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Film-maker Gauri Shinde. (Maajid Khan)
Film-maker Gauri Shinde. (Maajid Khan)

Opinion | The Gauri Shinde view of the world

At a time when all art is judged for its social message, the filmmaker says she chooses not to get pressured as she starts work on her third film

Gauri Shinde misses saying, “It’s a wrap!"

The film-maker shot two commercials during the lockdown without the crew leaving their homes. Family members filmed the ads while Shinde directed via live video feed. While the onerous tech exercise reaped decent results, and the films don’t betray any evidence of compromise, Shinde, 46, is longing for a real set. “This was good under limitations but nothing compares to a live shoot. Oh, to hug people at the end of a shoot…," she says. Her crew did, however, manage a virtual celebration on Zoom.

Both the films show older women finding light in the lockdown. An elderly patient (Sulbha Arya) is rejuvenated when her nurse messages her on WhatsApp in one, and a middle-aged woman (Amruta Subhash) gets a video tutorial on cutting her hair in the other. Unless covid-19 has hardened your heart, they are bound to make you smile. To me, both protagonists were reminiscent of Shashi Godbole, played by the late Sridevi, in Shinde’s standout debut English Vinglish (2012). It was a film that not only won Shinde many film awards, but also got her a Laadli National Media Award for Gender Sensitivity.

There’s something about a Gauri Shinde film. They may or may not make you cry but they hit old wounds: mothers we have overlooked, the full force of a young girl’s unreciprocated love (Dear Zindagi, 2016), and—as in this ad—a middle-class woman’s simple desire to look spiffy in lockdown, even as her child calls out from the next room. Another ad she shot last year for Ariel’s “Sons #ShareTheLoad" shows a woman belatedly teaching her teenage son to do his own laundry and reprimanding herself for not doing it earlier. Shinde’s women have anxieties and insecurities, desires and vanities, and everything adds up to make them all the more endearing.

I ask if she worries about being slotted as a woman’s storyteller. “I am not slotted in the ad film industry. The characters happened to be women, but there was no gender angle," she says about the latest ads. Yet, I find the women everywhere. We are in Shinde’s home studio after she has spent a long day in the office she shares with her film-maker husband R. Balki. The table-top is a photo collage of artist Frida Kahlo. On the wall in front of me are a series of striking black and white pictures—Susan Sontag, more Kahlo, Marion Cotillard, Virginia Woolf. “They are women who smoke," says Shinde. Her own portrait is up there with them.

While she and Balki are at present doing a Bimal Roy film festival at home, one of the films she recently watched and loved was Greta Gerwig’s Little Women. “Before that, for some time, I was anxious about how cinema will be consumed in this time and after. You can’t be covid-agnostic in what you create. Will people want to hear these stories? Will cinema matter? But I watched that film, and it just took away all those doubts. In a time like this, any art is nourishment," she says.

Shinde finished scripting her third film just before the lockdown. It’s on schedule, four years after her second film Dear Zindagi, which was four years after her first. With that sense of completion, she was enjoying the lockdown-induced downtime “without pressure and guilt" when the ad film proposal came her way. “I thought, I have to work?" she says. I tell her people are going to hate her for saying this given the covid-induced job insecurity in every industry, and people looking for work.

“I am not a worrier," says Shinde, sharing that she has learnt to shut out the noise. It was one of the reasons she was enjoying the lockdown. No chaos. A break in her pattern of waking up and being restless every day. “I used to struggle with that self-created pressure. And I asked why can’t I be more at peace with myself?"

You don’t have to be a worrier to be concerned about Bollywood’s new normal, whatever it turns out to be. Will only tent-pole cinema survive? Will there be limited resources for alternative voices and stories? Will the gender pay gap improve, or worsen? “I think it will only change for the better," she says. “Bollywood sets are inflated, that will trim down for sure. Star costs will get equalized. And limited budgets can also make you think out of the box. I don’t think it will affect the quality of content. In fact, there will be more filtering."

Shinde’s first feature film struck a blow for female agency, and the second involved a young girl dealing with anxiety and depression—broaching the subject even before actor Deepika Padukone made the terms fashionable. I ask if she feels the pressure to take a stand with her third, especially at a time when all art is being increasingly viewed as polemic.

“I don’t get pressured," she says, curls framing her masked face. “I choose to not be affected by it because I know I am saying something worthwhile. You need to say something that makes some difference to a viewer." It doesn’t necessarily have to be a social message. “I mean anything that’s new and engaging. A new story to tell, or a new angle to experience. Unless you have that, it’s best not to waste time. Film-making is too hard a process," says Shinde, finally looking worried. “It’s killing, making a film. You die and come back to life every other day."

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