Arunaraje Patil, who started her career as a first trained woman technician in the Hindi film industry, went on to become a famous filmmaker in a male-dominated industry. She is one of the few filmmakers known bold feminist works in Hindi cinema. Arunaraje started with making a few corporate advertisements and later won many awards for her feature films with five National Awards for films such as Mallika Sarabhai, A New Paradigm, and Behind the Glass Wall.
With an illustrious career spanning over four decades, the senior filmmaker recently made headlines — first with her autobiography, Freedom: My Story, and then for her movie, Fireband, produced by Priyanka Chopra, which was released on Netflix in 2019. Fireband narrates a story of women having power or having freedom over their own bodies and not being judged. Arunaraje never feared controversies and criticism for showing the other side of the reality as she says, “I always believed in showing the double standards of men starting from the Rihaee in 1988. Why can’t women have affairs too?” she asks.
The 75-year-old made her mark making movies with industry stalwarts. Initially, Arunaraje worked jointly with her ex-husband, Vikas Desai, in the name of Aruna-Vikas and co-edited films like Giddh and Massom. But the two parted ways soon after their daughter died of cancer at the age of nine. “The next day after my daughter’s death, he asked me for a divorce. I was worried for my son and initially said no, but later agreed. I always wanted to live life on my own terms and was happy to be independent,” the veteran filmmaker shares.
Her first solo project, Rihaee (1988), was centred on sexual liberation and rights of women in a small village in Gujarat. The movie starred Hema Malini, Vinod Khanna and Naseeruddin Shah. The senior filmmaker is revered for her critically-acclaimed films like Shaque, Gehrayee, Situm and Bhairavi, all of which have strong women-centric themes. Arunaraje’s vehement support for free thinking and right to choice has been reflected in the characters she fleshed out, especially the female leads. However, it wasn’t easy for Arunaraje to hold the fort as a woman director when it was all about men.
“It’s not easy, but if you know your craft and if you are a committed filmmaker, your gender does not make a difference. There is discrimination at every level,” the veteran filmmaker expresses. She also feels absence of women in the award selection committee as one of the reasons that not many women filmmakers are getting their due. “Had there been more women in the award committees, I would have won a dozen more awards,” she asserts.
In Arunaraje’s films, while most women characters bold, her men too are empowering, large-hearted, and forgiving, looking past their wives’ indiscretion. Her men go beyond patriarchal attitudes, which probably is the reason why Arunaraje’s films stand out. Her films would drop many jaws and all she could hear was ‘such a bold film by a woman’. “I had to stand up, it was important for me. My daughter died and my marriage had broken. It was a big mess,” she recalls.
Usha Jadhav and Rajeshwari Sachdev in Firebrand | Hemant
Over the past few years, Raje has been conducting Film Appreciation courses by FTII, where she particularly talks about portrayal of women in Indian Cinema. “All the disciplines of filmmaking and the major film movements are covered. An important aspect is also the portrayal of women in Indian Cinema and the male gaze,” Arunaraje says about the courses.
She is also a life coach and her experiences with people who are victimised by the society and the need for rehabilitation for those birthed Fireband. Currently, her attention is on her academy, Shift Focus. “It is a school for cinema and life founded by me and a friend, who is passionate about movies. We are currently taking online classes because of the Covid restrictions,” she informs.
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