NOT ABOUT SWASH-BUCKLING AND SWORD-SWINGING HEROESby Vinta Nanda May 2 2023, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 13 mins, 9 secs
Here’s an interview of Dr Shoma A. Chatterji, about her latest book ‘Through the Lens, Brightly: Women in Cinema, Women at Work’, and about other things, by Vinta Nanda
A short synopsis of the book written by author, Dr Shoma A Chatterji, as it reads on the website of the publisher, Primus Books is as follows: Through the Lens, Brightly: Women in Cinema, Women at Work unearths how the ‘working woman’ has been presented in films directed by women. Most women directors are ‘working women’ themselves, with full-fledged careers of their own. Some of them also write scripts and edit their films. The volume attempts to locate whether these celluloid representations depict the empowerment of women because of their financial independence or if these women remain where they began - dependent, oppressed, marginalized and disempowered - despite their professional triumphs. The analyses of nine films by nine women directors raise some significant questions and throw up some answers, each as intriguing as the next.
Dr Shoma A. Chatterji is an Indian film scholar, author and freelance journalist. She has been the recipient of a number of awards including the National Film Award for Best Film Critic in 1991, and the National Award for Best Writing in Cinema for her study of the works of Aparna Sen in the publication Parama and Other Outsiders: The Cinema of Aparna Sen (2002). Notably, she is the only woman to have won both the national awards. She is the author of several biographies including those on Pramathesh Barua, Ritwik Ghatak and Suchitra Sen.
Chatterji was a research fellow at the National Film Archive of India, following which she was a senior research fellow at the PSBT Delhi and then at the Indian Council of Social Science Research. Born and educated in Mumbai, Chatterji has two Master's degrees in economics and education and a PhD in Indian cinema history. Following her education, she was a lecturer in economics until 1991.
One of the high points of my life was a recent interview that Dr Shoma A. Chatterji did, soon after she saw my feature length documentary film #SHOUT, which traces feminism in India and contextualizes it to the #metoo movement of 2018. It’s funny that we’ve floated around in the same spaces for years, but collided with each other, and exchanged notes only a few weeks ago. A great admirer of her journalism and her knowledge of cinema, it was a thrill to be interviewed, and written about, by her.
Also, I wondered why she has not as yet been featured in The Daily Eye, this online publication that I run, where a few writers like myself have been capturing the best of contemporary culture, literature, people and cinema for more than three years. Apart from one section of an article written by my friend and colleague, Aparajita Krishna, on women journalists in Indian cinema, Shoma has not been written about at length here, therefore it is an honor to be doing this.
In the process of doing this interview, she said to me: I would love to add a mention of my book ‘Woman at the Window’ published by Harper Collins, which the publisher did not bother to market or publicise at all so it fell by the wayside. For the first time in the history of Film Studies across the world, I have explored, analysed and dissected Ray's films adapted from Tagore's works to show how Ray transcended the limits of literature through cinema. I have done this by linking objects with characters in the films that do not exist in the original stories. Examples - the Lorgnette of Charu in Charulata, the rupee coin in Postmaster, the jewellery in Monihara, and so on. This is an extension of John De Baudrillard's Object - Value System - it is somewhat like the badge number 786 worn by Bachchan in Deewar, or, the lipstick in Mahanagar.
I understand where she is coming from, why she wants a piece of work spoken about, that has not got its due, therefore I mention it here before I take you to my interview with Shoma - the journalist, writer, author and the scholar.
In a recent interview you have said, “I believe that our cinema has largely presented a rather monolithic image of masculinity, which is not true of any culture across the world especially in India”. Elaborate.
Answer: Indian cinema reveals a wide variety of masculinities in the male protagonist, from God figures drawn from Hindu mythology to saints derived from the stories of saint poets, from swash-buckling, sword-swinging heroes whose aim is to rescue damsels in distress to the generous, kind-hearted, affectionate and self-sacrificing hero who gives up his love for a greater cause. With rare exceptions, the representations of masculinities of the male protagonist in mainstream Hindi cinema has been largely hegemonic because the films and the sources they are traced back to – literature, real life, newspaper clippings, religious icons and historical leaders - have imbibed their values directly from patriarchy, the dominating ideology of the country barring a few matrilineal ethnic groups that began to fade with urbanization and industrialization. But these images do not coincide with the masculinities one encounters in Bengali cinema, barring few exceptions.
‘Masculinities’ are not the same as ‘men’. To speak of masculinity is to speak about gender relations. Masculinities concern the position of men in a gender order. They can be defined as the patterns of practice by which people engage that position. Among the signifiers of masculinity in Bengali actors during the 1940s into the 1970s, the most predominant is the cultural structure of the Bengali Bhadralok, which, sadly today, is an inherited culture of our past reduced to ruin and decay but conveniently explained away to globalization and its contents, or discontents.
Today, the ‘bhadra’ has either disappeared or faded from contemporary Bengali heroes who have fiercely retained the ‘lok’ of the earlier term bhadralok, while the prefix Bangali (Bengali) slowly but surely made place for a more cosmopolitan, crude, colorful, loud and brute screen hero with a hybridized masculinity borrowed from Southern and Bollywood cinema imposed on the “Bengali” cinema of the day.
When you say that in your book titled The Male Gaze-Redefined, that you separate Vijay Anand’s Guide, and Guru Dutt’s Chhoti Bahu in Sahib, Bibi Aur Ghulam, from most other films made by male directors, and you also talk about ‘the fluidities in the same character as it evolves over the narrative space', I believe what you are saying is that very few male film directors have been able to peel the layers of a woman’s character. Do tell more.
Answer: I am not saying definitely that very few male filmmakers have been able to peel the layers of a woman’s character. I am trying to say that the idea does not arise in most men director’s minds because, firstly, the industry is very patriarchal, and secondly, because it is patriarchal, the financial controls, exhibition controls and even the audience in some way influences the way male directors think they should make films with secondary or marginal, or vicarious roles for women, or for that matter, presenting women as victims. Vijay Anand has made patriarchal films too. But for Guide, he was able to present Rosy as a woman who began to live life on her own terms and live with a man outside of marriage and cannot be controlled by him.
For example, Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur is extremely patriarchal and makes use of its women characters in very sensual and physically exploitative ways. But the same director changes his stance in a film like Dev D, which is not only very democratic but also openly depicts the sexual desires of women and for a girl who steps into prostitution not to be embarrassed by the profession she is in.
My own belief is that hybrid models of storytelling, today, because of attempts made to globalize storytelling, are eroding identities and cultures with the throwaway content that is being churned out (hyped for immediate ROI and easily forgettable), and not evolving stories by planning for films to have longer shelf lives. As a film critic who’s been around for several years, what are your views about the evolution of Indian cinema in the last 20 years, both popular and art house?
Answer: As far as I have seen for so many years, the schism between art cinema and mainstream cinema has long disappeared. Mainstream cinema can be as good, as bad, or as indifferent as off-mainstream cinema.
What is lacking in the consistency among contemporary filmmakers in producing quality films one after another. I remember I could recognize the director from a single scene in a given film without having seen the whole film. I could say that this scene is from a Guru Dutt film or a Mehboob Khan film.
Each one had a particular style, approach, way of planning and execution. Globalization and too many films made by the same director within a brief time, the desperation to reach the finishing line in the numbers game, has not produced a single Bimal Roy, Shyam Benegal, V. Shantaram or Guru Dutt in so many decades. The directors today do not have the auteur signature earlier directors were known by. An Aditya Chopra film looks just like a Karan Johar film or an Anurag Kashyap film. In earlier times, would a film like Pathan have made the box office jingle the way it is now?
Do you see popular and art house cinema merging in the coming days, or will the invasion of streaming platforms further trivialize storytelling?
Answer: It has already merged beyond recognition. But OTT has opened up channels of viewership not available before - such as short films, documentaries, anthologies, which cried for viewership or did not have any earlier. I am very, very optimistic about the independent documentary movement in India. They are doing extremely well though the exhibition is limited to festivals. But with festivals also opening online, there seems to be hope at the end of the dark tunnel. But OTT is also producing some trash as digital filmmaking has made cinema accessible to anyone from a dhobi to your housemaid so in pandering to them, instead of elevating their consciousness, the intention behind the storytelling suffers.
Tell us about the idea, need, intention behind your latest book, Through the Lens Brightly - Women in Cinema, Women at Work, which takes a look at women film directors of India.
Answer: Aims to explore, analyze and critique the versatility and dynamic presentation of the working woman in Indian films, spanning a brief history of early films depicting the working woman to arrive at the turn of the 21st (1980 to 2019) century. The study will try to establish the way women directors look at women and their working lives, in terms of economically productive work.
Films directed by Indian women filmmakers that explore, analyze and critique the treatment, presentation, style and approach, who chose the path to make both off-beat and mainstream films, perhaps, creating a different genre of Women’s Films.
This is a contextual study based on the textual analysis of the films chosen for each director. The main aim is to try and find out whether the working women in these films, presented from the perspective of the filmmakers, are empowered by their work identity and therefore, try to explore the question of whether they draw strength from their work identity to counter the struggles of being women, or, whether their status quo remains the same, work or no work.
These films are strongly relevant, raise questions, and perhaps also offer answers about the position of these women within the families they belong to, within the socio-cultural framework of which they are an integral part, and within the politics of representation of women in Indian cinema placed against the backdrop of patriarchy. The films have been chosen on the basis of (a) representations that have taken account of the working woman as a distinct individual and (b) representations of occupations – common and uncommon - the women are engaged in with degrees of fluidity and contradictions;
Till date, there have been very few books based on a study of the politics of representation of the workingwoman in Indian cinema in general and working women in films directed exclusively by women directors within Indian cinema, in particular. The study will try and stress how the women in the films chosen for the project, personify through their characters and their inter-relationships, this timelessness.
These powerful words occupy space in the introduction to your latest book: As filmmakers, women date back to World War I, but in terms of numbers, they have been minimal. Thus, the omission of women from auteur studies is almost universally ignored when critics draw conclusions from their findings and generalize what they have learned from their studies of the work of men auteurs. If and when auteur critics and film scholars turn to the study of women directors, they typically look for ways in which women directors conform to or diverge from patterns found in the study of men directors. With the Western tradition of dividing human nature in dual but parallel streams, attributes traditionally associated with the masculine are valued, studied and articulated, while those associated with the feminine tend to be ignored. Why do you feel this way, and also think it is important to document the works of women filmmakers?
Answer: Again, women directors have told me themselves that they are constrained by the limitations of finance, producers not wanting to put in money as they cannot depend on women for whatever reason, and the films not doing well in the final analysis. So, it is all for “playing it safe” and, maybe, some women directors do not wish to move out of track. The very purpose of my focusing on a book on women directors is to focus on a few women directors who have taken the onus to counter patriarchy not necessarily by showing men as victimizers and women as victims but by making films in what they believe. Yet, within the same scheme, I have roundly criticized the film ENGLISH VINGLISH because the director pretends to be democratic and egalitarian but actually is towing the patriarchal line without being caught on the wrong side.
You have set out to discover the following (as reads the introduction to your book): (a) the male monopoly in cinematic narratives, (b) created new and radical definitions of the celluloid woman different from the mass representation of celluloid women created by men directors, (c) how distanced or how close these celluloid representations are from the working woman in real life circumstances. What are your conclusions at the end of this journey?
Answer: For that, you will have to read my SUMMING UP chapter in the same book. It is just too long to reproduce here.
Lastly, tell us about where you are headed from here with your writing?
Answer: If I am still around, I will be celebrating my 80th birthday on July 11 this year. I am certainly on to something but do not wish to talk about it at this stage as I am not very confident that I will be able to finish it soon.