Interview: Conversation With Shoma A. Chatterji on Her Latest Book

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In her latest book Through the Lens, Brightly: Women in Cinema, Women at work, Shoma A Chatterji, veteran film critic and author of 30 books, turns her attention to the representation of working women by women filmmakers. Her interest in the auteurial vision of women filmmakers dates back by many decades to her early career when she wrote a lead article for the Screen Magazine. The article gave an in-depth coverage of the films by women directors at the International Film Festival of India in Hyderabad in 1986. Chatterji’s book Parama and Other Outsiders: The Cinema of Aparna Sen, won her the Best Book Award at the National Awards 2002. Gender studies and feminist theories are central to her areas of interest. At least 20 of her 30 books are on themes related to women, which includes books of short fiction with women as the central characters.

In the present book Chatterji has analyzed nine films by nine women filmmakers. The films are spread over a period of almost four decades– from 1981 to 2018. All the nine films, except 36 Chowringhee Lane, are Hindi films set against rural and urban backdrops. The book is the result of a research project granted to Chatterji by ICSSR. In this space she engages in a conversation with filmmaker and writer Subha Das Mollick and talks about her labor of love behind this book, about her upcoming books and the changing status of women in Indian films.

SDM: In your book you have not only analyzed the nine films, but you have also outlined the career trajectories of the nine directors and discussed their other films too. In your long introduction and the first two chapters titled ‘Evaluation of Women Directors in Indian Cinema’ and ‘Women at Work’ you have not only written about the pioneering women directors/producers like Fatma Begum and Jaddanbai, but also about the Indian labor laws vis-a-vis women, findings of the Committee on the Status of Women in India and much more.

My question is, how many years of labor of love have gone into this book and how many films did you watch for writing this book?

SC: The gestation period for my book was at least five years but it is difficult to pin-point a time phase as I was researching this book even when I was writing another one. I have watched all the films mentioned in the book except some of the films mentioned in the first chapter where I discuss the history of women directors in Indian cinema. Each of the nine films analyzed I have watched at least three times.

Still from Rudaali (1993)

SDM: Quite interestingly, you have clubbed 36 Chowringhee Lane and Rudaali in one section and the other seven films in another section. Is this because the first two films were made before the era of liberalization, when the Nehruvian world view still held sway in Indian society?

SC: I wished to draw a line between the “old school” represented by Sen and Lajmi and the “new school” determined by the rest as there is considerable time-gap between the directors in Section II and the directors in Section III. Much of the sociography, the position of women, the approach of women directors had changed considerably between Sen and Lajmi on one side and the younger ones on the other side.

SDM: What precisely has changed in the new millennium? How has the new socio economic order influenced cinematic expressions, particularly those of women filmmakers?

SC: My general observation is that, women filmmakers are not at all interested in the cause of womanhood but more on cinema as they perceive it as an artistic and creative expression underlined by commercial viability. For example, rape scenes are shown suggestively, rather than in graphic details. Cinematic expression has become more sophisticated.

In general, in today’s films, the ‘item numbers’ have become rarer. We no longer have item number actors like Helen and Bindu and Madhumati. But that is also because the leading ladies are more than willing to step into the act. The dance number by Deepika Padukone in Pathan is a case in point.

Shoma Chatterji has authored 30 books

The choice of narratives by both men and women directors are diverse. Many of them are quite rooted to the ground realities. Fairytale romances have taken a side track. So have macho heroes or romantic heroes.

Many more films now have women as central characters. And actors are coming up to meet the demand. You have Rani Mukerji, Deepika Padukone, Kangana Ranaut to prove that they choose to work in films that give them more narrative importance and cinematic space. Lesser women are shown as chattels of men and families than they were before. There was a Sati phase in the 1930s-1940s where many films’ titles had Sati in the prefix of the title. One cannot imagine such titles today.

SDM: Professions of the protagonists in the nine films range from school teaching to entrepreneurship, from domestic work to sex work, from being a professional mourner to being a small time actor. Even a ghost of a sex worker comes under your lens. To my mind, Talaash is an interesting inclusion in your repertoire. What criteria did you set for yourself in choosing these films? For instance, why did you select Neel Battey Sannata instead of Sir (2018)?   

SC: I had not had the opportunity of watching Sir (2018) when I was researching the film and then writing on it. Also, I was told that the director of this film was an NRI and I did not wish to complicate my text with NRI directors. I personally felt that Neel Battey Sannata has an unusual perspective on working women from marginal classes though on my third viewing, I found some logical lapses in the film which I have clearly mentioned.

SDM: Interestingly, Neel Battey Sannata is one film in which the protagonist Chanda achieves what she had been striving for all her life. So the film has a happy ending, yet laced with a tinge of sadness. In your own words:

The end, however, is a terrible anticlimax. After some years, a grown, bespectacled and serious Appu is facing the panel while appearing for a viva as part of her UPSC exams. When the members ask what made her opt for the civil services, she says, ‘Because I did not want to be a maid’, therefore, washing away her mother Chanda’s dream at one stroke.

My question is, collectively, what kind of messages would the nine films give to the viewer? And in which of the nine films do you think a ‘message’ comes out loud and clear?

SC: In my research, I had wanted to examine whether the work status of the protagonist in these films have led to their empowerment and has this percolated down to the audience, both male and female. There is not much ‘empowerment’ visible even in characters who could easily have used their power to redefine their lives and their choices. But the social conditions are so deeply ingrained in us that we are not even aware of our empowered status. It took me more than two decades to realize that I am an empowered woman because though I am married with a family, I have been earning from the age of around 25 and am still an earning woman. But I have hardly been accepted or recognized for my ‘independence’ by the immediate family. I am a double post-graduate, a Ph.D. and a Postdoctoral scholar. If my mindset is so hatefully patriarchal, how can I really blame Shridevi’s character in English-Vinglish for being so weak-willed and accepting?

But each film made a mark on me in different ways. In Parched, I loved the metaphor of the women in the rural hinterland cutting off their hair, where hair is held as an important symbol of femininity. Also, the way that beautiful dancing woman teaches them to shout obscenities with the gender-switch from the top of a hill and finally, they all take a bus-ride to nowhere, allowing the wind to kiss their faces is liberating. In Raazi, it takes the leading lady waiting till the end to understand how wrongly she has been treated by her own father with the mother remaining a passive watcher. The ‘message’ if you want it loud and clear in Lipstick Under My Burkha which shows each of the four women fighting their own inner battles and coming out triumphant in their own way. Even when they are thrown out of their community, they sit together and share a smoke, reminding us of the beautiful Iranian film The Circle.

Nil Battey Sannata has an unusual perspective on working women

SDM: Did you interview all the nine directors whose films you have chosen for your book?

SC: I have done detailed interviews with Aparna Sen and Kalpana Lajmi as she was a very close friend of mine. None of the others were available despite trying several times. But I relied heavily on the results of my research. So it was not much of a problem.

SDM: Perhaps that is why the chapter on 36 Chowringhee Lane is so rich and such a pleasure to read. Aparna Sen has frankly discussed her directorial process, how the characters she creates take over and alter the course of the narrative and the challenges she faces as a regional filmmaker. How do you think Sen has evolved as a filmmaker and adjusted to the new ethos?

SC: I do not think Aparna has evolved much as a filmmaker per se after Mr. & Mrs. Iyer. She seems to have got caught in some kind of rut, but there are circumstances which might not be in her control. Producers are a big hurdle.

SDM: Of all the nine films only in Parched the characters take a leap into the unknown to break free from the shackles of patriarchy, even though they are not indoctrinated into the feminist ideology. I would like you to take an enlightened guess – if a male director had directed Parched, how different could the end have been?

SC: To answer this question, I fall back on my book The Male Gaze, which will be published soon. In this book I argue that Indian male directors have more or less been quite empathetic to their women characters even when they were not the protagonists. Look at Guru Dutt, Bimal Roy, and today’s filmmakers both men and women – they are able to present women as significant subjects who over time, either try to and actually do raise their voice – ‘voice’ having many connotations – and make their feelings present in the films.

If Parched was to be directed by an intelligent, talented and brave man, I think, he would end the film the same way with the women riding out to freedom or, to a different life not similar to the one they have led all along.

SDM: Do you think that the patriarchal projections of women in mainstream Indian cinema are changing? Do you think that we have come a long way from Mother India?

SC: Yes, yes, of course they are changing. We have not yet come a long way from Mother India which, in retrospect, seems to be quite melodramatic and patriarchal, but changes are quite evident. There are more women directors in the cinematic horizon than there were ever before. They are educated, aware and conscious of what they need to put in and what they need to keep out. Secondly, many actresses now refuse to play just an “object” on display with or without clothes in a film even for money or the branding. Take for example Rani Mukerji who can carry an entire film on her shoulders and steer it to success, even if not always at the box office.

Sir (2018) has broken down the differences between an employer and an employee where the former is a man and the latter, a woman with a strong sense of self-respect. Subjects and scripts are being written to play the woman card which, even when taken for commercial reasons, is a step forward. Last but not the least, women technicians and documentary filmmakers are stepping in every passing day and each one of them is committed, honest and good at their work.

still from Parched

SDM: My last question– how are the depictions of the working woman in films like Mahanagar, Meghe Dhaka Tara or Ekdin Pratidin or Ashukh or even Unishe April for that matter, different from the depiction of the working woman in the nine films you have chosen?

SC: This is a very interesting question and thanks for asking this. Actually, I do not wish to elaborate on this because all this is the subject of my next book The Male Gaze– Redefined in which I have analyzed eight Indian films directed by male directors whose films have clearly said and shown that in the Indian cultural scenario, many male directors contradict Laura Mulvey’s 1975 theory of “The Male Gaze” where she insists that since the entire cinematic apparatus is controlled and handled by men, they use the women in the film as objects and not subjects; and this includes the cinematographer, the editor, the director, and so on, who are all men. Mulvey also theorized on the assumption that the audience is all male which is not true in India at all. Not all Indian male directors or technicians use the woman’s body as a titillating object for male pleasure for the audience.

The three films you mention are analyzed in different chapters in this book; for Rituparno Ghosh, I chose Chokher Bali because of the Tagore connection. The other two you mention are already analyzed in my other book Reading Rituparno published soon after his demise. But I do not think I should go beyond this as the book will come out next year. I would only like to add that the directors you have mentioned treat their women – in the script and as actresses who enact in these films, with the respect we deserve which cuts out the “Objectification” issue completely.

SDM: Very well, we shall wait for The Male Gaze– Redefined to be released. Is there anything else you are working on?

SC: Yes, I have another book in the pipeline. It is on Amitabh Bachhan.

SDM: In your career spanning almost 40 years, you have written innumerable reviews, analytical pieces and of course 30 books. You are among the senior most film journalists in India. What will be your message to the gennext film critics?

SC: I would like to be remembered as somebody who always wrote with honesty and integrity, who has never compromised on her writing. And I would like to tell the young and upcoming writers, ‘keep your distance from the film industry. Even if you have friends in the industry, keeping an objective distance from the industry insiders is essential for the long lasting credibility of your writing.’ Thank you very much.

Images courtesy: MUBI

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