To say that women’s contributions to cinema have long been neglected – starting with early filmmakers like Dorothy Arzner and major editors such as Elizaveta Svilova (whose genius is visible in every frame of the astonishing silent film Man With a Movie Camera) – would be to greatly understate things. Nandita Dutta’s F-Rated, comprising interviews with and profiles of important Indian filmmakers, from veterans Aparna Sen and Mira Nair to Alankrita Srivastava and Nandita Das, is an attempt to redress the balance. This book is about the preferred themes and working styles of these artists, about the challenges they face as they balance profession with home life or the demands of parenthood – or cope with extra scrutiny, condescension and even sexual harassment.
The result is a wide-ranging publication that tells individual stories while also probing cinematic tropes, trends and viewer demographics: for example, Dutta discusses the much-maligned “item number” and the difference between the sequence that focuses on the performer as a sentient person (as in “Kajra Re”) versus the one that treats the woman purely as object. Some anecdotes reminded me of the depiction of 1950s Hollywood in the recent TV series Feud, about the Joan Crawford-Bette Davis rivalry set in (and cynically encouraged by) a very male world; as this book points out, so much of film history – and film criticism and scholarship for that matter – comes filtered through a male lens, a perspective that often became the accepted norm.
The author’s own biases towards “understated” (as opposed to popular or commercial) cinema does lead to some simplistic analysis, as in a description of Tanuja Chandra’s clash with a New York producer who demanded she tone down a scene involving a bereaved mother. But it also makes the book more intriguing in parts, as in the Farah Khan chapter – here is someone who makes flashy, big-budget films and doesn’t fit easy notions about the sensitive, personal filmmaking one might expect from a woman director. Dutta’s ambivalence about this comes across – it's fairly clear that she doesn't much care for the sorts of films Khan specialises in – though she acknowledges the hurdles that even someone of this stature and popularity had to cross.
One does miss a few obvious names, like Zoya Akhtar, who is briefly touched on in the Reema Kagti chapter, but then this wasn’t intended to be a comprehensive study. Also, some filmmakers refrained from participating because they didn’t care to be restricted by the label “woman director” – even though they have faced discrimination because of their gender. Among other things, then, this book is a reminder of the limitations and the unavoidability of categorisation when it comes to assessing the work of women in a male-dominated space.
[A little more about that Tanuja Chandra profile in this earlier post]