As International Women’s Day approaches on March 8, a trio of fierce female producers have a sobering statistic about the state of the Indian film industry.
Ekta Kapoor, Guneet Monga and Tahira Kashyap — who have backed the short film ‘Bittu’, which is one of 10 selected for the Best Live Action Short Film shortlist — say that a lot of work is needed to balance things out.
“We were just saying that there are less than five per cent of women directors in India who made films in the last four or five years and that’s something we need to do to work towards changing,” said Monga, whose production credits include ‘The Lunchbox’, ‘Gangs of Wasseypur’ and ‘Period. End Of A Sentence.’ which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject in 2018. However, they are not just talking at the grim numbers, but are willing to walk the talk.
Enter their newly formed collective Indian Women Rising (IWR), whose debut project is generating Oscar buzz.
On the surface, these three filmmakers Monga (festival friendly), Kapoor (India’s answer to Shonda Rhimes), and Kashyap (kooky filmmaker and star wife of actor Ayushmann Khurrana) may not seem to have much in common. But they are united in their cause to amplify women’s voices in Indian cinema and pay it forward. Kapoor is the joint MD and creative director of Balaji Telefilms, Balaji Motion Picture, and ALT Balaji, while Monga is the founder and CEO of Sikhya Entertainment.
“Guneet has all that expertise, Tahira has the intent and I come with a certain amount of experience/structure because of the company I own. I’ve done a lot of work in my life, but to have this intent in your life to set up a platform for women filmmakers was exciting,” said Kapoor, who is hailed as India’s top television mogul known for her commercial projects.
For Kashyap, a cancer survivor, the prospect of joining hands with women of a ‘similar wavelength’ was an impetus. They aim to empower Indian female talent in cinema.
We want to see more women filmmakers tell their stories … Consider it our social service.
“The statistic that only five per cent women have made films in the past four or five years in India is a very sad number. Five per cent is nothing and we wanted to do something to disrupt that status and change that equation. With our collective, we can work towards a better percentage and optimistically go up to 50 per cent representation. We intend to shine the spotlight on women filmmakers and to see more films made by them using their lens and perspective,” said Kashyap. She believes that the world is being deprived of stories told through the eyes of a woman.
“We want to see more women filmmakers tell their stories … Consider it our social service,” said Kashyap with a laugh.
Being in a Zoom video conference with them was like stumbling upon a high school party filled with uber-confident cool kids and geeky nerds. Kapoor, who altered the Indian TV landscape with her own company Balaji Telefilms, and is a prolific producer with a pulse on what the common Indian loves watching, might be the cool one. But she disagrees.
“We have an Oscar-winning producer here and a celebrated filmmaker like Tahira here! Now that’s one party that I want to gate-crash. I would love to party with these two wonderful women. They have such a wonderful sense of humour,” said Kapoor. She brought structure into the mix. The three believe that they are at the top of their games individually, but collectively they could make a bigger difference.
So, what made them choose ‘Bittu’, a 17-minute short film about a tragedy in a rural school seen through the lens of two young students, as their first project under the IWR collective? Directed by Karishma Dev Dube, the film is inspired by a real-life incident that took place in India in 2013.
“It was love at first sight for all of us … But when we first saw it, we didn’t know it will get shortlisted or go so far in this year’s Oscar race … Karishma reached out to me saying she needed support for the campaign, marketing, and sales … It was such a pleasure and honour to support her … Tahira and Ekta have added so much power to my journey with the film,” said Monga.
Kashyap remembers how Monga called her at midnight and asked her to check out ‘Bittu’ without revealing anything else.
“‘Bittu’ blew my mind and it broke my heart into a million pieces. The craft, the finesse with which the movie was made blew my mind. Everything was bang on. It’s a wonderful film … I knew we had to something and I messaged Ekta, sharing the film link … Karishma blew my mind and her film broke my heart into a million pieces … When the strings of your heart are tugged and the film comes from a genuine place, then it will work … We didn’t have any ulterior motive when we supported it,” said Kashyap.
Three of us do different kinds of work, but the one thing that binds us is that we are women. We are women with empathy, ability, and belief, but we have never used our fullest capabilities to empower other women.
While their first project under their collective is a superlative success, for these three women it was their goal to do greater good for women that held them together.
“When Tahira and Guneet sent me this film, I told them that I loved the film and the intent behind the collective. Three of us do different kinds of work, but the one thing that binds us is that we are women. We are women with empathy, ability, and belief, but we have never used our fullest capabilities to empower other women,” said Kapoor. Getting their first production shortlisted for the Oscars was the icing on their cake.
“We should be doing this … We were given these chairs to sit on through our hard work, a lot of karma, and a little bit of the universe acting our favour. So, we wanted to do the same for someone else,” said Kapoor. Monga and Kapoor go a long way back.
“I’ve worked for Ekta on ‘Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai’ for Balaji Films … I was in the lowest phase of my life then, but many years later we were at an awards ceremony together and I remember walking up to her and saying: ‘I just want to say that you inspire me a lot. I used to work for you, do you remember?” said Monga, who thought Kapoor was the most empowered woman in the Indian entertainment industry.
“Till that day, it was a one-way love affair and then it became a two-way street,” said Monga with a laugh. Monga also worked with Kashyap on a film last year after she called her and said she admired Kashyap’s work.
Start of great things
It’s rare in Bollywood to see such camaraderie and mutual admiration among women.
“And, when my ‘The Lunchbox’ didn’t get nominated for the Oscar, Ekta was the only person who called me just to tell me that I was amazing and I should continue doing amazing things … She told me that our decades of work, information gathered, success and failure have made us who we are … Our collective is just the start of many great things,” Monga said.
For Kashyap, their collective reminded her that they were her biggest mentors.
“There is nobody who’s pulling each other down here. There’s genuine happiness and rooting for each other when the other achieves something. Their hearts explode with love and happiness when I do something little … Ekta sends me 50 heart emojis and so does Guneet. I don’t know what I have done to deserve it, but our energies exist in the same universe and we have just come under the same umbrella through the collective,” Kashyap said.
While their collective will primarily promote women filmmakers with limited resources, the three women believe that the scope of storytelling should not be limited to tales about women alone.
“Women should tell women and men’s stories. They should tell vampire and Dracula stories — why not? We should not limit women to tell only women’s stories … We are storytellers at heart, but there’s no denying that a woman storytellers brings a certain warmth and gaze that acts as their lens … I don’t want to put women in a box telling them that they can only do certain kind of stories or only women stories,” said Monga.
Kapoor too leads by example.
“I have made movies about gangsters, I have made soap operas and I have also made sexual comedies … I have often been asked how can I do sexual content as a woman … We should never limit ourselves to content that will only put you on a pedestal … Tomorrow, if a female filmmaker wants to make an action film for Indian Women Rising collective or me, I am game for it. There should never be boxes set for women,” said Kapoor.
In her prolific career filled with hundreds of Bollywood blockbusters, edgy web series, and dramatic TV soaps, Kashyap wants to be the clutter breaker — a philosophy that binds the brains behind the IWR collective.
“There’s this imagery that you create for women which are limiting and asking them to follow the beaten, weathered path … We are asked to fit in as good girls … But if someone makes comments on why I make sexual content, I take on that battle and make more such films,” said Kapoor.
Their battles are steep and numerous. Kashyap wants better representation for women and better statistics that tilt in her gender’s favour.
“The way we women are represented today is that we are put on two extreme ends of the spectrum. Either we are like revolutionary queens or we are these tragedy-stricken damsels in distress, there’s not much in between,” said Kashyap. “Let’s get rid of the boxes that typecast or create prototypes for a filmmaker to follow. We just want to expand our horizons as women … Right now, there’s only five per cent of women with their own lens to their stories, we are depriving the rest … This needs to change. With our Indian Women Rising collective we intend to make that change.”
ALL ABOUT 'BITTU'
Indian director Karishma Dev Dube’s ‘Bittu’ has been shortlisted for the 93rd Academy Awards in the Live Action Short Film Category. The 17-minute short film beat 174 other films to make it to the list of ten finalists.
The short film, produced by Ekta Kapoor, Guneet Monga and writer-director Tahira Kashyap under the banner Indian Women Rising (IWR) — a ؤinema collective aimed at discovering and encouraging Indian female talent — was inspired from a real-life tragedy that took place in rural India in 2013.
A school poisoning incident forms the backbone of the story, but the real thrust is a peek into a young girl’s psychology. This film has also courted awards glory and has won the Director’s Guild of America (DGA) Student Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in the Asian American Category for ‘Bittu’.
The film has also had a brilliant festival run. It has played at BFI London Film Festival and Telluride among others.