Changing trend of women exploring careers in Cinema – especially in areas such as Producing, Direction and Cinematography.

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.

The Film Director – Collaborator par excellence

Making a film is a complex process – it takes a team to make a film.  There are multiple arts that Cinema incorporates into itself – literature, poetry, painting, sculpture, music, dance.  Not to mention other applied arts – design, photography etc.  Besides, Cinema depends heavily on technology to realize itself.  Making a film is as much a right brain activity as it is left brain.  Thus, the inputs of myriad people, each with unique skill sets – whether technical or artistic – are required to make a film.

The Director of a film, being the leader of the team (and NOT the boss – a nuance we pound into our students at Whistling Woods International constantly), has to collaborate with multiple people for a film to be realized.  What does ‘collaboration’ really mean?  Well, instinctively, we would think about co and labor being the founding roots of the word – basically working together.  But collaborators are more than co-workers where filmmaking is concerned.  Since filmmaking also involves art, collaborators need to be in sync intellectually.  Where co-workers typically fill in the lacunae of skills or knowledge which other co-workers lack, collaborators have to, each and all, take ownership of the project – in this case, the film.

The initiator of a film is the Producer – it is the Producer who owns the Intellectual Property from which a film is made.  The Producer chooses a Director based on the Director’s abilities, track record and, most importantly, sensibilities – which have to match those of the material (the script).  A Producer chooses a Director carefully – after all the team leader has to have the capability to deliver a film that the Producer then has to monetize.  The Producer and Director relationship is unique where each depends on the other and has to trust the other fully to fulfill their ends of the bargain:  “The Producer will provide what the Director needs to make the film from the script and, in turn, the Director will give the Producer a film that will give the Producer a return on the investment while also being artistically appreciated.”  Filmmaking is truly a marriage of art and commerce.  The relationship between a Producer and a Director was best described by a Professor of mine in film school: “The Producer is like the owner of a ship.  They decides what size ship to buy, what kind of cargo it will carry (or what kind of passengers it will ferry), where it will travel from and to.  Then they hire a Director, who is akin to the Captain of the ship.  Once the ship sets sail, the Director is in charge with the Producer (ship owner) being confident that the Director (Captain of the ship) will make sure the ship fulfills the Producer’s requirements – fulfills their commitments and also assures a return on investment.”  Once a competent Director is on board a film, the Producer leaves the artistic development of the project to the Director who now takes over the making of the film.

While the collaboration with the Producer is paramount, the Director collaborates with many other individuals during the making of a film.  There are three primary phases of filmmaking: Pre-Production, Production and Post-Production.  At each stage, the Director collaborates with specialists in those areas.  But one collaboration that is critical is the relationship between the Director and Actors.

Actors are the people who bring to life any film (including, to a large extent, Animation films) and the Director’s work with the Actors defines how well (or not) a film turns out. Typically, novice Directors are more concerned with the technicalities of the film and spend considerable time with the crew working on creating the perfect image but seasoned Directors will be found working with the actors while they have faith that the crew is setting up the shot.  Unlike theater where actors get to rehearse for a while under the Director’s baton, films just do not have such luxury thus a lot has to be instinctive.  The flip side is that film is stop and start and the Director shoots it in bits and, then of course, the Director has the ability to have a retake to improve performances.  Finally, where in theater the Director’s job is done once the curtain rises, a film Director crafts performances long after the actors have come and gone via the process of editing.  Actors, like other artistes need assurance about their work and it is the Director who they seek out for this.  Thus it behooves Directors to be in the eye sight of the actor as soon as a shot is cut – the actor will immediately look to the Director for assurance.  The Director has to be the actor’s safety net.  Once an actor is cast for a role, the Director has to fully trust the actor.  In fact, the ideal situation is where the actor (through their own preparation) knows the character they are playing better than the Director does.  The Director understands the whole story and how this particular character helps tell the story – how they fit into the story – thus the Director sometimes needs to nudge the actor in the right direction.  But, in general, the Director has to have faith that the actor will deliver.

Talking of story, every crew member is there to serve the story – including the Director.  But the Director is the one who understands all aspects of cinematic language to bring the story to the screen.  Thus, they need to work with the following in every area of filmmaking:

Pre-Production:  This phase of filmmaking is critical since this is where the whole process of making a film is planned – not only how the shoot will happen (Production) but emphasis is also on making sure the Post-Production goes smoothly.  The efforts put into this phase bear fruit in subsequent processes.  The Director works with many aspects of the film with various collaborators at this stage.

  • Scriptwriter: The Director is constantly working with the writer to improve the script.  During Pre-Production, sometimes ideal locations cannot be found and the two need to make sure changes are made to the script so that the actual location found can be used to tell the story.  Similarly, an actor might be cast for a particular role who brings something new to the script – thus the script might need to change change.  Besides, other Pre-Production activities – Props, Wardrobe, Set Construction, the Budget – might entail changes to the script while keeping the story as close to the original as possible.
  • Casting: The Casting Director typically will hold initial auditions and select the best candidates to put in front of the Director.  The Director has to be able to convey to the Casting Director exactly what kind of an actor (physical attributes, emotional makeup) that they need for each character.  Then the Director and the Casting Director together audition the best candidates and choose the one most suitable for the role.
  • Locations: The Director and Location Manager work closely based on the requirements of the script.  Sometimes the Location Manager can convince a Director about a location that might not be in the script but can help tell the story better (which, of course, means the Director and Screenwriter go into a rewrite) but a Location Manager is key collaborator of the Director.
  • Look and Feel: This is critical to a film since films are primarily visual.  In this area there are two primary (and some secondary) collaborators the Director works with:
    • Production Designer: The Production Designer is the person who creates the physical look of the film.  They advise the Director if the film should be shot on real locations or if sets need to be built.  What kind of props need to be used to lend authenticity to a built set or a real location.  Finally they are also responsible for the physical look of every actor using wardrobe and make-up.  (Today, many starts have Stylists they use – which is basically a combination of wardrobe and make-up.
    • Cinematographer: The Cinematographer – or, Director of Photography – helps the physical look of the film translate to the image that the audience will see.  They may use different lenses, use of depth of field, lighting, camera angles, camera movement, filters among many other technical and artistic tools of the trade to help the Director in telling the story.  This is a critical relationship.
  • Planning for the Production: The most critical collaborator of the Director during Pre-Production is the production team that the Producer puts at their disposal.  The production team treats the script (also called the Bible in many production cultures) as the ultimate document – this is what will help them prepare for the actual shooting of the film.  Anything and everything in the script has to be organized during pre-production.  Thus the production team leads the Pre-Production process and makes sure all logistics will work when the labor intensive and cash intensive phase of filmmaking (Production and Pre-Production) begin.  This effort at this stage is done to minimize lapses – that cost money – later.

The Director knows they can keep crafting in all other areas of filmmaking but if the logistics are not taken care of, they will not have material to craft with.  Thus they will work closely with the Line Producer.

  • Planning the Shoot: Finally, the Director has to plan how they will shoot the film.  Each scene needs to be broken down into how many shots it requires, what are the requirements of each shot, how each shot will be executed and how each shot will then add into other shots to tell the story.  At this point the Director needs their team of Assistants and also works closely with the production team to make the schedule for shooting that is created gives enough time to the Director to realize their vision of the story.


Production:  During the actual shoot of a film (the Production stage), also known as Principal Photography, the Director has to really come into their own.  Till now, they have been working with small groups of people individually (see above.)  When shooting a film, the Director has to be omnipresent and omniscient.

Of course the job of Director is primarily artistic.  But at this point they become people managers.  The Director (based on all the work that they have done in Pre-Production) will have to constantly communicate with each department about the vision of the story.  All heads of departments will look to the Director for clarifications.  The Director will now have to motivate a large crew (sometimes comprised of hundreds of people) to hew to one vision.

While working with a large crew and also sticking to a budget, the Director’s mettle is really tested.  Circumstances change, challenges come up and this is where the Director really needs to carry the day.  Day after day after day.  Thus, this is the phase where the Director has to make sure the whole crew is motivited every day and that they are putting in their 100%.

During Post Production, the Director turns into an artiste – as opposed to the people manager, team leader they were during Production.  This phase is where the films are really made.  The first event, Editing is most challenging for a Director.  The Director has just come off the dynamics of the set where they might have spent a lot of money getting a particular shot or there might have been an actor that bothered the Director (an actor that the Director might be tempted to cut out of their film even.)  This is where the Editor comes in.  The Editor – not having visited the sets – sees only what is within the frame lines.  They need to take the images and sounds the Director and team have captured during Production to rewrite the story everyone has worked on for so long into cinema.  Cinema has its own language with its own grammar and syntax – which the Editor know best.  At this point the Director has to trust the Editor (as they have trusted the Screenwriter earlier) to create the best story.  Of course, the Director leads the process here also – but they absolutely need to treat their Editors as artistes as opposed to people who can make awesome cuts.

Finally, moving on to Sound Design, a Director has to be aware of how important sound is to Cinema.  Although it has been mentioned above that Cinema is primarily visual, sound today is critical to storytelling.  Not only does the Director have to have an understanding of Sound Design but also has to believe that the Sound Designer has the technical knowledge to make their film sound its best.

Thus, from the time the Director is hired to direct a film till the film is completed, a Director’s job is to get the best out of people.  Hence, the Director is considered a ‘Collaborator par Excellence’.

Careers in Filmmaking

First, let us understand what filmmaking is.  Simply put, it is using visuals and audio in consonance.  Once we attained the ability to ‘capture’ capricious, impermanent human abilities like hearing (first) and seeing (later), filmmaking was born. Films, ultimately, ‘communicate’.  Communication – like sound – needs a medium for transference.  Films, thus, are another channel used for exchanging information.  It is said that Communication is the ‘Oxygen of Civilization’.  Thus filmmaking is firmly placed within what is known as ‘Media’.

Today, the Media and Entertainment sector in India is growing at an enviable rate.  According to the last KPMG report commissioned by FICCI (the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry), the Indian Media and Entertainment Industry is worth about US $15 Billion today (nearly 100 crores) – which is 0.85% of the global industry.  BUT, the Indian Media and Entertainment industry it is growing at an incredible rate of 15% Year on Year.  This is almost 3 times the rate of growth of the global industry.  Growth obviously means more opportunities for employment.  Thus this 15% growth implies that the Indian Media & Entertainment industry will require 50 lakh skilled manpower in 2018.

What is more interesting – which the statistics do not reveal – is the immense impact the Indian Media and Entertainment industry has in India – especially films and TV.  Today, India draws not just entertainment but norms, mores, lifestyle etc. from these two segments of the industry.  For example, 90% of music that Indians listen to is film music.  Turning on any FM station in any city in India or visiting a nightclub (where, scant 20 years ago, Western music dominated) will offer proof of this.

This was not always so.

When Cinema came to the West in 1885, the West was already industrialized – this was 100+ years after the Industrial Revolution, three centuries after the Renaissance.  A scientific temperament had taken hold of the West.  Machines were faster, more hardworking, more reliable than human labor.  Transportation was faster (Railways) leading to news reaching people quicker.  Skyscrapers were being built, as were Subways.  Sadly, another facet of this paradigm shift was Imperialism.  Most of the world was ruled by small European countries.

Compare that to India – here society was still primarily agrarian and traditional.  Cinema,  viewed through this prism, was considered alien, disruptive to society.  In fact, well into the 50s, Indian government tried to hamper the growth of cinema.  Thus it is natural that citizens of the nascent nation, fed on nationalism, looked down upon all that had to do with moving pictures.

Television came to the world in late 1920s, early 1930s.  This was the first time people could ‘watch’ entertainment at home.  But it took many years for TV to become the huge phenomenon it became.  Television was officially launched in India in 1959 but it wasn’t till 1982 when National Telecasts started.  This was during the Asian Games and also the first time color telecast happened in India.

Somewhere between 1886, when the first film was screened for elites in Mumbai during the British Raj and 1982, (when entertainment reached our homes and we didn’t have to ‘go’ to watch a movie), Indians’ ideas about Cinema and TV change.  The other media – press and radio were always respected.  The former was independent – the latter, though controlled by the Government, allowed access to the latest news quickly.

Today the Indian Media and Entertainment industry commands respect.  Unlike earlier, when only a section of India’s populace had access to Media (you had to have the means to afford a Radio, TV or go to the Cinema) today Media rules our lives – everyone has access.  In fact, a whole school of study – Media Awareness – has come up to deal with this incredible presence of Media in our daily lives.

Based on all of the above – the humongous growth in Media, the acceptance of Media as a respectable industry, and the incessant presence of Media in our lives, the Media Industry is seen as a go to for young students.  We can see that from the mushrooming of Mass Communication, Mass Media, Media Studies courses all over the country.

Obviously students of these courses – and their advisors – see a potential for employment.  And they are right.

Just speaking about the opportunities in filmmaking:

Used to be that filmmakers were people who had access to capital and expensive equipment and they made films for a large audience.  In the Indian context, filmmakers – especially the mainstream filmmakers made films for a pan-Indian audience.  There was a huge cost to entry.  One had to be incredibly talented or have the appropriate contacts to gain access to this crème de la crème of filmmaking.

Today, due to the digital revolution, entry barriers are practically gone.  You have a camera, you can access editing facilities – you can make a film.  But can you make a good film?  That is where training institutes come in.  The point is, to enter any profession one has to be trained in it – whether it is carpentry or brain surgery.  Once a student is trained in filmmaking the opportunities are a plenty!

There is, of course, Cinema.  Whether it is mainstream or alternate cinema.  Besides Bollywood, based in Mumbai, each regional Cinema – Assamese, Bengali, Gujarati, Kannada, Malayali, Marathi, Punjabi, Tamil, Telegu etc. has both mainstream and alternate cinema of its own.

Then there is Television.  At last count India had 700+ TV channels.  All of them need programming.  And content can only be created by filmmakers.

Television runs on advertisement – check out the huge number of advertising films that companies make as part of their Advertising and Brand Building initiatives.  These too need to be made by filmmakers.

Add to that the Rs. 5000 crore non-fiction industry.  This does not include the non-scripted TV shows such as Game Shows, Quiz Shows, Reality Shows etc., but takes into account documentary films, Corporate films and films commissioned by the hundreds of Central and State government departments.

Plus NGOs need communication done through audio-visuals.

Finally, is the personal memories industry that is turning more and more to filmmakers.  Events such as birthdays, weddings, retirement functions etc. that people want documented routinely see filmmakers engaged in capturing these memories for posterity.  Today, budgets are becoming large enough to attract professional filmmakers to such documentation.

Thus a case can be made that opportunities for trained filmmakers are a plenty today and will only increase.

As we say in the business – entertainment is a recession free industry.  People need entertainment in ups and also downs.

Final thought:  I interview over 500 students every year.  Many of them (mostly their parents – since a majority of them come from the service class) want to know about ‘placement’.  My answer is simple – we don’t do placement.  Because you (or your ward, in case of parents), chose not to do a 9-5 job.  What we do at Whistling Woods International is to prepare you (or your ward) to be the best professional possible.  After that they are on their own – supported by 1200 alumni of our Institute working as professionals in the Indian Media & Entertainment industry.  And the reason a WWI alumnus will give a job to a new graduate is because the alumnus knows exactly what the new student has learned.  And will have faith in their abilities…

Should one join a Film School or go it alone?

Essentially, filmmaking is storytelling – but it needs immense amounts of technology.  Technology that is becoming more and more available today.  Pick up a camera (your phone has one) and shoot.  Edit on one of the many free to use editing software (your laptop has one) and put it up on YouTube.  There, you’ve made a film.  You are a filmmaker.

But as anyone knows, there is much more to making films than just using the equipment.  Thus, the typical quandary an aspiring filmmaker faces is, how should I go about learning filmmaking?  There are two typical paths – attending a film school or apprenticing with a filmmaker.

The less expensive of the two is, of course, to find a filmmaker who will take you in as an assistant.  Attending film school costs money – not just tuition and living expenses but also costs of making films while during your education.  And if you factor in that you are putting in time in film school when you could be out in the industry, learning, the choice becomes tough.  Here is a quick look at both paths:



All filmmakers need assistants.  Many filmmakers are film schools in themselves – their assistants having graduated to becoming leading filmmakers.  Before film schools proliferated, this was the only way to become a filmmaker.

The great advantage of apprenticing is that you are earning while learning.  Also, you are making contacts every day – contacts that will come in handy when you start out on your own.

The downside is that, along with you, many, many aspirants are jostling to work with each filmmaker of repute.  What sets you apart?  Your enthusiasm, never say die spirit, chutzpah.  Sure.  But how do you get the opportunity to display them to the right person?


Why Film School?

First of all, film schools are set up to teach filmmaking.  Understand that filmmaking is a profession – thus, through theory lectures but more through hands on instruction, film schools strive to create professionals.

All faculty in a film school are (or were) working professionals.  You get to interact with filmmakers of different hues – each with their unique vision and area of expertise.  They will typically have hundreds of hours of working experience between them.  You will be able to tap into this wealth of knowledge.

In any decent film school you have access to good equipment.  Although technology is only an enabler – having teachers, lab assistants (who are masters of this technology) around to help you, will let you exploit technology in better ways so you can attain your vision.  Film school is where you will be encouraged to make mistakes so you can learn from them.

Finally, you will be surrounded by other film enthusiasts who will all be aiming to join the industry.  Once you graduate, in the cut-throat, real world, your batch mates, seniors and juniors will be your best support system.

Either way, realize that in this industry, it is who you know that matters almost more than what you know.  So, while film school will provide you a leg up, you will still have to spend time getting to know how the real world works and how to negotiate your space in it.

Good luck.