Breaking Bad at Dhaka Lit Fest 2018: a conversation we should have had a long time ago

“If we choose to tell stories about women there will be gallants of storytelling,” says the very well- known Bollywood actress, writer and activist Manisha Koirala, at Dhaka Lit Fest 2018. Invited as a panellist to talk about her book “Healed”, she shares a stage with Nandita Das, another talented actor, director and social activist under the panel “Breaking Bad”, moderated by Sadaf Saaz, the director of DLF. These three inspiring women join in a conversation to talk about women’s role in the film industry, stereotypes in society, gender roles, beauty standards, LGBTQ issues and much more.

The session begins with both women talking about how they started their respective careers in their industry and defied convention with their work. Manisha speaks of how she always wanted to go beyond stereotypes and considered herself lucky because “good filmmakers with good subjects” somehow managed to come to her and was fortunate enough “to recognize those opportunities.”  She goes on to talk about the joy that acting gave her and the satisfaction it brought with it.

In a conversation about how they started, Sadaf Saaz asks Nandita Das about her film Fire and how it was  ”one of the only mainstream Bollywood movies to feature homosexuality.” She says it became a “landmark censor decision” at the time, not having a single scene cut from the movie. While that was a remarkable feat, it was eventually criticized for supporting homosexuality in a deeply conservative society. People were encouraged to not watch the film, and later it was banned because it apparently went against commonly perceived sub-continental culture. Nandita believes that was important in making a nation realise an important lesson about the restriction on freedom of expression. “The film was significant for me because the kind of conversation it triggered” and had a “small role to play” when India passed the bill on legalizing homosexuality.

The session progresses to the role of women in the filmmaking industry. Both panellists agreed on how, even now, we have not been able to move away from the “boxed stereotypical roles” for women in movies. Women are hardly ever given strong characters or leading roles.  They believe that directors need to challenge themselves in making more diverse female characters. Manisha comments “Women are the most interesting characters…I get attracted to stories where women are portrayed slightly differently.” The conversation slightly shifts after Nandita mentions the struggles of being a woman director in a male-dominated industry. She asserts how she would always have to face questions about being a woman director, answering questions on what it’s like. “When we are working we are not constantly thinking that we are women.” She says she felt that being a woman was a “primary identity” before anything else. However, she thinks that just as there is a “male gaze” in movies, there is also a “female gaze”, and the identity of a woman cannot be ignored. It is crucial to acknowledge that identity to inspire more female directors to come forward.

The talk diverts to the “male gaze” and Manisha explains why she included this subject in her book. Women are always trying to cope with beauty standards that society places on them. The objectification of women in movies are still present and women are “constantly being judged by the standards of others.”  The lack of female directors makes it harder for a woman’s perspective to come through properly.

Later, asked about her campaign “Dark and Beautiful”, Nandita says “Being a dark person and living in South Asia, you are constantly made aware of it.” No matter where one goes they are constantly undermined because of their skin colour and people will not stop pointing it out. Fair skin is still synonymous with being beautiful and “matrimonial ads haven’t quite changed yet”. The campaign was significant in taking a stand against society’s obsession with fair skin and using women’s looks.

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