Gender and sexuality
TNM spoke to women filmmakers and writers from across the four south-Indian industries to discuss the kind of change that’s in the offing and to share their observations of women writing women in cinema.

A young widow struggles to acknowledge her physical desires and lies trapped within society’s constructs of morality. Through the course of the film, she dares to find pleasure, and in the process frees herself from her past.

Nathicharami, released in Kannada in the year 2018. The film’s writer, Sandhya Rani, says that even 10 years ago, she might not have thought of writing such a story.

“I’m happy that people have received it very well, I have not received any cheap or negative comments.  In fact, when the film was screened during a festival in Mumbai, a 70-year-old woman came up to me and said, ‘Wish I could have told my husband what the woman tells her husband in the movie’. It felt so nice to hear that. In five to 10 years, our voices too will be heard loud,” says Sandhya.

The scene that the writer is referring to is one where a married woman rebuffs her husband’s sexual advances, and says, “I’m not an object for your use.”

Just like every other industry, cinema, too, is male-dominated. And though we’re increasingly seeing films where women characters lead the story or have an equal role to play as the hero, most of these films too are made by men. How realistic or nuanced are these portrayals? And do women directors/writers do a better job?

TNM spoke to women filmmakers and writers from across the four south-Indian industries to discuss the kind of change that’s in the offing and to share their observations of women writing women in cinema.

Can only women write women convincingly?

Actor and filmmaker Geetu Mohandas’s 2013 Hindi film Liar’s Dice is a road story that follows Kamala (Geetanjali Thapa), a young mother, who ventures out from her remote hilly village to the city in the plains, in search of her missing husband. Along the way, she finds an unlikely companion in an army deserter (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) and they travel together, although their temperaments and quests are entirely different.

All through the film, Kamala’s internal turmoil, her silent determination, her yearning to find the truth about her husband and the compulsion to stay on guard at all times, even though the stranger appears to be kind, is expressed poignantly. The film was India’s official entry to the 87th Academy Awards in the Best Foreign Language Film category.

Speaking to TNM, Geetu says, “I feel that women filmmakers will always have a different perspective but that doesn't mean that it has to be better. For me, this is my perspective. Be it literature, art, or cinema, whenever there has been a contribution from a woman, it has always been different. But this doesn’t necessarily or automatically mean that it is better.”

Oh! Baby director Nandini Reddy agrees with Geetu’s views. “I personally believe that women writers will not necessarily do women characters better. Some of the best women characters have been written by Mahesh Bhatt, Shyam Benegal and Sekhar Kammula. It reflects the sensibility and the sensitivity of the director,” she says.

The remake of a South Korean film, Nandini Reddy’s Oh! Baby made a huge splash among the Telugu audience when it released. Shouldered by Samantha, the film raked gold at the box office, grossing Rs 20.2 crore worldwide in its first week.

Nandini Reddy

While women writers and directors seem to be doing a better job at representing women on screen in general, Geetu points out that male writers too have given us some of the most memorable female characters.

“Some of the most prolific writers of women characters in cinema are written by men. We need more men writing for women as well. If you look at Malayalam cinema, I immediately think of KG George sir. All the content-driven, powerful women he’s written… I am excited to watch more women come in and tell more women’s stories. I hope men also step out and tell stories that connect,” she says.

In fact, new age Malayalam cinema appears to be taking up the challenge seriously. With writers and directors like Syam Pushkaran, Aashiq Abu, Dileesh Pothan, and Madhu C Narayanan, many of the recent releases also seem interested in subverting patriarchy and addressing toxic masculinity, apart from having realistic women characters. In both Maheshinte Prathikaram (Syam’s screenplay) and Mayaanadhi (co-written by Syam) the heroes are flawed men (as opposed to the all-powerful mainstream hero) and the women have agency. In Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum, there is no hero-villain but Sreeja’s (Nimisha Sajayan) fight till the very end for her stolen chain, at a metaphorical level, can be considered every women’s battle for her version of truth in real life.

Kumbalangi Nights places Malayalam cinema on a whole different plane for identifying toxic masculinity for what it is. Also written by Syam Pushkaran, this film that won hearts across the country discusses how self-destructive toxic masculinity can be. Fahadh Fassil as Shammy spirals into madness as he tries to take control of the women of the house. The film also had women characters who each had a voice.

Parvathy in Uyare, written by Bobby-Sanjay, plays a woman pilot who survives an acid attack, the consequence of a toxic relationship. These are characters we’ve rarely seen on screen previously.

Sensitivity is for all

Not only are male writers and directors capable of writing sound women characters when they set their mind to it, it shouldn’t be only women’s work to ensure that a film is sensitive to all genders.

Jeny Dolly, who works as Pa Ranjith’s assistant director, says, “Should you have a woman AD or a writer in the sets? Yes. But it is also important to have more sensible men. When a female AD sits for a story discussion, it’s not like she looks only at the gender aspects of the story. She looks at everything. The same way, male members of the team too should take responsibility for how gender is approached in the film. Sometime, female ADs are added in a team and it becomes their exclusive responsibility to comment on the women representation of the film. Why is that the case?”

Jeny Dolly

Pa Ranjith’s Kabali and Kaala, both starring Rajinikanth, had progressive roles for women – a change from how women characters are usually represented in a superstar film. Kabali’s Kumudhavalli (Radhika Apte), the wife, is the source of Kabali’s strength. His daughter Yogi (Dhansika) is even shown saving him from danger in one scene.

In Kaala, Zarina (Huma Qureshi) is politically vocal, talking back to Kaala. When Puyal’s (Anjali Patil) pants are pulled down by policemen, she picks up a wooden stick instead of her clothes, to beat her harassers. Selvi (Eswari Rao), Kaala’s wife, is shown speaking of her past love.

Jeny says that being a woman in cinema comes with additional responsibilities, noting that a creator cannot be progressive in one respect and forget about other factors.

“When I speak, I speak for everyone. In a way, the creator should talk for all their characters. As a woman, I don’t have the freedom to be insensitive. To me, if you are a woman you need to be extremely sensitive to caste, class, gender, and sexuality when you make a film. Only when all of us are freed, there is true freedom. I cannot be a woman filmmaker and make a very casteist film or a male-gaze film,” she says.

How are stories by women seen?

Sandhya Rani says that women’s stories are often considered unimportant and there’s a tendency to club all of them under the same label.

“There’s this misconception that women writing is ‘kitchen writing’. The ‘kitchen’ is half of the world. They negate everything that happens inside the house and think that whatever happens outside is only important. There is a whole world hidden there,” she says.

Sandhya Rani

Sandhya goes on to elaborate that women writers and directors can bring in insights which may have never occurred to a man.

“For instance, there’s a scene in Lipstick Under My Burkha in which a woman (who works as a nude model at art school) says, ‘Un dinon bhi mujhe baitna pada’ (‘I have to sit on those days also – a reference to her period). I think this thought might not have crossed a male writer’s mind. I also loved another film that I recently watched called I Still Hide To Smoke, directed by a woman. In this film, women gather in a common bath and the whole film is about their discussions,” she says.

Feeling exasperated about the kind of scrutiny she is subjected to being a woman writer, Geetu says, “Just the fact that we don't pose such questions to male directors is telling. I don't want my audience to be gender biased. I don't want them to categorise this as a woman’s film. Some of the stunning films in the Oscar’s list like The Hurt Locker were made by women. So how do you differentiate? We should not subject ourselves to such scrutiny. Is this because we are less in number? Yes, but this is changing now. More women talent is coming in and there is going to be an influx. Such questions should eventually die down.”

The Hurt Locker, an American war drama directed by Kathryn Bigelow, won six Oscars in 2008. The film followed a bomb disposal team and had intense sequences that focused on the team’s psychological reactions to the stress of war.

Nandini too cites The Hurt Locker to explain that one must get over the mindset that women can write only certain kinds of stories.

“Kathryn Bigelow made the The Hurt Locker and won an Oscar. Farah Khan makes the most bombastic cinema in Hindi. This notion that masala-action male, emotional-romantic female is tiring. We are the ones who are making these stereotypes. People should be left to explore their sensibilities and not be boxed into stereotypes,” she says.

Like Farah in Bollywood, Anjali Menon in the Malayalm industry has broken the glass ceiling when it comes to women directors. Her Bangalore Days, one of the highest grossing Malayalam film, is an interesting example to look at. The film has six big stars in its cast, three of them men. Yet, the stories of Divya (Nazriya Nazim) and Sarah (Parvathy) were just as important in the film. Nithya Menen too plays an important cameo. With Bangalore Days, Anjali rewrote the commercial format that was considered successful in the industry and proved herself to be a successful director and a writer.

Talking about making a commercially successful film as a woman director in the book F-Rated by Nandita Dutta, Anjali said, “If you are making a commercial film and are bothered about your audience, the treatment has to be such that you win the confidence of the men and then subvert the norm, because that’s how things work here. It is not high-jump, this is pole vault, where you have to stick a pole in men’s territory.”

Breaking through the boys’ club

That the cinema industry has a skewed male-female ratio is a well-known fact. Therefore change will have to start with quantity for it to have an effect on the quality. The #MeToo movement that hit the entertainment field in October 2018 showed just how difficult a workplace the cinema industry can be for a woman. While the women who opened up and supported the movement like Sruthi Hariharan and Chinmayi were isolated and shut down, the men who were named barely faced any consequences.

Even before #MeToo, the Women in Cinema Collective (WCC) was set up in the Malayalam industry following the abduction and sexual assault of a prominent woman actor – a conspiracy that was allegedly masterminded by a male star from the same industry.

With very few allies in an industry that functions like a brotherhood, women have had to push to gain a space for themselves.

But if there’s one thing that Jeny believes will make a difference to the quality of women’s representation in cinema, it is in having an inclusive workspace. “Yes, we need more women but we also need these women to be contributing at some level. No point in having women on sets just for the sake of it. The scene in the Tamil industry, for instance, is drastically different from that of the Hindi industry. We have lesser women on sets. But having more women will definitely bring in an overall change,” she asserts.

“If you are around female ADs, safety is thought about. Gender inclusivity makes them more sensitive. But we should not just stop with having more women. The women need to be utilised, paid well and made to feel welcome,” she adds.

Doctor turned writer Kaavya Ramkumar who co-wrote Game Over, says, “There are 50 to 60 men and just a handful of women. Having to create a real woman character starts here. When you are among men, the way they speak reminds you that you are outnumbered.”

Kaavya Ramkumar

Taapsee as Swapna in Game Over is a young woman living with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). She fears closed, dark spaces and avoids crowded places due to a troubling incident from her past.

The film does not go overboard in discussing her fears but rather makes it personal for the watcher as it progresses. In Game Over, Kalamma (Vinodhini as her caretaker) and Swapna, women from two different ends of the spectrum, fight to protect themselves from masked intruders. Towards the end, Swapna overcomes her fears and anxiety to defeat her demons.

Kaavya feels it is a positive change when young directors approach her for her perspective on their script. “A few of the offers I got after Game Over were all finished scripts. These directors wanted my opinion on whether a modern woman would smoke in a particular scene or if a particular woman character would cry in this scene. ‘You’re a woman, you should know,’ they tell me. It is laughable, but I should also appreciate them for trying to understand rather than just assume. It is still very raw but quite encouraging I think,” she says.

Writer Sandhya points out an instance that shows just how much the scales are tipped against women in the industry. “During a recent film festival, there were about 45% films made by women but not a single movie was considered seriously. No award for a woman director was given. We have to claw every inch of our way.”

Referring to the #MeToo movement, she says, “On the surface, cinema feels like it’s becoming more inclusive but it’s still a big men’s club. What happens when women blows the whistle? What happened to Sruthi Hariharan? Chinmayi? They were cut off. It is still a hard journey.”

Geetu Mohandas

While Geetu agrees, she also talks about the drastic change the industry has gone through since the time she entered it as a child actor.

“I remember the time when I was going from set to set with my parents, but today’s girls are so smart. They are well prepared when they come to the industry and they also feel safe. The type of roles they are choosing is better. I will tell you that they have been given their dues when they choose to read the script. I remember reading scripts on set. (laughs) This is fabulous. They know how to take care of themselves. Platforms like the Women in Cinema Collective (WCC) just mean ‘You mess with one of us, you mess with all of us.’ This is a welcome change and now people are taking notice of this change,” she says confidently.

Two-way lane

With the emergence of more women creators in the industry, all of them agree that times are also changing. Nandini says, “It is a two-way process - society and cinema reflect each other. People are demanding stories that are more women inclusive. Oh! Baby did so well. At the same time, male directors who are pressured into writing a dominant role for a hero, cannot go tell actors like Samantha, Deepika Padukone or Anushka Shetty that they have just two songs. Women actors today will demand more. They have come here on their own. I think this change will give birth to more real, fleshed out characters rather than the usual cardboard formatted characters.”

Actors like Nayanthara, Parvathy and Trisha are capable of drawing crowds to the cinema halls with just their names in the film’s title card. Nayanthara, referred to as Lady Superstar, even gets special shows in theatres for most of her films these days. The younger entrants like Samantha are very careful of the scripts they choose to make sure they don’t fall back into the “hero’s love-interest” characters they’ve played thus far.

Geetu is appreciative of this new trend. “You have to be gender sensitised. Women should not be glorified by being put down. There was a time in Malayalam cinema, during the 2000s, when people used to clap when women were put down. Even popular films have shown women like this. None of the writers will do that today because they will be questioned. You can manipulate the audience with cinema, and filmmakers have a responsibility to make sensitive films,” she says.