Filmmaking is all about telling stories. Who tells the story makes all the difference, and for a truly egalitarian society, we need more women telling stories about women. What role does representation play in impacting society? This article delves into the risks and challenges female directors face when choosing stories.
Coloring the silver screen: Women breaking the celluloid ceiling
Sougandh Pramod is an undergraduate student of English (Hons.) at Christ University Bangalore and is a passionate writer and aspiring filmmaker who writes about cinema, literature, art and culture.
Manasvi Shukla is an undergraduate student of Journalism (Hons.) at Christ University, Bangalore and is an aspiring journalist who wishes to make a social change on the construction of gender.
“I’m tough, I’m ambitious, and I know exactly what I want. If that makes me a bitch, okay”
From Alice Guy-Blache, Lois Weber and Mabel Normand to contemporary names such as Kathryn Bigelow, Sofia Coppola and Patty Jenkins, women have always been a pioneer part of filmmaking. Yet their efforts are foreshadowed by the white-male director. Her efforts are kept under the celluloid ceiling and it takes great effort to be considered to be an equal or to attain a proper representation in their workspace. Breaking that celluloid ceiling, into the skies, and painting their dreams on the screen, is something that requires strength and bravery. If it makes you a bitch when you try to conquer your dreams, then our country needs more bitches.
After all, who can tell a woman’s story better than a woman? But why do women filmmakers often shirk from making films about women? Internationally acclaimed Iranian filmmaker Samira Makhmalbaf is considered to be the most influential filmmaker of the Iranian New Wave. She made numerous films on women and the social issues they face in Iran. Being part of a country where there are various restrictions on the freedom of expression and representation of women on the silver screen; never stopped her from making cinema that would show the world a story that baffled them. Engaging with the works of women filmmakers in Indian cinema, we see that there is a constant rebuttal against the topics of gender and sexuality when women are in the picture. Deepa Mehta’s Fire (1996) is considered to be India’s first lesbian film. But there were violent protests by Shiv Sena and the Sangh Parivar affiliates claiming the film to be a cultural invasion. Multiple protests and controversies put the movie through a second round of censoring after release even though the movie had released with no cuts in the first censor.
A few years back the two most prominent names among women filmmakers in India were Deepa Mehta and Aparna Sen. But now India has a lot of women filmmakers who make films that are received better and more commercially successful than their male counterparts. Filmmakers like Zoya Akhtar, Reema Kagti, Meghna Gulzar, Gauri Shinde and Anjali Menon have redefined filmmaking through films that are both critically acclaimed as well as well received in the box office. Hollywood too has seen a great deal of increase in the number of women filmmakers. But both in Hollywood and Bollywood, it can be observed that the modern women filmmakers have tried to stay away from gender specific topics and have moved to a more commercial viewpoint of cinema. Kathryn Bigelow crafted films like The Hurt Locker (2008) and won the Academy Award making her the first woman to do so. It is surprising to note that it is only in 2008 that a female filmmaker has won an Oscar even though there were numerous well acclaimed films made by women all along from the advent of cinema. She dared to challenge and crafted masterpieces, one after the other, because she never considered gender to be an obstacle in her journey. She knew that she could not change her gender and she knew that she could not stop making movies, and so she dared to step up and write her own life, not letting the society write it for her.
In India there has been a very notable shift in the representation of women on the silver screen and this is primarily because of the very strong women filmmakers in India who have proved that commercial success does not stand in way for their feminist thought and ideals, Zoya Akhtar mostly stuck with topics of commercial value but never looked away from her responsibility towards the society as a woman. She crafted films like Zindagi Na Milegi Dobaara (2011) and Gully Boy (2019) that had very strong women characters and had ideas that pushed away the patriarchy and at the same time was appreciated and did well in the box office too. She went on and directed Dil Dhadakne Do (2015) and discussed a plethora of feminist concerns through the men and women characters in the film.
Other filmmakers like Meghna Gulzar directed women centred films like Raazi (2018) that pushed away the masculine male hero and replaced it with a different face of heroism through Alia Bhatt’s Sehmat Khan. A female oriented spy movie is something that Bollowood cinema could never dream of a few years back, and it took fierce, bold and daring filmmakers like Meghna Gulzar to weave a change and succeed.
Other filmmakers did try to take a feminist turn in their films, and Ridley Scott was one famous filmmaker who is credited to be the pioneer. Scott’s Thelma and Louise (1991) took the industry by storm and is by far credited with the title of being the “The Last Great Film about Women” by The Atlantic and even twenty years after the films’ release it is surprising to look at the fact that the film was not directed by a woman. The larger issue here becomes the fact that when men make films about women, they are well accepted and acclaimed but when women do so, they are not. Women centric movies made by female filmmakers and looked at differently whereas when it is directed by a male director it is more acclaimed and considered into the larger picture. If the article was right then it is even more shocking to look at the fact that the last great film about film dates twenty years back.
In India, films like Alankrita Shrivastava’s Lipstick Under My Burkha and Shonali Bose’s Margarita with a Straw have received good critical reception but failed to impress at the box office. There were again multiple controversies and agitation from the patriarchy. But even then nothing stopped the women form voicing and turning their inner monologues to dialogues. This change is something that Indian cinema can be proud of, yet the patriarchy still continues to push down such films and never do they get the recognition and accolades that they truly deserves. These filmmakers are deemed to be destroying the ‘so called’ Indian culture, and nothing stops them and they are the filmmakers that weave the band of change in global cinema.
Very few women filmmakers have succeeded in telling stories of their gender and sexuality on the screen and this could be because of the various obstacles thrown at them by the patriarchal society or to be part of the corporate filmmaking process to sustain in the industry by looking at only the commercial aspects of cinema. From the conservative Iranian society that has numerous socio-political, cultural and cinematic challenges associated with the issues she chooses to portray and the way in which it is portrayed, filmmakers like Samira Makhmalbuff could make spectacles on the silver screen about stories of women. Stories need to be told and the society needs fearless storytellers. Indian cinema has given birth to amazing women filmmakers who have redefined commercial feminist cinema. Break the ceiling and conquer the skies. Ambitions will create opportunities and make you weave spectacles. She will paint her colours on the silver screen and that colour won’t be just pink. If that makes her a bitch then that branding comes with pride.