feeling helpless kinds because the space that cinema catered to then was one of family entertainment. Now that space has widened which is why today films like Piku go on to prove that daughters can look after their fathers. But not in my time. People know about male preference in our society. Even the industry was male dominated. Things are changing and today films like Neerja are doing so well without a male star,” said Tagore.
Later, Tannishtha Chatterjee who was also a part of the panel took the opportunity to thank Tagore and women even before her who have made the struggle easier for the new generation actors, adding that the fight at present was to break newer yardsticks. Both Tannishtha and Radhika shared with the audience a few stereotypes and prejudices that continue to dominate the film world and how that needs a radical alteration. It was said that although ironically the silver screen is providing the platform to critique subjects like the male gaze, even now for most directors, both male and female, certain perceptions of beauty are a pre-requisite for a woman to bag a role. “We live in the world of highly photoshop(ed) images,” said Tannishtha. To the shock of many in the audience, Radhika added that most female actors were forced to hide their marriage by being told that such facts would make them “unattractive”. “I have had to face this so much in the South film industry. My married male co-star would never have to go through this ordeal,” she rued.
As fest director Myna Mukherjee tried to wrap up the discussion with the freedoms and the un-freedoms that cinema holds over the public and private lives of those involved in its creative production, the parting words of journalist and writer Bee Rowlatt sent shivers down the hall. “It has always occurred to me that the creative industry is perhaps the most sexist one. Having said that, I cannot help referring to the Bechdel test that many of you might or might not know. This test questions whether a work of fiction can contain two women who have a conversation that’s not about men. You would think that might not be much to ask but you would be amused to see how much works of art that we read or hear or watch doesn’t pass this test,” Bee added. The writer of the critically acclaimed book ‘In Search of Mary’ even quoted Virginia Woolf to substantiate this idea: “It was strange to think that all great women of fiction were until Jane Austen not only seen by the other sex but seen in relation to the other sex.”
The final words of Bee kept ringing inside my ear as I boarded the metro. I was about to give away the event coverage to a male colleague on account of being denied a late night drop-off by the organisers. It only made me shudder as to how little I had acknowledged the hard-earned freedom by choosing to position myself against ‘the stronger sex’ to even begin to think and talk about the un-freedoms staring at my face today.