4 women, 4 stories: Breaking through the barriers, within and without
The British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) has announced the names of ten emerging talents from across the Indian film, games and television industries, who have been chosen as honourees in the ‘BAFTA Breakthrough India’ initiative supported by Netflix. Selected by a jury of eminent industry experts like AR Rahman, Apurva Asrani, Anupam Kher, Ratna Pathak Shah, Shonali Bose, Siddharth Roy Kapur and Vishal Gondal, these immensely talented honourees will get the unique opportunity to connect and collaborate with Indian and British artists, receive one-on-one mentoring, free access to BAFTA events and screenings and full BAFTA voting membership for an entire year.
I had the opportunity of speaking to the four women amongst the ten honourees; Arati Kadav (Director of Cargo), Alokananda Dasgupta (Music composer/director, Sacred Games), Leena Manimekalai (Director-Writer Maadathy-An Unfairy Tale), and Sumukhi Suresh (Performer, Pushpavalli). Being selected has been both a moment of triumph and catharsis for all four of these fine artists.
Their individual aspirations are varied, but the underlying intent is the same — to broaden their creative horizons, seek opportunities for professional collaborations and find ways to strengthen their craft.
Arati, who directed the science fiction film Cargo, shares that she is passionate about the genre, but unfortunately there just aren’t enough opportunities or people willing to finance science fiction films. For her, being selected as a BAFTA Breakthrough honouree means the opportunity to meet international artists working on projects in this genre and hopefully collaborate on something as cool as Doctor Who.
As someone who creates music that truly needs no language to form connections, Alokananda had been actively looking for international opportunities when she was selected. “I had been craving to step out, branch out and was actively trying to get work outside the country.” Alokananada shares that she can’t wait to travel, meet talented artists and possibly make some music at the iconic Abbey Road Studios in London.
For Sumukhi and Leena this selection has been a validation of their belief in themselves. Sumukhi says that though she is often recognised as a writer or showrunner, being selected as a performer is extra special. “It is very exciting for me to be selected as a performer because that is one aspect about myself that I also most vulnerable about. I usually act in stuff I write for myself, so people don’t end up seeing me onscreen more than once in two-three years. Hopefully with this opportunity that will change” she adds.
Leena is an Independent filmmaker, makes films on topics that she knows no one else will talk about and puts a spotlight on issues and people that we have turned a blind eye to for decades if not centuries. Leena shared that being selected after fighting a fairly solitary battle for over a decade, felt like getting a hug in the middle of the pandemic. She hopes to collaborate with people to produce films from scripts that she has filed away or get assistance with distribution for her ‘handmade’ films that are ready to be shared with the world.
Compared to the industry two or three decades ago, where the only women on set were the women actors and hairdressers, the entertainment business has come a long way. Women are now a part of virtually every department on set, but with progress also comes the challenge of genteel gaslighting and sophisticated sexism.
“It’s more subtle and harder to catch,” says Sumukhi. “I believe in equality but, I am a feminist but, I believe in equal pay, but… the but is still there. I feel like saying, wow you’re sexist but you speak good English… great,” she adds humorously, and I can’t help but wonder what great stand-up material this can be.
Arati agrees and adds that though there is a lot more support now from men within the industry, women can still feel like outsiders. “There is a definite boy’s club that exists, whether its mainstream cinema or even Indie films.”
Ultimately, they agree it’s a matter of resilience. The industry is hard for anyone to break into, but when you are a woman it does take an additional effort to make your mark. It all depends on just how hard one is willing to persevere.
Sometimes this feels unfair and difficult especially if you are raised in an environment where gender never came into the picture. Alokananda shares, “When I entered the industry is when I started noticing these things. It’s strange actually because I am a musician and music should have no barriers of any kind. We should not have to hear things like it’s a female lead film or a women-oriented film, so budgets are low.” Sumukhi agrees and shares that if she was a male comic with the same set of skills, she would have a 1000 people attending her shows.
So, while the tag of female comic, or female anything is annoying, hopefully one day there will be so many women artists in all spheres of the business that this tag won’t be needed anymore. “We wish to be best in our skill than be best in our skill in our gender. I don’t want to fight with more women. Why should there be only one number one woman in any field?”
Self-belief, forbearance and putting blinders on to just focus on work is what all these four honourees feel will keep them in the business and help them pursue their dreams. “There will always be a lot of chatter around you. There will be sexism, there will a lot of stuff that can pull you back. It’s important for me to shut all the noise out and just keep doing the job,” says Alokananda.
While we have a promising number of women on sets and leading various departments of film production and content creation, there is a long way to go. Arati who was a mother to a toddler while shooting for Cargo shares that most production houses have no childcare, or any form of support offered to women on set who are also mothers. She had to completely rely on her family for help while she shot the film. “With more women becoming a part of the industry, we need to include more facilities like a child care room, or child care services. It’s quite possible that many women will have their breakthrough career moment at the same time that they are raising young children and we need to create work environments that support that journey.”
There are indeed miles to go before equality, but with more opportunities like these for collaborations and cultural exchange, female artists in India will continue to breakthrough every challenge that comes their way.