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Verve People
January 12, 2012

Ladies of the Lens

Photographs by Ritam Banerjee.

One bagged the National Award for her very first film. The other managed one of the biggest coups in Bollywood by casting Sridevi and Amitabh Bachchan together after almost two decades in her first bravura project. Together, they represent the growing breed of strong-headed women directors who are here to tell their tales, on their own terms. Avantika Hari Agarwal and Gauri Shinde talk to Verve about expectations, experiences and the heady magic of being able to spin a story….

  • Avantika Hari Agarwal, Film Director, National Award-winning Land Gold Women
    Avantika Hari Agarwal
  • Gauri Shinde, Film Director, English Vinglish
    Gauri Shinde

Avantika Hari Agarwal

In her first feature film – the National Award-winning Land Gold Women – Avantika Hari Agarwal dived deep into the issue of honour killing and came up smelling of roses. The debutant director, without any heavy emotionally manipulative treatment, has made a sincere effort in driving the point home.

A view that she reinforces when we catch her a little before its nationwide release in Mumbai, also explaining why the characters of the film (the Birmingham-based Nazir Khan and his 17-year-old daughter Saira) are Muslim: “There is a major misconception that honour killing is the highest amongst Muslims and that Islam condones the killing of women or daughters. So instead of beating around the bush and hiding behind the idea that this is not a general stereotype, I decided to come to this stereotype and break the myth that that it is religiously condoned. So the film very specifically shows that it is socially and not religiously mandated. That’s the reason I chose a Muslim family.”

Avantika, who was born in Mumbai, but moved to Dubai when she was eight, finished high school there before garnering further education in the USA and UK. She says, “In Modern High School, there was a large emphasis on lots of extra curricular – there was drama, music, dance and I loved all of that. Film is one medium that combines all my interests – which also includes writing.”

Later, when the Tamil-born girl found herself so moved by the sensational case of the Kurdish girl Banaz Mahmod who was killed because she fell in love with a man her family did not approve of, she decided to make a film. “Her mutilated body was found stuffed in a suitcase and these images kept getting beamed. People would ask questions about it, attributing it as an imported crime,” she states. “I was shocked that though I’m from India, I’d never heard about honour killings before. I started to research more about them and met people who dealt with this issue on a daily basis – for example policemen or lawyers or legal experts or victims. I decided that this is something I wanted to know more about and actually got in touch with an NGO in UK called Aashram, which houses victims of honour violence.”

The film also brought her in contact with her husband, Vivek Agarwal, in Mumbai, who read the script and loved it. “Vivek had the reputation for doing offbeat, small budget, independent cinema. Everyone I spoke to said, “He is your man, he is the guy!”

An open casting call in London had them meet over 600 actors in four months and select the final eight seen in the film. She points out that the choice of not taking stars for Land Gold Women was deliberate and not just dictated by budget constraints. She had told Vivek, “I’m happy to do a film with new faces, new talent – it  pushes me professionally and I want this to feel as if it can happen in your house, in your neighbour’s house, to someone you know. So there is a sense that the family is very real and this is a very real issue that we are dealing with.”

The film premiered at the International Film Festival in Goa in the Indian Panorama section and was also showcased in Singapore at the Asian Film Festival of First Films. “It’s travelled the world picking up awards along the way,” she recalls – the film released last year in both Hindi and English.

Avantika is aware that it could have a limited appeal to an audience brought up on masala movies: “Why would they come to a screening of Land Gold Women when they could go to Rascals, Desi Boyz or The Dirty Picture…?”

The response has been encouraging though. Avantika says, “About three months ago, we had a screening for a group of people and one was for a company called Luminosity Pictures which is headed by Rahul Merchant. Luminosity is a film marketing company. Rahul asked, ‘Why wouldn’t people come and see this in the theatre?’ So we launched what is called The White Ribbon Movement to end domestic violence – we hold a whole bunch of initiatives to spread awareness about the film and honour killing.”

Expecting a baby soon, she is immensely relieved that her film is finally out. She says, “I’ve put every single thing I have into the film – money, knowledge, every resource I had at my disposal. It’s literally my first baby. I feel like I’m having twins! It’s the biggest labour of love I’ve ever undertaken and it probably shows in the film.”

 – Rukhmini Punoose

Gauri Shinde

She giggles her way into the otherwise dull apartment-converted-into-an-office in the Mumbai suburbs. Contrary to all expectations, Gauri Shinde, known so far as R Balki’s better half, breaks more than just the silence in the room. A hardcore ad filmmaker she has successfully crossed the barrier and moved to the other end of the rainbow, to debut as a filmmaker in one of the most awaited films of the year – English Vinglish. That the film marks the comeback of ‘Hawa Hawai’ Sridevi, a cameo by Amitabh Bachchan and is being produced by Balki himself, take the expectations a notch higher.

But she strikes a pretty calm picture, despite all the hype and hullabaloo. “As far as people know about it and are expecting something it’s great,” she laughs. And then goes back to her Zen state to call it pure karma, “when you start dreaming and asking for it, things just fall into place,” she says philosophically.

As happened in her case, even though she hadn’t thought of casting Sridevi while writing the film, a casual meeting with the iconic actress changed all of that. A script narration session made both the women realise how perfectly they both fitted in each other’s scheme of things. There has been no looking back since. “It just happened and I didn’t have to think twice about the decision and am now a fan of hers through this film.”  Understandable, since Gauri hardly saw any Hindi movies till Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge happened to Bollywood. Until then she worshipped Woody Allen, wholly and solely.

“I am a very impatient writer, so I don’t know how I wrote this film. I took time off and went to New York to write it. A friend and I brainstormed for weeks and fleshed out the synopsis,” she candidly admits. The film is a humorous take on the significance of knowing the English language in India and acknowledges that it takes inspiration from funny incidents during her mother’s visit to the US. “In India three things are very important – money, fame and English. You may have the money and fame but if you don’t know the English language you are not considered sophisticated, and we all have someone in the family who is like that,” she reflects.

The film has been a nostalgic journey for her as well. Born and brought up in Pune, she shot in her neighbour’s house where she grew up. Apart from that, New York is also an important part of her film and life. Almost like an artistic muse, she finds the vibrant city one of her most favourite and inspiring places in the world since her Film Academy days. Though she wouldn’t swear by her academics, wryly agreeing, that while on the sets she is completely guided by her instincts. “I have a bad memory and can’t quote stuff to look smart.” she quips.

For someone as strong-headed as her, the need to appease others seems trivial. No surprise, she doesn’t like anyone meddling with her work, even though that someone maybe the Bollywood heavyweight R Balki, also her better half. Married for almost five years, they met during her advertising days and he is now the producer of the film. “I won’t deny that I have an advantage. While lounging in the living room, I can take inputs. But as far as working together goes, we both are very strong-headed about our ideas and creative processes. We don’t necessary believe in the same things,” she states in a-matter-of-fact way.

She is also aware of the daunting flipsides. “I am expecting people to say that perhaps Balki has directed and done everything in this film. This happens when someone in one family has achieved a lot, the person after him has to suffer the bias. It does leave a bitter taste after all the hard work that I have put in, but as long as the movie is liked and Sridevi is appreciated, I am happy,” she chuckles.

 – Malvika Sah

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