Female Idol Blog Series – A Rendezvous With Anu Menon

Sometime during the 1960s, independent cinema in India that preceded even the French and Japanese new wave, had its baby steps in Bengal. We have come a long way, beating the odds of competing against a gamut of male filmmakers. But it still seems like a hard row to hoe and the reasons are (patriarchy for women, apart from the rest) fairly obvious! There are limitations in terms of resources that are accessible locally and inhibitions among financiers about funding independent films. An industry that is largely driven by unions, studios and distribution systems – essential though they may be, is trying to fit every film into an all-purpose syntax. And those that don’t conform to it are at a loss.

anuIn the whole scheme of things, it is so gratifying to observe, female filmmakers working their way through lower budgets and making some spectacular films, devoid of the “star value” and trusting their intuitions alone, with the performances of their actors and the quality of their script. I got this amazing opportunity to talk to one such filmmaker who is breaking the glass ceiling for all of us – Anu Menon, the director of the upcoming film “Waiting”. Our conversation lasted for over an hour and we talked in depth about films, feminism and all things creative. Here is the excerpt of our conversation – I bet this will push you to revisit one of your own scripts and get on with it!! GO ladies 🙂

Incidentally, it was a very special moment when our conversation took place. The trailer of “Waiting” had just reached an organic 2 million views!! For someone who has never posted serious things, let alone about films, she was pleasantly surprised to see such an impact of social media.

We initially gave it a little bit of a push and from then on, it got shared around so widely. But we don’t know how much of it is going to translate to people watching the film in theatres, that’s subjective.

I had to pause there because I wanted to know about the journey,  about how it all began:  where she was born, childhood, upbringing, education etc – “I was born in Salem which was my mother’s hometown, but my parents moved around as my dad worked for BHEL and we settled in Delhi where I grew up. I went to BITS Pilani and after that I had a career in advertising for a really long time. Then I pursued filmmaking in London Film School.”

MG_0199From BITS to LFS – what instigated the pursuit of arts from technology? “I went to college in the 90s and back then, we didn’t have the liberty to pursue creative fields right away. We had to go through with the rigmarole of Engineering and then choose to do whatever we wanted. A lot of my friends have had similar journeys. My advertising career was not in a creative position but more of strategy development and planning, and that somehow became the bridge between BITS and LFS. I completed 3 years of my filmmaking course, got a distinction and these 3 years were very important to me in immersing myself and finding my voice.”

How has LFS shaped you as a storyteller? Did you always feel learning filmmaking academically was important? “Yes, it was a great platform that lets you experiment on a variety of things. You make 10-15 films, you edit,  you do sound design, you do everything. It has enabled me to get my hands dirty and let me figure out what kind of things I like, what works for me. In the film school, we were given a fair bit of money and asked to make our graduation films, and my graduation film was called “Ravi goes to school” that went to Tribeca, Edinburgh Film Festival and a lot of other festivals too. So, for me, it was a life-changing experience!”

Could you tell us how you conjure up a protagonist – what decides its gender? Where do filmmakers draw a line, between holding grounds firmly on sticking to script and making amendments owing to the ‘commercial’ aspects of it?

MG_0227“I think the process is similar for me whatever genre I am exploring. For example in a relationship based story, you will have two people who have similar goals but have completely different approaches to life. I think you create a basic form or shape of this character and you keep sharpening it as it goes. With every draft, I try to understand my character a bit more. And every time, something new comes up – for example, Jimmy and I wrote it together and when he would complete a scene and give it to me, I’d see something completely new and different. And then Atika came on board for the dialogues and she brought in so many nuances – so with all these things, I would understand the film again. This is just until the actors come in – for example, though it would be in the script, Naseer would challenge by saying, this line does not have a truth of behavior, so it would take a new shape at that point. Finally, during the editing, we chisel off the last bit. So you never really know, where it starts and where it ends. You need to give it some space and be open, only then can you allow the character to take shape. I think most of us don’t have the patience or don’t have the setup to allow that to happen because everyone is looking for a shortcut. I hope things change and all of us have more courage to do it the other way. About staying true to the script, yes, I have not had to make changes to the characters or the plot as such for anybody’s sake.”

What do you think are/about the problems which make funding process of the film difficult and often times impossible because of the gender of the filmmaker?

Kalki+Koechlen+2015+Dubai+International+Film+W6HhWXMcre1l“Ultimately, it is all about casting and commercials. There are two types of films that are made, one is content driven –  the other is star driven.  Of course in an ideal world, the best way to make a film is when the star and content come together. You may have great content but you may not be able to match it with the star because you do not have that kind of access. It is limited to a very small group of people which is currently fairly male-dominated. So, your content may be appreciated by people who would suggest you get a star – but how do I get a star?

But in content driven cinema, which is referred to as “indie cinema”, is fairly meritorious. Because, you can reach out to a Kalki, a Naseer sir – who will read the script and if they like it, they will say yes. The problem however is, you get less money to make the film, and to then put it out is fairly challenging. For stakeholders to make money becomes rather tough in the independent scene. Though indie cinema is quite women-friendly as it driven by scripts and content. Commercial cinema on the other hand, where the stakes are higher, and reach is higher,  is still not women-director friendly.

There are some really amazing films made by women this year like, Island city by Ruchika Oberoi, there is Parched by Leena Yadav and so many more, but there are very few who then actually go on to make these ‘big budget’ films. Not that we can’t – we can also pull off a big budget film. It is just the ability to marry the ‘content with star’ or pool people who will back the content with access to finances and stars. But that doesn’t even happen in Hollywood. It is a worldwide problem”

So when I asked about her thoughts on filmmakers like Farah Khan, she said: “There are a very few people who can command that sort of respect. Which is amazing! It is hard to get there though – even for those who are from the “system”. In this case, it is not women vs. men – it is such a complex hierarchy. There are the ‘male insiders’, female insiders’, male outsiders’ and the ‘female outsiders’ – and clearly the female outsiders are at the bottom of the hierarchy.

You have a beautiful crew (and cast) which comprises of a lot of women – please share your thoughts about it – was it planned?

Director: Anu Menon | DOP: Neha Parti Matiyani | Dialogues: Atika Chohan | Producer: Priti Gupta

neha“It was absolutely by chance. In fact, I had a male DOP who was to come from the US, from my film school. But things got really complicated in terms of visa and documents. And then another male colleague from my film school and I were in touch. And this once, when I was in the flight, I watched Humpty Sharma ki Dulhaniya and thought there was something really nice about the camera work in that film. The DOP was trying to tell the story, which is very rare in commercial cinema. So when I was in Cochin, I contacted Neha and asked her to read the script and get to Cochin the next day if she liked it. She loved it and she reached there for the recce – that’s how quick it was. And that was not just it. After the whole schedule, Neha reveals that she was pregnant – nobody knew. I was so happy to see how committed she was. So it’s not that I get along with women more than men – or vice versa, it is just that I enjoy working with both genders depending on circumstances. But it’s just that, when we allow too many men making decisions, we are not letting women representatives to come in. And that’s all we ask for – allow more women decision makers.”

But let’s take a step back before that: do you think, a ‘female’ outlook to arts can have a profound impact on the output at all? Or does it just come down to the story, script and performance?

“I do think there is a difference in the way men and women write, definitely. Women will be able to bring a little more vulnerability in men, and they make their women stronger. Men somehow make the males very heroish and make the females a little weaker. She is either sexualised or they will make her out of the way strong. She can never be ‘normal strong’. I think women write more complex characters while men write very ‘black & white’.”

london-paris-newyork-latest-2012--movie-hd-poster-wallpaper1From LPNY to Waiting – about 4 years – what intellectual transformation did you go through as a storyteller? Do you think filmmakers must take time in strengthening their script rather than rushing in, owing to the pressure of market expectations? Easier said than done – what were your challenges?

“I didn’t take time because I wanted to, I had to, because of some external factors. I think in that period, I just became more courageous and believed in myself a bit more. The things you stand up for, and things you don’t anymore. I think those kind of transformations were surely there. I am a writer – director, but I want to be a director more. And when I am not on the set, I feel terrible. As for stories, if I don’t find it interesting after a point, I outgrow them – ‘Waiting’ was probably the one film I sat on, for about 4 years.

All of us are different in this regard and am not denying that there will be pressure because people are putting in money. There will be a lot of it, but the crucial thing is to be true to your content, which is a very difficult thing to do. Especially because, through the process, there will be about 10 people telling you what’s working and what’s not – to have the courage to stand true to the script, despite this pressure is the real test.”

Do you subscribe to this radical movement that is feminism? Isn’t it a concern when women, despite wanting the same thing, shun the title? Why has feminism become the threatening ‘F’ word?

“I am a feminist. I am not one of those people who shun this title.

BUT It is very misused and all over the place. I think a lot of people who are not feminists, are calling themselves one – that to me, is a bigger problem. I won’t even mind those who shun the title, it is these people who claim to be a feminist and make empowering films that have “strong women” characters and I think: NO, you’ve got it all wrong.

Growing up, I took equality for granted. My house did not even have a hint of discrimination – my brother and I were treated as equals. I was expected to do well in studies and I did. So for the longest time, I never even called myself a feminist because for me it was just too obvious. It was not until I started working, and this was in the late 90s  when I started my career in advertising, one of my first bosses was a woman, who was a generation older – would mock my generation because they had to go out on the streets and fight for their rights. So it makes me wonder if we are going back – because in the 80s and 90s things were actually moving forward.

This industry is highly patriarchal and I think we need to make some groundbreaking changes. Firstly, we need more decision makers who are women so we have more authentic voices. When a foreigner makes a film like Slumdog Millionaire, we will definitely feel the lack of something authentic in it – similarly, when a man makes a film about women, it just does not seem right – because they do not come as a result of real experience. The politics of equality is very wrong in these kind of films. I guess sometimes even women get it wrong. For example, there is a film called Trainwreck written by a famous comedienne – it became the biggest hit ever being lauded as a female empowerment film simply because she is bold, crude, has commitment problems and so she behaves like a MAN –  to me  that’s NOT feminism. It doesn’t help real feminism.

anu1So the problem is, if films like this become the label for feminism, then a whole bunch of women start saying; no, I am not a feminist. Even in Hindi cinema, a woman is shown to be modern, smoking, or drinking, or using swear words while beating people up, is portrayed as feminists. But I think, slowly people are becoming more aware, more people are writing about it. Every time, there is a film that claims to be empowering women, there are ten people questioning it.

Some things are quite ‘black and white’ like – do not kill a girl child, do not rape, do not kill a woman when she is walking on the street etc. It is the lowest of Maslow’s hierarchy. The higher levels of issues are never touched upon. 80% of the films are about a woman seeking revenge, a woman who is fighting her rapist and killing him – basically a woman fighting a patriarchal system.

The only way to seek equality is to show equality on screen – if you are constantly going to portray her as a victim, she is going to be that.

We need to start moving away from this zone and maybe, make a film about a woman trying to choose between Engineering and Photography – like ‘Wake up Sid’. I am not saying the horrific stories do not exist, I am saying there are other stories too.

And when I finally drew our hour long conversation to a wrap by asking her about how she is feeling about the release of ‘Waiting’, she said it is a mixed feeling and so far people who have watched it seem to have loved it. Of course, they did. I can’t wait to watch it myself. Here’s wishing Anu the best of wishes for the release of her film and for all the films that she is going to make in the future.

Please catch ‘Waiting’ in theatres on May 27th. DO NOT MISS IT 🙂

This is the one of the many inspiring tales under the WMF umbrella. And personally, I am way too excited to take up this pet project than I am ready to admit. Stay tuned and watch this space. Here’s hoping: one is never devoid of female idols anymore!