At the Mumbai festival, organised by the Mumbai Academy of the Moving Image (MAMI), the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award is the redoubtable Sai Paranjpye. In an industry that is notoriously male-dominated, recognising her contribution to cinema is very heartening. If the glass ceiling is cracking a little today, she had a lot to do with striking the first blows.
She was among the first women filmmakers in the Indian industry, a strong-willed, tough-talking women and Bollywood hadn’t seen the likes of her. She also had an almost violent reaction when included among ‘woman filmmakers’ and went out of her way to make films with male protagonists, as far from women’s subjects (read: domestic or victim dramas) as she could get.
Along with filmmakers like Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Basu Chatterjee and Gulzar, she made films that were labelled middle-of-the-road not esoteric experimental, not mindless commercial. These filmmakers made movies that told interesting or amusing stories with sensitivity and flair, their budgets ensured a limited kind of success—maybe not blockbuster, but definitely not loss-making.
She came with a background of television, theatre, documentaries and children’s films, still it must have been tough to get into an industry then, at a time when very few women were behind the scenes, hardly any directors, no DOPs, a couple of editors and choreographers. Producers would simply not trust women with money to make films, women could be act, dance or be hairdressers (it is only recently that women were even allowed to be make-up professionals, the industry is that macho).
Sai Paranjpye made films like Sparsh, Chashme Buddoor, Katha, Saaz—that ensured her a place in movie history. As chairperson of the Children;s Film Society she made delightful films likeBhaago Bhoot and Chaka Chak. She hasn’t made a film after Suee in 2009, which is a pity. She has won awards and been awarded the Padma Bhushan (in 2006), but it is a mark of her success as a filmmaker that years later, people remember her films.
More than that, it is the legacy of the pioneering women filmmakers (even if she hated the term), that at this year’s MAMI festival, the opening film is by a woman, Death in the Gunj by Konkona Sen Sharma, who happens be to be the daughter of another wonderful actress-tuned filmmaker Aparna Sen. More power to all the women who are now smashing that glass ceiling, carrying on the work Paranjpye and a handful of women started.