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5 Indian Female Filmmakers Spotlighting the Stark Realities Around Women

Best known for their hard-hitting, women-centric documentaries these filmmakers say it like it is, both on-screen and off it.

1. Nisha Pahuja Filmmaking wasn’t really part of the plan for Nisha. The English literature graduate wanted to be a writer, but that changed quickly after her first job as a documentary film researcher. “I loved the collaborative aspect of filmmaking, the many worlds it allows one to explore, and the people you get to meet along the way,” she tells Cosmo. “To be able to know people the way we can through documentary is very special. It’s a privilege to be allowed into their lives,” she admits. Nisha has four films to her directorial credit. Of these, her most popular work, arguably, is The World Before Her—a documentary juxtaposing two women belonging to two completely different worlds, training for two completely different purposes in life: Ruhi Singh for a beauty pageant, and Prachi Trivedi as a Hindu nationalist in the Durga Vahini camp, the women’s wing of the Vishva Hindu Parishad. The idea had struck Nisha in 2000, when Lara Dutta was crowned Miss Universe, and Nisha was in Mumbai to attend her homecoming. Having grown up in Canada, she was “intrigued by the euphoria and pride” that surrounded Lara’s win. “In Toronto, beauty pageants were considered anachronistic. No self-respecting feminist would dare enter one. And these contests were taking India by storm,” she recalls. “I wanted to understand this emerging India, and how women were both shaping and being shaped by this neo-liberal reality.” About a decade later, Nisha came back to the idea, fine-tuning it and including “the response to the pageants by both feminist groups as well as the Hindu right-wing”. The film went on to win several awards worldwide. Stories, according to Nisha, have the ability to change people’s lives. And they become even more stirring when told through films, as “the reach is larger, and the impact, more immediate. Sadly, that’s also the biggest problem today. With easy access to social media and the tools of film-(and image-) making, stories are also being used to spread division and misinformation.”

A still from Send us Your Brother, the latest film Nisha is working on. Photograph: Dhawalika Singh

2. Ruchika Muchhala The award-winning filmmaker is best known for The Great Indian Marriage Bazaar—a quirky feature documentary on the predicament of single women in India, and the ‘need’ to be married. The film is an impactful reflection of the various social constructs of morality, sexuality, identity and femininity that are woven around the intricacies of arranged marriages; and how the match-making process often determines the woman’s place (worth?) in society. Interestingly, along with the ordeals of other characters in the film, Ruchika also documents her own dilemmas, in the course of her parent’s ‘mission son-in-law’. “It all started over a series of conversations with some friends, discussing the multi-million dollar industry of arranged marriages in India,” she tells Cosmo. “So even though the film follows my journey—along with that of two other ‘prospective brides’—it’s actually about the crisis women face in a world where it seems like there has been much progress in terms of opportunities, but, when it comes to marriage, regressive traditions and patriarchy still withhold.” The biggest challenge, Ruchika tells us, was to navigate through it all—interviewing and exploring all the people and businesses involved—while going through the emotional rollercoaster of the arranged-marriage process herself. “For example, while I wanted to inquire into and question ideas such as body image and the obsession with fair skin, I was constantly scrutinised and critiqued for my own size and skin colour by everyone, from the marriage bureau lady to the biodata photographer.” Ruchika is currently based in the US, working on her next project. Ironically, despite all the success to back her, she feels she has to prove herself much more than her male colleagues. “Although I’m confident, I’m not very good at, as a woman, and one of colour in the US at that, getting a word in can be challenging, especially when you’re dealing with a male-dominated crew.”

A still from The Great Indian Marriage Bazaar

3. Vibha Bakshi A chance meeting between her husband and Oscar-winning filmmaker Maryann DeLeo on a flight ushered Vibha into the world of filmmaking—or responsible storytelling, as she puts it. She went on to work with Maryann on a number of documentaries, including the Emmy-winning campaign against violence on women, Terror At Home. Eventually venturing out on her own, she has worked on a number of well-received documentaries back home, too—with two consecutive National Awards to her credit. One of them came for Daughters Of Mother India—a documentary on the aftermath of brutal rapes and gender violence across India. This included the horrific gangrape and murder of a 23-year old medical intern, who came to be known as ‘Nirbhaya’, in 2012, as well as Gudiya, a five-year-old rape survivor. The documentary was made taking into account “the role played by all the stake holders of society, including the police, the law makers, the activists, and most importantly, us, the people”. For the first time, the Commissioner of Delhi granted permission to film inside the Police Control and Command room, Vibha tells Cosmo. “I was determined to include the police as an integral part in the film, because unless they’re sensitised, justice won’t only be delayed, it’ll also be denied. They are the front line of the justice system.” The film, she says, has been screened for more than 1,50,000 police officers across the country to gender-sensitise them. It has also been named the Most Awarded Social Campaign In The World by the Global Creative Index. Her second National Award came for Son Rise—a film about ordinary, heroic men doing the extraordinary in the struggle for women’s rights in India. Vibha has also partnered with UN Women to take the issue of gender equality forward. “A film can’t solve the problems, but it can definitely break the conspiracy of silence surrounding the issue. I strive to make films that catalyse change through inclusion and discussion. As a filmmaker, I know it’s easy to sensationalise, but I aim to sensitise by using positive examples,” she smiles.

A still from Son Rise

4. Anandana Kapur Anandana has been directing documentaries since 2004—all standing out for their non-conforming, thought-provoking content. The very reason she got into the profession in the first place. “I was drawn to this genre because you work with the understanding that you can contribute to the bigger picture,” she tells Cosmo. “The form is an invitation to partake in subjective exploration and then make your own meaning of it. Also, it can be through poetry, animation, or conversations (a method I am particularly partial to), but the proposal to spark debates is what is exciting.” Like Blood On My Hands, a film that sparked many a debate. Revolving around menstruation, it deals with the issues of puberty, sexuality and morality of women in the country. A topic that caused “amusing pushback” from fellow filmmakers, who dismissed the subject as a non-issue. “The sheer dismissal of women’s experiences and their struggle with the pain, exhaustion, or societal stigma was mind boggling,” Anandana recalls. In the course of working on the film, the team came across several cases where the women on ‘period’ were isolated and banished, even forced to drink cow’s urine. Even the urban cultures, Anandana mentions, were rife with surveillance, control, and shaming of female bodies. Anandana is currently working on Aayi Gayi, examining the electricity policies in Bihar, and Aashiyaan, featuring domestic workers and homemakers in Delhi. “Through the process of making documentaries, I’ve been able to witness women in leadership positions, as opposed to mainstream cinema where the winds are only just changing.” Talking further on the men versus women debate, she continues, “Many of my colleagues and allies are men. Fortunately, the gender divide hasn’t been a feature of my crew. But I do have conversations with my cinematographers about how women are framed or shown. Some people—interviewers, producers—can be sexist. I’ve learnt to deal with that by taking command of my set, and insisting on not proceeding till the terms of engagement are made equal. I’ve also had women preach curfew hours, or express shock at me being the only woman in the crew in remote locations. The divide is more about mentality vs choice.” Photograph: (Anandana’s inset) Suraaj Ajithakumar

A still from Blood On My Hands

5. Nishtha Jain Nishtha has been in the business for almost 14 years now, but her filmmaking journey can’t be described without first mentioning what is, perhaps, the biggest and most adventurous medallion in her repertoire—Gulabi Gang. Gulabi Gang—an all-women vigilante group in the Banda district of Uttar Pradesh—piqued her curiosity when she first heard about them in 2009. “The main reason to make the film was to document this spontaneous women’s movement in one of the most backward parts of the country. A majority of the members were poor, old, unlettered, and from backward castes. Gulabi Gang was an ode to the courage, resilience, and good humour of these women.” Founder of the gang, Sampat Pal Devi came on board, and gave Nishtha the access she needed to the lives and inner workings of the gang. The film went on to win the National Award, along with several other coveted awards. But despite all the success, Nishtha admits it’s not all smooth-sailing for documentary filmmakers. Currently working on The Golden Thread, a feature documentary on the jute textile industry in West Bengal, she feels documentary films lack funding and distribution support in the country. “There’s an acute shortage of funds for documentary to nothing, actually. Films Division, which has produced many award-winning creative documentaries, is no longer commissioning films. Indian documentary filmmakers rely heavily on international film grants and TV acquisitions.” She does agree, however, that given the success and popularity of documentary films internationally, and the availability of online platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, many Indian film production companies are now considering producing documentaries. “Let’s see how that pans out. But artistic films, be it documentary or fiction, are helped greatly by state support all over the world. In this respect, India lags way behind despite the immense talent and availability of great stories.” Photograph: (Nishtha’s inset) Deepti Gupta “There’s an acute shortage of funds for documentary films... We lag way behind despite the immense talent and availability of great stories.”

A still from Gulabi Gang