In the wake of the recent abduction and alleged rape of a Malayalam actor in Kochi, how supportive is the film industry for women?

In the male bastion of films the seven big battles women have to face
Flix Cinema Monday, March 06, 2017 - 17:14
Written by  Shakti Swaminathan

“City of Stars…Are you shining just for me…,” croons Ryan Gosling. It’s a sultry afternoon in Chennai and Aruna Rakhee is watching La La Land for the second time with her friends Jayashree and Pavithra. She dips into a tub of popcorn, her first meal of the day, when her phone buzzes. It’s a call from Mumbai. She rushes out of the theatre, nodding her head and trembling with excitement.  An Associate Director, with more than ten years of experience in the industry, Aruna has been asked to fly out the next day, to assist an acclaimed Director.  She barely has a few hours to pack her bags and apologise to her father that she won’t be joining his 70th birthday celebrations.

Soon, Pavithra and Jayashree join her outside. Twenty-seven-year-old Pavithra Kumar is the Executive Producer of Rajnikanth’s Enthiran-2.0. After a gruelling night shooting schedule, she is exhausted and decides to go home and crash.  Jayashree Lakshmi Narayanan, Kerala State Award winner, Production Designer and creator of the arty room of Dulquer Salman in the Malayalam super-hit Charlie, offers to drive them back. While she drives, she uses the time to do one more phone interview. Three empty seats and a tub of popcorn wait. La La Land plays on.

Thanks to the recent spurt in media and communication courses across the country, many young women, in their 20’s are opting to chase their passion for cinema, starting out as assistants to leading directors, cinematographers and the like before carving a niche for themselves. The Indian film industry, a traditional male bastion is an extremely stressful place of work, with several careers and hoards of money at stake and eggshells of egos to tread around. Most film projects have rigorous shooting schedules that may run for sixteen hours a day, spanning across several months, and sometimes in unsuitable conditions.  Also, an average film crew has a staggering gender disparity. 400 men – 3 women, including the lead actress.

In the backdrop of the recent abduction and alleged rape of an actor in Kochi, how conducive is the work environment of these young girls?

Safety concerns

“In all the years that I have worked here, I have never had any issues with safety,” quips Aruna. “I think it’s a matter of which team you choose to work with. While some make sure the female workers are dropped after a night shoot and provide decent accommodation, some tend to overlook this since they’ve never worked with women.”

Aruna Rakhee, Associate Director  

Since shooting spots are abuzz with people, the girls do not feel insecure or threatened.  Jayashree, who has worked in Bollywood prior to her stardom in southern cinema, believes that Mumbai is a much safer place for women to work in. Statistics show that Bollywood has a greater ratio of women working on the sets, and are provided with all the facilities that they require. Mumbai’s active nightlife and efficient public transport is a plus too.

Battling stereotypes

In the south, a woman is generally perceived as a burden, a responsibility and an added cost to production house (Having to provide a separate hotel room/toilets for instance). Women are viewed as the ‘weaker sex’ who will “cry on sets” or “demand to go home early” and cannot deal with the both physical and mental stress that filmmaking demands.

“We receive a lot of flak, that we women will anyway drop out, get married and have kids,” chimes in Ranjani Naresh, former assistant to cinematographer PC Sreeram. Women are also not associated with technical competence. “Though I was trained in the field, on my first day, light annas (brothers in Tamil) asked me if I knew how the lights worked.”

Ranjani’s colleagues were shocked that she was not from art/costumes, departments labelled as a woman’s forte. In a land that produces around 1600 films annually, there are only a handful of independent women cinematographers.

Juhi Sharma, documentary and ad filmmaker attributes this to the view that cinematography is a physically intensive profession. “One of the worst situations was when a leading cinematographer from the industry was looking for a 'female assistant'. When I enquired as to how the assistant's gender mattered, I was told that my main job would be to tell the heroines to adjust their clothes and open a few buttons. I felt disgusted.”

Women in demand

Interestingly, women Assistant Directors and Executive Producers are a sought-after breed. Directors like Mani Ratnam, Gautham Vasudev Menon, and AL Vijay are known to request for female ADs for their work ethic and to add a fresh perspective to the filmmaking process. Moreover, women actors prefer having a female AD to interact with and coach them with dialogues.

Pavithra Kumar, Executive Producer of Enthiran 2.0

Pavithra has a lot on her plate. Enthiran 2.0, with a budget of $4 billion is touted to be the most expensive film in India ever. As the Executive Producer of film, she is part of the daily shooting process and keeps a tab on the budget, ensuring the smooth flow of money.  “I was working with ad filmmaker Manav Menon for a while. He noticed that I had the flair for coordinating and managing both money and people. He suggested this job to me.”

Siddhi Pujara, another Executive Producer, works for Eros Cinemas in Chennai; having previously worked with the Shahrukh Khan-owned Red Chillies Pvt Ltd in Mumbai.

Money Matters

The industry is an uphill climb for anyone and money is initially hard to come by. Though many of them admit that the pay may not match the creative ability, gender discrimination in payments hardly occurs.

Man or woman, the person who knows how to market himself better or negotiate lands the better deal. Siddhi adds that woman should never “feel shy to demand the money they deserve.” Siddhi and Jayashree who have worked in several Hindi films, reckon that Bollywood ensures equality, that production Houses like Red Chillies, Excel Entertainment and Dharma Productions are equal opportunity givers.

One of the biggest inspirations for these young women is make-up artist Banu Bashyam, better known as the magician who radically transformed an aging Rajinikanth into a youthful looking superstar in Shivaji the Boss. The Indian Make- up Artists and Hair stylists Union comprised of 800 men make-up artists and only 3 women. Women only became hairdressers. Banu fought a long and hard battle in the Supreme Court to get her union card, despite working in the industry for more than a decade.

The big break

In a scene From Dear Zindagi, a cinematographer Alia Bhatt is seen ecstatic after bagging the spot in a big project. However, she is soon plagued by doubts, if the opportunity came by for her talent or her supposed physical attractiveness. The greatest challenge for a woman and the loudest complaint is they are seldom taken seriously. “I have to work 10 times harder than an average guy to get the same opportunity, to say that I have the talent and that I am here to stay,” opines Aruna. The initial opportunity- the years of being an assistant- and the big break, getting a mentor who hones their talent and helming a project independently is a long and arduous journey.

The tough get going

Obstacles may be many, but there is nothing that cannot be surmounted by a headstrong nature. Once an opportunity comes knocking these women stress on the need to be assertive and give the vibe that they can’t be messed with. “Men in the industry often tend to take advantage of women who are docile so it is imperative that a woman learns to take charge and stands for herself. This also helps in bringing out the best work from fellow co-workers and getting the work done in a disciplined manner,” advises Siddhi.

Work-life balance

 Jayashree Lakshmi Narayanan, Production Designer

Social life is almost nil. Friends are often from the same industry. And marriages are delayed. When they do get married, most girls choose a partner from the same industry, primarily because the odds of meeting someone are higher and also since the person can relate to their profession. All of them agree, that only someone who understands how hectic and unpredictable a project can be can make the relationship work. Although most families initially oppose their daughters’ career move, most reconcile over time. Having a supportive family is the key to their success. “When you already face so much of stress in the shooting spot, you don’t want to come back home and be stressed again,” concludes Jayashree.

The recent abduction and alleged rape of a popular actress has shocked the industry, but the girls opine that it is definitely much safer for women who work behind the scenes  than the heroines, though they may have access to a private vanity van and better security arrangements. The patriarchal industry continues to judge heroines as ‘easy’ and ‘available’.

Yesteryear Tamil/Telugu superstar Bhanumathi Ramakrishna was a multi-lingual actress/director/music director/producer/singer and song writer. Known for her courage and forthrightness, she was also the only female studio owner in the country. Bhanumathi was revered by all her co-stars including the iconic MG Ramachandran, with whom she starred in more than fourteen films. In one of her interviews, she mentions how the heroes were scared to hold her hand. “Talent scares people.”

The path maybe rocky and the future hazy, but these young women are ready to storm through, aided by their passion and tons of talent.  No adversity or gender construct is bigger than what is dearest to them - their art.

Here’s to the ones who dream, foolish as they may seem.


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