Films Through Women’s Eyes – A Study of 17 Women Director’s of India, published by the Bangalore-based Suchitra Film Society looks at the life and works of 17 women filmmakers. Silhouette presents the chapter ArunaRaje: Song of Freedom, written by Ratnottama Sengupta. Excerpted with permission from Suchitra Film Society and Maithili Rao.
Lux Beauty Soap & Actresses go hand in hand – be it in Hollywood, Bollywood, Tollywood, Mollywood, Nollywood… since 1925! Why? Because the makers found out that when its glamour quotient was implied by the association of screen divas, the sales zoomed; after the advent of International Women’s Day, when Lux was marketed as the ‘Soap for Everywoman’, the sales dropped and – before the new era dawned in Y2K, it had to be replaced in fancy stores by Dove.
Filmmakers have, since — or perhaps even before – realised that the soft presence of a feminine body does lots to lift the spirits of the viewers and the box office buzz too. So, in so many films, our leading ladies have done anything but lead. Yet, surprising as it may sound, so few have gone behind the camera, either to produce films or to direct; even fewer have exchanged their onscreen roles for technical ones.
Thus, we have had instances from early years of a Kanan Devi or a Jaddan Bai producing films; of Arundhati Devi or Aparna Sen, an Asha Parekh or Hema Malini sit in the Director’s chair but scarcely has an actress worn the mantle of a DOP, an Editor, a Sound Designer. Meena Kumari wrote lovely poems but even her writer-director (ex?) husband did not bestow on her the dignity of a ‘lyricist’.
Suhasini Maniratnam famously came from behind the camera to teach by example a starlet who just was unable to deliver. Aruna Raje had trained in Editing at the FTII and then co-directed Shaque with her then husband Vikas Desai. Farah Khan started as Dance Director and graduated into a full-fledged Director. Revathy, Deepti Naval, Nandita Das, Konkona Sen Sharma, Pooja Bhatt, Satarupa Sanyal all made their mark as actresses and then donned the Director’s hat.
But did anyone ever wonder why Zoya Akhtar never followed her brother Farhan’s example and turn from direction to acting? Meghna Gulzar had her mother’s dazzling looks but once she got into the director’s shoes, did she ever think of taking to acting? Mira Nair, Deepa Mehta, Kalpana Lajmi, Reema Kagti, Gauri Shinde — will any one of these eminent names ever lead the cast of any film? No, because they are not in the marquee for adding glamour quotient to the screen.
So, no, ladies with glamourous looks will continue to perform in the individualistic niche of acting where they don’t have to take responsibility for what they do: they will not worry about lighting the sets, nor soil their hands by physically ‘cutting’ a film. Carrying a camera on your shoulders is a thankless job, so much more easy to smile into the camera.
Aruna Raje Patil, then perhaps 20? – had gone to the Film and Television Institute of India to train to be an actor. Encouraged by her mother to watch matinee shows three to five times a week since she was a school going kid, her heart was in that stream. With her siblings she would do all kinds of play acting at home: Sometimes they were pirates on high seas fighting with wooden sword; sometimes they would sing and dance. Why, she had also acquitted herself well in intercollegiate plays and brought home awards for acting! That was why, despite studying medicine purely on merit, she quit Bombay’s Grant Medical College after a year.
The offers she was getting to act in Hindi film were serious, and many. But there was the fear of the industry: ‘I was afraid of the ‘reputation’ this industry had, of being bad to women. Yes, the infamous Casting Couch was a real fear.” But seeing her keenness to act, a family friend suggested that Aruna should go to FTII – “a trained actor would not be exploited,” they said.
However, for some reason she couldn’t deliver on the D-Day at FTII – “I was given a dreadful piece to act!” Aruna recalls and she was not accepted for the Acting Course which had three other girls – Rita Saluja, Shobhana Shah and Naseema. Crestfallen, Aruna initially rejected the suggestion to do a double diploma in four years — primarily, do the Editing course and then the Direction as she already had an understanding of the celluloid art she’d soaked in sitting in theatres, “all the big banners from the MGM Lion to the Mehboob Khan productions.”
On hindsight, that rejection was a blessing in disguise. Being one of the few girls among many boys she not only got proposed every other day — eventually Aruna emerged from FTII as the first trained woman technician. For, she had mastered the ropes of cutting the raw material of cinema, arranging the shots in an order that would make the narration more absorbing, and stitching up a riveting film. In the meantime, she had also attended Direction classes and geared up to call the shots as a director.
Today Aruna herself encourages more girls to join “at every level of filmmaking and film studies too,” to set right the inequity that she witnessed. Even in FTII, “for years, there was no woman teacher,” she remembers. Perhaps to correct the gender ratio, Aruna has taken to imparting the knowledge she has garnered over the years to young aspirants of the art as the Dean of Acting in Whistling Woods, a film school in Haryana, as much as Guest Lecturer at her alma mater.
This was perhaps bound to happen.
In the mid-1960s women of India were not only winning beauty pageants – remember Reita Faria, the first Asian Miss World who went on to qualify as a physician? They were also rising to be pilots and Prime Minister. Aruna, good at solving crosswords, jigsaws and puzzles, was a tomboy who loved to climb up trees and find a perch in the foliage so that she could keep on reading her books. When she joined FTII she had people like Mani Kaul, Kumar Shahani and Shatrughan Sinha for her seniors. “Kaun kambakht bhool jaaney ke liye pita hai?” – the actor-to-be would speak out Dilip Kumar’s famous lines from Devdas, every day. “Main to pita hoon ke bas saans le sakoon!” — and all the others would break into clapping. Every day.
Jaya Bhaduri was a year junior to Aruna. She was a delightfully mischievous spirit who would come and wind the reels as Aruna worked on her course. And when a holiday break came up, Jaya and Aruna would stay with the Desai family in Mumbai as Vikas Desai was a senior at FTII. (Vikas’s uncle Vasant Desai composed the music for Jaya’s debut film Guddi.)
Coming out of FTII, Aruna faced prejudice from the industry. A, she was a woman; and B, she was doing what so far only men would do. The first part she could handle: Though grown up, the tomboy within was fearless. “I was not afraid to go to the red light area,” she recounts. “I also carried a flick knife for years – khachak! It would open at the press of a finger.”
As for the editing part? Whether in Mumbai or Mysore, the industry people felt that filmmaking cannot be taught in a school. Aruna recounts one experience of editing the Kannada movie Vamsha Vriksha that remains vividly etched in memory. “We reached Madras and found that the laboratory in Mysore had printed the RR print out of sync. Promptly they blamed me!” They beamed as they thought they had scored a point against film school training. “In reality, they had mismatched the standard leaders on the picture and sound negatives while printing.” Aruna’s technical knowledge saved the poor producer as she “got the sound on a magnetic track and matched that with the picture.”
Vamsha Vriksha (1972) was the first feature assignment she had got outside FTII as an editor. Directors Girish Karnad and B V Karanth had faith in the editor who was equipped with training, but they were unnerved when she showed up in a wheelchair, having met with a major accident that had left her with broken legs and a badly damaged face with a broken nose! The entire unit’s opinion of women technicians changed when they saw Aruna eat sleep and work in the lab on the first floor because she could not negotiate the stairs. “For six months I was in the wheelchair, and then I learnt to walk with crutches…”
Shekhar Kapur, a good friend, would often accompany Aruna when she went to teach media studies at Sophia College or elsewhere. When he directed Masoom, for which Gulzar had written the script, he got Aruna to edit the film. “Why cut the scene here?”— he would ceaselessly ask, “why not there?” By then splicers had come into usage and Aruna found it easier to cut and show the impact rather than talk about it.
“Those days we would wear gloves and use scissors to cut the film. We scraped the emulsion with shaving blades, then matched the perforation holes and applied liquid cement. So strong was this that a film could tear but not the joint! And if you cut it wrong, your frame was gone! No way could you restore it. We had to work to the precision of 124th of a second, and we would have tremendous fight for that 124th second!” Aruna looks back on the experience with a smile.
Of course, all that changed with the arrival of the digital technology. “We cut the film with our own hands, joined it, exposed it… But for years now everything has gone technical. It has evolved, from celluloid to analogue to digital…” Aruna badly misses the celluloid film – “holding the film in my hand, splicing it, smelling it was an entirely different experience!” But she not only mastered the new technology, she re-oriented herself to the brave new world.
Aruna speaks about the changes that have come in sound recording too. “In the earliest films an orchestra played sitting in front of the screen. Then playback came, and music was recorded by orchestras in huge sound-proof rooms – all the musicians playing at one go. Today music recordings take place in small cubicles where the musicians are recorded one at a time and the layering is done later!”
Technology evolves just as a person’s thinking evolves with the growth in lived years, Aruna maintains. And one must speak the language that is current, one cannot afford to be archaic, she teaches. “Full 52 years ago I came out of FTII but I am still learning because technology is changing even as we are talking. So, if you are making a film in 2022, you have to be alive to what is happening in 2022,” she imparts what she has garnered through life to her students – be it in the Rohtak Film School in Haryana; as the Dean of Whistling Woods in Mumbai, or to the Film Appreciation students in her alma mater, Pune’s FTII.
In the early years when she was fresh out of FTII Ad films came in plenty to the duo of Aruna and Vikas, who were by then husband and wife. “We were seen as some whiz kids,” she gleams. For, between them they were shouldering the responsibilities of script writing, editing, and directing, advertisement films and documentaries. Acting too was not outside the ken of their expertise! Because Aruna was enriched by three-fold experience — as an avid viewer since her childhood, encouraged by her mother; as a student trained in every department of filmmaking; and, by this time, a practitioner of the art.
When it came to making featuring films, she found that scripting was the easier part of making a film: finding finances — a producer, in short — was the more difficult part. Often money was not in question, but their aesthetics would not match. She recounts the story of casting for Shaque as an instance: “We did a screen test with Waheeda Rehman, and we wanted to cast Amitabh Bachchan opposite her. But the producer flatly refused to that because all his films till then had flopped at the box office.”
So Vinod Khanna was brought on board but his pairing with Waheeda Rehman did not work! That’s where the seasoned actress showed her magnanimity. “Aanewale log jaanewale ke liye intezar nahin kartey,” she said, asking the debut directors to move ahead without glancing back. “So we took Shabana Azmi who had just done Ankur.”
In those days actors shot for two hours on one set and two hours on another because there was no concept of going ahead with the journey of a character. Vinod Khanna, when he started working for Shaque, was taken aback to see the directors doing everything — even what ADs and spot boys were expected to do on the sets of mainstream Hindi films. For, being petite, Aruna was nimble foot and would even climb up the catwalk to check the lights as she prepared for a shot. “This was nothing compared to the heights I would climb for the industrial shoot!” Aruna smiles.
If this sincerity and commitment towards her work made people look upon her as if she were a ‘Stunt Queen,’ it won over Vinod Khanna. They struck such a bonding that a journalist had asked, “Do you expect us to believe that Vinod Khanna listened to a chit of a girl like you?” “Ask Vinod Khanna…” That’s all she had replied. If the person needed any more proof of the pudding, he had to wait only till Aruna struck out on her own, to make Rihaee after her divorce with Vikas.
The divorce was a double tragedy for Aruna. Gagi, their twelve-year-old first born who had been suffering cancer, died one morning and the next day Vikas, her dearest friend, her batchmate, her partner who had fathered her two children, wanted to marry her closest friend! “Within 24 hours I had lost my daughter, my husband, and my friend. I tried to take my life but couldn’t. I had a little boy to take care of,” she told me, whom she has known since I was a girl of 12. “I can’t live and I can’t die, I am such a super flop!” Aruna had then shared with a psychiatrist friend.
The darkest of moment is often a turning point too. Aruna sought refuge in what she had learnt to do best: make films. Thus came Rihaee – the bold tale of a village where the men go away to the cities to earn their livelihood while the women are left to look after the seniors, the children, the cattle, the farm. They were ‘manning’ their homes and the village too but god forbid if they so much as looked at another man — a liberty their husbands took with other women, to satisfy their own biological urge in the cities!
“Extramarital affairs have always been there in society,” Aruna observes. “But no one understands women’s need, their desire, their expression, their freedom,” she realised when the film released. Quite naturally, women who saw the film were happy to ‘find a voice’ but men protested vociferously. “Our women are not like that!” they asserted, “you are spoiling our women!” In Lucknow and Bhopal husbands did not allow their wives to go to the theatres. Even during press conferences in the metros, the men accosted her, “What do you want — sleeping rights for women?” And a South Indian producer who was chairing the National Film Awards jury that year went so far as to say, “This film should not be considered for any category.”
However, the director noted that the men watching the movie in theatres unfailingly clapped in the Panchayat scene which had a lot of anti- men dialogue. Aruna was not baffled: “In the darkness of the auditorium where you are nameless, faceless, genderless, you are cheering for the underdog.”
Over the greater part of the globe women have been the underdogs for centuries. And since childhood we have the urge to protect the underdog. Don’t we always want to bring home the stray puppy? Aruna did. And when she grew up, she realised that women were always deprived of their due. “A ‘Maa’ was always eulogised as ‘Devi’ but young women were always exploited,” she noted. “Seldom were they accorded the status of an equal in society.”
Aruna always wanted women to be seen as an equal but how can two creatures created differently by nature be equal? “Only if they are given equal opportunities,” she concludes. “You simply cannot treat them as less than animals!”
Though seeking and striving to empower women, Aruna never wanted to turn men into villains. She was seeking a new equation between the two. One, where both would understand each other and respect each other. “But the conditioning of the patriarchal society over thousands of years comes in the way of their functioning as equals,” she sighs. Even when they made Shaque, a murder mystery, they layered the love story of a husband and wife who trust each other completely: They layered it with the dilemma of a woman of principles who does not want a life with a criminal.
Aruna would love to continue to empower women — “that’s the only way to make a difference.” And cinema to her is a mode of empowerment. For, she knows from decades of experience now, “if you can tell a story well, you can reach anyone anywhere.” So, whatever the story that structures her narrative, she ensures that the characters are as real as flesh-n-blood men and women. “Characters are sacred” to the filmmaker who was born to a mother who engaged in social work and a father who opened a school in their Karnataka village that became a college.
Aruna, naturally, has steered towards making not only films but also documentaries. Because? In fiction you create the reality, while in documentaries you enter their world and depict it with as much authenticity as you can muster. Some of her subjects, like the renowned dancer Mallika Sarabhai, are empowered women who shine brightly in the firmament to show the path to millions of wanderers. Some live condemned lives in Red Light areas. Some, like the protagonists of The New Paradigm (2002), Behind the Glass Wall (2015) and Firebrand (2019) are bipolar, or schizophrenic, or autistic who find release for their frustration in dancing or acting. Has she then shifted from being a creative artiste to being an activist? “Truth is where the camera is,” Aruna asserts. So, if her belief in the characters she has shifted focus to makes her an activist, so be it.
Her efforts have started to yield result, and not only in the form of multiple National Awards. In a male-oriented industry that did not fancy taking orders from women, one where she had to work several times harder, both at home and on the sets, to prove that she knew her job as much as Vikas Desai did, Aruna Raje Patil is now a name uttered with respect. “Women generally put everyone’s needs before their own. Even lady judiciaries forget to claim freedom: these women in positions of power, so strong on the outside, hardly mattered in their respective homes for their designation. And even the judges among them were arrogantly addressed, in a demeaning manner, during court hearings.” Aruna trained these ’empowered’ ladies to develop self-esteem so that they would use the power accorded to them by the State. And when she did the workshop with men? “They learnt to be equally compassionate, to accept women as equals.”
Aruna has recorded the journey of her own life in Freedom: My Story. When I read her autobiography, I get an insight into not only her relationship, her driving force in life, her understanding of Cinema – and I understand her need to work towards social justice. “Freedom to be, freedom to think, freedom to talk, freedom to express, freedom to live life of your choice…” Aruna dreams for every woman the dream that has come true for her. And I am reminded of these lines of Tagore, the Universal Poet:
Woman I am,
Sings my tune on moonlit nights.
But for me, the Evening Star
Would lose its shine,
And the bower its flowers…
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