This article explores and historicizes the rise of the woman filmmaker in India in the late 1970s and the 1980s in two overlapping domains: a vastly expanded communications infrastructure, including the spread of television, and second wave feminism. It takes as a case study the media maker Sai Paranjpye, whose eclectic career across a range of media—theater, TV, cinema, print—in multiple formats—ad films, documentaries, educational shorts, TV films, full-length features—was fairly typical of the nature of women's media work at this time, as women took whatever work they could find in a rapidly mutating media ecology. The article suggests that these media migrations provide a model of gendered media work that is constitutively intermedial, and thus reorders the aesthetic and narrative protocols of mainstream cinema.
Curiously enough, almost immediately upon their appearance on the national stage around 1980, Indian women filmmakers became a cultural meme for the next few years. Lauded by critics, showered with awards, and successful at the box office, they were a cultural phenomenon it seemed India was ready for—indeed, eager for.1 Almost all the press coverage from the heyday of Sai Paranjpye, Aparna Sen, Vijaya Mehta, Kalpana Lajmi, and Aruna Raje draw attention to their gender and what it must mean to work in what had hitherto been a man's world. The reception, in other words, was not only aware of female authorship but also sensitive to how such authorship was intervening in and reorienting the landscape of representation in a rapidly expanding media ecology that included cinema but also print, television, and—very soon—video. This “readiness” had been about a decade and half in the making, and anchored in the intermedial careers of several women media makers working print, theater, radio, state-sponsored documentary film, and television production, such that when gender became the focus of national attention—in what historians have named the second wave of Indian feminism—these media makers were ready to hit the ground running.2
I am interested in how the “mediatization” of the women's movement in the early 1980s—its entry into the realm of representation even as it was negotiating questions of representation—converges with questions around the gender of media, particularly television. This decade in Indian television was characterized by a phenomenal growth of distribution infrastructure, a concomitant rise in female viewership, as well as a transformation in its political economy. The television broadcaster Doordarshan (literally “distant viewing”), though still state-owned, was shifting its funding sources to advertisements and sponsorships from the private sector, thus putting its social mission in peril. Its embrace of integrating gender into development thus became a measure of its transformative commitments even as its future (privatization) was being clearly foretold. To no one's surprise, women filmmakers—who had these intermedial careers—were not only well positioned to take advantage of this convergence of media and the woman question, but more importantly to exhibit in their film work critical reflections on gender, this mutating media ecology, and the place of cinema within it and perhaps even apart from it. When we analyze their film work as informed by experience in the aesthetic and production protocols of multiple media and their affordances, we can begin to assess its historiographic significance and its critical agency.
In what follows, I explore a subset of these issues, beginning with the second wave feminist movement and its multiple mediations in both mainstream and alternative formats. My focus will be, in particular, on how the “isolation” of woman as the subject of feminism, and the questions of representation that became the focus of the women's movement, as well as the expansion of the media ecology from print through broadcasting and beyond, made “woman” both image and subject of debate in a co-constitutive way. I then explore the “gender” of media, particularly television, in terms of its investment in the “woman question” both in the sense of catering to a gendered public, and of producing itself as a social good even as it was being overtaken by corporate capital and its consumerist logics. In the third and final section I turn to Sai Paranjpye, whose intermedial career spanning theater, television, state-sponsored documentary film, and finally mainstream Hindi cinema makes her an exemplary figure through whom to analyze these exchanges between gender, media, and the state. While the gendering of media work was enabled by the isolation of “woman” as object of social attention by both Indian feminism and state media, a focus on representation alone obscures the historiographic significance of gendered media work. I argue that women media makers working at the intersection of multiple platforms put in place an intermedial aesthetic and ethic that informed both televisual form and cinematic genres.
I elaborate on the career of Paranjpye in order to see how the woman filmmaker performs gendered media work. The autonomous women's movement and its investment in alternative feminist media, as well as television's investment in gender as a focus of its social itinerary, comprised the milieu that created opportunities for women media makers and begins to account for gender as a factor of production. While Paranjpye, in declining to be viewed as a “woman filmmaker,” repudiated the representational politics through which the popular media and the feminist movement were trying to frame women's media work, she nonetheless stressed that by inhabiting a minor position, the woman filmmaker enjoyed a perspectival freedom that could reorient existing social (and aesthetic) hierarchies and yield new insights. As such, she delineated the same intersectional ethic that the women's movement was negotiating, as middle-class urban women tried to align with the struggles of working-class, rural, and indigenous women. At the same time, Paranjpye's refusal to focus on women's issues also alerts us to the contingencies that governed gendered media work at a time when women were the target of social attention. For all its visibility, the creative contribution of gendered media work was framed and circumscribed by a politics of identity.
As one of a cadre of pioneering women media makers who worked between and across multiple media spaces, when Paranjpye calls herself a “media meddler,” she draws attention to the (overlooked) gendered history of inter- and new-media practices in India. For instance, anxious to make activist media for use in the feminist movement, women were early adapters of video production. So too, as we shall see, television as a new medium offered greater opportunities to women compared to the more established realms of print and cinema. Finding work in whatever media spaces were available to them and often moving in and out of theater, television, print, radio, and film, these women media makers injected the aesthetic, narrative, and generic protocols of one medium into another, thus creating formal and narrative hybrids. As I will show, Paranjpye's film work, though often received by critics as “middle cinema”—that is, occupying a space between male-authored art cinema and mass-market commercial film—is more properly analyzed as an intermedial formation that reanimated the genre film by bringing to it the aesthetic and narrative conventions of television. I am calling gendered media work “aesthetic productions,” which though informed by intermedial migrations and an intersectional ethic, were nevertheless (mis)recognized as women making media about women.
MEDIATION AND THE WOMAN's MOVEMENT
The 1970s through the 1980s witnessed, as it were, a second coming of the woman question, with the year 1975 marking a starting point. The publication in the preceding year of the government report Towards Equality, based on extensive research and ethnography, provided a bleak picture of how Indian women had fared since the country's independence in 1947, and made gender once again a focus of social attention. If the first iteration of the woman question occurred in the colonial period, such that the sovereignty and uplift of women was aligned with anticolonial nationalist movements and supported by an emerging literary culture, this time around, the women's movement gained momentum from an intensification of communicative networks and a vastly expanded media infrastructure that included not only print but also television and, to some extent, video.3 The women's movement received one kind of (sensationalist but necessary) publicity in the mass media, but such representations also became a site of feminist contestations, giving rise to alternative media practices around new technologies such as video. Similarly, the feminist movement's involvement with the state (and political parties) was reflected in state-owned media—particularly television's (albeit sporadic) attempts to publicize the woman question. In what follows, I gesture to some salient aspects of the complex relation between Indian feminism and emerging media ecologies in order to note how generative each was for the other.
As elsewhere in the world, the late 1960s through the mid-1970s were turbulent times in India. The government of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi found itself beleaguered by social unrest and political challenges from multiple directions. The earliest feminist movements were Gandhian Socialist and articulated with anti-alcohol or anticorruption campaigns, or through agitations for trade unions.4 Gendered oppression was not a single issue. It was folded into agitations against other kinds of social ills that overwhelmingly affected women, especially poor women. So, too, the response on the part of the state was not specifically targeted toward women, as evidenced in the fact that women's issues were then under the Central Social Welfare Board and approached as family or domestic matters.
Perhaps the inaugural event in this second phase of the women's movement in India was the publication of the white paper Towards Equality. This was, in essence, an audit on the status of women in India since independence. The data indicated that with the sole exception of middle-class women's participation in education, the condition of the vast majority of women had worsened since the 1950s, including a declining sex ratio owing to female feticide, reduced participation in electoral politics, and exclusion from processes of modernization. It presented a severe indictment of the state and its many failures since 1947. Neera Desai notes, “The appalling findings of the report reopened the women's question for the government, academia, and (burgeoning) women's organizations.”5 The damning report raised serious doubts about the efficacy of the “development” and “modernization” models in place, which not only ignored the real differences around caste, class, and ethnicity that impacted women's lives, but also exaggerated the influence of religion, culture, and social attitudes in gender role prescription. A primary cause for this invisibility was the “culturalist,” or family/household approach to women's issues. This approach rendered women and their realities less visible, more obscure. The report recommended that this practice be replaced with explicit mention of women as a target group and as individuals in their own right. At the same time, it relinked the increasing social and economic disparity in the nation to the condition of its women, making the woman question a barometer of national and social progress.
Indira Gandhi's declaration of a state of emergency in 1975 to deal with escalating social tensions temporarily abrogated constitutional rights and freedoms, and various civil agitations, including the nascent women's movement, went temporarily underground. Yet as Vina Mazumdar, one of the architects of Towards Equality, noted, at the same moment she was asked to head up a program in women's studies in New Delhi. A senior bureaucrat told her, “Let us concentrate on women. I do not think the political implications of such research will be understood by the powers that be. I am doubtful if we shall be permitted to do anything else.”6 In the emergency years of 1975 to 1977, in the context of widespread political repression, woman as an object of research and analysis emerged ironically as a “safe” arena for state investment since, as the official indicated, no legislative or policy changes were likely.7 Studying women was regarded, at least temporarily, as an alibi for political activity. Issues such as representation and subjectivity, in addition to rights and laws, would need attention in order to ensure that the juridical framework of equality could be implemented and enforced at the level of the everyday. And here, the discursive project of research and documentation seemed aligned with women's grassroots radicalism. In 1974, for instance, the Progressive Organization of Women in Hyderabad protested obscene depictions of and violence toward women in the popular cinema and in film posters at the same time that the first systematic social science research was being conducted on the normative effects of gendered imagery.8 It is this putting into discourse of the woman question as a benchmark for modernization and progress in India, and assessing representational politics as central to it, that forms an important context for assessing not only how the woman question was represented by the media, but also the emergence and output of gendered media work.
As the emergency ended and women's groups reemerged aboveground, they appeared ready to organize. Though comprised at this time mostly of urban-educated middle-class women, there was a widespread understanding that the needs of these privileged few were minor in comparison to those of rural women and the urban poor. One of the features that marked women's groups comprised of urban, middle-class women—who described themselves as “autonomous”—was a belief, almost a sort of desire or assumption, that the commonality of women's experiences made for an overarching solidarity not impacted by differences of class, caste, or religion. These groups focused on how disenfranchised constituents may organize and represent themselves, and so consciousness raising among poor rural women, workers, and tribal peoples was seen as first step toward such self-representation. This underlying emphasis on women as women—identity as ontology—was a distinguishing characteristic of this phase of the women's movement, and one that would become at once a condition of possibility and a framework for the reception of gendered media work.
It is worth remarking that this internal focus around issues of representation within the women's groups turned into a women's movement through mass publicity, especially surrounding several instances of custodial rape—the most reported-on of the victims were Mathura (1972), Maya Tyagi (1978), and Rameeza Bai (1980)—that were widely covered in the press.9 In 1979 the Supreme Court (the highest appellate body) overturned the convictions of three policemen who had, in 1972, raped Mathura, a fourteen-year-old Dalit girl.10 A group of lawyers, including Lotika Sarkar, who had coauthored the Towards Equality report, wrote an open letter interrogating the interpretation of consent used by the bench: “Consent involves submission, but the converse is not necessarily true.… From the facts of case, all that is established is submission, and not consent.… Is the taboo against pre-marital sex so strong as to provide a license to Indian police to rape young girls?”11 When Dawn, a Pakistani newspaper, printed it several months later, the letter immediately galvanized feminist groups to demand that the case be retried, and widespread agitation led eventually to legal reform.12 The Mathura case was a defining event in this second phase of the feminist movement and became so, in good measure, owing to extensive press coverage of the diverse kinds of activism around it, from rallies and marches to sit-ins, poster campaigns, street theater, petitions, signature drives, and many other forms of civic agitation. Within days of the letter's broad dissemination, the national media descended on the little village where Mathura lived in the Western Indian state of Maharashtra. Even Eve's Weekly, a Better Homes–style women's magazine, dedicated a special issue to the Mathura case.
As feminist historians have noted, this mediatization was a mixed blessing. While it widely publicized the issue, media accounts were frequently hyperbolic. Moreover, as feminist activism drew more and more media attention, participants found themselves entangled with various political blocs, including the state, trying to claim the issues. This dynamic between the mass publicity surrounding the women's movement and various forms of political and statist attempts to capture its energies was a central feature of the times. Maitreyee Chatterjee avers, “For Indian feminists, their relationship to the state was both crucial and double edged. While on the one hand women, particularly poor women, faced the violent edge of the state, it is the state that the women's movement sought ameliorative intervention from.”13 The decade of the 1980s was characterized by tremendous legal reform so that the laws vis-à-vis gender became progressive, even if the transformation of the social lagged far behind. Furthermore, as is inevitable when dealing with the state, movements got mired in bureaucracies and formalism.14 As I will discuss at greater length below, the feminist movement(s) as well as women media makers working in state-owned media found themselves both indebted to and frustrated by the state, and also realized that the free market that was encroaching on such forms of sponsorship came with its own set of profit-driven limitations.
While the media was discovering the feminist movement and submitting it to sensationalist forms of mass publicity, feminists were beginning to invest in creating alternative media infrastructures. An early example was the New Delhi–based publication Manushi, founded in 1978. As one of India's earliest English-language publications of the autonomous women's movement, Manushi represented a clear contrast to popular, nationally circulating women's magazines such as Femina, Women's Era, or the aforementioned Eve's Weekly aimed at a middle-class female readership interested in fashion, food, and romantic fiction, as well as marital, romantic, and incidentally some career advice.15 There were several publications in Hindi and other vernacular languages with a similar focus (for instance Sabla, by the collective Jagori, and the Saheli [Friend] newsletter Samya Shakti, by the Center for Women's Development Studies) as well as regular publications by party-based women's organizations such as the All India Democratic Women's Association. Further, feminist publishing houses such as Kali for Women in Delhi (founded in 1984) and Stree in Calcutta (formed in 1990) created a print infrastructure for alternative feminist discourse and research.
In addition to print, this period witnessed the beginnings of alternative feminist media practices. One of the earliest instances was the documentary collective Yugantar, which was formed in the southern Indian city of Bangalore in 1980 specifically in response to the women's movement. According to Deepa Dhanraj, one of the founding members, Yugantar's mandate was “to make films on various struggles, agitations and issues that were being raised by the women's movement at that time, particularly the shifts in consciousness, politics and the kind of contributions that both the activists and the academy were making in public discourse.”16 It was intended to function as a media archive that could be put to pedagogical use in various sites—trade unions, universities, high schools, film clubs.
Crucial to an emerging feminist media practice was the introduction of video. Although video—a new technology at this time—did not necessarily acquire the countercultural vanguardist status it did elsewhere in the world, media historians argue that it did decentralize and democratize Indian media production through collectives such as CENDIT. This collective's conception of political documentary was considerably informed by the connections between media and feminist action being forged by filmmakers such as Dhanraj, CENDIT member Akhila Iyer, and feminists Kamla Bhasin and Anjali Monteiro.17 Also noteworthy in this connection was MediaStorm, a media collective based out of New Delhi that used the newly accessible video technology to create activist feminist media. Trained in mass communication at Jamia Millia University, the members of this collective—Sabeena Gadhikode, Charu Gargi, Shohini Ghosh, Shikha Jhingan, Sabina Kidwai, and Ranjani Mazumdar—were inspired to make independent documentaries. Though they had started out in celluloid, they rapidly adopted video to make documentaries that connected feminist issues to other ongoing struggles around labor and secularism.18 Crowdfunded and operating outside state sponsorship, the several films made by this collective are a particularly valuable archive not only for feminist filmmaking but for independent, politically oriented documentary in India.
If the feminist agitation around issues such as custodial rape provided daily grist to the mill of a sensationalist print media as well as fertile ground for the development of an independent nonfiction film movement in India, the woman question, as I shall show, also became a concern for state-owned national media, for instance the television broadcaster Doordarshan. Gender became a node for discussions about content, audiences, advertising, privatization, and the social mission of public media, and Doordarshan hired a significant number of women media makers and producers, providing both funding and an exhibition venue for their creative media work throughout the 1980s. Let us turn now to how the woman question was expressed on TV.
THE GENDER OF MEDIA
Television was introduced to India in 1959 in New Delhi, the nation's capital, with funding from UNESCO. Transmission in these early days was limited to Delhi and surrounding rural areas, with community TV sets paid for by a Ford Foundation grant. The emphasis was wholly educational, although demands grew for entertainment programming; the first intermingling of education with entertainment occurred in August 1965. Despite recommendations by the Chanda Committee that Doordarshan become an autonomous corporation, television continued to be attached to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, perhaps owing to then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's great interest in electronic broadcast media—indeed, her nickname was the Televisionary.19 Advertisements began airing in 1976, but large-scale expansion of television content through sponsored programming did not come until 1983, when more widespread infrastructure had been established. The previous year, 1982, was very significant in that the government decided to start transmitting in color—a switch, in the words of Bhaskar Ghosh, former director of Doordarshan, that served as a “metaphor for the switchover to high technology.”20 That year, the number of television transmitters jumped from thirty-five to more than one hundred, and by 1984, transmitters were being added daily such that almost 70 percent of the country was covered in the space of a few months. By the end of the decade, the number stood at four hundred. This vast expansion of infrastructure and the dramatic communicative reach of television to a national audience was accompanied by a shift in the funding structure of Doordarshan. Corporate capital, hungry to reach consumers, poured money into television through “sponsored” entertainment-based content produced by independent production companies. In the 1970s, 1 percent of Doordarshan's budget was supplied by revenue; by the end of the 1980s, television was self-sustaining as revenues grew from Rs 80 million in 1981 to Rs. 2.53 billion in 1991. In short, even before the actual deregulation of the industry with the coming of multinational cable companies such as CNN and Star in the 1990s, state-owned Doordarshan was effectively privatized, at least from a fiscal perspective, in that it was almost wholly funded by advertising-driven entertainment programming and sports.21
This decade-long transformation from educational medium to entertainment platform was accompanied by periodic anxieties on part of broadcasters and policy makers about what the ontology of state-owned media should be and what epistemic projects it should commit to. Gender emerged as a key site through which television, though increasingly compromised by private capital, could pursue its social itinerary. This focus was surely motivated, in some measure, by the publicizing of the women's movement by the mainstream print and alternative feminist media outlined above; television programmers felt compelled to play a part in the national conversation around gender. The feminist movement found itself, for better or worse, entangled with the state, for the state had the needed juridical power and infrastructural reach to institute and implement laws for the protection of women and policies for their uplift. Television—still part of that infrastructure, though not for long—identified gender as one of the places it could make a difference. As Iqbal Masud, journalist, film critic and filmmaker humorously quipped, “Feminism became an industry on TV.”22
As early as 1980, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting circulated a document of media policy stating that “vigorous steps should be taken by the media to serve the rural population, including minority communities, women, children, illiterate as well as other vulnerable and weaker sections of society.”23 And not long after, in 1985, came a white paper published by the Working Group for Software and Doordarshan entitled An Indian Personality for Television, in which we find extensive reference to the entanglements of TV and gender.24 Popularly known as the Joshi Report, it expressed concern that TV had become overly entertainment-centric—showing an excessive focus on Indian feature films and song-dance sequences taken from them, foreign films, commercial advertisements, plays, sports coverage, and news—such that “the dominant pattern of access to TV has become individual ownership and not community viewing.” Further, the cost of hardware (TV sets) implied that television was only accessible to the middle and upper-middle classes and not the masses; the report explained that India had 575,000 villages, but only 10,000 community TV sets. It noted that the communication revolution signaled by the expansion of television's infrastructure could only become a national good (rather than an aspirational commodity) by embracing locally relevant, socially purposeful programming: “One of the basic problems of the Indian freedom struggle was that the anti-colonial struggle got precedence over the task of evolving a critical consciousness. This task has to be undertaken today with the aid of mass media.”25
We need to view TV's focus on gender in the light of this broader pedagogical project of mass media, where at issue is not only what kind of content (education/entertainment), but also how such content should be represented so as to activate reflection on part of the viewer. The report suggests that mass media does not merely address a preexisting public, but also constitutes it. Thus, the report states, “Doordarshan must reflect the changing life pattern and problems of basic social categories … [including] the other ‘half’ of humanity comprising women, specially those belonging to the villages and small towns with their real problems, conflicts and aspirations.”26 By documenting not only the “realities” of women's lives but also their hopes and desires, television could serve as a critical interface for reflecting and reflecting on gender.
Its data sourced partly through focus groups conducted through NAMEDIA, a market research firm, the report dedicated a whole chapter to “Women: The Neglected Half.” It provided some interview data from women who objected to the advertising-fueled consumerism that television might induce, and thereby exacerbate violence against women: “Why these advertisements of expensive goods and gadgets, exploiting the female form, attracting attention? Why should Doordarshan promote consumerism? Is it not aggravating the dowry problem? There are atrocities on young girls who are not able to satisfy the appetite for those well advertised goods and gadgets.” Another respondent noted, “If television cannot offer us something which can improve our status in society we do not mind. But television programs are becoming a party to damaging whatever limited dignity and honor we had in traditional society. To convert us into sex objects for advertising is unpardonable. Those who manage television are willingly collaborating in this commercialism.” This second response is especially illuminating, as it touches on how advertising objectifies women, and indicts the state for being complicit in collaborating with markets and eschewing its responsibilities for uplift. Citing Marshall McLuhan's dictum that “the television medium is public participation in creativity,” the report stressed that television must dialogue with the public in generating content that is relevant to it, thus implying that the free-market media, despite measuring “viewership ratings” and therefore presumably responding to public demand, precisely fails to give the people what they want.27
Asserting that women's equality was of utmost significance to the country, the Joshi Report identified TV as an important technology for gendered development, since it reaches into homes and can have a pedagogical impact to help change women's lives by modeling ideal social relations. Asserting that “the women dimension must become an integral part of Doordarshan,” the Joshi report went on to say:
Middle class ideologies of women's roles as wives and mothers provide the underlying basis for most programmes. In a country where 36 per cent of the agricultural work force is female, women continue to be projected as predominantly non-producers and as playing a limited role outside the home. … The plural nature of Indian culture and the diverse roles that women play is neither acknowledged nor communicated. This results in a reinforcing of the stereotyped images and role specifications of women in a uni-dimensional projection of their reality.28
It summarized the feedback from focus groups, concluded that the “grossest injustice was done to them [women] and a conscious and unconscious male chauvinism dominated,” and suggested that TV could promote not only more positive images of women but also shape a new male ideal, “one who was willing to share in household work, childcare and family planning.”29 Published at a time when television's commercial future was being slowly but surely foretold—Doordarshan was about to host an explosion of independently produced, corporately funded entertainment programing—“gender” emerged as a paradigmatic site that television could focus on in order to promote, as it were, its (soon to be squandered) social capital.
It is important to emphasize here that the “body politic” of Doordarshan at this time revealed greater gender equity than elsewhere in the media industries. The state mandated that a certain “quota” of women must be employed in TV, and allocated a budget toward such recruitment. Partly as a result of the policy and partly by dint of being a new medium, at Delhi Doordarshan, 40 percent of the producers (15 of 38) were women in 1986, as compared to the average of 28 percent in the other eighteen centers.30 While few were high-level decision makers, there were several technical decision makers (producers and engineers). And the broadcasting sector as whole, as early as 1979, employed women at a slightly higher rate than the rest of the workforce (25 percent as opposed to 23 percent). Also interesting in this connection are the results of a survey on the attitudes of Doordarshan personnel about the issue of gender and the fact that women viewers had been earmarked for “special attention” through programming. While higher-level decision makers (usually men) felt that there was no gender problem at Doordarshan, the producers and those in lower ranks, for instance production assistants, felt that women were represented on television in stereotypical ways, and that women's participation in media production needed to be increased to ameliorate some of these issues.31 Interestingly, the gender gap at the level of both production and representation was perceived as a problem among those operational tiers that had higher representations of women.
As we shall see in greater detail below, women trained at the newly formed Film and Television Institute in Pune, and subsequently in media programs at Jamia Millia University in New Delhi, found it easier to get work at Doordarshan than to break into the boy's club that was All India Radio or the commercial film industry. Though (or precisely because) of its haphazard and ad hoc operations, Doordarshan created opportunities for new entrants. Station directors noted that the pressure to diversify the workforce made women candidates for producer jobs particularly attractive.32 In these early years, the barriers to entry were relatively low, and women were able to create innovative programs for a mass audience. Television helped them hone an aesthetic practice that would have a broad address while retaining its social commitments. And, as I will show, women's work in television—or what I call gendered media work—impacted the cinematic genre that came to be known as middle cinema. Sai Paranjpye and Kalpana Lajmi (as well as several documentary filmmakers) were among the women who had careers in theater and/or nonfiction film, then moved to Doordarshan, then back to cinema and back again to television. The aesthetics and politics of middle cinema reflect this intermedial mobility as well as the centrality of gender in television's social mission. I focus in this article on Paranjpye since she had the most extensive television career, and some of her early films first germinated as televisual content. Her films were also commercial successes, and consistently seen as breaking new artistic ground. Moreover, in a career spanning several decades, she retained a foothold in both industries, whereas some of her contemporaries eventually moved wholly into cinema (Aparna Sen) or theater (Vijaya Mehta).
Paranjpye also makes an interesting case study because she was received through the framework of gender—as a woman filmmaker—a moniker she resisted, but this very reception nonetheless affirms the network of forces (related to feminism and new media) that made gendered media work legible at this historical juncture. At the same time, while Paranjpye may not have been as concerned with gender or feminist issues as overt content in her media work, she repeatedly attested to gender as a framework that shaped and limited how a woman media maker worked within the industry. In short, gender as an isolated object of feminist intervention and media representation both enables and erases the history of gendered media work when women media makers are viewed through a politics of representation framework, rather than as innovators who first grasped television's potential for renewing cinema.
THE MEDIA MEDDLER
Sai Paranjpye's career started in a regional Marathi-language radio station in her hometown of Pune in western India. First an announcer, then a moderator for children's programs, she soon turned to writing radio plays for children that were produced multi-modally—performed before a live audience and simulcast on radio. From there she moved to the Marathi theater, where she essayed the roles of playwright and director, and obtained a degree from the National School of Drama in New Delhi. She returned to Pune for a short stint teaching speech and acting at the Film and Television Institute of India, where she made some crucial connections with figures like Basu Bhattacharya and Saeed Jaffrey, who would later prove influential in her film career. She was then offered a job at Doordarshan in New Delhi—in 1972, when TV was still in its infancy—and worked there as a producer for eight years, helming documentaries, tele-serials, and TV plays—every genre except hard news. She made her mark early on when her documentary The Little Teashop (1972) won the Asian Broadcasting Award in Tehran, Iran. She was sent to France for a year to work at the Organization of Radio and TV, and studied under Jean-Louis Barrault at the Théâtre de France. While her subsequent film work, as shall see, was shaped both narratively and formally by her years in television, these were the early days of Doordarshan, and working conditions were far from ideal. She reminisced in an interview, “For eight years I worked in TV but one day, I suddenly realized, that nothing ever worked at the TV Center. I spent an hour each day apologizing to people for being unable to keep to shooting schedules. Sometimes the camera would break down and at others your crew would ditch you.” While television held out the promise of vast audiences (though in the 1970s this expansion was still a few years out), the bureaucracies and disorganization at Doordarshan “asphyxiated many creative people.”33
Doordarshan in its early years was frustrating and chaotic, but Paranjpye also stressed that working in a mass medium made her keenly aware that she needed to reach audiences and communicate her art in an intelligible manner. She brought to television skills she had learned working in radio (sonic intimacy, wide reach) and theater (performative urgency). And television, as a sensuous and visual medium, trained her in skills that transferred readily to film: “to be precise—the handling of actors, to get the best out of them; camera—techniques, composition and progression of shots, balancing and blending of various elements like visual, sound and music, sense of timing, pace, rhythm etc.” Television, whose footprint was small, also had going for it an “instantaneity, which is its biggest asset.”34 Paranjpye realized that even when producing entertainment programing, she had to connect with events in the news—all that was bubbling around in the public conversation.
The unsystematic and contingent mode of television production at this time also meant that Paranjpye encountered projects in a random manner. Her award-winning first film Touch (Sparsh, 1980) had its beginning in a ten-minute television documentary on World Handicap Day centered around a school for the blind in New Delhi and its dynamic, yet touchy, principal, Mr. Mittal. As a state-owned medium, television was expected as part of its “social uplift” mission to generate programming that celebrated such occasions. Her station director called her into his office one day and gave her this project, which she was initially reluctant to take on, being “sensitive to making a film about blind children.” The director reminded her that she was often complaining that women do not get “plum jobs,” so this was her chance and she must seize it! She went with a “heavy heart,” but upon walking into the blind school, she heard wonderful shouts of laughter from children engaged in a lively tug-of-war game.35
In a fundamental sense, this incident gives us a key to Paranjpye's aesthetic project: a humorous and empathetic focus on the little things that structure the everyday in the lifeways of the disenfranchised, and that question the assumptions of a privileged, ableist, outsider perspective. She developed this documentary into an hour-long teleplay called Raina Beeti Jaye (date unknown), a story of a love affair between a physically disabled man and an emotionally disabled woman, that became a hit. Its success—“so many letters, so many replays … so many requests that we want to see Raina Beeti Jaye again and again” encouraged her to make Touch, a film that won several national awards but could not find a theatrical release until her second film, Far Be the Evil Eye (Chashme Buddoor, 1981) became a hit.36 This film, too, had its start in a teleplay, titled Smoke (Dhuan Dhuan), about three unemployed young men who hang out in the streets, smoke cigarettes, and fantasize about women. Through humor and satire, combining social commentary with the conventions of romantic comedy, Paranjpye drew attention to how little the men understand female desire and the art of courtship. Implicit also is an anti-smoking message, as we witness the men frittering away their lives in clouds of smoke. She expanded this teleplay into the feature-length film Far Be the Evil Eye, with a fresh cast, and it first showed in the now-defunct Gunga Jamuna theater in Mumbai. One of Bombay mainstream cinema's most influential (and exacting) film critics, Devyani Chaubal, gave it a rave review. Within five days, by word of mouth, it was a wide success; it remains to this day a landmark of middle cinema and an iconic Indian comedy film. In 2013 it was digitally remastered and rereleased to much fanfare and glowing reviews from a new generation of critics and fans.
If the television documentary and teleplay served as narrative sources that Paranjpye reworked into her first feature films, the social ideology of television likewise permeated (and shaped) her film work with its focus on human interest—character-focused, community-centered narratives that enhance our awareness of an issue of current interest in an immediate and emotional manner. This mode of socially purposeful entertainment, as we have seen above, is precisely what the Joshi Report was hoping Indian television might become in order to fulfill the promise of state-owned media in an unevenly capitalized, developing economy. Furthermore, the evocation of locality and the intimate scale of Paranjpye's films were a particular effect of her work in the Television Center in Delhi (before Doordarshan had scaled up into a mass national broadcast medium) in addition to being a characteristic of the “human interest” genre. When she transferred this scale and location to her first two films—Touch and Far Be the Evil Eye—she broke new ground in mainstream Hindi cinema, which was commonly referred to in the late 1970s and 1980s as “big” or “mass” cinema; even those “art” films that opposed themselves to big cinema tended to espouse a gritty realism or modernist aesthetics. Paranjpye's focus was more quotidian. Her investment in detailing the local and evoking particular communities and the neighborhoods they inhabited is intrinsic to the human interest genre, and also one of the hallmarks of local media practices. In Far Be the Evil Eye, one of most memorable characters, Lallan Mian, is based on the owner of a neighborhood tobacconist whom Paranjpye knew, and some of the costumes the actor Saeed Jaffrey wears are borrowed from this real-life character. So too, during a special screening of Paranjpye's Katha—set on location in a tenement housing complex—the inhabitants of the complex were thrilled to recognize their apartments, furniture, and belongings on-screen. This is a notion of realism based on recognition rather than identification—where a local community sees its actual everyday life reflected on-screen, and that creates the connection. Paranjpye's gendered media work took the form of strong advocacy for local media against what she called the “global blitz”: “In a country as many-splendoured as India, the answer may be to develop a competent regional or local media-base with a strong local thrust and immediacy. This may prove more effective than a National hookup. Local bodies, social and voluntary organisations, NGOs, home talent and theatre groups, could be put to excellent use and support the experiment.”37
Paranjpye retained methods first honed in her work for television in many of her future film projects. Direction (Disha, 1990), a film on the plight of immigrant workers in urban India, came together from three distinct encounters, all of which might have become local human-interest documentaries. The first occurred when her friends who ran a nongovernmental organization (NGO) in a village introduced her to Soma, a man who had dug a well for eight years and finally struck water. The second was a visit to the galas, or slums, where migrant mill workers are crowded forty to a room, sleeping in shifts. The third was a trip to a bidi (inexpensive hand-rolled tobacco) factory that employed an exclusively female workforce. The resulting film drew on all these sources but processed them into a carefully observed, character-centric dramedy (a blend of drama and comedy—identified as a television genre women particularly espouse).38 The idea for The Cuckoo (Papeeha, 1993), a film on deforestation and the decimation of tribal lifeways, might have been suggested by a novel, but the actual film developed out of multiple conversations between Paranjpye and indigenous peoples, environmentalists, and social workers during a decade (the 1980s) when ecological consciousness and activism was just beginning to enter the broader conversation. The Cuckoo absorbed ethnographic data and reprocessed it as character and mise-en-scène in a film whose genre is, like Touch, romance. Paranjpye identified genre—comedy, romance, musical—as a way to blend serious social content—alcoholism, the treatment of indigenous people, water scarcity, displacement—with entertainment value so that the moviegoing public could both learn about and emotionally connect with a cause.
Let me develop this argument with an example from Far Be the Evil Eye, Paranjpye's most successful film, to demonstrate how she used genre—in this case, the romantic comedy—to both express and critique the emerging consumption culture of which television was a part. The film satirizes the obsession with Hindi popular cinema on the part of two characters, Jai and Omi, and highlights how their views on women and courtship are entirely filtered through Hindi cinema's staging of fantastical romance through song-and-dance sequences. Real life, as they learn at their peril, is quite another thing. In contrast, Siddharth, a studious economist, suffers no such illusions, but as it turns out, he is not immune either to the (gendered) seductions of a new consumer economy taking hold in middle-class life in India. As Paranjpye notes, door-to-door saleswomen were a growing social phenomenon in the 1970s and 1980s—indeed, they were the harbingers of the consumer revolution, selling everything from sewing machines and vacuum cleaners to soap and ready-in-two-minutes packaged noodles on Indian doorsteps. Later in the decade, these same consumer goods would sponsor tele-serials, and advertising would invade the middle-class household via television. If these salesgirls personified the long tradition whereby women were used to sell things, they also testified to the greater mobility women began to enjoy at this time. Paranjpye references and reflects on this new regime through Neha, the female lead, who goes door to door selling the miraculous detergent Chamko (literally “shining”). Utterly captivated by her bold and vivacious sales pitch, Siddharth takes a sudden interest in doing laundry and begins referring to Neha as Miss Chamko. His enchantment with her is entangled with his aspirations to enter the new economy and create for himself a life filled with the pleasures of nuclear domesticity and commodity culture—a world far removed from the fantasy spaces of Hindi cinema in which his friends still wallow. This world, embodied by Miss Chamko, would soon become accessible to mass audiences on their television sets in the mise-en-scène of advertising and sponsored television serials. Thus here, Paranjpye not only introduces a televisual aesthetic into cinema, but also uses genre (romantic comedy) to comment on this impending face-off between cinema and television, and the latter's potential to quicken audiences with new and more quotidian forms of desire and aspiration.
While her acutely imagined characters create identification, the genre conventions, as well as the multiple framing devices she employs, provide a critical distance such that the social issue being highlighted is apprehended both as “news” and “human interest,” critically and affectively. This made Paranjpye an anomaly, as she noted at the time: “On the one hand, the industry looks upon me as a peculiar animal and the suspicion is mutual. On the other hand, the new Indian cinemawallahs [filmmakers] don't think I am serious enough.”39 The genre film—comedy, romance, thriller—was at this time still a marginal strain within the mainstream cinema industry. The consolidation of genres in Hindi cinema in the 1990s owed much to television, which tended from the early years of entertainment programming to work within generic categories—sitcom, detective show, horror, soap opera—and provided, as it were, a national pedagogy for genre-based consumption that cinema only began to incorporate in the late 1990s.40
Trained in multiple media (television but also theater and radio), Paranjpye came to cinema belatedly and brought to it, as I have argued, the methods and conventions of her other media work. Her cinema, fed by this mix, was viewed by critics as bridging the two tracks—mass-media formula film and arty parallel cinema—through which cinema was classified at the time.41 Yet she contested the definition of her work as “middle cinema”: “I suppose what they mean by middle is a compromise between artistic films and commercial cinema. I definitely want to reach out to people but that does not mean that I have to compromise.”42 As opposed to a negotiation between existing film cultures (art versus commercial), she understood her film work as an instance—in another medium—of work she had been doing for years in theater, television, and radio. Paranjpye preferred to view herself as a media maker who willingly tried any medium as long as it allowed her the freedom to work in a professional, egalitarian environment:
I have been accused of selling out by filmmakers who don't have a clue of what the system is all about and do not have an identity of their own. They claim to stand for political cinema. On what grounds—I would like to know. I shouldn't be grudged for working with professional actors or getting a decent salary for my work. I would like to afford a crane for a shot once in a while and a comfortable room to rest in after a grueling day on location. I know it is romantic to struggle and lug your lights and camera on your shoulder and all that, but in order for cinema to change there has to be stability in the profession.43
Here as elsewhere, Paranjpye draws attention to the material changes necessary to make “good” cinema sustainable—a safe and stable working environment, and shifts in production and exhibition infrastructure that guarantee distribution and access to audiences. Though state-owned television was mired in bureaucracy, it provided nonetheless a potential model for the kind of steady, dependable environment that a working filmmaker needed in order to make a profession of it. Moreover, arriving at a time when gender was becoming the focus of national conversation, television provided a crucial platform for gendered media work.
If “middle cinema” is one framework of analysis for Paranjpye's film work—whether she liked the term or not—“woman filmmaker” is another. The emergence of the woman question as an object of incessant attention in an expanding media ecology, and the beginnings of feminist media work in print and media, were the discursive horizons that shaped the reception of women filmmakers. Almost all discussions of the films of Sai Paranjpye, Aparna Sen, and subsequently Kalpana Lajmi and Vijaya Mehta, draw attention to their identity as women and try to read back into the content and style of their cinema signs of a gendered intervention. Framings such as the following are fairly typical:
Filmmaking in India has been a man's domain. Until recently that is. With Chashme Buddoor [Far Be the Evil Eye] and the realistically poignant 36 Chowringhee Lane, Aparna Sen and Sai Paranjpye have become names to reckon with.44
It is considered almost imperative that a woman director should make films on the subject of a woman. Women in search of an identity and all that sort of thing.45
While the first interview dates from 1981, when Sen and Paranjpye were making their first films, the second is from 1990—suggesting the durability of this reception framework throughout the decade, as both directors were developing significant bodies of work across a range of subjects. While Sen (along with some of her contemporaries, such as Kalpana Lajmi and Prema Karanth) was arguably more interested in exploring women's subjectivity and feminist historiography in films ranging from 36 Chowringhee Lane (1981) to Parama (1984) and Sati (1989), Paranjpye's work rarely centered gender as an object of exploration.46 She noted, “I have been accused of ignoring the women's condition in my movies,” especially at film seminars dealing with issues of women, where she was made to feel like a traitor because “despite being a woman director, I have not thrown light on any of the numerous problems facing my sisters.”47 This link between identity and advocacy speaks to the issue of representation (who can and should speak for whom) that the autonomous feminist movement in India at this time was negotiating, as both feminist politics and activism and its representations in the media isolated “woman” as image and agent.
While identity politics held little direct appeal for Paranjpye—“I made Sparsh [Touch] and I am not blind”—she conceded that as a woman, “I may empathize more with the victims of a prejudiced and unfair society,” and that this empathy gave her the ability to analyze a situation with more nuance than someone who inhabits the dominant perspective. Asked if she might ever make a woman-centered film, she made an eloquent case for what feminists have called intersectionality: “I want to make a movie, based on A Star Is Born [referring to the 1954 musical directed by George Cukor and starring Judy Garland], where I focus on a woman whose career overtakes that of her husband, but I do not want to focus on stars, but the light boys, spot boys, technicians, the has-beens hanging around the periphery of the industry.”48 Once again, we notice how the genre film—the musical in this case—is Paranjpye's preferred mode for making marginal subjectivities accessible to the masses. This is precisely where she broke with Indian art cinema's commitment to realism, a commitment shared by her contemporary women filmmakers.49 Though she wholeheartedly embraced the mainstream film industry's commitment to entertainment, she believed that socially progressive content could be delivered within generic formats.
Paranjpye repudiated these politics of representation while claiming for herself the perspectival vantage that came from occupying a marginal position within the film industry, owing not merely to her gender but also to her migrations through multiple media environments. Throughout, she called calls herself a “gypsy,” attached to neither a particular medium nor any specific topic or subject, but “meddling” in them all. This nomadic self-presentation of the woman media maker, as I have tried to argue, must be understood in the context of an expanding media ecology that made such migrations possible, as well as the interface between media and the women's movement that granted a particular visibility to women's media work. I have focused on Paranjpye because even though her films are not “about women,” and she refused to either look or be seen through a gendered lens, she is nevertheless one of India's earliest examples of a working filmmaker whose career exemplified how a new medium—television—and a social movement—feminism—could provide the material and symbolic infrastructure for gendered media work.