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Category: Art and Entertainment

Firaaq or “The Quest”—A Woman Filmmaker at Telluride

| September 5, 2008

If you have had the exquisite pleasure of seeing the films Earth and Fire ( the last of the trilogy is Water) by the genius Indian filmmaker Deepa Mehta, then you know the celebrated actress Nandita Das. Now Das has followed in the footsteps of Mehta, described as “Canada's most internationally renowned woman filmmaker," by directing her first feature.

Firaaq debuted at the Telluride Film Festival over Labor Day weekend. The title translates from Urdu into “Separation” or “Quest” and follows several characters through the aftermath of the 2002 Gujarat riots—a Hindu-Muslim conflict that took the lives of nearly 3000 people. The Telluride festival, an annual gathering in this former mining town in Colorado, is a must for those lucky enough to be asked to show. Last year Juno, The Savages, Into the Wild, and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly were made into hits here.

The numbers of women directors of Indian origin --in fact, all women of color, are low. The success of Indian born Mira Nair, director of The Namesake and working in film in the U.S. stands out: 22 films, including four in pre or post production this year. Das was the only woman writer/director of any color presenting a film at the festival and generated a lot of attention, some of it because of the man who introduced her and her project–Sir Salman Rushdie. At a directors’ conversation  I found myself sitting in front of, and then chatting briefly with Rushdie, who said he was there because the film deserves a wide distribution.

The directors’ conversation was illuminating. Nandita Das and American director Peter Doyle both made films in India, but the projectory of their two films couldn’t be more different:  Doyle (of Trainspotting fame) has made a big, expensive male adventure titled Slumdog Millionaire. The story of an impoverished boy who wins big on a game show (it’s a better story than that description.,)  it was the hit of Telluride. It will burst upon the US circuit this November and is sure to be a popular success.  Nandita’s film, Firaaq, an intimate, more personal take on the lasting ravages of hate—and the affect on the women as well as the men--is still looking for a buyer. Of course, the directors are in different stages of their careers—but  I couldn’t help but think of the disparities of women and men working in film as I listened to their war stories of filmmaking in Indian cities and villages.

When offered the observation that there are not many women directors  working in India, Das easily responded  “Nor anywhere.”

This year we’ve had two big women’s films, Mama Mia, woman directed, written and produced has so far generated nearly $300 million worldwide. Sex and the City, with an all woman cast, but no women behind the scenes, drew huge crowds and plumped hopes that Hollywood would finally notice women audiences, stars, and professionals.

Dr. Martha Lauzen, author of the annual analysis of women working in American film, The Celluloid Ceiling, is a member of The Women’s Media Center’s  Honorary Advisory Council. Her numbers from 2007 are daunting, showing a decline, not growth of women working in film since she started counting, in 1998. (Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film: SDSU)

Women comprised 6% of all directors working on the top 250 films of 2007. Ninety four percent (94%) of the films had no female directors.
Women accounted for 10% of writers working on the top 250 films of 2007. Eighty two percent (82%) of the films had no female writers.

Lauzen’s latest survey, Thumbs Down, of women film reviewers, is equally dismal—70 per cent of the reviewers at the top newspapers are male.

In the context of this lock on the industry, the next stop for Firaaq is the Toronto Film Festival, where three screenings are scheduled this weekend. The talks continue, and if we’re lucky, we’ll all be able to catch this fine film in a movie theatre near us soon.

In the meantime, for riveting descriptions of the challenges director Deepa Mehta faced shooting her film about Indian widows, Water, please read Bright Lights Film Journal | The Politics of Deepa Mehta's 'Water'(A camera assistant reports on the turmoil of filming Deepa Mehta's 'Water') and Deepa Mehta: Vindicated? (The director finds many fans for her film, the controversial Water). And then find a way to see this extraordinary series.