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Through the Lens, Brightly: Women in Cinema, Women at Work

November 4, 2023 | By

Through the Lens, Brightly: Women in Cinema, Women at Work, authored by Shoma A Chatterji, unearths how the ‘working woman’ has been presented in films directed by women. A Silhouette review by Somdatta Mandal.

Through the Lens, Brightly Women in Cinema, Women at Work

Through the Lens, Brightly: Women in Cinema, Women at Work

Through the Lens, Brightly: Women in Cinema, Women at Work
Author : Shoma A. Chatterji
Published by : Primus Books, 2023
ISBN : 978-93-5572-717-6
Available on : Amazon

Though a lot of material is available regarding the role of women in Indian cinema, there has hardly been any serious study till date regarding the policy of representation of the working women in Indian cinema in general and working women in films directed exclusively by women directors within Indian cinema in particular. This is where Shoma A Chatterji’s latest book Through the Lens, Brightly: Women in Cinema, Women at Work breaks new ground. It is designed and structured to focus on two significant elements in Indian cinema – (a) the image of the working women, (b) as presented and portrayed in films by Indian women directors. It poses the basic question, namely, does the gender of a director affect our perception of a film or dictate whether or not we watch a certain movie? The Indian film industry, the biggest in the world in terms of quantity, language, and culture, produces close to a thousand films a year. Yet, the presence of women as a director still appears to be a negligible amount. Very little is known about women directors who stepped into the industry years ago and left their mark in the historiography of Indian cinema.

Through the Lens, Brightly: Women in Cinema, Women at Work unearths how the ‘working woman’ has been presented in films directed by women. Most women directors are ‘working women’ themselves, with full-fledged careers of their own. Some of them also write scripts and edit their films. The volume attempts to locate whether these celluloid representations depict the empowerment of women because of their financial independence or if these women remain where they began—dependent, oppressed, marginalized and disempowered— despite their professional triumphs. The analyses of nine films by nine women directors raise some significant questions and throw up some answers, each as intriguing as the next.

The book is divided into three parts. Part I, which serves as a general introduction to the theme, contains two chapters. In ‘The Evolution of Women Directors in Indian Cinema’ Chatterji points out how the history of cinema across the world, including India, has proved time and again that women have remained trapped in a ‘denial of identity.’ The notion of identity is fluid and it means that within the social situation and the cultural backdrop of viewing of any film exists a range of positions of identification; and that within the social situation of their viewing sections of a given audience may shift subject positions as they get involved with the film. However, as the effect of patriarchal society on women directors, they have been denied any position from which to express directly an authentic female voice. The common thread discovered in the collective works of Indian women directors is domesticity and human relationships. After giving us the history of Indian women like Fatma Begum, Jaddanbai, Shobhna Samarth directing films in the early years of Indian cinema, Chatterji gives us details of later directors like Vijaya Mehta, Sai Paranjape, Bijoya Jena, Gopi Desai, Prema Karanth, Satarupa Sanyal, Sumitra Bhave, Manju Borah, Aruna Raje, Santwona Bordoloi, Ananya Kasaravalli, Deepa Mehta, to show how these women have the power, the insight and the talent to move beyond modes of expression prevalent within a patriarchal ideology. In the next chapter Chatterji gives us detail analysis of the background, problems and issues of the working women in India. She discusses the problems in a wide canvas and the data and statistics provided in this section sometimes seem digressive vis-à-vis the main thrust area of her study. However she makes one clear point when she states that Indian cinema in general and Hindi cinema in particular was dominated by male directors, which sustains till today and it was the men who pioneered the cause of the working women in their films.

Part II and Part III of the book analyzes nine significant films made by women directors where the author combines scholarly research and critical acumen to contextualize individual directors and the complexity of separating the feminine from the professional. The nine films chosen for this study, taken individually, reach out to a larger social framework where there is an inherent message woven into the structure of each film. Chatterji picks up each of these nine women directors and writes about their entire filmmaking oeuvre and then goes on to elucidate the particular film chosen for her detailed analysis. The first analysis is of Aparna Sen’s 36 Chowringhee Lane which is really a pathbreaking film because its protagonist Violet Stoneham, an Anglo-Indian teacher is a person burdened by a dual racial identity. Aparna declared that her films mainly revolve around loneliness, individuals, friendship, and sisterhood. She does not make experimental films or formula films. She only makes films that are true to her artistic vision. The second filmmaker chosen is Kalpana Lajmi who mostly chose themes that revolved around women. All her films were far ahead of their time in theme, treatment and emotional charge and here we are given details of the rare depiction of the profession mourner in her film Rudaali. It is relevant not because it is brilliant but because the subject it deals with is relevant even today –socially, politically and in terms of its casteist politics as it exists today.

Rakhee and Dimple Kapadia in Rudaali

Rakhee and Dimple Kapadia in Rudaali (Pic: Indian Cultural Forum)

The actress as a working woman is thereafter discussed in Zoya Akhtar’s film Luck by Chance which marks out the film as directed by a woman without any feminist agenda woven into it covertly or overtly and excels as a memorable self-reflexive film. As Chatterji mentions correctly, Zoya Akhtar is a director who does not wear her womanhood or her gender on her sleeve as a director and as a woman. In fact, she is one of the most gender-neutral women directors in Indian cinema who can smoothly establish her existence within the mainstream filmmakers without trying to bracket her within the ‘woman directors’ ghetto. The next analysis is of Gauri Shinde’s English Vinglish which depicts the entrepreneur as a working woman which is also memorable as a comeback film for Sridevi. The protagonist Shashi Godbole is a classic example of how the Indian woman, never mind her status as a self-respecting earning woman, learns English in order to satisfy her husband and daughter and not to realize her self-worth which has been purely incidental and achieved unwittingly. In trying to depict the plight of the sex worker as a working woman Chatterji chose Reema Kagti’s film Talaash which features sex workers not for their titillating presence but as victims of circumstances, where some want to go out of the profession while the rest remain because the world of sex workers does not offer either a choice or an exit point.

The sexual desires of Indian women in cinema that largely reflects reality is a path that filmmakers are afraid to tread on and therefore Leen Yadav’s film Parched is significant as it explores the question of female sexual desire among two women and how they negotiate their desire through their troubled lives, and a the third young woman, how she takes control of her life as a sex worker and not only decides to walk away from her enslaved life but also motivates the two women to walk out with her. Parched throws up an outstanding and unconventional vision of the sex-starved lives of women across age, occupation and courage or the lack of it and Leena Yadav’s powerful feminist statement against patriarchy in this film is praiseworthy. The working woman as a domestic maid does not strike up as a romantic proposition in real life or in cinema. So Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari’s Nil Battey Sannata marks a bold attempt. It is a niche film that addresses, explores, and investigates the dreams of a working woman from the margins, who lives with a daughter in a shanty.

The working woman in different roles comes out clearly in Alankrita Shrivastava’s film Lipstick Under My Burkha. It is a film that deals with a very unusual take on two different objects used by Indian women and presented from a woman’s perspective, both the women characters who people the film and the woman director who harbours the courage to pick up a fragile subject that dared to challenge a toxically patriarchal society irrespective of the faiths the characters belong to. It is a very powerful film because it carries multiple layers of rebellion among middle-class women. Interestingly, Shrivastava does not give the stories of these four women any closure because that is how life is and does not have happy endings. The last film discussed is Meghna Gulzar’s Raazi which depicts a secret agent as a working woman, the first of its kind in Indian cinema. Another distinction the film garners to its credit is that it is the only film featuring a female secret agent directed by a woman and scripted by two women, adapted from the real story of a woman spy.

Lipstick Under My Burkha

Ratna Pathak Shah and Sushant Singh in Lipstick Under My Burkha (Pic: Prime Video)

The common strand that places these films under a single umbrella is that they are all directed by women, and they feature working women. Taken together as a ‘body’ of work by different directors spanning a period of more than four decades, they stand out as a larger social message that, if read correctly and minutely, redefine in many ways the role, status, and position of women in Indian society.

Reading this book is indeed a rewarding experience and Shoma A Chatterji has actually provided so much information that could easily be divided into at least three separate books. As the noted film critic Swapan Mullick rightly points out at the end of his foreword, this book is evidently the result of honest and painstaking research and contributes meaningfully to the continuing debate on empowerment of women and result in a discernible change in the cinematic treatment of aspiring women in a world that is far more competitive and complex. Thus, this book is strongly recommended for all film scholars and students of cinema, as well as anyone interested in the arena of women’s studies and cultural studies in general.

More Must Read in Silhouette

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ArunaRaje: Song of Freedom

Woman at the Window


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Somdatta Mandal is Professor of English at Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan. Her areas of interest are American Studies, Contemporary Fiction, Film and Culture studies, Diaspora studies and Translation. A recipient of several international fellowships and awards, she has several national and international publications to her credit.
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