Tamizh Talkies: Women behind the reel
The writer is a former journalist who has worked in the film industry for several years and is passionate about movies, music and everything related to entertainment
The importance of a role for women in the context of Tamil cinema has evolved and is moving towards a better place, just as much as it is in society. Women as actors and technicians, producers and investors for a film, are getting added to the existing 'can count with a single hand' number. And this evolution is a welcome change. Of course, there are things which get done because we are women and things which don’t get done for the same reason. Let’s talk more on the latter while acknowledging the former. Some male counterparts say that our messages get a response and so, maybe, we get that first meeting, but this is not entirely true or false. It always depends on the person we call. Being a woman in filmmaking, and not an actor, is no dream run. I can write with first-hand experience on this as the opportunities for women technicians and producers are quite few and far in between, and the doubts raised are typically like this: “Can a woman cinematographer shoot action sequences?” "Can a woman producer handle crores of the budget, and close business deals (this does not apply to women who belong to the family of a male producer)?" “Can a woman director manage all the men on set?” These are but a few queries that get gently pushed your way if you are a woman working in the South film industry. This is not by all but most 'opportunity-givers'. Oh, and there is the mother of all cliche job descriptions: "We need a female assistant director to handle costumes and tell dialogues to the heroine”. I know of many male ADs who do this job just as well. I say this of the South film industry because the Hindi film industry has long evolved and has shown enough merit to counter most of the 'queries' you have read here.
For every sentence I have written, I know I will be shown one example of a woman who has been there and done that. But we women in cinema are not just one; we are one too many. Mani Ratnam was perhaps the first male director who encouraged the presence and contribution of a female assistant director on his sets: Priya V (director of Kanda Naal Mudhal) who had earlier assisted Suhasini in her debut directorial, Indira, was perhaps the first to emerge as a female filmmaker of merit in the new millennium. We did have women filmmakers before but they were heroines like Bhanumathi (Tamil & Telugu) and Vijayanirmala (of that Elanthapazham song fame), and then Lakshmi, Suhasini, and Revathy all emerged as directors but the sustained process of becoming a filmmaker by studying for it, assisting a director and then directing their own film, was perhaps first done by Priya. And from then on, our tribe increased, and today, we have Sudha Kongara whose Soorarai Pottru with Surya, I’m eagerly waiting to watch. A 'camerman woman' I know who’s doing some good work now (and it’s taken her two decades to break the glass ceiling) is Preetha Jayaraman (she recently shot Vaanam Kottatum). She handles both hand-held and forty feet crane shots with equal ease (oh, and she can shoot action sequences just as well by the way!).
Today, we have more than one college in every city that have specialized courses for filmmaking--the creative and technical courses mainly but not much for film production per se because it’s largely seen as a role which requires just money. I’m truly happy to note that the ratio of women to men in these filmmaking courses has only increased over the last decade.
I recall how a decade ago, I was given smart advice that to become a film producer, I needed more than just money and that I could perhaps go to Mumbai and try out as an Executive Producer first, as companies like Yashraj Films (Aditya Chopra) & Dharma Productions (Karan Johar) hired only women as EPs and casting directors. It's ten years since, and the number of women in cinema has quadrupled in the Hindi film industry, but it has not been the case here. The key deterrent in my humble opinion, is the undercurrent of patriarchy that seeps into everyday interactions with women. For starters, explaining the job of an Executive Producer to even your mother a few years ago, needed more than twenty minutes because nobody had heard of that job then. So, both my family and even some people in the film industry were clueless about its 'career graph'. The role wasn’t that of a director, cinematographer or heroine which were more visible, tangible elements of a film, and so, this job was not taken as seriously as it is now. Running a film production is akin to running your home: You have to take care of the finances (monthly budget/film budget), the people (family/cast and crew), the process (well being/filmmaking) and the product (the overall household/film). When a woman is expected to/automatically entrusted with running a family, isn’t she the more deserving candidate to run a film production?
Of course, only talent and experience can tell whether a man or woman is a better fit for the job and a film has many more departments which require HR skills of completely diverse proportions to that of handling just relatives, but the metaphor still holds true. Also, in general, the perception of old school naysayers in any field of work is to segregate women to mere execution, and not deal-making which is where the whole project begins. Today, we have women who are emerging as skilled negotiators for getting finance for a film and are able to negotiate the sale of a film as well, be it for distribution or satellite or for determining the business for an upcoming film. The number of women in these fields can again be counted with one hand but this is a specialized aspect of filmmaking and it requires networking and insight. Aditi Ravindranath is a name I can instantly recall a woman who can handle this field of work in cinema with as much skill as any man.
Today, we also have women in cinema who are getting beyond being creative (as writers and directors) or being behind the camera (cinematographers, choreographers, editors, sound engineers, make up artistes, costume designers, EPs, music directors—need more here as well, as I can only think of Bavatharini and Shruti Haasan...) We need them to also become producers and IPR owners. Here again, the count of women to men is few only but I’m glad to say that most of us are the early birds who have taken flight, in the hope that some day soon, our flock will fill the sky.