With its eight Oscars and $100-million plus box office take, Slumdog Millionaire is opening America’s eyes to the power of India and its film industry–even though the movie is made by a white Englishman and actually has little to do with the Indian filmmaking tradition. For those looking for a more accurate view of Bollywood, and also a taste of what might be to come for the genre. there’s Luck by Chance, Zoya Akhtar’s feature directing debut and a bitingly funny satire of the Indian filmmaking industry.
Akhtar, the daughter of two screenwriters, grew up in the Indian movie industry, one that rivals Hollywood in both scope and variety. And even though Akhtar is one of several female directors in Indian film, Bollywood is as well-known as its Los Angeles counterpart for giving women short shrift both in front of and behind the camera. Are Akhtar and the well-rounded female characters of Luck By Chance an indication that Bollywood may be surpassing Hollywood in its options for female filmmakers?
Rehana Mirza, an Indian-American filmmaker who works primarily in the US but frequently with Indian actors, says that both Bollywood and Hollywood provide challenges to actresses and female filmmakers. “In my mind, it’s always a struggle,” she said. “While it seems that there is more equality, I think in the entertainment industry it’s a little further behind some of the other industries.”
Mirza has worked on independent films and in the New York City theater scene, and says that Indian actresses who have crossed the ocean for her films have noted the lack of strong roles within Bollywood. “i think that there are definitely fewer meaty roles for Bollywood actresses. I worked recently with Madhur Jaffrey, who’s quite an international star and actress. She spoke of very rarely being able to get these meaty roles and really loving it when something comes her way.”
Luck By Chance’s main character, Sona Mishra, is a struggling actress who finds herself in a similar predicament, stuck playing the best friend or the sister while men–and a handful of well-connected women–get the good parts.
Gitesh Pandya, the editor of BoxOfficeGuru.com, explains that characters like Sona are rare in Bollywood films. “To have a film end up centering on the story of a woman is fairly uncommon. And this film has an abundant amount of female characters in important roles so it’s not just one love interest for the male lead and that’s it,” Pandya comments.
Akhtar has never said in interviews that she specifically wanted to make a film that gave better roles for women. But she’s part of a long line of female Bollywood filmmakers, going all the way back to 1926, when Fatima Begum began directing in order to secure better roles for herself as an actress.
The most famous contemporary Indian female director, Mira Nair, who works internationally and independently, but women directors who work within the Indian studio system, have created major hits for Bollywood. Farah Khan, for example, directed Main Hoon Na, a military drama, which was one of the top-grossing Bollywood films of 2004.
Akhtar was not an actress before becoming a director, but thanks to her screenwriter parents was born into the movie industry. Her brother Farhan is an established Bollywood actor, and he plays the lead male role in her film. Still, she told BollywoodWorld.com that her industry connections were no guarantee that her film would be made. “It doesn’t help to be this one’s daughter and that one’s brother. Farhan’s name got me access to the stars, but no one does a film for who has sent you.”
Indeed, Akhtar struggled for six years to get Luck By Chance made, apparently because numerous male actors turned down the lead role. She told GlamSham.com “I wanted to make it 5-6 years ago and had approached quite a few actors for the main lead. At that time, it suited them ‘not’ to be a part of it.”
In a 2002 interview with The BBC, female director Meghna Gulzar had similar things to say about casting men for her directorial debut, Filhaal. “Every leading actor presumed I was making a feminist film. For a woman director it’s always an uphill task to cast the male characters.”
On this side of the ocean, Mirza’s work outside the main Hollywood system gives her room to use her strengths as a female director. “I am definitely dedicated to creating fully fleshed out female protagonists in my work, and in specifically creating South Asian female protagonists who are not stereotypically meek or submissive, nor shallow and one-dimensional,” she says.
Mizra also predicts big changes in India, as the rise of the middle class and increased globalization change tastes and markets in that country. “We’ve entered into a really interesting time,” she says. “As the middle class grows in India, I think that there will be more movie genres.”
And with female superstar actresses, like Aishwarya Rai, and internationally renowned directors like Nair, Mirza sees female producers as the next necessary step for getting women’s stories on Indian screens. “As Hollywood and Bollywood meet in the middle, and it won’t just be independent and Bollywood films. I think that there will be more of that, as probably more women actresses might get involved in producing,” she says. “As of right now, there’s no proponents.”
One of those proponents may turn out to be none other than Danny Boyle, who gave his female casting director Loveleen Tandan co-director credit for Slumdog Millionaire. Although the Academy and other awards-giving bodies didn’t distinguish Tandan’s contribution, she has said that Boyle’s acknowledgement will open opportunities for her to direct her own film. Says Mirza, “I think there needs to be more filmmakers like Danny Boyle, who have the power to pave the way for a new type of story to be accepted into the mainstream, thus opening the door for others, and who also are generous enough to give a co-directing title to a woman of color in order to honor her hard work and to give her the opportunity to build upon that credit.”
Mirza also sees a big international future for Bollywood films, a future that may come even quicker thanks to Slumdog Millionaire’s huge success. “A lot of the women directors that I look up to are more internationally based than just Indian based. I think that’s something to look at in terms of how open the industry is, or how that will work.”
So, while Loveleen Tandan is embarking on a new career and real-life versions of Sona are making their way through Bollywood as actresses, in America we see reports like the 2009 edition of Dr. Martha Lauzen’s Celluloid Ceiling Study, revealing that just 9% of Hollywood directors are women. There’s no hard evidence–no study comparable to Dr. Lauzen’s–that Bollywood is poised to become a mecca for female filmmakers, but our cousins to the East may very well be ready to surpass us. Just one more argument that, as filmmaking becomes increasingly global, we can’t afford to keep leaving the women behind.