May the Number of Women Filmmakers Grow: Director Tanuja Chandra

In an interview Tanuja Chandra says, “Price-tag attached to films with a female actor is far lower than a male star”

6 min read
Tanuja is known for her gritty women centric dramas in Mumbai cinema.

After almost a decade, director-screenwriter Tanuja Chandra’s new release, Qarib Qarib Singlle hit the box office this Friday. Tanuja is known for her gritty women centric dramas in Mumbai cinema. Unlike before, her latest is a heartwarming romantic comedy starring Irrfan Khan and Parvathi T.K.

The following is an excerpt from a longer interview in the forthcoming book: ‘Fatima’s Sisters- Interviews with Women Screenwriters and Directors.’

Tanuja Chandra and Irrfan Khan twinning on the sets of <i>Qarib Qarib Singlle.</i>
Tanuja Chandra and Irrfan Khan twinning on the sets of Qarib Qarib Singlle.
(Photo Courtesy: Twitter)

The story of Qarib Qarib Singlle, your latest release, is by Kamna Chandra, your mother and a senior screenwriter in the Mumbai film industry. How different are her writing practices and motivations from yours? Do you perceive any common ground, tangible and intangible borrowings? Any conflicts?

What I learnt significantly, was that the plot, the hard ‘whys, whats and wheres’ are most important. These are the limbs upon which good screenplays stand. Without these being sturdy the whole structure falls down. Other then that, writing by hand never takes away from the emotions of a script. Rather, she might argue that this enhances emotions. Emotions are very strong in her works which deal with human relationships and our society, and emotions form an important part of my films as well. Movies after all, are stories about us, our world and that’s what is the backbone of her writing. As for reading her screenplays, I have even worked on one of them which I hope will be one of my best films someday.

The only conflicting ideas I would see now are to do with the craft of screenplay. Pacing, rhythm, structure, have all become all the more important in movies these days. She still likes a slowly unravelling film which takes its time to depict characters, their needs and desires, whereas I’ve swiftly understood that a script needs to have a fast pace as people don’t have much patience. However, I understand only too well that if your main plot is flimsy with nothing solid at its heart, even the most frenetic screenplay won’t be able to hold it up. So the basic story is the soul from where everything emanates, and the craft of writing while crucial, is not the only important thing.

You are a screenwriter and director. Can you elucidate your creative process for us from an idea to a screenplay to the final film?

It’s difficult to put this down in words, except to very simply say, that I hate it! It’s difficult, agonizing, depressing, frustrating, necessarily defeating! It’s frightening to stare at an empty page. It still surprises me after all these years to behold a complete script, a complex story where there once was nothing.

I suppose it all begins with a longing. When the heart longs, it suffers. It yearns to satisfy that longing. So there’s a vague idea that one wishes to give a conclusion to, and there begins the process of writing. For me personally, as a filmmaker, it’s important to say something, about our lives, the times we live in, the people we are. So I root my stories in society, what the film industry or the media likes to label, ‘socially relevant’ stories. Many writers like to have the whole picture in front of them, a beginning, middle and end. I often don’t have all those components when I plunge into the script. It’s through writing scenes, dialogues, moments that I actually understand what I am myself trying to say! And from this point on till the point a screenplay is complete, it’s sheer, undiluted hell. A nightmare. Further cementing the horror of it all, is the fact that the process of writing is never really complete. One just has to abandon the script and move onto making the damn film! There are several revisions, my most recent script actually having over a hundred drafts, till the story you wanted to make actually makes itself visible. The flab, the diversions, the unnecessary sub-plots are hopefully gone, and the bare, raw story resonates and speaks to people out there. But only if you’re lucky, and you’ve worked very, very hard.

What is an ideal director–screenwriter arrangement according to you? Have you found one over these years?

I’ve understood that it’s not an easy collaboration to define, because it’s a director’s vision that primarily has to shine through. Especially if you’re the kind of director that pours themselves into the subject matter like I do. I can only direct what I love, and so I’m not the type of director to just be handed a script to bring to life. It’s at the very inception stage where I would come in. I’ve myself written some of my own films like Sur, and Hope And a Little Sugar, but it’s also a great idea to include other minds. In Bollywood, directors are very often co-writers, but I personally wish they didn’t have to be! I wish I myself would stay out of my scripts as well, but I can’t!

Tanuja Chandra, the director of <i>Qarib Qarib Singlle</i>.
Tanuja Chandra, the director of Qarib Qarib Singlle.
(Photo Courtesy: Twitter)

Many describe the films you make as ‘women’s cinema’. Do you think there is a separate genre called ‘women’s cinema’ in India (Mumbai Cinema)? What defines it? Are you comfortable with your work being described as Women’s Cinema as a practice? Considering the misogyny in Indian cinema, what do you feel as to the relevance of the genre?

It’s a somewhat misleading term, because although I’ve made movies with female protagonists often, the films aren’t ‘for’ women only. As a director, while one loves to explore women’s stories, one also wants all audiences to watch them and like them. However, it’s really now that movies with women’s stories are working commercially. My earlier films did well, but they belonged more in the ‘multiplex era’ than in the late nineties when multiplexes were few and far between. What I so hoped would happen has only become more of a trend today, and I’m very happy about that.

I think there are hundreds of women’s stories out there waiting to be made into movies. I make no distinction between male and female film makers really, or make no value judgements. Both can be as good or as bad. However, there is bound to be some freshness to female perspectives and stories with women at the heart of them, simply because it hasn’t been done much yet. We’ve only begun to look at these stories and I would imagine there is a great deal of entertainment to be found in these. So may the number of women directors, producers, writers, as well as subjects about women only increase.

What are the compulsions of trying to make a kind of cinema within the commercial framework? Also, do the mechanisms change because a woman is choosing to make a cinema that talks about women’s lives?

Nothing changes. It’s just that the traditional way of operating is always difficult to change. So you’re swimming against the tide. The budget surely decreases! When you’re making a film about a central female character, even having the top actress will give you a small to medium budget. The price-tag attached to movies with a female actor is far lower then one with a male star. The good thing is that you’re only dependent on the strength of the film itself. The money comes in really if the film does well at the box office, not because of the sales that the producer manages. However, today even a good film doesn’t stand a chance if it’s not promoted well, and with a small budget that’s always an issue. Films that have been made in small budgets, but where the producers have taken the gamble of spending money on promotion have often benefitted.

Tanuja Chandra’s new release, ‘Qarib Qarib Singlle’ hit the box office this Friday.
Tanuja Chandra’s new release, ‘Qarib Qarib Singlle’ hit the box office this Friday.
(Photo Courtesy: YouTube screenshot)

(Anubha Yadav is a writer, academic and filmmaker based in New Delhi. Her fiction and non fiction work has appeared in newspapers and journals all over the world. At present she is working on a book of interviews with women screenwriters and directors in Mumbai cinema, called Fatima's Sisters. Her academic research focuses on screenwriting studies and gender.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

Stay Updated

Subscribe To Our Daily Newsletter And Get News Delivered Straight To Your Inbox.

Join over 120,000 subscribers!