By the time Cinema comes to the West, it comes into the following world:
- The Industrial Revolution has happened 150 years ago.
- Modernism is nigh with Intellectuals claiming history and civilization are inherently progressive.
- Skyscrapers are being built in Chicago.
- Parts of the New York Subway are already built.
- A Scientific temper has entered society.
- Prosperity is the order and the working folk want inexpensive entertainment in cities that they have moved to from more rural areas, attracted by industry.
The world is ripe for cinema. But, in the United States, women don’t even have sufferage – i.e., they can’t vote. It is only men such as Edison, Dickson and the Lumieres who are credited with the birth of cinema in the West.
The India that cinema came to, was mostly a rural and traditional society with defined gender roles that were not easy to break out of. Even in cities, women were mostly restricted to the interior.
So it is easy to see why women were left out of the process of making cinema in its infancy – whether in the West or in India.
(It is another matter that Dadasaheb Phalke couldn’t find a single woman – not even prostitutes – who would work in his maiden film, ‘Raja Harishchandra’. Like folk theater of yore, he had to rely on young, sometime androgynous young men.)
But the terrain is very different today. Even 20 years ago a visitor to any Indian film set could very well believe that the country was made up of men – the only women they would likely find on the male dominated sets would be hair dressers. Unlike today, when women can be found in every department.
In 1994, when Sandy Sissel – Director of Photography of Mira Nair’s iconic film, “Salaam Bombay” – was invited to join the prestigious American Society of Cinematographers another bastion of male exlusivity fell to the insistent knocking on doors by women. The very next year, my own teacher, Judy Irola, was the third woman to be invited to join the ASC. Although cinematography still remains a mostly male preserve, more and more young women are choosing cinematography as a profession – I see this all the time at Whistling Woods International, where I teach.
When it comes to areas such as Editing and Direction, women are much more visible. Besides Mira Nair, India has produced fine women directors such as Aruna Raje, Sai Paranjape, Deepa Mehta, Aparna Sen, Kalpana Lajmi – not to mention the new breed of young women such as Zoya Akhtar, Shonali Bose, Reema Kagti, Gauri Shinde – the list is endless – who have picked up the megaphone. And we are only talking about Hindi/English cinema here, without even scratching the surface of regional cinema – where four to five time the number of Hindi/English films are made.
Another factor contributing to women becoming more visible in the film industry is that the concept of the ‘Producer’ has been redefined. Where some years ago, the Producer was just ‘Mr. Moneybags’, today the Indian ‘Producer’ is a unique individual with multiple skills – much like their counterparts in Hollywood. Of course, this was the final male-only club to be breached. Being right at the top allowed women to control the process of filmmaking and further open the gates wider. Women such as Guneet Monga, Dipa Motwane and myriads of young, driven women are working as Associate Producers, Line Producers and Executive Producers in India in films and TV. At present there are only two known Institutes of repute that offer a ‘Producing for Film & TV’ course – one is Whistling Woods International in Mumbai and the other the Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute in Kolkata. Both, surprisingly, have more women on their rolls and have graduated more women students than men.
There are many factors that have opened up the doors of the film industry to women. The perception of the industry within the middle class has gone through a sea change. Today, the Indian film industry is much more organized and above board. Gone are the days when films were funded by shady money. In general, also, women have been consistently joining the work force in larger numbers and this is also reflected in the film industry. The Indian TV industry is also fueling this trend. Ever since ‘Hum Log’ introduced Indian audiences to the Soap Opera in 1984, Indian TV has grown in leaps and bounds with dozens of general entertainment channels being launched in Hindi and Regional languages. Ekta Kapoor and her mother, Shobha Kapoor single-handedly made TV cool for women to work in, in this author’s opinion.
At the ground level, I’m seeing more and more young women join filmmaking courses besides, of course, Mass Communication and Mass Media courses – all of which are conduits to the film industry. And, as our society becomes more liberal and accomodating to women, I can only see this trend grow. And I for one, would be more than happy to see more women in all areas of filmmaking.