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Not much to cheer for women in Bollywood

By Priyanka Khanna, IANS


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India's women filmmakers have little to cheer this International Women's Day Monday as discrimination between sexes on-screen and off it continue to afflict their status in the trade.

The best that the so-called new wave cinema could throw up in a week that witnessed a worldwide celebration of womankind was a drama named "Insaaf", inspired by real-life situations, and the typical masala flick "Love in Nepal" where the female actor needs only to look good and dance well.

Directed by Shrey Shrivastav, "Insaaf" -- starring Namrata Shirodkar, Dino Morea and Sanjay Suri -- deals with the rape of a civil servant's wife by a legislator's son and her struggle for justice.

Once again, like the recently released "Jagoo", the graphic rape sequences are a rape of the cause and made a reviewer wonder whether "the filmmaker is protesting or promoting rape".

To be fair to the Hindi film industry, in the last two years the silver screen's portrayal of women has matured from all-sacrificing mothers and wives to exceptionally well-crafted characters like Lady Macbeth.

This has been made possible with female filmmakers bringing in their distinctive style to an industry dominated by male directors and leading ladies plunging into direction, production and heading industry associations.

Another factor is that popular female actors like Aishwarya Rai, Urmila Matondkar and Kareena Kapoor seem keen on winning the National Award rather than raking in the moolah.

It means that directors take up women-oriented films as they get star power without considerably boosting budgets, since popular female actors are willing to cut fees for good roles.

Nevertheless, much is wanting. In the last decade not one film with a strong feminist message or female protagonist has triumphed at the box-office.

India has the biggest film industry in the world but we can count the number of women filmmakers on our fingertips. The number of women directors in mainstream cinema, both Hindi and Tamil, can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Many women are making a name for themselves in the world of documentaries, where budgets are bottom-of-the-barrel, but where there is big money involved, a male has a better chance of getting funding.

Directors like Gurinder Chaddha ("Bend It Like Beckham"), Deepa Mehta ("Bollywood/Hollywood"), Aparna Sen ("Mr & Mrs Iyer"), Tanuja Chandra ("Sur") and Revathi ("Mitr: My Friend") have proved their craft, yet getting finances is an uphill task for them.

To break the glass ceiling, women filmmakers seem to be consciously avoiding making women-oriented films.

We have Kalpana Lajmi making "Kyon", Honey Akhtar marking her debut with "Armaan" and Farah Khan debuting with "Main Hoon Na", which seem to be saying that boys will be boys and men will be boys.

Trade observers say that even as efforts are being made to bridge the discrimination between sexes on-screen, the real challenge is changing mindsets.

"Only in the Bombay film industry will producers say that an actress has lost her freshness at 25. At 30, she is over the hill, and at 40, she may as well be dead," said one observer.

"Because exciting roles don't come their way after a certain age, actresses start giving up. By the time they reach 40, very successful female stars are also eager to establish that all that achievement is behind them. It is as if they need to show themselves as devoted wives and mothers, to want to be less threatening to their partner," Shabana Azmi remarked.

Hardly any film in the recent past truly reflects the real Indian woman of today. Millions of urban women are working outside the house, running households and sharing the bread-winning role. But one hardly ever sees a young woman like that in today's films.

Sensible audiences would like intelligent and sensitive women's films, but would also like to see males from the female point of view, instead of just seeing them as swaggering, muscled male fantasy figures, said a film critic.

Things might change in the near future. But most women in the film industry have nothing to celebrate on March 8!

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If you watch Manish Jha's "Matrubhoomi: A Nation Without Women" you would hope that Indian society and the film industry wakes up to the power of women sooner rather than later.

The film, which is sweeping international film festivals, is about the director's vision of an India without women because of the system of female infanticide that exists in villages.

"Matrubhoomi" explores a set-up in which Ramcharan buys a bride, Kalki, for all his five sons. Subverting the Mahabharata myth, even Ramcharan demands conjugal rights with Kalki.

Time magazine ranked "Matrubhoomi" 10th alongside Afghanistan's "Osama" in its list of top 10 films worldwide.

An escape attempt aided by a 'low-caste' servant boy fails; the boy is mercilessly hacked by the brothers and Kalki is chained to a cowshed. There, she is raped by the brothers and 'low castes', with everyone claiming paternity when she becomes pregnant.

A caste-war ensues, killing nearly all as Kalki gives birth to a girl. The Mahabharata reference gives way to the forecast of Vishnu's incarnation, Kalki, bringing an end to Kalyug.

Jha, whose "A Very Very Silent Film" won the Best Short Film Award at Cannes in 2003, said the horrifying fiction of "Matrubhoomi" is rooted in reality. "In today's India, 35 million women are missing and female infanticide is a fact we have to wake up to."

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While mainstream cinema is yet to wake up to womanpower, the so-called parallel cinema unveiled the First International Women's Film Festival to commemorate International Women's Day.

The festival showcases the works of five directors, celebrating the talent, drive and spirit of women in cinema. The films include Iranian film-maker Samira Makhmalbaf's first film "The Apple" that won the FIPRESCI Award, Special Mention, Locarno Film Festival and Australian Oscar winner Jane ("The Piano") Campion's debut feature "Sweetie".

Vera Chytilova's 1960s film, "Daisies", that was banned by the Czech government shortly after its release, and Argentinian director Lucrecia Martel's first film "La Cinenaga-The Swamp" and Aparna Sen's landmark film, "36 Chowringhee Lane", were the other movies showcased.

Tribute was also paid to the first woman filmmaker ever, French producer-director Alice Guy, who made films a century ago in 1896.

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International recognition for Indian female actors is pouring in. The 2004 Indian Film Festival Of Los Angeles, to be held April 14-18, will pay a gala film tribute to award-winning performer Kirron Kher.

Kirron's award-winning film "Khamosh Pani" (Silent Waters), directed by Sabiha Sumar, for which she won the Silver Leopard for Best Actress at the 2003 Locarno Film Festival, will be screened during the festival along with her other under-rated film -- "Bariwali" (The Lady Of The House) directed by Rituparno Ghosh.

Rituparno's woman-oriented Bengali film "Chokher Bali", which stars Aishwarya Rai, has been chosen to open the festival. The film based on Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore's novel by the same name is a period drama featuring Aishwarya as a young widow in British-occupied Bengal during the early 1890s. It will be screened April 14 at the ArcLight Cinemas in Hollywood, followed by a gala reception.

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The beautiful Aishwarya Rai was in news this week for Suresh Oberoi's announcement that he will direct her opposite his son Vivek in a romantic film.

Aishwarya has been linked with Vivek, who broke his arm this week, in real life. Ash and Vivek's first celluloid outing, "Kyun Ho Gaya Na Pyar", is scheduled for release in June.


 
 

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