No talk of “women in Bollywood” used to be complete without someone piping up dismissively: you can count ’em on the fingers of one hand.
This statement is no longer valid. Over the years, and especially in the last couple of decades, a steady stream of bright, spirited, ambitious women have been making their way into, and making a mark for themselves, in the largest film industry in the world.
Of course, this doesn’t include the marquee names. Those are the names we have coming out of our ears, thanks to gossip rags, TV programmes and celebrity bloggers. But very few know who the stars behind the scenes are, the ones that make the ladies on screen tick, and glow.
In Change Makers, authors Gayatri Rangachari Shah and Mallika Kapoor profile 20 women “transforming Bollywood behind the scenes”. Of them, at least two have very visible public profiles. Anupama Chopra is a well-known film journalist and critic; Kiran Rao is a filmmaker and activist; both belong to powerful producing conglomerates, both power the solidly-programmed Mumbai Academy of the Moving Image (MAMI) film festival.
A few others have been occasional newsmakers. Unbelievable as it may sound, till 2014 female make-up artists were not allowed to be part of Cine Costume, Makeup Artists and Hairdressers Association (CCMAA). It was an all-male bastion. Charu Khurana’s determined battle for the right to practise her skills on a film set, was reported quite extensively. The Supreme Court, no less, had to weigh in on the right of female makeup artists to gain access to the set, and her win meant the doors that had unfairly closed to women were flung wide open.
The common factor between the women mentioned in the book is that they have had to battle the entrenched boys’ club mindset, whether they belong to the more privileged by class and education end or the makeup artist-stuntwomen end. Producers (Guneet Monga), directors (Gauri Shinde) and writers (Juhi Chaturvedi, who has written some of the most thought-provoking films in recent years, including Vicky Donor, Piku and October) recount their journey, snatches of which may be familiar to those glued to film trade journals and magazines.
The most fascinating and inspiring, though, are the hardscrabble tales, where sheer grit and gumption was required to merely survive. Geeta Tandon was “married off” to a much older man because her family could not feed her (too many mouths, too little to eat) but her new life turned out to be an endless nightmare of forced domestic labour and sex and physical abuse. She walked out with her children, and fought to make ends meet in a Mumbai suburb, working in a dhaba from morning to night.
Then came an opportunity to join a dance troupe, and shortly after, a chance to do stunts in the movies. Her first outdoor shoot was to grapple with a fire which “singed her eyebrows badly”, but which gave her a vocation she loves. Today, Tandon is one of the foremost female stunt artists in Bollywood.
Hefting bulky lights on set is not everyone’s cup of tea. Hetal Dedhia, Bollywood’s first and only female gaffer, does it with a wide grin, enjoying every minute. She got into it because she watched her father Mulchand Dedhia at work, and she’s so good that “everyone in the country wants to work with her”, according to an admiring co-worker.
These women are true change-makers, leading the way for other women to follow their path. A part two soon, perhaps?