Women Directors Week: Meghna Gulzar, Fearless Honesty

Second to last one! And an important one. Another super successful director, and super good and all of that.

I was shocked to realize I didn’t know about Meghna Gulzar before Raazi. I knew about Talwar, her previous critically acclaimed modest little film, but I didn’t know her name attached to it. What shocked me wasn’t that a talented female director didn’t get opportunities and acclaim, but that I did not know Gulzar and Raakhee’s daughter was a working director in the industry today.

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Gulzar, Raakhee, and baby Meghna

Gulzar is a poet and a lyricist, and occasional director and scriptwriter. He started in the industry way back in the late 50s, was friends with people like Meena Kumari and Dilip Kumar. And in the 70s, he marred Raakhee, a beautiful talented actress. They had Meghna together and then separated. Raakhee kept working, moving from heroine roles to mother roles. And Gulzar kept working too, writing scripts and songs. They were both involved in loads of important movies. Raakhee is the most nominated actress in FilmFare history (tied with Rani and Madhuri). When I first got into Hindi films, I briefly though “Gulzar” was some technical music term, because ever movie had it listed as the lyrics for the songs. But both Gulzar and Raakhee weren’t interested in being famous, in having photoshoots and giving confessional interviews. And so their daughter grew up unnoticed and chose to stay unnoticed as an adult. If she wanted, she could have made all the promotions for her films about being Raakhee and Gulzar’s daughter, given interviews to Koffee With Karan, been profiled in FilmFare, all of that. But instead, I didn’t even know who she was until Raazi became so big it forced me to research all the behind the camera talent.

It’s not that Meghna didn’t have a different life because of her parents’ roles in the film industry. She started working as a writer for the Times of India and wrote poetry. And then she switched directions and went to NYU for a course in filmmaking. These are the kind of opportunities that only come to people from wealthy families, and families that are already a little artistic and out there and willing to let their kids experiment. But she still put in the work, she assisted another director (not her father) for a couple of years, then switched to working with her Dad, then finally wrote a script that was good enough for the film (Hu Tu Tu) to end up winning a few FilmFare Awards. Most of all, she didn’t play the “famous child” card and try to get a career handed to her. Although, on the other hand, that card really only works best for actors and actresses. A director, especially a female director, is going to have a hard time of it no matter what.

Hu Tu Tu features Tabu in the lead, Meghna would work with her again 16 years later in Talwar.

Meghna’s first movie was in 2002, when she was 29. It was a low budget feel good movie with nice midlevel actors, Sushmita Sen and Tabu and Sanjay Suri. And it had a slightly offbeat plot, about two female best friends and the strain on their relationship when one agrees to be a surrogate mother for the other. But just based on the poster and the little I can find about it, all of this was handled in a light tone that wasn’t much different from the other movies of the era. And it was a small film, didn’t garner much attention. A nice little practice film.

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Her next film is surprisingly similar to an early film from another female director, Honeymoon Travels Pvt. Lmtd. In Meghna’s version, Just Married, a young couple tries to survive their honeymoon and bonds along the way. Again, a nice light small film that didn’t get much notice. That came out in 2007, it was another 8 years before Meghna’s next movie, and it was completely different.

The Arushi Talwar murder case was one of those crimes that was the perfect amount of strange, impossible to fully solve, and with a horrible original investigatory team that allowed shocking press access, that makes a true crime sensation. A 14 year old girl was found dead in her bed and the body of the middle-aged servant of her family was found on the terrace of the building. This all happened in a rapidly gentrifying area, Arushi’s parents were upper middle-class doctors. The original police investigating not only destroyed evidence that could have answered the unsolved questions of the case, they let local reporters walk all over with photos and video cameras. The public were immediately captured by this case which managed to combine issues of class, gender, and police responsibility. The Central Bureau of Investigation was eventually called in and had two investigations, one finding that the likely killers were a group of fellow houseworkers who had been there the night before, most likely killed the girl in a drunken haze and the servant when he tried to defend her. This finding was thrown out and a second investigation ordered, which found her parents guilty. What with the multiple investigations and so on, the case was full of twists and turns that were reported and discussed for months on end. And at some point, one of the investigators ended up meeting Vishal Bardwaj somewhere and Vishal was struck by his darkly comic but still emotional attitude towards the case.

Vishal had been wanting to work with Meghna since he saw her short film that had been included in the anthology Dus Kahaniyaan. He started talking with her about this story, and the two of them spent two years researching the case, including talking with Arushi’s aunt and uncle (her parents were in jail at this point). Finally, Bhardwaj put together a script and agreed to produce and Meghna made her film, Talwar. A slightly fictionalized account of the story with the names changed.

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I love Vishal Bardwaj, and it is his script, he came up with the complex structure to the story, he even had the original idea for the story. But Meghna shows in this movie what a difference a truly fine director can make, how she can take a script and make it so much more than it would have been on the page. The way she handles her cast, the way her camera moves in and out of scenes, even the moments at which she chooses to cut and move on, that is why this film is excellent and more than a standard rote “true crime” tale. Filming took her over a year, and she described it as “draining”. Especially filming the murder scenes over and over again. Talwar released, and finally Meghna became a director of note. She was nominated for a FilmFare, and Talwar was universally praised by the critics. So much so that I was well aware of its existence.

And then there was Raazi. Also based on a true story, but this time on an already written property, the novel Calling Sehmat. Meghna’s connection with the story was through her father, the novel’s author had reached out to Gulzar wanting him to be the one to tell this story. Meghna reached back through the same connection and convinced him to give her a chance to tell the story in her way. Again, there was a lengthy preparation period. But the filming itself was short, 4 months in total and 3 schedules. Maybe because of her extensive preparation? Maybe because she wrote the screenplay as well and was able to tell the story as she originally pictured it?

At age 45, after having worked on films since she was 26, Meghna finally arrived with Raazi. The film was such a major hit, and such a distinctive different kind of a film, that people sat up and took notice of her. Not as her father’s daughter, or her mother’s, but as herself. A shockingly talented director with a unique vision.

Not that it has changed Meghna. Her next movie is for Deepika, Deepika’s first film as a producer, telling the true story of an acid attack victim. Meghna still isn’t appearing on Koffee With Karan or giving intense interviews about what it is like to be the daughter of two national treasures. And she isn’t going after the big expensive popular films, Deepika’s movie is unlikely to be another surprise hit like Raazi. But it is going to be a good movie. Because Meghna makes good movies. Beautiful, poetic, and honest. And fearless. As much as her mother who kept working after marriage and motherhood and refused to hide her divorce. Or her father, who made films over and over on his own taboo topics. That’s her greatest heritage from her two parents, she learned to make art that is fearless and true. Forget the name and fame, that is what matters, that is how she is her parents’ daughter.

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Gulzar, who has the remarkable honor of two separate films being banned from screening in India because they were a little too honest.
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4 thoughts on “Women Directors Week: Meghna Gulzar, Fearless Honesty

    • I missed typing the “i” in a word? Is that what you are saying? Also, it’s “Raakhee” not “Rakhi”. Not sure if you know that

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  1. I love Gulzar – his language is so beautiful and his compassion and humanity shine through what he writes. If you haven’t read them, I recommend Two and Beyond the Zero Line (the first is a novel and the second collection of nonfiction) in which he works through the personal meaning of Partition to him. He was a teenager when his family was forced to migrate from West Punjab. (Partition is one of the great tragedies of the 20th Century, and there is a dearth I’d really good literature about it by those who lived through it.)

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    • I’m going to (try to) read his book Lekin sometime this week.Try being the operative word since it’s been ages since I’ve read any Hindi literature.Loved the movie based on the book.So that should help a little.

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