'Do girls smoke?' and other sexist questions director Anjali Menon has been asked

This excerpt is from the chapter on Anjali Menon in a book on women filmmakers in India.
'Do girls smoke?' and other sexist questions director Anjali Menon has been asked
'Do girls smoke?' and other sexist questions director Anjali Menon has been asked
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Anjali Menon has always shared a peculiar relationship with reporters, thanks to their discomfiture at the newness of engaging with a female director. They are interested to know what she does in her spare time more than what she achieves when she is working. They also want to know whether, like her male counterparts, she smokes or drinks.

‘On the wedding day, Nazriya, unable to bear the tension, is shown smoking a cigarette. Do girls do things like that?’ asked an interviewer for a leading Malayalam daily, referring to the character of Divya in Bangalore Days. ‘As a director when Anjali gets tensed up, what does she do?’ he slyly added.

‘That is a scene where the bride is supposed to show anxiety. How else will I portray that! Anyway, I do not smoke. I have a set of friends to call when I get tensed up,’ Anjali patiently replied.

Another journalist once asked her blatantly, ‘The stress of filmmaking is so high. Men can at least smoke and drink. What do you do?’ Though she was exasperated, she decided to go ahead with the interview with civility. When he went on to ask, ‘As a filmmaker you have to handle so much money. How do you, as a woman, do that?’ she lost her cool. He added that he could never trust his wife with so much money. Anjali asked him to turn his dictaphone off and gave him a piece of her mind in the choicest of words (‘So that he doesn’t ask anyone those stupid questions again’).

‘Don’t call me a woman filmmaker: Anjali Menon’ – screamed the headline of an interview published by the news agency PTI. Though Anjali firmly believes that gender shouldn’t be the basis for judging a filmmaker’s work (‘It sounds like a discount coupon’), she never uttered those exact words which sounded like ‘the comment came from someone who is ashamed of being a woman’. She had to write a blog post clarifying her stand: ‘I have been a woman much longer than I have been a filmmaker and my identity as a woman is something I cherish even more than my identity as a filmmaker … Being a woman is a privilege I was born with, something that has shaped my sensibility and sensitivity and world view for as long as I have known.’

Another element that seems to add to the complexity of the situation is that Anjali is charming and beautiful with a carefree laughter and a warm, friendly vibe about her. Initially in her career, she got judged all the time, in a demonstration of how implicit prejudices work against women professionals. Some people even thought of her as a wannabe with the latent ambition of becoming an actor who was taking the ‘short cut’ route of direction to stardom! Funny as it may sound, it explains people’s ineptness at dealing with a good-looking female director. Almost all of what is reported on her takes note of her ‘pretty face’.

‘Typically, when there is an article about ten filmmakers, it is my face stuck in there, possibly because nine of them are men,’ Anjali laughs.

Once when she was hunting locations for a film and went to see a house which was let out for shoots, the man in charge of the place stopped her at the door. ‘You are the director?’ He looked puzzled. ‘Yes,’ Anjali replied. Before letting her take a round of the house, he subjected her to a flurry of questions including why she wanted to be a director, what her qualifications were, and how her family had agreed to her choice of profession. ‘Obviously, I took a walk through the house and said, “I’m not going to shoot here.” If I were a middle-aged man with a beard and a hat, he would not have had any problem. Perhaps his problem was that I didn’t look like a filmmaker. But what does a filmmaker look like?’ she questions.

This excerpt is from F- rated: Being a Woman Filmmaker in India by Nandita Dutta, published by HarperCollins India. You can buy the book here

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