MAMI 2015: A gender-friendly gala with women’s stories galore

As someone who regularly tracks Hindi cinema which largely puts out stories of men or those from the male perspective while barely scratching the surface of women’s lives, I am lured by international film festivals with their promise of a good share of women-centric films in the overall movie spread. Over the years, I can recall gawking at extraordinary narratives (which I could never expect from Bollywood).

Film posters

The Mumbai Film Festival 2015 did not disappoint, serving up as it did quite a few incisive studies of women (and also men) in dodgy situations and their engagements with the same. The British film 45 Years by Andrew Haigh comes immediately to mind for the sheer piquancy of its central premise. Even as the lissom and gung-ho Kate Mercer is directing the celebration of her 45th marriage anniversary, her husband receives news that the body of his ex-girlfriend Katya has been recovered. She had been killed 50 years ago in an accident in the Alps while she was holidaying with him. The news unsettles Geoff and consequently Kate who has to come to terms with her husband’s past and the reality that his ex-girlfriend has and will always hold a share of his affections and his thoughts. The film gains power from Kate’s characterisation as a strong woman with a vulnerable core, and her struggle to rein in her emotions and keep dignity and faith in her marriage.

Another film that showed a female character in a positive, emulative light was the Chinese film, Mountains May Depart. Jia Zhangke’s  film spans ambitiously from 1999 to 2025, tracing a family’s life over this period. A buoyant singing and dance instructor in 1999, Shen Tao grows lonely in middle age after marrying the wrong guy, choosing between her two male friends. The consequent divorce deprives her of her son’s company with the husband winning custody.

However, despite the hard knocks, Shen Tao retains her cheerfulness, essential softness and capacity to love to the end, uncomplainingly accepting responsibility for the choices she has made. The film closes with her dancing  in the snow as her pet dog watches. Shen radiates the sheer joy of being alive in the world and a spirit that refuses to be defeated.

A heart-wrenchingly beautiful narrative that grabbed me this festival was the American film Chronic. Directed by Michel Franco, the film won best screenplay at Cannes. Bypassing gender stereotypes and locating oceans of compassion in a male nurse, the film viscerally follows a middle-aged nurse David as he attends to his patients— a dying AIDS-struck young woman, a middle-aged man confined to his bed by a stroke and a lonely grandmother suffering from cancer. By virtue of the depth of caring David manifests, the film impresses as an ode to human compassion, transcending gender.  

Among women-led films at the festival (that this writer took in), Mistress America, an American comedy film directed by Noah Baumbach dazzled. It’s a full-tilt women’s film rooted firmly in women’s land. Written by Baumbach and the lead actress Greta Gerwig, the film zeroes in on a college freshman Tracy as she strives to resolve her disappointments and loneliness by slipping into the wacky, glittering world of her future stepsister Brooke (Greta). The thirtyish, effervescent Brooke’s passionate endeavours to channelise her creative energy into workable projects erode all gender stereotypes of young women as being primarily driven by their need for a man. Greta is constantly bracing herself to achieve something spectacular and hitting the wall; her failures to realise her quixotic dreams cannot chip off the appeal of her character. Tracy’s attempt to gain a name as a writer by inking her to-be-step sister’s quirky lifestyle and adventures comes off as credible and engaging as well.

The film wins hands down on the gender scale, by eschewing the romantic track and grubbing into other less-trodden, nevertheless important areas of young women’s lives.

The relevance of such women-centric films cannot be understated, as was agreed by the illustrious participants of the discussion on “Women in films” organised as a part of MAMI – Shabana Azmi, Vidya Balan, Kangana Ranaut, Kiran Rao, and American director Ava DuVernay. Known for fronting films like Kahaani and The Dirty Picture, the ebullient Vidya Balan stated, “At some point in time, we may not need women-centric films, but now we need them since male-centric films have been the norm, at least in the Hindi film industry, with women’s characters vague or even missing.” Vidya’s idol, the veteran actor Shabana Azmi, pointed out that while there was a time when Hindi films projected women characters prominently (with stars like Nutan and Meena Kumari), the portrayals only reinforced gender stereotypes, chiefly the ‘main chup rahoongi’ type. “In the past, it was largely left to parallel cinema to bring complexity in women’s portrayals. Now, fortunately, we have some mainstream films in which women are shown as enjoying a degree of autonomy and making choices because of stars like Vidya and Kangana.”

Unfortunately, acute gender discrimination still colours every aspect of the filmmaking process and not just the screen space allotted to women, be it in Bollywood or Hollywood, lamented the panellists. For instance, women in mainstream Hindi cinema continue to get paid much lesser than their male counterparts, rued Kangana Ranaut. She attributed this partly to women’s mindsets. “I was struggling for ten years,” confessed Ranaut. “Finally when I delivered a hit, I hiked my price, though it was still nowhere close to what heroes charge. However, my move was not liked by my peers, who believed in charging less. Their argument is male actors contribute more to the success of a film and so they are entitled to charge more. I feel we women actors belittle ourselves and our contribution greatly. Unless we value ourselves more, we will get differential treatment,” she said. Balan tallied with Ranaut observing, “We women tend to undervalue ourselves because of our conditioning. We are subtly told that a woman is not of the same value as a man.” She also affirmed, “I have got the price I have asked for, I have seen growth and am happy about that.” Like Azmi, Balan maintained that her acting fees were largely determined by the kind of films she was doing.

As far as women in direction go, Hollywood emerged looking even more discriminatory and gloomier than our desi film industry. African-American director Ava DuVernay, ofSelma fame, squarely asserted, “In the US, women directors do not have the same opportunities as men; big films like Star Wars are completely out of their range. Women can only make a certain kind of films, basically of the romantic genre, and can get budgets for the same. They are not trusted with big budgets required to make other kinds of films, certainly not action-oriented films.” The state of affairs in Bollywood is not so dismal for women, Kiran Rao posited. “In India, it’s hard for anyone, be it for man or woman, to make films,” said Kiran, “But women directors like Farah Khan are trusted with budgets to make high-voltage films as much as men. They are welcome if they have good stories.” She sees a surge of woman power in Bollywood as women foray into different fields like editing with their honed skill-sets.

Gender bias, of course, persists. Ranaut voices her grudge, “As an actor, when I try to contribute more in terms of dialogues, I am looked at as a smart ass, or as an interfering bitch, but when a male actor does that, he is praised.”

But the discussion concluded that things are changing, even if slowly. The fact that MAMI 2015 was orchestrated by a woman, author and film critic Anupama Chopra, attests to the winds of change.

Munmun Ghosh is a fiction writer and freelance journalist.

Posted by on November 15, 2015. Filed under Bollywood. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.