Is the Kathryn Bigelow effect coming to Bollywood? Last week, the New York Times ran an article touting female directors of Bollywood films as the next big thing. While women have written and directed smaller, independent films in Bollywood, now they’re making a splash in the mainstream. “[Director] Zoya Akhtar and a handful of other women,” the Times writes, have cracked Bollywood’s glass ceiling by succeeding where it counts the most: the box office.”
Such victory doesn’t come without the endless battle of gender stereotypes. Akhtar shared an anecdote about her experience directing a film which starred her younger brother, Farhan Akhtar, who sometimes sat with her behind the monitor. When one of the cameramen continually addressed questions to Akhtar’s brother and not her, she finally piped up.
I took him aside and very politely told him: “I am the director of the film. If you can adjust to that, it’s great. If not, we can’t work together.” He got extremely flustered and said, “No, no, you are like my sister.” And I cut him off right there. I said: “I’m not your sister, I’m your director. Can you handle it?” He said he could, and we work together all the time now.
Don’t let this girl power fool you into thinking that women-centric story lines are making this box office magic happen. Interestingly enough, these female directed (and in some cases, female written) films are covering the topics of bromance, great stake heists in the vein of Ocean’s Eleven, and testosterone comedies a la The Full Monty. Directors like Kiran Rao talked about the struggle to write blockbusters with female presence: “I’m thinking about how I can give the woman as much of a pivotal part as the man…[but it’s] purely as drama and narrative is incomplete without a strong woman character.”
One could hope that more successful mainstream female directors could mean, perhaps, more opportunities for better lesbian representation in Bollywood film. Sarah Warn wrote about the controversy which erupted in 1996 when Deepa Mehta wrote and directed Fire, a film about two sisters-in-law who fall in love with each other. Years later, both right wing Indian politicals and women’s rights groups were upset with Girlfriend, an offensive portrait of a lesbian woman who goes psycho when her love interest begins dating a man.
Along with Bollywood films like Men Not Allowed, these poor representations of lesbians were penned and directed by men. (The two actresses involved with Girlfriend later admitted the film was an awful mistake.) There was hope with lesbian novelist and filmmaker Shamim Sarif‘s 2009 film I Can’t Think Straight, a favorite among lesbian audiences, but it wasn’t anywhere near the blockbuster success Akhtar is reportedly having on the mainstream front. Could a new respect for women filmmakers in Bollywood make room for more lesbian plot lines, or is that wishful thinking?