by Monojit Lahiri January 31 2023, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 5 mins, 4 secs

Monojit Lahiri investigates what constitutes the attitude towards women in film industries across the world and why women film directors are not equal to the number of male directors.

Okay, quick - name another filmmaker, apart from Farah Khan and Zoya Akhtar, who has clout or standing in the Bollywood sweepstakes… See? Myth-busting time folks: Ditto goes for the most glamorous capital of the planet’s showbiz space, Hollywood! Shocked? Don’t believe it? Read on…

In 2010, Debra Granick directed the critically-acclaimed Winter’s Bone, a film that launched Jennifer Lawrence’s career. Despite accolades and appreciation from informed viewers, and more importantly, pulling in a cool $13 million from a measly $2 million budget, no studio found it fit to offer her another project. Selma, the Oscar-nominated historical drama, is next on this hit-list against women, where its director, Ava du Vernay, was not even recognised (forget felicitated) by the Academy! Wait… there’s more.

Between 2010 and 2014, Warner Bros produced 53 films, out of which only three were directed by women. In the same period, 20th Century Fox Animation and Fox 2000 produced 45 films, of which only one was directed by a woman. Extending this miserable tale, Universal and Focus produced 101 films, of which only five went to women. Columbia and Tristar produced 62 films, of which only one went to the women. The most disappointing part was when passionate activists, well known for loudly and frankly airing their views, chose to remain quiet.

Chill, guys, it doesn’t end here. In fact, these are only promos to the main feature unspooling with scary intensity. Diana Ossana, who was primarily responsible for identifying and shepherding Brokeback Mountain into existence and also responsible for co-writing and producing it, has an interesting story to tell. “I was naturally on cloud nine when the film picked up the Golden Lion in 2005. I was standing next to director Ang Lee, when George Clooney walked up to Ang, warmly shook his hand to congratulate him, looked past and through me and moved away. I was really startled! It was as if I wasn’t even in the same room.” Ossana goes on to add that discrimination is a popular game in town. “At studio meetings, where I am often the only woman, male executives are always surprised every time I open my mouth.”

Statistics endorse this male-bias all the way. In 2013, only 1.9 per cent of the directors of Hollywood’s 100 top-grossing films were women, compared to a much higher percentage in most other professional streams. Screenwriter of the amazing film Juno, Diablo Cody, insists that “you have to be both protective and arrogant, which are not feminine qualities, but both required and effective. I see this bias as a societal echo, a deep rotten core, sexist, racist, unfair - straight-up misogyny!” After Sundance for example, the male awardees are usually tapped to direct for any of the big six, Disney, Universal, Paramount, Warner, Sony and Fox productions, while the women are royally ignored.

However, there’s been improvement over the last few years, but not enough. In 2021, women accounted for roughly 22 percent of all movie directors in the United States. This figure marked an increase of about one percent compared to the previous year and the highest share of female directors recorded in the past decade. And, the year 2022 recorded a decline of 1 percentage point from 25% in 2021. By role, women comprised 18% of directors, 19% of writers, 25% of executive producers, 31% of producers, 21% of editors, and 7% of cinematographers last year.  

Yet, the response remains the same: “The pool of female directors is too small. They can’t handle big budgets. They are incapable or not interested in directing action and comic book stuff, money-spinners.” An enlightened and fitting rebuttal to this sexist, lame excuse would focus on the importance of having diverse perspectives in a multi-layered cultural space, the validity of the female point of view, and of course, a somewhat more level playing field?

Back home, in India, the case is equally laughable because it is a no-brainer. Film scholar Partho Chatterji says, “What’s this big song and dance about director-divas Farah Khan and Zoya Akhtar? Farah’s name and presence would never ever have happened without her bonding with Shah Rukh Khan. Both Main Hoon Na and Om Shanti Om rode on the power of SRK. Remember what happened to her celebrated misadventure with Akshay Kumar in Tees Maar Khan?” Chatterji, however, concedes that Zoya is a different kettle of fish who, at least “attempts to offer an individual voice and sensibilities to her material. She seems to have nailed the fusion of humanism and escapism, intelligently and artfully blending insights with entertainment, doing ensemble stuff, locating her stories in exotic places with glamorous settings, events, happenings and scenes leading to achieve the impossible: making suffering look sexy!”

What about several gifted directors like Aparna Sen, Leena Yadav, Tanuja Chandra, Meghna Gulzar, Nandita Das among others? Analysts put it down to the legacy of tradition tracing the time of Mehboob Khan, Raj Kapoor, Bimal Roy and Guru Dutt to Aditya Chopra, Ayan Mukherjee, Shoojit Sarkar, Imtiaz Ali, Vishal Bhardwaj… “It’s all about demand-supply aligned to market forces.”

Chairman of PNC, Pritish Nandy, concludes this debate with telling style. “Let’s get some facts straight. Mainstream Bollywood films cater to male sensibilities across metros, mini-metros, even two and three tier cities. Interestingly on television, the exact opposite happens. Woman-specific themes, stories, narratives and treatment dominate with family, matters of the heart, love, conflicts, relationships, jealousies - insecurities take centrestage. Sure, there are exceptions with Piku and Tanu Weds Manu and recently a few others scoring big, but overall, like it or not, it’s a man’s world. I believe it’s about talent, not gender, but I guess I am in an engendered minority!”

Over to you, esteemed readers…

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The writers are solely responsible for any claims arising out of the contents of this article.