Changemakers: Twenty Women Transforming Bollywood from Behind the Scenes, a new book by Gayatri Rangachari Shah and Mallika Kapur, releases at a unique turning point – against the backdrop of #MeToo and #TimesUp promising to correct the course of Bollywood.
The book spotlights women who entered the industry with no prior “connections”; women who chipped away behind the scenes and made it on their own. The lesser-known heroes; editors, studio heads, producers, directors, make-up artists, stylists, script writers…
Gayatri Rangachari Shah and Mallika Kapur
Here, Shah shares her experience of working on the book, and her big takeaways from the journey of piecing these stories together.
You and Mallika go a long way back. How did you meet?
“Mallika and I met exactly 20 years ago in New York City, when we were both graduate students at Columbia University’s school of journalism. It’s quite an incredible coincidence that our book came out almost two decades to the date we met. Mallika pursued broadcast journalism and I focused on magazine and print.”
How did the two of you zero in on the subject for Changemakers?
“We’ve both reported on gender for a number of years. We had looked at ways of exploring the evolving gender dynamics, and the role of women in Indian society, in an approachable way. Over the course of our journalistic careers in India, we had both witnessed Bollywood and the cinema industry up close through interviews with movie stars. And we always noticed that there were quite a few women working on set. Who were they? How did they get there? It was a marked shift from the mid-1990s and we were intrigued by that. The genesis of the book sprang from that curiosity.”
How did you go about identifying the women you were going to profile?
“We knew we wanted to explore one major discipline from each aspect of film-making. Some were more straight-forward, like Charu Khurana, who won the right for women to work as make-up artists in the movies by taking her case to the Supreme Court of India. Or Geeta Tandon, who left an abusive marriage and made a name for herself as a fearless stunt artist. Most had no prior connection to the world of cinema. [Film critic, writer] Rajeev Masand, [talent manager] Reshma Shetty, [director, choreographer] Farah Khan and many others helped with our initial focus. Ultimately, what all the women have in common is determination, grit, courage and talent. They are successful because they have the enormous ability to work hard.”
What were some of the unexpected things you learned about them?
“These women were full of surprises! [Film critic, writer] Anupama Chopra worked so hard delivering her interviews she once fainted at Cannes, while reporting. She delivered her shot sitting in a wheelchair! Also, who would have thought that one of India’s best editors is self-taught? But that’s how Deepa Bhatia learned her craft. When an editor didn’t show up on time, she turned to a technician and said, ‘Bhaiya, yeh computer on karo’; she began tinkering with the footage, pressed a few buttons and she was on her way. In fact, many learned on the job. Anaita Shroff Adajania didn’t go to fashion school, Hetal Dedhia didn’t attend a technical lighting course. Shubha Ramachandran taught herself script supervision by memorising a whole book on the subject. Geeta Kapur taught herself choreography.”
What were your big takeaways from the book?
“We really believe Bollywood will never be the same again. It’s already different than it was ten years ago. The biggest difference is in the content. Who would have thought a film that revolves around constipation would become one of the most popular films in India? That’s Juhi Chaturvedi’s screenplay [for Piku]. Could you imagine a day when a film about a dabba of food becomes an international crossover hit? Guneet Monga produced The Lunchbox. Music that has a dog barking in the background – is that even music? Sneha Khanwalkar made it so. Gauri Shinde showed the late Sridevi in a brand new light and made us rethink so many things about how we treat the women in our life. These women are true changemakers – they are daring, they are bold and the content they are putting out is reflective of who they are. Because of them, Hindi cinema looks, feels and sounds different, and the audience is richer for it.
Did the book mostly confirm your preconceived notions about the industry, or did it bring you new perspective?
“In fact, the book put to bed a lot of preconceptions we had! We found that the Hindi movie business in India today is professional and much more sophisticated than we had anticipated. In what is essentially a highly creative field, many processes now exist to make it world class. The sleaze factor – which was the dominant view of many about the industry – has receded quite a bit. Frankly, it is as prevalent in the movies as it is in any other field.”
No conversation about Bollywood this week is complete without a conversation about #TimesUp and #MeToo. Did it come up in the course of your conversations with these trailblazing women?
“Yes, absolutely. It was only a matter of time before #MeToo and #TimesUp hit our shores. We stand in solidarity with all the women who have come forward to share their experiences of being harassed, abused or assaulted. Of course it came up during the course of our interviews and conversations. Thankfully, none of the women featured in the book experienced sexual harassment but they did face gender discrimination – as in the case of cinematographer Priya Seth, who just couldn’t get assignments because she was a woman or studio executive Amrita Pandey, who was not taken seriously because she was a woman and looked young.
As we have seen from the news, it’s all pervasive. We operate in a patriarchy, where women have been subordinate for centuries. It will take a long time to dismantle the sense of male entitlement, but we also want to make it clear that male champions play an important in women’s successes. Our book didn’t want to pit one gender against another. In fact, many of the women thrived because they had men pushing them to get ahead. The fact is that we all need to help each other rise.”