A few years ago, Kannada film director Kavitha Lankesh went to meet a "big" producer along with a male friend, to discuss a story for a film. Only, the director addressed her friend throughout. "He refused to speak to me. He would not even look me in the eye," she laughs, recollecting the incident. She now prefers to go alone to such meetings. "Producers by and large are male. They trust a woman to run a family, but will not trust them to make a film."
The film industry across the world is male-dominated; be it Hollywood, Bollywood or closer home, the south Indian film industry. Gender disparity is prevalent across all. While a majority of the core production staff continues to be male, women mostly work in what are considered traditionally female departments such as costume and styling.
What is it then like, to be not just a woman, but a director in the south Indian film industries?
"It’s a constant struggle," says Kavitha. She has been in the industry for 16 years. "I am experienced and I still find it difficult."
A documentary filmmaker who later turned to feature films, Kavitha's debut film "Deveeri" (1999) won several state, national, and international awards. Making "Deveeri" was mostly hassle-free, because she did it with friends, but she did realise one thing.
"If a male director shouts on the sets - a 1,000 things can go wrong - people say he gets things done. If a woman director shouts on sets, she is controlling. And men often tend to use swear words and make below the belt remarks," she says.
No matter how qualified women are, men don't think of women as professionals. "But even if the men are uneducated, do not know the front of the camera from the back, they are given loads of money and are expected to make commercial films."
In contrast, people think women directors do not have commercial film sense, says Telugu filmmaker BV Nandini Reddy, who started her career in 1995 as an Assistant Director in a children's movie.
Working in a male-dominated industry is like facing a mountain. "You have to face it and climb it." And there are mountains of stereotypes.
When she was looking for work after her first film, cinematographer Rasool Ellore put her in touch with director Krishna Vamsi. " Krishna Vamsi didn't want women on his team because he thought they would find it difficult," Nandini says. He changed his mind after actor Ramya Krishnan put in a word for her. "Call it persuasion or co-coercion," Nandini chuckles.
Then there were hurt egos. A production executive (PE) in her film "Kalyana Vaibhogame" (2016) once cancelled a particular lens that she had asked for. Nandini spoke to the producer and got the lens back.
"But the PE did not like me overriding his authority. If I was a man, he would have asked me about it. But with me (a woman), he was upset (that I overrode him).”
The "Ala Modalaindi" director isn’t bothered by fragile egos. "They are not used to reporting to a woman. Some men don’t take it well if you question their authority. It becomes an ego issue. But if they make it a gender issue, it’s their problem not mine."
Luckily, she has a good rapport with her team. “I put my foot down. I have fought very hard to be where I am. And if I don't stand up for myself, no one else in the industry will," she asserts.
Nandini says that women filmmakers function differently from their male counterparts, who are often part of old boys’ clubs who meet over drinks and network. “I don’t go to after parties. I don’t know if it is just a personality type or a gender issue, but male directors have the ability to build camaraderie, while gender prevents me from doing so. I am not comfortable boozing in a room full of men. I have seen how young male directors court producers. I can’t do that. It will lead to a different type of rumour,” she says. Socialising is important, but she believes in finishing her work and leaving.
Malayalam film director Anjali Menon, best known for the award-winning hit "Bangalore Days" (2014), says “The bias is just generally in the air. Even if you have done all the work, people would rather give someone else the credit.”
She describes how location owners too have questioned her credentials as a director, a situation that a man would never face. “I have said this before. If I had a hat and a beard, things would be very different for me.”
For actor-turned-director Geetu Mohandas the struggle was largely of a different kind.
"I am an industry baby; I do not see it as gender bias. I had all the infrastructure in the world. I understand and believe in the struggles of others, but I have travelled on a different road."
Geetu entered the industry as a child actor at the age of five and went on to act in numerous Malayalam and a couple of Tamil films. She now runs a production company called Unplugged with her cinematographer husband Rajeev Ravi.
Geetu Mohandas; Screenshot: Cinecurry Malayalam/YouTube
But even she can’t help but wonder about a snide remark a woman made to her when she was looking for financing among production houses for her second film "Liar's Dice" (2013). A woman executive had smirked and told her, "Rajeev does not work with new people, he only works with the likes of Anurag Kashyap." She had no clue that the two were married and ran the production house together. Geetu feels the comments were directed at her because she is a woman."Liar's Dice" won two national awards and was India's official entry to the 2015 Academy Awards.
Director of the Tamil film "Irudhi Suttru" (2016) Sudha Kongara poses a rather fundamental argument to the question of gender imbalance in the industry, especially in direction.
"Very few women enter the industry wanting to be directors. I see women wanting to actors, costume designers and other similar perceived traditional roles. But not direction," she says.
Sudha Kongara on the sets of Irudhi Suttru
She concedes that there is a demand for female crew members – especially female ADs as they are thought to be more diligent.
"But I see so many female ADs getting married and taking a break and never returning. How many women, who were driven enough to work hard for 15 to 20 years, can say they did not get a chance? The battle is equal for men and women. I believe patriarchy is as at home, not in the film industry. How many parents send their daughters to become directors?" she asks.
She says gender issues are not very prevalent in the higher levels in the industry. "A producer wont discriminate between a female and a male director because he will only see the viability of the project."
In the lower rungs, however, it is a different story. "Once I was going on and on about how certain things were not happening the way they should be on the set. And I complained to the producer. He told me, 'Please do not mind, I'll look into it. But when women want things done, they (staff) tend to not take it too seriously'."
Ultimately, it is the director's success that decides how his/her crew treat him/her. "I don't feel the sex of the filmmaker should matter just like their caste or economic status should not. And if people do see it like that, it’s their perception, their problem," she says.
(Inputs from Ramanathan Subramaniam)