Thamizh Talkies: Maiden opportunities
The author talks about the role(s) women play in creating what happens in front of the camera
A television commercial shoot we did last week with Gautham Menon threw open the idea for this column. The thought was about the role(s) women play in creating what happens in front of the camera. It was heartening for me to observe that the production was commissioned by a team of women from the client’s end; the producers (my partner and myself) were women; the assistant directors were three girls and three boys (clap clap to Mr. Menon for the ratio), and the technical crew too had women helming various departments (the still photographer and the costume team, for instance).
To set things in perspective, I stepped into cinema at a time when there were only a few women doing the work, men had been doing for decades. Women in cinema, until the turn of the millennium, were mainly heroines. We could count the women filmmakers of the time with one hand, and all of them were heroines too, beginning from Banumathy, Savitri, Vijayanirmala in the 60s & 70s followed by Lakshmi in the 80s and then Suhasini and Revathy in the 90s. Priya V broke that norm in 2004 by arguably becoming the first woman director in the South to hail from the Madras Film Institute after assisting Suhasini and then, Mani Ratnam.
It was Maniratnam who set the trend of having female assistants in his team. PC Sriram also had women as his assistants, many of who are now prolific ‘camera-man madams’ on the sets (Fowzia, Preetha Jayaraman, to name two). I began on the cult film, Anbe Sivam, whose writer and actor, Kamal Haasan, was willing to have a female assistant for the script and to take care of the costumes and look into production details. It was a stumbling-and-rising kind of experience for me, given I was totally new to the process of filmmaking, but learning from a master craftsman is better than any classroom. This was 2002.
Now, in 2018, we have a plethora of women taking on any department of filmmaking, and we also have men who look beyond the usual roles women have taken up behind the camera. A casual chat with Gautham Menon on the sets last week went something like this:
Me: So, they’re filming the making of this shoot. I’m thinking that any frame of you will have you in conversation with at least four women who are working on this project. What do you feel about it?
Gautham: It feels good. When I’m surrounded by women, I think more clearly. (Smiles)
Needless to say, the women around who were listening in were beaming. Of the many film sets I’ve been part of, this commercial we produced had the most number of women. The number of women who stood behind the monitor always outnumbered the men. The synergy between the men and women was just right, and the off-camera camaraderie set the tone of the open work atmosphere which had equal participation when it came to taking key decisions.
The main point to understand here is that we are no longer in a time where women need to be ‘given’ equal space and status. When the word ‘allowed’ or ‘given’ shows up, it automatically means the man has control. There are men not just in the film industry but also in other sectors of work who think they have ‘let’ women colleagues have their say. What needs to be understood is that a man’s right is also a woman’s. We don’t need anybody’s permission to do our work. We don’t have to be accorded special status. What we do need is equal opportunity to work and equal pay to shine on.
Having come this far, we still have a long way to go before the South industry lets go of its cliched notions. Some of them are:
1. Women are good with mere accounting but not with handling production, finance or distribution of films. Wrong. Look at the women helming production houses in Hindi cinema. The South just has to make way.
2. Women are good for coordinating schedules and handling costumes but not good with handling labour on a film set, which involves managing the field and instructing a whole lot of men on what to do. Wrong. Watch the making video of a crew which has women assistant directors, you’ll know how they can call the shots.
3. Women tend to break into tears when reprimanded and use it to get away from the situation, as opposed to men who face their mistakes. Wrong. This differs from person to person. Let me tell you, men also cry when reprimanded.
4. Women are good only to teach dialogues to actors and can’t get technical. Wrong again. The number of female editors, animators, directors of cinematography and screenwriters is increasing even as you are reading this column.