10 Fantastic, Complex Films Directed By Indian Women

Paroma Soni
7 min readJul 3, 2020

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Bollywood has been a male-dominated industry for nearly a century. But in the last few decades, the tide has begun to shift. We’ve seen a steady rise in women getting behind the camera, bringing not only fresh, diverse perspectives to the big screen, but also redefining Indian cinema as a whole. From the pioneers of female film direction like Aparna Sen and Deepa Mehta to a whole new generation of incredibly talented women taking on the entire sociocultural structure of the country, the future of film in India is exciting and ridden with possibility.

To complement the many recent blockbusters like Dear Zindagi, Manto and Gold that have female directors, here’s a list of incredible films from the last two decades that are breathtaking, complex, and brave – and directed by fantastic women.

Fire (1996) — Deepa Mehta

The first installment of Deepa Mehta’s Elements trilogy, Fire is one of the first Bollywood films to explicitly show a sexual relationship between two sisters-in-law, Radha and Sita, whose husbands are each emotionally and sexually distant. Stifled by their unhappy marriages in a joint family, the two find solace in each other and ultimately become lovers. Deepa Mehta’s work has often been a reflection of themes considered explosive and brave in an Indian context. During its initial release, even though it released uncut by the Censor Board, Fire met with violent riots by the Shiv Sena who smashed theatres and scared audiences with lathis, actions that were openly supported by the Indian government at the time.

Eventually, the film re-released but the years of controversy it sparked made it not just progressive for turn-of-the-century India, but also extremely relevant to cultural life and acceptance for homosexuality today, post-Section 377. The film itself is an evocative story of two women who happened to fall in love — a must-watch for all generations.

Firaaq (2008) — Nandita Das

Nandita Das is a well-established director whose work frequently breaks conventional molds of filmmaking, but her remarkable talents as a storyteller cannot be stressed enough. With much anticipation and excitement building up for her upcoming film, Manto, it’s worth exploring some of her earlier iconic works. Her 2008 film, Firaaq (“Separation”), is set after the 2002 violence in Gujarat and follows the trauma of five individuals as they try to piece their lives back together amidst political turmoil. Visually unsettling and narratively complex, Das is able to tell a bold story with patience and sensitivity, making the film compelling on every level.

Dhobi Ghat (2011) — Kiran Rao

Kiran Rao’s directorial debut, Dhobi Ghat, has become well-known in indie circles but the film is worth mentioning here for the sharp simplicity and deftness with which it takes on many complex and pertinent themes. The film is an offbeat exploration of the interweaving stories of an American-banker-turned-photographer who has just moved back to Mumbai, an eccentric and elitist painter who is searching for emotional stability, and a young dhobi with Bollywood aspirations. Rao has created a breathtaking film that talks about class, love, gender, and art without ever being preachy.

Peepli Live (2010) — Anusha Rizvi

Peepli Live is a truly unique satirical comedy that bitingly critiques India’s political and media response to the growing issue of farmer suicides. It is the story of debt-ridden farmer Natha who is encouraged by his family to commit suicide, with political opposition parties going to great lengths to keep him alive. Anusha Rizvi, an independent filmmaker, and director, effortlessly takes on Indian corruption, bureaucracy, and opportunism while showing just how obliviously voyeuristic contemporary journalism can get. This film is her directorial debut, one that cements her as one of the smartest and most observant directors of our time.

The Namesake (2006) — Mira Nair

One of the first films to give the Indian diaspora a complex and articulate voice, The Namesake is an exploration of young Gogol’s identity as a Bengali child living in New York, named after a 19th-century Ukrainian author. Based on the book by Jhumpa Lahiri, the film explores immensely relatable themes for any Indian family settled abroad, but with Mira Nair’s poetic and elegant touch.

Mira Nair herself moved to the United States for university and has since explored issues related to the Indian diaspora and Indian society for international audiences. Especially given how easy it is to paint a broad-stroked stereotypical narrative of India — as is often the case when filmmakers approach subjects they are not familiar with — it is important to Mira Nair’s nuanced understandings and honest representations on the table.

A Death in the Gunj (2016) — Konkona Sen Sharma

Konkona Sen Sharma is a spectacular actress whose oeuvre speaks for itself. But few know that she is also an incredibly talented writer and director. Her first directorial film, A Death in the Gunj, is a “ marvellously measured and staggeringly synchronous “ piece of filmmaking. A simple and subtle story of Shutu’s loneliness as he navigates through friendships, love, and death, the film has a vulnerable sensibility and fluidity that is hard to come by. It’s a beautiful narrative of an emotional journey that will leave you at a loss for words.

Parched (2015) — Leena Yadav

The interconnected stories of four women in a small desert village in Rajasthan, Parched is a film about social stigmas and violent societal traditions like marital rape, child marriage, misogyny, and abuse. Despite its heavy content, Leena Yadav’s unflinching love for her characters in this thought-provoking tale shines through, making it one of hope, self-determination, and comradery. Her first international feature, Parched uses colorful frames and a fluid rhythm that stays away from a victim-narrative and instead proudly shows these women as whole, emotionally complex characters that thoroughly engage the audience.

15 Park Ave (2005) — Aparna Sen

A deeply startling dive into schizophrenia, 15 Park Avenue is one of acclaimed Bengali director Aparna Sen’s most brilliant works. It’s the story of Meethi (played beautifully by Konkona Sen Sharma), who suffers from schizophrenia and lives in an entirely imaginary, skewed world of her own. Her sister, Anu (played equally well by Shabana Azmi), takes care of her and their aging mother. Radically different from conventional Bollywood films that portray mental illnesses and psychiatric conditions as fodder for horror films and otherwise distorted plots, this film explores the real fallout of such trauma on an otherwise close-knit family. With haunting performances by these actresses, Sen leaves you raw, emotionally jolted, and completely astounded by this masterpiece.

Gali (2017) — Shabani Hassanwalia and Samreen Farouqi

Gali is a down-to-earth, raw documentary about the rise of hip-hop and B-boy culture in Delhi, emerging from the shadows of globalization and political rebellion. Hassanwalia and Farouqi — also the directors of Out of Thin Air and Being Bhaijaan — are both from Delhi and have founded Hit and Run Films, which engages with changing sociopolitical and personal realities through documentaries and video art. Gali features musicians and dancers in their natural environments during lonely practices and lengthy struggles, refraining from using hackneyed tools like dramatic backstories and flashy editing. The film is a fresh take on a largely unexplored subculture that is worth watching several times over.

Mitr, My Friend (2002) — Revathi

Mitr, My Friend is another film about the Indian diaspora, but this time it centers relationships and family dynamics of a South Indian couple, Lakshmi and Prithvi, and their baby daughter Divya. The focus is on Lakshmi as she grows from being a traditional, overprotective mother to accepting self-love and finding ways to enjoy herself independently, including building friendships with her neighbours and finding freedom in her new home.

This is also the directorial debut of Revathi, a South Indian actress, and director, who is known for her work in the Tamil and Malayalam film industry. Her strong command of the story and the beautiful character development is a testament to her prowess as a director.

Originally published at https://homegrown.co.in on September 28, 2018 by Paroma Soni.

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Paroma Soni

writer, videographer, editor — new to Medium! passionate about identity, film, culture, and politics. currently working at BuzzFeed. → www.paromasoni.com