There’s a video on Twitter. Taken at the sets of the Lokesh Kanakaraj’s Vikram. It shows the last scene to be shot. We see Fahad Faasil pointing a gun, with the Lokesh just behind him — and perhaps off camera — directing him. We go closer. The camera pans around. Fahad fires off. Lokesh calls wrap. And the camera pulls back to reveal the entire crew.
Some 20 odd people — excited cheers and tired-worthy-happy faces.
Fantastic. It truly is. To all those who worked their long hard way up to be on a major film set, congratulations. As someone on the fringes of, and looking into, the film industry I offer nothing but good tidings from here on.
Of those 20 odd tired-worthy-happy faces, not a single one was a woman’s. Or a trans person. At least not visibly.
Every set of a Tamil film is more or less the same. There are enough photos and behind-the-scenes and making-of videos on YouTube to show that your average film set, at least in Tamil Nadu, is largely men.
Women film professionals are relegated to ‘trades’ that are often seen as their preserve: costumes, hairstyle, make-up, casting. The odd cinematographer’s assistant, the infrequent second assistant director (often in charge of costumes or heroine assistance), perhaps an executive producer, and rarely a writer or director. It takes a “bold” producer to pitch their worth behind a film written or directed by woman, cis or trans.
This is especially gaudy when Tamil cinema has been belting out big, beautifully made, powerfully narrated films about the people whose lives are hidden, invisibilised, and erased by the powerful. To warm my female heart, these films also have named women characters with their own backstories and desires, agency and voice.
But behind and off the screen, where are the women?
You know as well as I do, dear reader, that one Sudha Kongara or Leena Manimekalai or Geetu Mohandas does not an industry make. For every film composed by Bindu Malini, of the Bindu Malini-Vedant Bharadwaj duo, the music directors of Aruvi, there are twenty Anirudh Ravichandar or GV Prakash composed albums.
The lyrics department is marginally better. But for every Thamarai or Kutty Revathy song, we have dozens more written by Vivek or Pa Vijay. Or that one accused by multiple women of being a sexual harasser. More importantly, why don’t the Nayantaras and Aishwarya Rajeshs of our world jam with the music directors and write gibberish? If you think that skill or interest is the reason why Sivakarthikeyan, Vignesh Shivan and Poet-u Dhanush get opportunities to write songs, may I humbly prod you to think again?
In fact, getting women makeup artists itself was a long-fought legal battle. This despite actresses very clearly stating they felt uncomfortable with men applying their makeup. The makeup union till 2013 wouldn’t hear of women daring to become members. The Supreme Court had to rap them on the knuckles for change to happen. “We are in 2014, not in 1935. Such things cannot continue even for a day,” judges Dipak Misra and UU Lalit said.
And then, there is really work of consequence. The list of highest grossing Tamil films like Master, Darbar, Kabali, Mankatha are all, without exception, written by, directed by, and produced by men, and feature male protagonists doing male-protagonist things. Scroll down any director’s social media presence and you’ll see more photos of directors bonding with other men directors and then we have an industry of men — who sometimes play at being comedians — swarming around Sivakarthikeyan.
Where are the women writers of masala and “no-brainer” entertainers? Where are the women directing your Deepavali or Pongal blockbusters? How many of their crew members are women? In the camera, art, sound, production, direction, editing departments?
I am, after all, a firm believer in the ‘auteur’-driven cinema, that each filmmaker, technician and crew member engages deeply with the films they make and over time you can see the patterns and motifs in their work. Their narrative agency is critical. And so good or bad, misogynistic or otherwise, casteist and or transphobic, you get to know what a filmmaker’s body of work is and depending on your comfort level, ability to engage, and social and other locations, you choose to watch that film or rant about it on Twitter.
But that leaves the larger question of whose stories are being said and heard.
So, this vacuous women’s day, I wish for more diverse sets — more representative of the society the films are made in and addressed to. Where a woman crew member is not one of boys and doesn’t feel forced to fit into a clique. Where an actress doesn’t feel the immobilizing gaze of a thousand male eyes on her because she is the only woman for miles around. A film set where a lighting technician can pull her weight in setting up the scene and still happily express her hyper femininity if she so chooses.
Where a trans woman on set isn’t automatically assumed to be an extra or a make-up artist. Where a trans woman isn’t a source of an award-season film but perhaps a clapper-loader or a boom operator who knows her way around the set and is listened to for that reason.
A film set where women can stay back for the late-night roll and know she will have good company and a warm meal with the other crew members. And she will have clean and safe toilets. A set where a queer man can be a queer man without needing to position towels and rolled up cuffs one way or other to be left alone, and more importantly, these signals are complete bunkum.
Ultimately, I wish for a film industry that is as much about the small names as it is about the big, and that those 20 odd people in the video don’t ever have to be singled out again.