Women filmmakers who are defying conventions

by March 9, 2019 0 comments

Four women filmmakers from the Indian movie industry – Zoya Akhtar, Reema Kagti, Alankrita Shrivastava and Nitya Mehra reveal what makes them a part of the new content-driven entertainment, one where they are breaking barriers. In a conversation with Saimi Sattar

What do you get when you have four powerhouse directors who have a distinct oeuvre in one place? A swirl of ideas and thoughts that might not be linear but each of which is certainly coherent and individualistic. Zoya Akhtar, Reema Kagti, Alankrita Shrivastava and Nitya Mehra might have learnt the ropes from some of the best in the industry but now are names to reckon with on their own. The four of them have come together to collaborate on Made in Heaven, a show that is being aired on Amazon Prime, a digital platform. So while Zoya, Reema and Alankrita wrote the script where the protagonists are wedding planners, Nitya was the showrunner who ensured continuity as each of them directed a few episodes. They reveal what makes them a part of the new content-driven entertainment, one where they are breaking barriers beyond just gender.

The show is on Indian weddings, the economy and the culture around it. What were some of the discoveries you made while researching for it?

Reema: For that, you will have to watch the show (laughs). Yes, there was a lot of research that we did on the subject and found out so many aspects that we did not know about. Marriage is not big in India without a reason. It is the problem-solver for everything and an equaliser of sorts. Some of our personal and family experiences have also made it to the show. The idea first came from Zoya as she has a friend of hers who works in the business.

Nitya: Zoya and Reema recently attended back to back weddings of two of our mutual friends in Delhi. They stayed with me and since it was like a break from work, we observed everything as spectators.

Zoya: That’s when I realised that there was so much of backroom gush to produce a great magical spectacle, much like a grand film. It was a fascinating mosaic of ideas and imagination. It inspired me so much that I actually got to a desk to write about it.

How did the four of you manage to maintain the creative tempo?

Zoya: The slight style difference is welcome. The bigger picture was that the three of us (Reema, Zoya, Alankrita) wrote it and so we were already on the same page as we had come on board from the beginning while she (Nitya) was the showrunner. It was a challenge to treat the subject visually. Each wedding is episodically different, so each chapter changes how you want to treat it in terms of design and style. We had a continuity with the crew and our actors are very good. The moment they get their pitch, they do not need the director telling them what their character graph is, they know it.

Alankrita: What worked for all of us is that we went with our instinct and gut feeling.

Zoya: All four of us believe in originality and that honesty is the reason why there is a seamless flow to things.

How did you resolve creative differences in terms of show continuity, from one episode to the next?

Reema: That’s why Nitya was the showrunner throughout.

Nitya: That is a part of my job profile to absorb breaks in movement if the crew or the director changes. Not too many people know about this job because it is new. The primary job of a showrunner is to be able to bring everybody that is straying away on the same page and to whatever was decided in the beginning. We did have a writers’ and a directors’ room but we read the entire series from the first to the last episode and if any director had a problem, it was brought to the table as were the suggestions. Like Zoya said, it was nice to have different directors for different weddings. And every time someone was straying, we just brought them back.

Alankrita: We were on the same page while developing it. We knew what the location would be or what we were looking for in terms of cast. When you’ve worked on the material and been a part of the developing process, you kind of know what you want. It made it much simpler that we did not come in from the cold.

Nitya: Once the crew sets in, it is easy whether directors come in or not. If it is not working, then you just make it work.

Alankrita: And we are just this amazing set of people, so we do know how to work well. (All of them laugh).

Nitya: We also had Prashant Nair (director of episode 5 and 6) who was not a part of the process. So I understood that he needed a little more of hand-holding.

Zoya: If you’re clear about your specifics and pen them down to the last detail, work with your actors to grow into the characters… in short if your prep is thorough, there are no disputes.

Would you say that you have been able to break out of that mould of being categorised as women directors?

Zoya: I haven’t directed any typical woman-centric film and my subjects have been vastly different between projects. Yet that is what I keep hearing.

Alankrita: It is a very offensive thing to say that women make typical films. We never set a grammar for male directors or attribute content to their worldview. A protagonist is a protagonist and a story is a story irrespective of the fact whether it is about a man or a woman. The bigger question is whether you are humane and sensitive in your treatment.

Zoya: Absolutely.

Alankrita: Also, when 50 per cent of the population comprises women, why shouldn’t 50 per cent of the stories be about them? If men have been telling stories about other men without getting stereotyped, I don’t know what’s the harm in having women protagonists?

Nitya: Moreover a typical story is a typical story regardless of the gender of the maker.

Zoya: Alankrita’s Lipstick Under My Burkha was not typical at all.

How do you see the digital platform, since all of you are directing for it for the first time?

Reema: Nitya has worked on such a format before.

Nitya: Yes, I directed some episodes of the first season of 24. It was for television but still in an episodic format. This is definitely the first web series.

Zoya: A series has a different base. It has eight hours to tell a story, develop characters, get nuances and layers. There is a lot of time to develop the arc. There is no censorship and no pressure of box office and opening weekend. But you have to shoot very fast and tighten your budget. Yet I thoroughly enjoyed it and considered it a new training ground. I think I really grew up and I want to continue doing it.

Would you say that in films and web series, the projection of women is changing but the same cannot be said about TV?

Zoya: I don’t watch TV honestly because the shows don’t appeal to me or speak to me. I don’t connect with them.

Reema: To be fair, there are also a lot of films and web series that are regressive. It is not as if only this format is regressive.

Zoya: Absolutely. All TV is not regressive, just as every web series is not progressive. I guess it depends on who is serious about challenging norms, pushing the envelope and making a mark.

Would you say that the collaboration between the four of you was a learning process?

Zoya: Any project that you do, you learn. You take something from the team you work with and they take something off you. That is a part and parcel of life. There is a certain comfort and camaraderie that develops. There is a certain amount of trust that you can go to sleep with while the other person has your back. That is something that is non-negotiable. That is not something that you find easily.

Reema: The project has been going on for one-and-a- half years, so you cannot expect us to do nothing but this. So as people came and went, whosoever was there would cover for everybody else.

Nitya: It has been a true collaboration.

Zoya: That to me is very precious.

So all of you have known each other outside work?

Alankrita: We (Zoya and Reema) have know each other the longest since we were assistant directors together in our 20s. We met Nitya on the sets of Lakshya around 2003-2004.

Nitya: They were my bosses. (laughs)

Zoya: We met and we became buddies. The story about Alankrita is really weird because I read her script before I met her. I had read the script of Lipstick Under My Burkha as part of the Sundance Lab which has to be anonymous. I was vetting or judging or whatever for lack of a better word. I read the script and I fell in love with it. Later, when we were developing the script of Made in Heaven, I called up Urmi Juvekar, who is a writer and was part of the same lab, to get Alankrita’s contact. So, I was in love with her before I met her. (Both of them laugh)

Reema: We just fell into a system. I was a bit worried as Zoya and I have been collaborating for long and we have a system. But Alankrita came and fitted right in.

Alankrita: For me, it was a huge learning process as I have never really collaborated for anything from a scratch. I really wanted to work with Zoya and Reema. And it turned out to be so much fun. I think I grew up a lot through it. For me it was very new and exciting. I will really cherish that.

Nitya: In a film you really don’t get the chance to collaborate as much. You will do it with the crew. There is one DOP and you are the director. In that sense, the format is very different. Very rarely do you see that one writer is writing nine episodes or one director is doing all of them. This was more of a collaboration.

Indians are still obsessed with the idea of a big fat wedding. Is that the reason why you did this show?

Zoya: I mean, yes. World over people are obsessed with weddings. Some are big and fat and some are even one-day, compact affairs. Everyone is obsessed with their wedding day. The beauty of the Indian wedding is that it is such a massive celebration and with that comes so much hoopla.

Nitya: Which is a great backdrop for drama.

Zoya: There are generations, family, money — all of that is involved.

Nitya: The show goes really beyond the weddings. They are the backdrop, of course. The tracks of the protagonists (the wedding planners) and the turmoil that they are going through in their personal lives as they are planning them, as well as the new families that pop up in each episode… all jostle for a space in the canvas. So there is a social commentary as well.

Zoya: And there are egos.

After watching the trailer, many people have compared it to the film Band Baaja Baaraat. What do you have to say?

Zoya: People say anything. When Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara released, they said it was like Hangover. When Gully Boy trailer went on air, they said it was Eight Miles. Now they are saying Band Baaja Baaraat. The thing is that all the films that they are comparing with are good.

Nitya: There’s Monsoon Wedding too.

Zoya: We are in good company, so we aren’t comparing.

Reema: Any film that breaks the mould will always be compared.

Zoya: That is because they want to have a reference point.

Reema: Sometimes they are jumping the gun. Sometimes they are being the know-it-all.

When you were conceptualising the show, did you know there would be four directors?

Zoya: When the show got greenlit, our individual films also took off almost at the same time. So we knew that we would not be able to direct the entire season ourselves. Initially, we thought just the three of us would do it but then we realised that we had to add one more because there was no way I could direct more than two. I had to leave because I had to prep for Gully Boy.

Reema: I could not shoot any because I was shooting Gold.

Nitya: I could have directed but then I just became the show runner, so I couldn’t. Despite that, I directed the maximum (three).

Zoya: While we were prepping it, she was promoting Lipstick.

Any more plans of collaborating?

Zoya: I hope so. I feel like-minded people in the industry should collaborate. There is learning, fun and it makes for better work.

Reema: Normally when you are writing and directing alone, it can be quite lonely. So I loved having so many women around.

Photo: Pankaj Kumar

Writer: Saimi Sattar

Courtesy: The Pioneer

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