When Harry met Sally at Katz’s Delicatessen in 1989, and Sally, to prove her point that women do fake orgasms out of politeness and concern for fragile male egos, went “Ooo…Oh…Ooo…Oh…Oh god…Ooo…Oh…God…Oh…Oh…Oh…Oh God…Oh yeah, right there Oh! Oh…Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes…”, not just the lady at the next table, but everybody wanted to have what Sally was having. Sally had ordered just one portion of what Nora Ephron, the writer and director of When Harry Met Sally…, ate all her life: taboos and convention.
Today everyone wants to know what Juhi Chaturvedi was eating when she wrote Vicky Donor. Juhi says she ate “nothing special” the day she was “blessed by a great idea”. That would be in November 2010, when Juhi was working on a love story with director Shoojit Sircar. They had discussed many ideas but nothing was working, and then an apple dropped.
The hatke idea of a sperm-donating boy who can’t have his own child came out of years of her training in advertising where she had to think of that “one big idea” and constantly ask, “Why will people watch this, what’s different about it?”
American author Lionel Shriver, who wrote the dark and disturbing We Need to Talk About Kevin in 2003, which was turned into a film last year, is often asked if her story, which deals with school shooting and the unmentionable subject of maternal ambivalence, was autobiographical.
“Interviewers,” she says, “are far more timid about inquiring about the autobiographicals ources of men’s fiction, since the assumption runs that men have contact with a ‘muse’; they’re artists whose complex, tortured internal processes are beyond the ken of mere mortals… Whereas women are accorded no such mystery.
Female writers are routinely perceived as writing thinly-veiled autobiography, because making things up is a proclivity that less creative people don’t understand, and female writers do not get credit for doing anything unfathomable. Interviewers pry unashamedly into the most intimate aspects of women writers’ lives… I speak from experience. I gave an interview to an Australian television presenter recently who felt free to press me very specifically about when I started colouring my hair.”
Anusha Rizvi was not asked about her hair, but she was asked if Nandita Malik, the TV reporter and presenter in her debut film Peepli [Live], was a caricature of her former colleague at NDTV. Anusha says Malik was a prototype, like the other characters in her film, but adds, “First work is often very autobiographical, for any writer, any film-maker”.
So what is different, between what men and women write? Lionel, who was a tomboy and always felt alienated from her given name, Margaret Ann, and chose a boy’s name, says, “I strongly disagree with V.S. Naipaul, who claimed that you could tell immediately on reading any passage whether a man or woman wrote it. To wit: numerous readers have read my own books without checking the flap photo, and assumed that any author with the first name of Lionel was a man. They did not become perplexed after a few sentences that surely this girly prose was written by a woman, often finishing the novel before realising their mistake.”
Anusha says, “The stories that men and women tell may not be very different, but the perspective, where you’ll put emotional emphasis, differs.” She notices in films, for example, that “though 70 per cent of the world’s physical labour is done by women, we don’t see them. It’s not there because conceptually it’s not there”.
Cities and streets rarely belong to women, in life and in films. That’s one reason why novelist and script writer Advaita Kala’s Kahaani was so stunning. Trisha Gupta, journalist, anthropologist, wrote in a newspaper Oped piece, “Rarely, if ever, have we had a protagonist like Vidya Bagchi, a woman who travels alone to a new city and takes it as her right that she should be able to stay as long as she likes, alone and unharassed, in a cheap hotel… In a country in which a spate of rapes only spurs the administration to suggest curfews for women, a film like Kahaani feels like a collective dream — the unvoiced dream all women have, in which the city might belong to us as much as it does to men.”
Women have others dreams, too. Of seeing real, complex women on screen, for instance.
The women in Shanghai — Kalki Koechlin and Tillotama Shome’s characters — are complex. “Even Supriya Pathak’s character, the chief minister — the fact that a woman can wear silk sarees, talk softly and still be shrewd is different from the male idea of such a woman,” says Urmi Juvekar who wrote Shanghai, as well as Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!, two stories for Onir’s I Am, Rules: Pyaar Ka Superhit Formula and Darmiyaan. But, she adds, “Films are expensive and often they are not reflective of what’s possible but of what’s commercially successful.”
Ishita Moitra co-wrote the screenplay for a film that can only be described as The Torture Chamber of Misogyny. Apart from the fact that it was a really bad film, what made the Akshay Kumar-starrer Kambakkht Ishq particularly loathsome was the abuse the hero subjected the heroine to.
Ishita says she was working to a brief: “It was a film set in Hollywood, involving a stunt man and a sexy model-cum-doctor. It wasn’t supposed to be Tare Zameen Par. The brief was to make it mad. When you are working in a team, a consensus builds in the room”.
Kambakkht Ishq was a business venture and the focus was clear: entertain, make money. In deference to this higher calling, the writers went mental, literally. Akshay mostly refers to Kareena as bitch and she, in turn, calls him dog. She is an idiot doctor who leaves her wrist watch in his stomach during an operation, while he, intermittently, has his ass felt up and farts in the heroine’s best friend’s face and even slaps it several times.
Brief, says Ishita, decides the perspective. Briefs from directors, productions houses, as well as the audience. Ishita, who writes dialogues for Sony’s TV serial Dekha Ek Khwaab, says, “A lot of thought goes into how things are dumbed down. A serial could start with a woman with lots of layers, but these layers soon get lost because everything is tested.
If she doesn’t sacrifice for a week and the TRPs are down, that dictates what gets written next.” In television, minute-to-minute viewing patterns are studied — at which point people switched off, when the show fell — and that tells writers and directors what works, and what doesn’t. “TV shows must reach the maximum people, my mother and my mother’s domestic help. It’s not a reflection of who I am but of what people want,” says Ishita.
Juhi differs. “I was conscious that everything I write somewhere has an impact. There’s enough regression in TV anyway. I wanted to make a point that a saas-bahu relationshipcould be like this as well.” She’s talking about the nightly peg that Dolly and Biji share in Vicky Donor. That scene didn’t arrive on a whim. “They could do that,” explains Juhi, “because the relationship was without ego, because there was no man in the house”.
But more than what Juhi did to her female characters, what’s interesting is what she did to her hero. Vicky can wax, thread and do a pedicure. “It’s not a big deal for him because he grew up in a house full of women, a house that runs on the parlour.”
Actually, it’s a really big deal, especially for men. Urmi says that the Leftist and feminist movements articulated women’s problems in a patriarchal society. “We have words to express, we have the vocabulary. Men are living in the same patriarchal society without a vocabulary to articulate their problems. Women are free to think out of the box. But for men, it’s still their society and that gets reflected in their thought process. Men can never speak against their parents, while women can because a lot of work has gone into exploring childhood, girls’ relationship with mother etc. Women are doing strange things; portraying women differently. Women don’t have any hang ups — about parents being devis, devtas. We can laugh at our mothers. Men can’t. For them it’s like defiling a god. They are still upholding the society gallantly, even if it hurts them. And this is what scriptwriters — men and women — bring to the table.”
Women, however, are not just laughing at their mothers, but their fathers as well. Like Ashima does, in Vicky Donor, when her Bengali father, tired of trying to dissuade her from marrying a Punjabi boy, resorts to talking about how good Bengali men are in bed. Juhi was not just poking the male ego, but the Bengali ego as well. “I wanted to bring out the fact that Bengalis think no end of themselves. They think they are god’s gift to mankind. I wanted to bring out their arrogance. They are learned, well read, cultured, but they think they are different from the rest of the continent.”
This is personal and it’s welcome. Taboo subjects are now creeping in. Though Bollywood no longer seems a hard place to work for women writers, when it comes to fighting the formula, it helps to have creative partnerships with like-minded directors. But, Urmi says, “One has to kiss a lot of toads before one of them turns out to be a prince charming.” She found one, Dibakar Banerjee, and that’s what gave her the freedom to write Shanghai the way she wanted to.
“It’s the core theme that attracted me to the film — that when a political activist, a voice of dissent, is silenced in a society, what happens. I was sure I didn’t want to make a film about revenge — I did not want an ‘extra-judicial’ resolution. I wanted to make a film about justice.
But what is justice? Justice is complicated… Look at Gujarat, at the Jessica Lal case — thefamilies are distraught, broken and can move ahead only after justice. In films we often don’ttake this into consideration. Revenge is easy, gun kharido, villain ko maar do. Ya toh haar jao, ya goli se maar do. In Shanghai, because nobody is innocent, there is limited justice. All is not well.”
Not just the film’s theme, but how Shanghai is told was also important to Urmi. “All my other movies have been concept heavy, with a conventional narrative. This film, its script, is totally driven by the visual medium. It’s the telling of a conventional story in a non-conventional way. Usually in such films there will be twists, turns, plots, but Shanghai is an experience, it has many moments of introspection. It was tough for me to give up control of the dialogue; Shanghai doesn’t have chamkeele dialogue. This film, its telling, is driven by impact, intellect — the movie is in the impression zone”.
Anusha, who works with her husband, writer-director-dastango Mahmood Farooqui, says, “I have an intrinsic problem with the American story of one man fighting the world. Since the Cold War we have had this and now because there is no Afghanistan, no Iraq, we have regressed to aliens. Enough! This genre needs to die! How long will the world carry America’s burden?” Not long it seems, because we are moving to interesting times.