Ahead of the release of her latest web-series on Netflix, writer and director, Alankrita Shrivastava finds herself engrossed in the final stages of post-production for Bombay Begums. The show stars Pooja Bhatt, Shahana Goswami, Amruta Subhash, Plabita Borthakur and Ivanka Das. Its premise, bearing resemblance to her previous projects like Turning 30, Lipstick Under My Burkha and Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare, deals with women of different age groups and backgrounds struggling with identity, desire and vulnerabilities.
Over a phone interview, she discusses the present narrative of women dealing with systemic patriarchy in the modern Indian landscape and coming into their own across her films. Here are the excerpts from the interview:
How has this year been for you?
It’s been strange and interesting. There’s been a lot of change in plans. I learnt to work remotely for the first time. Shooting schedules got postponed. And of course, Dolly Kitty (...Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare) festival run got cut short. It was supposed to have a theatrical release, but we decided to put it out as a Netflix Original. However, these were all minor disruptions compared to what people have had to face.
The premise of Bombay Begums sounds quite similar to most of your previous work...
There is a saying about how most filmmakers are always making the same film over and over again. Meaning, most storytellers are drawn to certain themes which repeatedly show up in their work.
For me, I find that what I have to say is more important than the medium. I don’t want to make a film for the heck of it. I want to make a film because there are characters I have been fascinated by and themes I want to explore. Cinema is just my medium for doing that. If I couldn’t make the films that I want to make, I wouldn’t be interested in making them at all.
What draws you towards women’s narratives?
I do feel that I have been pre-occupied with the idea of women finding themselves and their freedom. I am interested in characters negotiating who they are; people functioning from under the shadows where their lives are hidden from the rest of the world. Especially women.
I find it very interesting to look at what society expects out of them and how they adapt. I went to an all-girls boarding school and had very strong women in my family. I also read a lot of books by female authors who have had a huge influence on me.
Was it something that you wanted to pursue right from the beginning of your career?
It wasn’t planned. You discover it as you go along. It doesn’t work in the way that I want to explore this particular theme and that’s why I am going to tell this story. Actually, it’s the opposite. The story and characters emerge and you realise what themes you can explore through it. It’s just what I am inherently drawn to.
At the same time, I also feel I have something to bring to the table since the representation of women in cinema has been quite low. Much of it has been created from the perspective of men and there is so much left to explore when you are seeing things through the female gaze. I am not very interested in perpetuating the status quo – telling stories of men sitting right on top of the privilege pile. I find stories interesting that challenge our own ideas of how we perceive things and people.
How has the theme evolved for you over the course?
When I look at Lipstick… now, it was a lot about the conflict between tradition and modernity - how society opposes a woman’s desire and ambition. It was battling external obstacles. With Dolly Kitty... it got more complex because it’s about battling the patriarchy in your own head. Dolly and Kitty are constantly fighting their own biases. Can they stop judging themselves and people around them? Can they change from within and embrace themselves truly?
In that sense, there is a constant thematic shift in one’s work. Bombay Begums is an exploration of urban women, their ambition and the intricacies of ethics.
What kind of challenges have you had to face while doing these movies?
Budget issues are a big thing. There are limitations to who you can cast and who you can’t. I suffered so much during Turning 30. After that with censorship issues on Lipstick Under My Burkha. We didn’t get distribution for it until Balaji came on board.
It is much harder for women to make even their second film. They are judged more harshly. A lot of it is just outright that they don’t want to work with women. There is an inherent bias. Since my films are so steeped in exploring gender, I have a different set of systemic issues to deal with on top of that.
What have these experiences taught you?
To be resilient. Things get easier. After making Lipstick Under My Burkha, it was less difficult to make Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare. You have to keep at it. It’s about sticking to your guns and not getting too taken in by all the rejections because that’s really part of the journey. If you have conviction in your story then it will find an audience. Things are also much better now because of the streaming platforms. They are much more open to women than the traditional theatrical space.
What does the new censorship order on OTTs mean for you?
The problem with censorship is historical in our country. It was imposed by the British but even after independence, we continued with this archaic law. In a democratic country, it should never have been accepted but we nurtured censorship right from the beginning. I am not really surprised that streaming platforms are going to be censored now.
Ideally, there should just be ratings based on age. With streaming, we are in a global space and having censorship doesn’t let you be competitive with the rest of the world in terms of quality storytelling. It’s going to be a big dismantling if we want to do away with censorship entirely.