There’s a lot of Aruna Raje in her new Netflix movie Firebrand, though she says she wouldn’t describe herself as one. The film sees Usha Jadhav play a divorce lawyer who goes toe-to-toe with her male counterparts in the courtroom daily, while privately dealing with the trauma of being raped as a teenager. “Tujhe courtroom mein mardo ka shikaar karne mein bohot maza aata hai na? Tumhara woh feminist company zindabad,” a colleague taunts her.
Raje, who was the first trained woman technician in the industry, knows a thing or two about being at the receiving end of such remarks. While assisting director Vishram Bedekar on Jai Jawan Jai Kisan in 1971, he insisted she wear a sari instead of jeans and a tee. Why? He said a woman’s body was “God’s ugliest creation and needed to be covered at all times,” she recalls.
“It was quite difficult for me to power through sexism at that time. I ran, I became a recluse. I had to find all kinds of ways to deal with it. If you rebuffed someone, they’d go and spoil your name. They’d go and tell people you were a good lay. I heard all these stories. I had to tread carefully but also hold my own. If all this was not there, I probably would’ve been able to make 10 more films,” says Raje, who co-directed Shaque (1976), Gehrayee (1980) and Sitam (1982) with her then-husband Vikas Desai.
Her first solo project, Rihaee (1988), starring Hema Malini, Vinod Khanna and Naseeruddin Shah, was a drama centered on the sexual liberation and rights of women in a small village in Gujarat. Khanna played a villager whose unfaithful wife finds herself pregnant after he temporarily moves to the city for work. In a startling twist, he decides to stay with her and raise the child as his own.
“Only after the film was released did people say, ‘Such a bold film. A lady has done such a bold film.’ It was important for me to make it because my marriage had broken up, I’d lost my nine-year-old daughter to cancer. Everything was a big mess and I knew I had to stand up again,” she says.
Raje financed the film through an NDFC loan of Rs10 lakh, an advance from an overseas distributor and borrowed Rs30,000 from Khanna. Locking down a distribution deal was another struggle. Brokers and agents refused to do business with a woman and she eventually had to get a male friend to negotiate on her behalf.
She says the Priyanka Chopra-produced Firebrand, which is Netflix’s first licensed original film in Marathi, and Rihaee share similar themes. Here she talks about writing the kind of men we don’t see often onscreen and how streaming has opened up new avenues for a filmmaker like her:
Rihaee, which you made back in 1988, deals with themes of sexual repression and liberation, similar to those of Firebrand
It’s a very obvious comparison at one level. The issues are different but Rihaee and Firebrand are both about women having power or having freedom over their own bodies and not being judged. If you’re in a marriage, it’s a contract that says you have to be faithful to each other. But mistakes happen. When a man does it, nobody says anything to him. When a woman steps out of line, it becomes death or dishonour. Which happens in Rihaee. Today it’s different. People don’t give that much significance to it. They do what they want to do and when they want to do it. The divorce courts are overflowing.
Over the past few years, I’ve become a life coach. I came across a lot of men and women who were sexually abused. How do you deal with that? People talk about the legal route, punishing the perpetrators. No one talks about rehabilitation or closure for the victims who have been victim shamed. There are lot of women who are molested and never speak up about it. They go about their work quietly and professionally. At home they manage their home and relationships. But they are traumatised and nobody really deals with that issue. There are all these hidden women and I made Firebrand for them.
The husbands in both films are the kind of largehearted, forgiving men looking past their wives’ indiscretions. Where do they come from?
I’ve been asked this question before by my own actors. For Firebrand, Sachin Khedekar told me that he wasn’t as forgiving as the character he’s playing. Girish Kulkarni said, ‘I’ve got the chance to play something I’m not. I’m not such a nice man.’ I know nice men. I’m a feminist and for me, feminism is not about blaming men or making them out to be bad. It’s about finding a new equation between men and women. In Rihaee, Vinod Khanna ne bhi jhatka khaya. In Firebrand, the husband happily, aaraam se bol raha hai ki sex aur love are two different things. But when it comes to himself (when his wife sleeps with another man), his face becomes so small. I love that expression. But then – do you still love this woman, do you forgive her? It’s not a happy ending, a chalo chalo theek hai ending. The equation has changed and now they have to see if they can try and survive with it. For me, it’s kind of empowering men. It’s a ‘see, you can be this’. There are men who can go beyond limited patriarchal attitudes.
You’ve been vocal in your support of the #MeToo movement. Has there been a visible change in the work environment since it started?
In the industry? Things are the same. Everyone has kept their lips sealed. A few girls have come out with their stories but sexism, misogyny, use and abuse are all there. I think after #MeToo, people are being a bit more careful but I don’t know for sure because the shift was very recent. Somebody asked me, ‘Why aren’t you naming people?’ I said, ‘Agar mein film directory kholu, toh mujhe dekhna padega kiska naam na loon.’ 95% of them are like that. Which names to leave out? The rest are all the same. And that’s why they’re all quiet. That’s why the girls are quiet too.
It’s been 30 years since Rihaee released. Has it become easier to tell these kinds of stories today? You’ve created Firebrand, which is the kind of story you’ve always wanted to tell, it’s for this massive platform and it’s produced by a leading actress.
It has become easier. I made Rihaee with a Rs10-lakh loan from the NFDC. Now, Netflix picked up Firebrand. They said, ‘This is global content.’ I know it is global content, but what would I do with my little Marathi film? Where would I go? Who would I show it to? Few theatres with few shows screen Marathi films. That’s the end of it. Even the whole of Maharashtra wouldn’t have seen it. Now, I’m going to get exposure in 190 countries, where what I’m saying can reach people, empower them, enrich and inspire them. Something will come out of it.
When we made Firebrand, we didn’t have Netflix on board. They came in post that. It was just perfect because we were making what people call a ‘bold’ film but what was to us a ‘courageous’ film. We could do it without any worries, without any hassles. I have so many other stories to tell and now I know they can see the light of day.
When I made Rihaee, women were not allowed to go to the theatre in Lucknow and Bhopal. They saw the film on the video circuit. Those days, we had video parlours, where people could hire cassettes. It also disturbed a lot of men. I remember at a press conference, one of the men stood up and said, ‘What do you want? You want sleeping rights?’ I said, ‘Who is going to give who sleeping rights? Whoever wants to sleep with whomever sleeps.’ He said, ‘You’re spoiling our women.’ I said, ‘Tell me, if somebody in your circle is having an affair, is it with someone else from that circle or is he going to the red-light area?’ He had no answer. He sat down.
Today, nobody is asking me such questions. I don’t think anybody will, because it’s been 30 years since then and there’s been a shift in terms of behaviour and understanding.
For many years, I didn’t make a feature film because there was no space to make it. There were no takers. Till two years ago, people were asking me to make Rihaee again. I said, ‘Things have changed. I can’t make it again.’ Then they would say, ‘Rights toh de dijiye.’ I won’t give them the rights, they’ll screw it up.