After decades of being on the sidelines, female directors are on the rise in Bollywood. It’s high time. And what they might lack in numbers (there are but a handful of them, compared to their male counterparts), this small but powerful army makes up for it with thought-provoking cinema that’s making people across the world sit up and take notice. Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari is part of that tiny tribe that, through its films, is pushing for a positive change.
For the uninitiated, Ashwiny has directed two films (both of which have garnered critical and commercial acclaim), with a third one on its way, starring Kangana Ranaut. Her debut directorial venture, Nil Battey Sannata—which Ashwiny also co-wrote with Neeraj Singh, Pranjal Choudhary, and Nitesh Tiwari—had education as its central theme, and highlighted how every person has the right to dream, irrespective of their social strata. Bareilly Ki Barfi, on the other hand, was about a strong-willed, small-town girl.
Ashwiny might be just two-film old in the industry, but she’s definitely not new to the process of creating films. The only difference: earlier, she churned out content as per her clients’ brief, and now she tells her own stories...in her own way. “Being in advertising for over 16 years, I had made over 300 commercials. But I always had an urge to make films because I had already seen the kind of impact a thought-provoking 30- or 45-second advertisement could have. And I thought to myself, if an ad can alter people’s thinking, then a two-hour movie can do wonders. So, I had this desire to tell good stories.”
And that’s how Nil Battey Sannata was conceived. “I had created a commercial for Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC). At that time, and even now, there were many dos and don’ts for girls. For instance, what a girl should study, or if she is born in a certain part of the country, then she is only good enough to get married. The commercial that I worked on was about a young girl in Haryana, who really wanted to study, but her father insisted that her place was in the kitchen. But she was determined, and surpassed all odds and came on KBC. When Mr Amitabh Bachchan asked her about the one thing she’d like to say to the entire country, she said, ‘Mubarak ho, ladki hui hai’ [Congratulations, it’s a girl]. That’s the theme I wanted to take ahead with Nil Battey Sannata.”
During our conversation, Ashwiny gives me multiple examples on why good stories are her first priority, and then the actors who fit the character. And while she would always like to “create films with a message”, she can’t “make boring films, either”. “I believe that the stories I tell should leave people with an afterthought. But it doesn’t necessarily need to be serious. A film has to be entertaining, but at the same time, it should to be honest and make you think,” Ashwiny adds.
Is it tough being a female director? Ashwiny answers in the negative. “Maybe it’s because of my advertising experience, but I don’t feel the difference. I like to treat it like a normal job, like it’s nothing out of the ordinary. Plus, I have a good team—with a lot of women.”
We cut to the present—movie style—to the covershoot, where Ashwiny’s posing with the lead of her upcoming film, Kangana Ranaut. There is a lot of buzz around Panga...people are curious to see how Kangana will transform herself for the role. Ashwiny says, “Panga is an extension of Nil Battey Sannata and Bareilly Ki Barfi...it’s a conversation-starter. The film is based on women’s kabaddi. Though I won’t call it a sports drama, I would say it’s a slice-of-life drama—it is about a woman and her journey, her conflicts and trials in the world of sports. And, of course, Kangana is an amazing actor. I think she is one of the best actresses...rather the best actress in the country. What I love about her is that she brings her own life’s experiences into the film to make it richer.”
With a predominantly female cast, including Richa Chadha and Neena Gupta along with Kangana, the energy on the set must be thrilling. Ashwiny agrees. “It’s amazing! Three strong women, who know exactly what they are doing, and working on each others energies and talents—isn’t that the nicest thing?!”
“And the beauty of it is that none of them have egos...like, I’m the bigger star or the better actor. Kangana is the lead, and then you have Richa who’s equally talented and has an equally strong character. And then there’s Neena Gupta...who’s just wonderful. The fun bit, however, was to see how they discussed the scenes and how non-egotistically they’d ask me if they did okay. And if, sometimes, Nina added a line, or Richa or Kangana added a few words here and there, they would check if that’s okay with me! It was such a nice feeling,” she smiles.
Through the course of our chat, Ashwiny cements our belief that she’s a true champion of sisterhood, and loves rooting for her tribe. “I feel there’s a certain kind of energy and understanding women bring to the table. Because, ultimately, it’s a marriage, right? And a marriage can’t survive with silent conversations,” she tells us. “It is the era of collaboration. You can’t be in isolation. And once you collaborate, the universe works in your favour...for your benefit. The partnership between an actor and a director can only survive if both of them are on the same team. If your egos get the better of you, then it’s a recipe for disaster. I always believe that suggestions are not interference. When you’re working with such amazing actors, they come with their own points of view—if you don’t agree with them, just be honest and move on,” Ashwiny concludes.