“I studied cinematography. But in those days, no one was ready to hire a woman DOP.” The crowd at the Woodlands Theatre is all ears as Suhasini Maniratnam talks about her initial days in the cinema industry. “Finally, I was called to work in a film titled Silk Silk Silk. I had to choose between that and a chance to act in a Balachander movie. I chose the latter,” she laughed. The actress-director, along with advertisement filmmaker Latha Menon, was speaking at an interactive session, ‘Women In Cinema’, jointly conducted by the Chennai International Film Festival (CIFF) and Cinema Rendezvous group, a collective of film enthusiasts in the city.
Curiously, of the women who had come for the festival, only a few attended the interactive session. The speakers were quick to point it out.
“Why talk about gender equality in cinema industry, when we don’t have women coming to watch films?” asked Latha.
Suhasini said, “The CIFF organising committee is dominated by women. But we need more women to come and watch films here.”
“The cinema industry only has about 36% women. And they work predominantly as dancers, hairdressers, and actresses. I think we need more women producers. Unless the money is coming from women, unless they are the ones deciding who should work in a film, the situation would never improve,” said the actress. Latha agreed, “Utterly sexist things like item numbers have become an integral part of big-budget films. This will change when women start producing and directing more films.”
“Women are equally messy and complicated, and as flippant as men. Their journey is as important as men’s journeys. Those stories need to be told.
Instead, we usually see women’s stories told by men.
It’s really special to see what a woman sees in other women or in herself,” said Latha.
Responding to an audience query on how Indian cinema has traditionally handled sensuality and eroticism, Suhasini points to the double standards in Indian society. “It takes two to tango. Sensuality and eroticism matters to women too, as it does to men. In our closed society, we see only what men fantasise about. The male gaze is celebrated, while what women think about isn’t taken into account.”
“The shooting set has traditionally been a male area, with people shouting expletives, and sometimes getting into brawls,” observed Latha. Suhasini added, “But in Bollywood, there are a lot of women working as executive producers, camera assistants, directorial assistants, and location managers. Hence, the overall style of shooting has changed. Everything is well organised. They work in pin-drop silence, and there is absolutely no chaos”.
Observing how the industry has changed for actresses over the years, Suhasini said, “Today’s actresses are smart. Even newcomers know how to move and behave in front of camera. But there is a dearth of women-centric films and strong, performance-oriented roles. We never had that kind confidence or exposure. But we were lucky to have directors like Balachander and Padmarajan, who created exceptional women characters. Revathy, Saritha and myself would grab those roles. Now no one dares to make such characters.”