From taking on the CBFC legally, to using her platform to aid the #MeToo India process, Alankrita Shrivastava is not somebody who takes it lying down. Is it a wonder then, that her characters on screen are strong women who destroy the patriarchal structures in their own ways? While Turning 30 was ahead of its time, Lipstick Under My Burkha created quite a furore when it released in India, with women (and men) sending Shrivastava ‘thank you’ emails for the work she had done. Now, with Dolly, Kitty aur Woh Chamakte Sitare and Bombay Begums, the director is ready to take her work to the next level. In an interview where she minces no words, Shrivastava speaks about her latest venture, on why #MeTooIndia has been a failure, and her cinematic opinions.
How does your education and childhood influence the stories you tell?
There have been two to three major influences. I’ve always read a lot; from the time I was very young. I draw much more from literature than I do from cinema, because I’m not much of a film-watcher. I went to a school that pretty much grounded me in feminism from a very early age. These ideas got nurtured in college, at Lady Shri Ram and Jamia Milia Islamia. Education definitely played a huge part. The third thing is that I come from a family where there’s a lot of debate and discussion, and everyone reads a lot. It’s also a family of very strong women, so a lot of stories I tell, come from that backing.
Do you think Turning 30 would have worked if it released now, or in the OTT space?
It’s so strange how many people keep asking me if Turning 30 was ahead of its time. It was a film I wanted to make at that time, which is 2011. If the digital space had opened up then, it might have worked, but it’s not a film I would’ve done later because it wouldn’t have been relevant to me. But even though it didn’t work commercially and the critics gave it mixed reviews, I got a lot of love. There were so many young women across the country who reached out to me, and that was enough for me, because I hadn’t seen a character closer to my world or my world-view represented, and that’s what I wanted to create. Now, when you see a lot of stuff coming out, it seems so close to the kind of work that Turning 30 was.
Tell us a little about Dolly, Kitty aur Woh Chamakte Sitare and Bombay Begums.
I can’t tell you too much, but I’m still in the process of editing Bombay Begums. It’s basically a show about the lives of five women of dierent ages set in an urban context, and the conflicts that they undergo in their professional and personal lives. It has Pooja Bhatt, Shahana Goswami, Amruta Subhash, Plabita Borthakur, and a young girl called Adhyanan. Dolly Kitty is ready, and Netflix is just scheduling a date. Dolly Kitty is kind of an exploration of female friendships and sisterhood, and the love-hate relationship between these two cousins, and how they enable each other to find freedom.
Your films have always been about women striving for freedom, and leading dual lives. Where does this come from?
Somebody had said that most film-makers are making the same film again and again. There are some pet themes which they continue to explore and now, I think that’s true because I’m obsessed with women finding themselves, and searching for freedom. I guess it comes from my life. I haven’t led a dual life, but I’m always preoccupied by ideas like “who am I really?” and “am I living the life that I want?” In regards to duality in Lipstick, the characters have a lot of restrictions in the social, cultural, and economic backgrounds that they stem from. Dolly Kitty is in a dierent milieu from that, but the pattern of finding freedom is there. In a way, you can see the same thing in Made in Heaven. These are the kind of themes I’m drawn to. I’m less interested in plot; I’m more interested in characters and the world they inhabit.
With the rise in women directors and writers and film-makers, do we have an alternative point of view in cinema yet?
I think it’s definitely building, and is much more than it ever was. I think alternative points of view exist very specifically in the independent cinema space. With female film-makers, there is bound to be a different point of view because of different life experiences. Two to three women filmmakers start o every year, and we’ll be like “oh wow, amazing, there’s so many”, but they represent actually less than seven per cent of film-makers in India. The gaze is so internalised. Similarly, when it comes to caste representation, there are hardly any dalit film-makers. I know only two — Neeraj Ghaywan and Nagaraj Manjule. There are so many points of view that are missing. Wouldn’t it be lovely if more and more people saw themselves reflected in the cinema that they watched?
Do you think OTT platforms have democratised cinema?
I think one has to wait and watch. Cinema is very difficult because of the whole exhibition and distribution — it’s just a big fight and here, I guess, the gatekeepers of the network are not fossilised, in that sense. The programming team of all these theatres are mostly all men and so are the exhibitors. The thing with the networks is that there are a lot of women in the teams and hence, a lot of stuff is getting green-lit. In OTT platforms, there may not be box-office pressure, but you always have to keep people hooked. And I’m all for competing in the theatrical space. I don’t think that newer and alternative voices should stop competing in the theatrical space. There should be multiple voices in every medium. Why should every kind of film not get that space in the exhibition sector? I don’t think there’s a need to marginalise any kind of cinema by saying that its only good for the streaming space, or vice versa.
You were among 11 women film-makers who took a stand following the #MeToo movement in India, and refused to work with proven offenders. Do you think in the past two years, Bollywood has introspected their role in the objectification of women?
The two issues are a bit different. The on-screen objectification of women is a continuing conversation — we are very far from not doing that. I think we are a very long way from getting rid of that patriarchal gaze, and the misogynist jokes. But it is evolving. As far as #MeToo, I think it’s a total failure in the film industry, and in India. There’s maybe a little bit of thought, but has there been any concrete change? No. In America, the #MeToo movement was backed by investigation, and a lot of women coming out and speaking in the open but in India, it’s not been so systematic. I don’t think there’s any real introspection.
When Kabir Singh released, there were people against it, but there was also a conversation about cinema imitating real life. Where does one draw the line between showing real life, and glamourising problematic behaviour?
I haven’t seen Kabir Singh, but I saw this film called Raanjhanaa, and it made me so angry because I had a stalker, and I know the fear you feel. I could feel the anger boiling inside me, but I watched the whole film, because I wanted to see where it goes. You can show the life of a stalker and get inside his head, but the critique was not there. This is not love, it’s wrong. As a viewer, imagine if you’re showing me Hitler’s life, and not showing me what he did was wrong? Raanjhanaa was a very visceral experience for me, and not in a good way.