When Priya Seth, who has been the cinematographer on films like Airlift (2016) and Chef (2017), began her career, she was invariably the only female assistant in the camera team. “I did not realise there was any discrimination, I just knew I was the only one,” Seth told Film Companion. People would ask her how she’d manage to lift the camera and Seth would find herself wondering which part of it was a problem. No one may have said it in as many words, but the message was clear: If you’re a cinematographer, being a woman was a disadvantage. “We completely made an effort to negate any sense of femininity in our clothing. There was this mistaken sense that if you dress more masculine, you will fit in,” remembered Seth. Neha Parti Matiyani, whose credits include Rashmi Rocket (2021) and Four More Shots Please!, was one of three girls in a six-member class that specialised in cinematography at Pune’s Film and Television Institute of India. Parti Matiyani was the only woman from the six who went on to pursue a career in cinematography. “When I started out, initially people would assume I was from the make-up or costume department. It took some getting used to for people back then to accept and learn that women can do a physically challenging job,” she said.
To be a woman technician in the male-dominated film industry is an exercise in determination. Archana Borhade, who began as a software engineer and transitioned to cinema after a gentle nudge from actor Mohan Agashe, was the only woman in a class of 20 students of cinematography. Even after she’d established herself as a cinematographer, she’d face questions. “The lightmen would say, ‘Madam, aap kyu itna kaam kar rahe ho? Aapko do-char saalo main shaadi karke ghar pe hi toh bethna hai (Madam, why are you working so hard when you’re going to settle down and quit in 2 to 4 years?)’,” recalled Borhade. “It wasn’t that they were trying to demoralise us, that’s what they had seen and that’s what they thought is going to happen.” Last year, Borhade became the first Indian woman cinematographer to be featured among American Cinematographer magazine’s list of rising photographers. So far, she has shot five feature films, and is currently working on her next.
In addition to pushing the industry to become more open-minded, women cinematographers have also brought to the camera the ineffable quality that is the female gaze. “It’s very tricky to slot it, as in what is a female gaze,” said Seth, while trying to explain it in words. “A male gaze is quite clear, one knows. By and large, the female gaze would be more generous and slightly more protective of the subject.” While all three cinematographers accepted that women are just as susceptible to employing the male gaze, Seth said there’s usually a distinction. “Even if it’s something like a woman gyrating [on-screen], you will know that there were only men ideating in that room,” she said. “There are certain things that will just not happen if it’s a woman. It will happen differently, it doesn't mean that women may not shoot a raunchy song. But there are certain things…it’s hard to explain! A woman will know when there wasn’t a woman in that room, making those choices.”
Borhade said her understanding of the female gaze is “evolving” and suggested the usage of a more inclusive term – “humane gaze”. She said there’s more to gender and the gaze than is implied by the male-female binary. Borhade also gave the example of how love and intimate scenes were filmed by director Céline Sciamma in Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) and the contrast it offered to Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is the Warmest Colour (2013). “The way it [Blue…] captured female nudity or the lesbian relationship did not feel organic. But Portrait of a Lady on Fire was a beautiful, well-told story,” she said. “The female gaze needn’t necessarily come from a woman,” pointed out Parti Matiyani. “It comes from a well-rounded man as well.” The three cinematographers cited the films of directors Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Krzysztof Kieślowski and Akira Kurosawa as examples of a gaze that viewed women subjects with sensitivity and respect.
Seth shot the second season of Karenjit Kaur – The Untold Story of Sunny Leone. The first season was shot by another woman cinematographer, Keiko Nakahara. When asked if having women shoot the show was a deliberate decision, Seth said, “Absolutely, I think it was. Women would look more generously upon Sunny Leone than men would in the situation. What she [Leone] has done is quite incredible and it is emancipating. That’s where women would look at it from if you’re not a judgemental person.” Seth also said that the few men who were offered to shoot the series turned it down.
Parti Matiyani, who has shot the first two seasons of Four More Shots Please!, said there’s a “trickle-down effect” when more women occupy decision-making roles in the entertainment business. “We keep talking about bringing in change and giving opportunities to more women. I think that’s a trickle-down effect. It was a conscious decision on the part of the producer,” said Parti Matiyani. The first season of Four More Shots Please! was directed by Anu Menon and the second by Nupur Asthana. For the first time, a male cinematographer, Sanket Shah, has joined the team for the third season. Parti Matiyani said she’s confident there won’t be a difference since the style of the series is well-established. When asked about her most memorable experiences as a cinematographer, she said she loves shooting songs like “Saturday Saturday” from Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania (2014) and “Tamma Tamma Again” from Badrinath Ki Dulhania (2017) (both movies were shot by her). “It’s quite amazing to have the camera dance with the actors. You have to become one with them,” she said.
In 2017, director and cinematographer Fowzia Fathima founded the Indian Women Cinematographer Collective (IWCC). The organisation’s mission statement says, “We hope to inspire girls and those breaking out of the gender binary to consider roles behind the camera as viable professions.” IWCC is now 120 cinematographers strong. For established members like Borhade, Parti Matiyani and Seth, the industry is a more welcoming space than it was when they entered it. All of them have found reliable collaborators and have exciting projects that they’re looking forward to. Borhade is working on a dramatic series and a screenplay. Parti Matiyani, whose last film was Rashmi Rocket, said she’d love to work on an action film. Seth’s upcoming film is Pippa, directed by her long-time collaborator Raja Krishna Menon. “All the stuff I’m proud of is right here, right now,” she said.