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Female directors find new respect in Bollywood
« on: April 26, 2015, 10:11:10 PM »

New York Times Sep 4, 2011

MUMBAI: Director Zoya Akhtar laughs as she tells the story of the Steadicam operator who worked on her first film, " Luck by Chance." He had earlier worked with her younger brother, Farhan, a director-actor who was playing the lead in Zoya Akhtar's film. Brother and sister sat behind the monitor as the operator set up the shots. After each shot he turned to Farhan instead of Zoya to check if it was all right.

The third time it happened, Zoya Akhtar could no longer stay silent. "I took him aside," she recalled in an interview, "and very politely told him: 'I am the director of the film. If you can adjust to that, it's great. If not, we can't work together.' He got extremely flustered and said, 'No, no, you are like my sister.' And I cut him off right there. I said: 'I'm not your sister, I'm your director. Can you handle it?' He said he could, and we work together all the time now."

Akhtar, 38, is among an emerging breed of female directors altering the contours of Bollywood, the Mumbai-based Hindi film industry. It has largely been a boys club behind the scenes. Though women have made inroads into editing, art direction, writing and production in the past decade, there are no studio-head equivalents of Sony Pictures Entertainment's co-chairman, Amy Pascal, or DreamWorks' chief executive, Stacey Snider.

Actresses draw the press' attention, but actors are the bigger power centers, specifically the three unrelated Khans: Aamir, Shah Rukh and Salman, who have been stars for two decades. In the past female filmmakers were largely relegated to art-house films and smaller budgets. But now Akhtar and a handful of other women have cracked Bollywood's glass ceiling by succeeding where it counts the most: the box office.

The current toast of Bollywood is Akhtar's second film, "Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara" ("You Only Live Once"). Audiences and critics have embraced the film, about three male friends who rediscover themselves on a road trip in Spain. It opened in July at No. 1 on the Bollywood box office charts, No. 7 in Britain and No. 15 in the United States. According to, which tracks grosses of Hindi movies, "Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara" has amassed about $19 million in five weeks, making it the third-biggest hit of the year here; it's still running in Indian theaters. Critics swooned over the crackling dialogue, the slow-paced but clever script and the stunning cinematography.

And at least a few remarked that a woman directed the best Bollywood bromance of the past 10 years. "Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara" was also written by women: The story and screenplay were by Akhtar and Reema Kagti, a director who is wrapping up her second film, a police procedural starring Aamir Khan.

The first contemporary female filmmaker to break the all-male stranglehold at the box office was Akhtar's first cousin Farah Khan. She started out as a choreographer in 1992 and made her mark on Hindi cinema through her distinctive, fast-paced songs. "You can spot a Farah Khan song, no matter who the director is," said the Hindi film historian Nasreen Munni Kabir, "which indicates that she is the boss on the dance set and also confirms her directing talent."

In 2004 Khan made her directorial debut with " Main Hoon Na" ("I Am Here for You"), which became the second-highest-grossing film that year, and followed it with " Om Shanti Om," the biggest hit of 2007. (Both films starred Shah Rukh Khan.) Now a mother of triplets, Khan returned to filmmaking last year with a crime caper, "Tees Maar Khan" ("The Con Man").

Interestingly, unlike earlier female filmmakers, this new generation isn't making women-centric cinema. Akhtar said she never considered turning the friends in "Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara" into women because that "would have been a very different journey." In an interview Khan described her latest film, which she is writing now, as "Ocean's Eleven" meets "The Full Monty."

"It will take testosterone to another level," she added. "Michael Bay will be proud of me."

Mira Nair, one of the first female Indian directors to become known globally, said Bollywood's new female directors "think in a more expansive way." She added, in an email, "Their cinema is a reflection of their world, keeping their own tangent, wanting the marketplace and managing."

If their films don't focus on women, these directors have nonetheless created female characters who tend to have more texture than the usual Bollywood heroine. The difference in treatment is most obvious in Khan's songs. Even when she choreographs dance numbers intended to titillate, the gaze is sensual but not sleazy.

Kiran Rao, who made her directing debut with the artsy "Mumbai Diaries" in January, is writing her second film, a more mainstream project, and grappling with inserting a strong female voice. "I'm thinking about how I can give the woman as much of a pivotal part as the man," she said in an interview here. While her motive is partly political, she said, "purely as drama and narrative also it's incomplete without a strong woman character."

These filmmakers haven't exactly come out of nowhere. Rao is married to Aamir Khan, while Akhtar is second-generation Bollywood, daughter of Javed Akhtar, a revered lyricist and writer. Undeniably, Kabir said, "these women have had a major leg up thanks to family and friends." But eventually they had to stand on their own.

Still, they wear their accomplishments and the gender politics lightly. To Akhtar, discussions about discrimination are largely a waste of time. "Of course there is truth in it," she said, "but we are big girls. Deal with it. If you can make a movie, you can also tell someone to," ahem, get lost.

Akhtar's next project is a short work commemorating 100 years of Hindi cinema in 2012. It's part of an omnibus of four films, with men directing the other three. "They are very competitive, and they are very good filmmakers," she said. "But at the end of the day you will see four films back to back, and you aren't going to care about which one was made by a man and which one by a woman. You will just say, this film is good and this isn't."