The number of top-grossing films directed by women touched a record level of 11 per cent across the world in the past year, according to a study by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative. This is a significant jump from 2018 when women directors made up only 4 per cent of the top 100 films.
Some of the top Hollywood directors responsible for this leap are Greta Gerwig (Little Women), Lorene Scafaria (Hustlers), Olivia Wilde (Booksmart), Lulu Wang (The Farewell) and Melina Matsoukas (Queen and Slim).
In addition to these, two of the top 10 highest-grossing movies in the global box office, Frozen II and Captain Marvel were co-directed by women: Jennifer Lee and Anna Boden respectively.
Incidentally, Fashions for Women (1927), the first Hollywood film directed by a woman, Dorothy Arzner, too was a hit. This was one year after the actor Fatma Begum directed her first film in Bombay!
In the 90-year history of the Academy Awards, only 5 women have ever been nominated for the best director Oscar, and only one, Kathryn Bigelow, has won (for The Hurt Locker in 2010).
If you look at the timeline of the coveted Palme d'Or honour in the Cannes Film Festival, after Danish actress and director Bodil Ipsen shared the award with her co-director Lau Lauritzen, Jr. for The Red Meadows in 1946, only one director has won it till date: Jane Champion for The Piano in 1993.
Reading the Annenberg study prompted me to do a reality check on the Indian scenario.
Bollywood’s first set of releases in 2019 included three debut films of women directors: Piya Sukanya’s Bombairia, Kangana Ranaut’s Manikarnikaand Shelly Chopra Dhar’s Ek Ladki Ko Dekha To Aisa Laga.
The euphoria, however, did not last long.
Bollywood, which had some successful women directors in recent years such as Zoya Akhtar, Reema Kagti, Meghna Gulzar, Farah Khan, Nandita Das, had only one box office hit last year: Gully Boy.
The Zoya Akhtar film, which explored the psyche of aspirational youth among class differences, was also picked as India’s entry to the Oscars but was not nominated. Produced on a budget of Rs 40 crores, Gully Boy collected about Rs 240 crores worldwide making it one of the highest-grossing movies of the year.
Shonali Bose, who had won multiple international awards with her earlier films Margarita with a Straw and Amu, released the bitter-sweet family drama The Sky is Pink, which received positive reviews but failed to impress the box office.
Sports journalist-turned-director Mitali Ghoshal's 22 Yards, which threw light on the murky world of cricket, failed to impress critics and trade pundits alike.
The scene down south isn’t any different. Out of the four women who released their movies in Tamil last year, only Halitha Shameem made the cut.
Halitha delivered her delightfully crafted four-film anthology Sillu Karuppati in the last week of 2019. The Suriya-Jyothika produced romantic film is living up to the expectations that Halitha’s previous film Poovarasam Pee Pee had set among the audience and is receiving positive reviews from critics across the board.
Madhumitha’s KD Engira Karuppudurai won laurels in the festival circuit while actor-turned-director Lakshmy Ramakrishnan’s House Owner was premiered in the Panorama section of the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) in Goa.
Anita Udeep’s adult comedy 90ML, for which actor Silambarasan composed the music, garnered mixed reviews for its narration and feminist overtone, but is doing well on streaming platforms.
Two women directors made their presence felt in Malayalam cinema last year: Geethu Mohandas with Moothon and Vidhu Vincent with Stand Up.
Moothon, a thriller that explores brotherhood and same-sex love was released in India to limited box office appeal after its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival and India premiere at the Mumbai festival MAMI.
Vidhu Vincent, the director of the IFFK and state-award winner Manhole, teamed up with the director of many superhits B Unnikrishnan for Stand Up. The movie which dealt with the story of a female stand-up performer, however, bombed in the box office.
Anjali Menon (Bangalore Days), likely the only woman director that the trade keenly looks forward to, did not have a release in 2019.
A surprise entry came from Kannada in the indie space. Debutante Roopa Rao’s Gantumoote (Baggage), a coming of age story that celebrates female gaze, impressed critics and the box office alike with its authentic portrayal of teenage romance and the unapologetic pursuit of passion from a teen girl’s perspective.
The film marked the debut of Teja Belawadi (actor Prakash Belawadi’s daughter), a raw talent that we will hear more about in the future.
I couldn’t find a single Telugu film by a woman director in 2019.
Women did considerably well directing Web series.
Two of the most popular series that went online last year were helmed by women. Four women were the force behind Made In Heaven, Amazon Prime’s most popular Web series of the year: Zoya Akhtar, Reema Kagti, Alankrita Shrivastava and Nitya Mehra. The next season is supposedly in the works as we speak.
Leila, the slick dystopian drama created by Deepa Mehta for Netflix too was a huge draw thanks to its chilling and convincing extrapolation of current events to a dangerous future.
In Bengali cinema, veteran Bengali director Aparna Sen’s modern-day adaptation of Tagore’s 1961 novel Ghawre Bairey Aaj (Out of Fear Today) is her most outspoken and political film. The novel, which was first adapted into a feature film by Satyajit Rai in 1984, revolves around three protagonists. Sen has recreated it in the backdrop of the brutal murder of Kannada journalist and writer Gauri Lankesh.
The Nirabashito-director Churni Ganguly’s 2019 film Tarikh (Timeline) too revolves around three characters. Churni won praise for her detailed writing and sensitive portrayal of the pains of moving over the loss of a dear one.
Pritha Chakraborthy’s debut feature Mukherjee Dar Bou (Mukherjee’s Wife) is another noteworthy film that deals with a range of issues related to patriarchy and family relationships from a feminist perspective.
Riding on the high of worldwide critical acclaim that she had received for her sophomore feature Village Rockstars, Assamese director Rima Das released her next, Bulbul Can Sing, last year.
Village Rockstars, apart from bagging coveted prizes in multiple international festivals including Berlin, had also helped Rima to become the first woman director to win the national award, Swarna Kamal (Golden Lotus), for the best feature film, ever since the award was instituted in 1954.
India had the first film directed by a woman as early as 1926, that too an expensive fantasy film with many special effects! Actor-director Fatma Begum's film Bulbul-e-Paristan was a work of wonder and Begum, considered a pioneer of special effects along with the French illusionist and filmmaker George Melies.
Unfortunately, there were fewer worthy successors to Fatma to take the legacy forward.
Is the severe gender and power imbalances in the industry the villain? In an industry dominated by men across all stages of production and distribution, women directors end up having a smaller footprint.
If the Annenberg study is any indication, women are steadily and effectively fighting this systemic exclusion and cracking the glass ceiling.
Let us hope India too take part in that revolution soon.
(Dress Circle is a weekly column on films. The author is a communication professional and film enthusiast. Read his past works here.)