By Claire Graman
Today, we’re celebrating the work of six amazing female Indian directors. Indian cinema, often called Bollywood, although the country contains more “‘woods”, is incredibly prolific, profitable, and popular around the world… except in the U.S., where it we don’t often see it. And, like Hollywood, the Indian film industry also struggles with sexism in front of and behind the camera.
Fatma Begum – The Queen of Silent Film
Film began early in India, in 1899, but it not for women. Film wasn’t seen as respectable for women. In fact, famous director Dadasaheb Phalke had to cast a man as his heroine for the 1913 epic Raja Harishchandra. This makes Fatma Begum’s career all the more remarkable. Born in 1892, Begum began her career as an actor in Urdu theater before acting in films in the 1920s. She quickly established her own production company, Victoria-Fatma Films in 1926. That same year, Begum wrote and directed Bulbul-E-Paristan, the first film made by a woman in India. The film centered on a queen who fought demons with her magic, but, sadly, no longer exists. Begum went on to direct more popular films and lived to the ripe age of 91. When she died in 1983, she left behind a rich legacy for women in Indian film.
Mira Nair – The International Auteur
Born in 1957 in Rourkela, India, Nair went on to study in the U.S. Her debut film, Salaam Bombay! (1988). The film, about a twelve-year-old boy living on the streets of Bombay, won the Caméra d’Or at Cannes and scored a nomination at the Oscars. Nair’s films beautifully explore family dynamics and cultural pressures including an interracial relationship in Mississippi Masala (1991), immigration in The Perez Family (1995), and arranged marriage in the Golden-Globe-winning Monsoon Wedding (2001). Her latest film, Queen of Katwe (2016) follows a young Ugandan girl as she becomes a chess prodigy. Nair also does impressive nonprofit work, such as founding a film school in Kampala, Uganda for emerging filmmakers.
Zoya Akhtar – The Rising Star
Born into a successful family of actors, Zoya Akhtar hit the ground running as a writer-director. After studying at NYU, Akhtar made her first film Luck By Chance (2009), a loving satire of Bollywood starring her brother Farhan Akhtar. Her latest film, Gully Boy (2019) explores poverty, religion, love, and hip hop. It also made the list of top ten highest grossing Bollywood films of 2019. Akhtar’s career is only rising and much of her work can be seen in the U.S. on streaming services like Netflix (Ghost Stories) and Amazon Prime (Made in Heaven). In 2019, Akhtar was invited to join the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, where she can help bring much needed diversity to the Oscars.
Deepa Mehta – The Critic
This Indian-Canadian director frequently explores feminist themes, particularly in her famous “Elements Trilogy:” Fire (1995), Earth (1998), and Water (2005). These films questions issues in India like LGBT rights, arranged marriage, treatment of widows, and the devastating effects of the Partition. Mehta rejects any sort of exoticism and focuses on uncomfortable realities of modern day India. This led to right-wing nationalists attacking the set of her film Water, which forced her to film in Sri Lanka. In addition, Mehta has also adapted Salman Rushdie’s classic magical-realist novel Midnight’s Children in 2012. Her latest film, Funny Boy (2020), tells a gay coming-of-age story set during the lead up to the Sri Lankan Civil War.
Aparna Sen – The Shakespeare Lover
Triple-threat actor-director-writer Aparna Sen works in Tollywood (the Bengali-language film industry based in Tollygunge). Born in 1945, Sen made her film debut at the young age of 16 in a film by, perhaps India’s most famous film director, Satyajit Ray. After a successful career as an actor, Sen directed her first film in 1981: 36 Chowringhee Lane. The film follows Violet, a lonely literature teacher in Calcutta, while exploring race and the effects of imperialism. This film won Sen several awards. She went on to direct many more films, including an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet and a horror comedy about three generations of women called Goynar Baksho.
Meghna Gulzar – The Challenger
Daughter of a famous poet, writer-director Meghna Gulzar began her career with Filhaal (2002), a drama about friendship and marriage. Though the film didn’t succeed at the box office, she pressed on, staying true to herself. This paid off with her films Tulvar (2015) and Raazi (2018), which were both hits. Raazi, a thriller about a female spy, is the second-highest grossing Indian film with a female star. Gulzar’s latest film, Chhapaak (2020) enjoyed great reviews. It dramatizes the life of Laxmi Agarwal, an acid attack survivor who campaigns to restrict the sale of acid. Gulzar says of her work, “I’m nothing but the stories I tell, and as the stories get more challenging, I push myself more as a writer and a director, so my craft is up to the story I’m telling.”
This is just a partial list of the many amazing female Indian directors. I hope this article will encourage you to view the work of these women and others from India. Read about other women directors of Asia Pacifc here, here and here.