The ‘F’ word – Female Filmmakers

Females make up more than half of the world’s population. But a recent study in the US says that out of the 250 films produced in the year 2011, women accounted for 25% of producers, 20% of editors, 18% of executive producers, 14% screenwriters, 5% of directors, and just 4% of cinematographers.

There were 0% of people who were interested in collecting a similar statistics in India and even if they did… what are we going to see? Numbers like 0.05%?

Why are there so few female film-makers?

We all know that film industry is a tough place. It’s a jungle out there… Though female film technicians may not be as scarce as a Pinta Island Tortoise, they still are a rare species.

–          Is it because women got into filmmaking much later than men?

Alice Guy-Blaché

Women have been involved with filmmaking since the beginning of cinema, as early as 1896. There have been women directors, producers, writers and editors actively involved in making movies along with men. Alice Guy-Blaché was the very first female director in the world. Her first film was called La Fee aux Choux (The Cabbage Fairy) which she directed in 1898. She was also an actor, a producer and a writer. In addition to that, she was a pioneer who experimented a lot with filmmaking and developed various techniques in special effects, synchronized sound and narrative forms. She was one of the first directors to direct fiction, experimenting with slapstick, fantasy, sci-fi, western, action and other genres.  An amazing fact is… she had directed 324 films. This was a time when women still didn’t have the right to vote.

–          Is it because of being born in traditional, religious or conservative family backgrounds which pose a hurdle for women to enter into films?

Fatima Begum

Fatima Begum, who was born into an Urdu Muslim family, was the first female director of Indian Cinema. In 1926, she directed Bulbul-e-Paristan, abig-budget fantasy film with special effects. She was also an actor, a writer and a producer. 


T.P.Rajalakshmi (Thiruvaiyaru Panchapakesa Sastri Rajalakshmi), who was born into a conservative Hindu family, became an actor, a producer and the first female director of Tamil Cinema.  In 1936, she directed the movie ‘Miss Kamala’ based on her first novel.

It is said that the golden era of female filmmaking when women held an almost equal number of key roles as men, ended in the 1930s. After that men have dominated cinema till the present day. A lot of ambitious women today are still battling against archaic perceptions and gender stereotypes.

India has seen directors like Mira Nair, Sai Paranjpye, Deepa Mehta, Kalpana Lajmi, Aparna Sen and Gurinder Chaddha make a mark with films which are internationally popular and critically acclaimed. Other filmmakers who are busting the boy’s club are Zoya Akhtar, Farah Khan, Tanuja Chandra, Leena Yadav, Meghna Gulzar, Pooja Bhatt, Kiran Rao, Nandita Das, Anusha Rizvi, Bhavna Talwar, Alankrita Shrivastava, Deepti Naval, Rajshree Ohja and Reema Kagti.

Back in Kolkata, Aparna Sen set the ball rolling and, now, there are others like Anusuya Roy Choudhury, Sanghamitra Chaudhuri and Aditi Roy are creating waves.

Film industry in the south saw a range of genres from meaningful, heartwarming, dramatic, realistic films to light-hearted and entertaining films from yesteryear heroines like Bhanumathi, Savithri, Vijaya Nirmala, Suhasini and Revathy and the talented others like Priya.V, Janaki Viswanathan, Revathy Varma, Sharada Ramanathan, Anitha udeep, Madhumitha, Anjana Ali Khan, Nandini Reddy, Anjali Menon and of course, yours truly (Nandhini JS).

–          Is it because filmmaking is a physically tasking job? Can women handle it?

Brianne Murphy

A male producer once teased a female cinematographer, whether the camera was too heavy for her to carry. She answered ‘No more than carrying a child’. That was Brianne Murphy, the very first female cinematographer in the world, who started her work in 1962 shooting documentaries and television series, then moved on to feature films. Her first feature film project was Secrets of the Bermuda Triangle (1978). In 1980,Murphy became the first female member of the American Society of Cinematographers, some 61 years after the organization was founded.

How many of you know that “Chinnaveedu” directed by K. Bhagyaraj was shot by a woman? In 1985, B.R.Vijayalakshmi, the daughter of the legendary actor, director and producer B.R. Panthulubecame the first woman cinematographer in Asia when she did the camerawork for that film. After that she shot 22 superhit films which ran for more than 100 days.

Fearless Nadia

An Australia-born Mary Ann Evans came to live in Bombay (Mumbai now) in 1913 at the age of five. She later changed her name to Nadia and started an acting career in Hindi films. She starred in Hunterwali (Lady of the Whip) which was one of the earliest Indian films with a female lead. She broke the trend of women characters being type-casted as domesticated, maidenly stereotypes by wearing tight, revealing clothes, tall boots, while wielding a whip, fighting with villains, jumping on horse carriages and running on train tops. By performing all her stunts herself, Fearless Nadia became India’s first stuntwoman in 1935.

–          Is it because women aren’t creative enough to innovate new styles or gutsy enough to break conventions?

The world has seen many bold, controversial and revolutionary documentaries and feature films from women filmmakers all over the world, surprisingly even from a oppressing country like Iran where most films, domestic and international are either banned or heavily censored. It is being said that there are more women filmmakers in Iran than any other western country.

Samira Makhmalbaf

One of the best-known female film directors in Iran is Samira Makhmalbaf, who directed her first film The Apple when she was just 17 years old. She went on to become theyoungest director in the world participating in the official section of the 1998 Cannes Film Festival. The Apple was invited to more than 100 international film festivals in more than 30 countries.

Among many other women filmmakers in Iran, Rakhshān Bani-E’temād established herself as the elder stateswoman of Iranian cinema with documentaries and films dealing with poverty, crime, divorce and polygamy. She is the leading female contemporary filmmaker and screenwriter who has won numerous international awards for her critically acclaimed films such as Nargess and Lady In May which have a strong social and political consciousness.

Rakhshān Bani-E’temād

The movie Bonnie and Clyde (1967) is considered one of the benchmark films in the history of editing. The editor Dede Allen was the first film editor (not just female… as an EDITOR) to receive sole credit on a movie at the beginning of the film. This was before men were credited at the beginning of the film. Allen raised the level of her craft to an art form that was as seriously discussed as cinematography or even directing. Instead of the standard Hollywood way of cutting in which there were smooth transitions of scenes starting with wide shots establishing place and characters, then going on to medium shots and finally close-ups, Allen’s scenes began with close-ups or jump cuts. Though these editing methods had been pioneered by the French new wave and some British directors, Allen is generally credited with being the first to use and shape them in American films.

Would it surprise you to know that Hellen Keller, the deaf-blind world famous American author, political activist and lecturer was also a Film Producer? She owned one of the earliest film companies in the world, Helen Keller Film Corporation, in which she produced and starred in ‘Deliverance’, a 1918 silent movie about her life.

–          Is it because women want to make only women-oriented movies? Or chick-flicks?

On one hand, some women filmmakers feel ‘why should we do films like men? Aren’t they already doing it?’ They feel insulted that movies about women are routinely dismissed with the patronizing term chick flick. But chick flicks are often the only movies that offer female audiences stories about women who are not standing on the sidelines as the male hero saves the day.

But when it comes to mainstream commercial cinema, Producers, Distributers and Industry gurus say that almost 80% of the audiences who come to the theaters are men. Hence everything inside a movie should be catered to suit a man’s taste. Some women directors argue that ‘Since the industry makes films for men, only men are coming to the theaters. If we make films with stories about women in an entertaining way, with themes that they can relate, women will be attracted to the theaters too. They will also drag the men in their lives along with them. So eventually you will get a bigger and a much balanced audience’.

On the other hand, interestingly, the current generation of women filmmakers isn’t making just women-centric cinema.

Kathryn Bigelow

The year 2010 saw Kathryn Bigelow take a giant leap when she became the first and the only woman to win an Academy Award for Best Director. Her Iraq war thriller The Hurt Locker won six Oscars, including the Best Picture. Bigelow was the fourth woman nominated for the prize, following Sofia Coppola for 2003’s Lost in Translation, Jane Campion for 1993’s The Piano and Lina Wertmuller for 1975’s Seven Beauties.

Bigelow defied genre expectations with her movies Near Dark (Vampire/Western), Point Break (Surfing/Thriller), Strange Days (Noir/Sci-fi) and The Hurt Locker (Psychological/War). These were not chick flicks. When asked about being a woman filmmaker, Bigelow said: “I suppose I like to think of myself as a film-maker, rather than as a female film-maker” because according to her, only her films should matter, not her gender.

Some people assume that women cannot efficiently make Action, Sci-Fi, Horror or Psychological Thrillers. Let’s look at these examples.

Emma Thomas is the producer of The Prestige, Insomnia, Inception and The Dark Knight series. She is the Executive Producer of Memento.

Jane Goldman is the screenwriter of Kick-Ass, The Debt, X-Men: First Class and the recent horror The Woman in Black.

Fran Walsh is the Producer, Screenwriter and Composer for the Lord of the Rings series, King Kong, The Lovely Bones and the upcoming The Hobbit series.

J.K.Rowling wrote the Harry Potter novels which were made into eight fantasy series, which is supposed to be the highest grossing film series of all time, making the franchise at par with James Bond, Star Wars, Indiana Jones and Pirates of the Caribbean series.

Kathleen Kennedy is said to be one of the most financially successful producer in Hollywood history. Along with her husband Frank Marshall and the amazing Steven Spielberg, she formed Amblin Entertainment. She produced path-breaking blockbusters like ET, Indiana Jones series, Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Adventures of Tintin, War Horse and many more.

If women can write and produce these kinds of films… they can very well direct them. Reality is that many women would love to make a Kill BillTarantino type movie if given a chance.

When Zoya Akhtar made her second film, Zindagi Naa Milegi Dobara, she said in an interview that she never considered turning the friends in that story into women because that “would have been a very different journey.” Her next film, which she describes as Ocean’s Eleven meets Full Monty is supposed to take testosterone to the next level.

Farah Khan, the choreographer-turned-director’s third film Tees Maar Khan in 2010, was more famous for its sizzling item number ‘Sheila ki Jawani’ starring Katrina Kaif made to titillate the male audiences, of course in a sensual, non-sleazy way.

–          Is it because women-made movies don’t score well at the box-office?

Earlier the women filmmakers went for art-house films and smaller budgets, but nowadays a handful of other women have cracked the glass ceiling by succeeding where it counts the most: the box office.

Jennifer Yuh Nelson

Jennifer Yuh Nelson became the highest-grossing female director of all time with her Kung Fu Panda 2in 2011. The movies Shrek, Shark Tale, Twilight, What Women Want, The Proposal, Mamma Mia!, Something’s Gotta Give etc are some of the International box-office hits directed by women.

Here in India, in 2004, Farah Khan made her directorial debut withMain Hoon Na, which became the second-highest-grossing film that year, and followed it with Om Shanti Om the biggest hit of 2007. Zoya Akhtar’s Zindagi Naa Milegi Dobara was embraced by both the critics and the audiences as well. It opened in July at No. 1 on the Bollywood box office charts, No. 7 in Britain and No. 15 in the United States. According to, which tracks grosses of Hindi movies, ZNMD has amassed about $19 million in five weeks, making it the third-biggest hit of the year.

In 2011, came ‘The Dirty Picture’, a movie with a female protagonist starring Vidya Balan. Produced by Ekta Kapoor’s Balaji Telefilms, it was released in 1766 screens across India and 120 screens overseas, and became the biggest blockbuster of the year.

Another recent study, ‘Women @ the Box Office’ analyzed US box office, international box office, opening-weekend box office and DVD sales of the past few years. The result was that “when women and men have similar budgets for their films, the resulting box-office grosses are also similar. The gender of the filmmaker does not determine what the box office grosses; it’s the size of the budgets. Films with larger budgets make larger profits.” Unfortunately men traditionally hold the key positions on films with larger budgets.

–          Is it because of gender discrimination inside the movie industry?

Over the years, the failure of women to progress has often been blamed on a chauvinist culture in this field. Of course there is truth in it. There are numerous incidents and true stories of overt sexism experienced by women all over the world. The glamorous, risky and financially insecure life in Film Industry added with the perception that it is not a decent or a ‘safe’ place for women has become the reason for many young girls to hesitate from entering the field. Most parents are still unsure about wanting their daughters to work in such a place.

Is sexism only in film industry? Every workplace, irrespective of whether it is an IT office, Corporate world, Educational Institution, Health care or Food Industry, has such problems. Sexual Harassment is a common phrase in many common workplaces. Sexual Predators don’t just live inside the filmmaking world. There are a lot of good-natured, kind-hearted, open minded and well behaved men too. Women have to learn to handle sexism in the film world as much as anywhere else. Zoya Akhtar tells aspiring young women filmmakers “We are big girls. Deal with it. If you can make a movie, you can also tell someone to, ahem! Get lost

–          Is it because of family pressures, commitments and motherhood?

This is a century where women juggle jobs and family equally well. A lot of them go to their workplace, manage difficult bosses, co-workers and clients, perform their jobs effectively, as well as cook, clean and look after their children. Yes, I am talking about filmmakers too. There are many cases (including mine) of heavily pregnant women and young mothers making films. Farah Khan was pregnant with triplets when she was shooting Om Shanti Om. Obviously men also give up an ­enormous amount for their families, but there are many male directors who have partners who take primary care of the family, or who are free to travel with them. That is rarely true the other way around.

Film directing is more than a full-time job. When you’re ­making a film, it takes up every day of your life, 16 to 18 hours a day, for a year. Trying to have children and being a film director seems virtually impossible. But most ambitious women are not willing to get anything in their way.

A lot of aspiring young girls assume that those who made it are lucky to have loving families and their unconditional support. They complain that their families are not supportive enough and hence are unable to enter this field. Some ill-fated women are forced by the insecure and unsupportive men in their lives to give up their ambitions and completely devote their time to housework. These women give up because keeping their family intact means much more than their own dreams.

But it is not true that those who made it had unconditional family support. Some of us had to struggle and fight for it. Let me tell you this. Direction is the art of convincing people. A director has to first convince a producer to invest a lot of money into a project, then convince the actors to believe in the characters and choose to act in the film, then convince the cinematographer, editor, composer and hundreds of other technicians to amalgamate their diverse contrasting visions into a single narrative envisioned by the director, and finally convince millions of audiences that they are being entertained. You want to become a director? Start with your family.Be tough. Be focused. Be determined. When problems arise, Be resilient. Let me conclude with this quote of Les Brown – “Accept responsibility for your life. Know that it is you who will get you where you want to go, no one else.”


2 thoughts on “The ‘F’ word – Female Filmmakers

  1. Interesting article and analysis. Thanks for mentioning my great-aunt Mary Evans aka Fearless Nadia. Her Hunterwali character and persona were actually created by my grandfather JBH Wadia! She went on to become romantically involved with his younger brother Homi, who formed the other half of the Wadia Brothers filmmaking duo. More than a stuntwoman, Nadia also played women who urged other women to stand up for themselves and fight male chauvinism and corruption. A remarkable character in every way. But, ironically, created and implemented by a male producer/director/writer! 🙂 My grandfather was a true feminist!


    • I am honoured to get a response from the grand-nephew of the Fearless Nadia 🙂 When I read about her, I was really impressed. An amazing woman. She deserves to be known more. ‘Feminism’ is often a misquoted and misused word. So, I avoided talking about that. But I did mention in the same blog, that there are some goodhearted and balanced men in the field. Your grandpa was one of those male filmmakers who told different and defining stories about women. Hats off to him too 🙂


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