Brilliant Indian Women Movie Makers- A Quick Glance

Biju Parameswaran | Feb 24 2019
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Indian cinema got rolling in 1896 with the screening of Lumiere Brothers’ films in Bombay. The father of Indian cinema Dadasaheb Phalke made the silent movie Raja Harischandra in 1913. The first talkie came 18 years later through Alam Ara in 1931.

Women Filmmakers of India

In the century-long history of Indian cinema, there have been around two dozen women filmmakers of considerable repute, with a third of them earning international acclaim. Most interestingly, one of them even holds the world record for most films directed by a woman!

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The ‘30s through the ‘70s


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Fatma Begum who directed Bulbul-e-Paristan is considered as India’s first female director. The honor among Southern women goes to actress T. P. Rajalakshmi who wrote and directed Miss Kamala in 1936. Last year the Tamil-Telugu actress Savithri was resurrected in fame through the biopic Mahanati.  The alcoholic matinee idol who died at 45 had also directed a Nandi Award winning Telugu film, Chinnari Papalu in 1968. She had an all-woman crew with P. Leela of the devotional numbers fame donning the mantle of music director. 


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Hardly a Malayalam cinema buff will be unaware of the 1964 horror film Bhargavi Nilayam based on litterateur Vaikom Muhammed Basheer’s short story Neela Velicham. Vijaya Nirmala who played the ghost Bhargavi in it went on to earn a reputation in Telugu industry working behind the camera, directing no fewer than 44 films. But the credit of Malayalam’s first female director should belong to Sheela. The evergreen yesteryear actress, immortalized as Karuthamma in Chemmeen is a writer and director as well. Her maiden directorial effort was Yakshaganam in 1976 followed by Sikharangal three years later.

The ‘80s and ‘90s

Aparna Sen is the veteran among women filmmakers. Daughter of film critic Chidananda Dasgupta and cousin of poet Jibananda Das, she debuted as actress in Satyajit Ray’s Teen Kanya at 15 and blossomed into a director of such remarkable movies as Paroma, 36 Chowringhee Lane, Sati, The Japanese Wife and Mr. and Mrs. Iyer (blooding actress daughter  Konkana Sen Sharma who later on became a director herself with A Death in the Gunj).


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National School of Drama graduate Sai Paranjpye made her mark in films and theatre, making memorable films like Chasme Baddoor, Katha (remade in Malayalam by Priyadarshan as Mukundetta Sumitra Vilikkunnu), Disha, Saaz (a movie which portrays the rivalry of the singer sisters Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle) and Sparsh which won her a National Award for Screenplay plus a Best Actor Award for Naseeruddin Shah who played a blind man. Doordarshan watchers of the ‘80s will remember her serials like Ados Pados and Hum Panchi Ek Chawl Ke. An actress who shone in all South Indian languages and a graduate in cinematography from Adyar Film Institute, Suhasini Maniratnam donned the director’s hat for Indira apart from a TV series called Penn. Kalpana Lajmi who passed away last year made films of exceptional quality like Ek Pal, Daman and Rudaali. Two others worth mentioning are Vijaya Mehta who made the Hindi entertainer Pestonjee based on a Parsi family story by journalist B. K. Karanjia and Hema Malini who made Dil Aashna Hai.

The Expatriate Auteurs 

Gurinder Chadha is an Indian-origin English film director of films like Bhaji on the Beach, Bend It like Beckam and Bride and Prejudice (starring Aiswarya Rai).


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Indo-Canadian director Deepa Mehta is a highly controversial woman director, thanks to her films Fire and Water depicting lesbianism and widow subjugation respectively that invoked ire from right wing extremists. Her other noted works are Earth, Bollywood/Hollywood and the screen adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s Booker of Bookers winning novel Midnight’s Children. Mira Nair is arguably the best Indian woman director ever. The presently New York-based Nair announced her arrival on the Indian cinema scene in 1988 with a movie that is widely accepted as one our our best, Salaam Bombay! The film about the lives of Bombay street children that she co-wrote with Sooni Taraporevala won 23 international awards, including Camera d’Or and Prix du Public at Cannes. It was India’s entry for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars. L. Subramaniam’s music takes the narrative to exalted levels. Nair’s other important works, all with a global sweep in their stories and cast, are Mississippi Masala, The Perez Family, Vanity Fair, The Namesake, Monsoon Wedding, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, My Own Country and Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love.

Chips off the Old Block(s)

Daughters of renowned film personalities have taken to the medium with brilliant results, mostly in Hindi.  Mahesh Bhatt’s daughter Pooja Bhatt (Paap, Jism2), Javed Akhtar and Honey Irani’s daughter Zoya Akhtar (Luck By Chance, Gully Boy), Gulzar and Rakhee’s daughter Meghna Gulzar (Talvar, Raazi) and screenwriter Kamna Chandra’s daughter Tanuja Chandra (Qarib Qarib Single, Dushman) are examples.


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Zoya’s cousin Farah Khan transitioned from choreographer to director, with hits starring superstar Shah Rukh Khan like Main Hoon Na, Om Shanti Om and Happy New Year.  Aamir’s Khan’s wife Kiran Rao is the director of Dhobi Ghat (a.k.a Mumbai Diaries). Tamil megastar Rajinikanth can boast of two directors in his family. While daughter Aishwarya directed 3, a psychological thriller featuring her husband Dhanush’s runaway hit song Kolaveri, her sister Soundarya directed Kochadaiiyaan for their father. 

The Millennial Mavericks  

Malayali women did not take much interest in the craft until Revathi a quarter century after Sheela. Her 2002 English film Mitr – My Friend which set in India and USA and portrays a lonely housewife seeking solace in a chat friendship, fetched Shobhana her second National award for Best Actress.


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But the millennium also saw the arrival of professional women filmmakers in Kerala. Leading the pack is the London Film School educated Anjali Menon who stormed into the scene with a nostalgia-dripping Manchadikkuru and popular films like Bangalore Days and Koode. Her screenplay for Anwar Rasheed’s Ustad Hotel won critical praise. Shalini Usha Nair directed Akam, a suspense thriller retelling Malayatoor Ramakrishnan’s novel Yakshi. In 2016 Vidhu Vincent became the first woman winner of the State Award for Direction for her film Manhole. Sreebala K. Menon made Love 24X7, a film which narrated the travails of television journalism interspersed with the search for love. Geethu Mohandas who stole our hearts as a child actress in Onnu Muthal Poojyam Vare turned director with a Hindi film called Liar’s Dice which bagged two National Awards.

Nandita Das, daughter of Bengali painter Jatin Das and an accomplished actor is not stranger to Malayali audiences. She turned director with the critically acclaimed Manto on the life of Pakistani Urdu writer Saadat Hassan Manto.


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The abundantly talented Sridevi who had an untimely demise made her acting comeback through the 2012 movie English Vinglish directed by former ad filmmaker Gauri Shinde. Her other notable work is Dear Zindagi. Alankrita Shrivastava’s 2016 movie Lipstick under My Burkha boldly explores women’s sexuality. It went to several festivals and bagged honors like Spirit of Asia Prize and Oxfam Award for Best Film on Gender Equality. Parched by Leena Yadav is along the same lines.


These are by no means the only female directors from India. Needless to say, they all collectively brought the female-empathetic perspective to movies, in a way very few men, excepting K. Balachander or Shyam Benegal have. Also, several other women have cranked camera, written scripts and lyrics, edited, composed music and so on – making their indelible mark in areas once considered as male preserves. They ushered in a needed sense of balance to the marvel that is Indian cinema, an integral part of our rich artistic tradition.