Spotlight: Women cinematographers

B. R. Vijayalakshmi
B. R. Vijayalakshmi

Cochin, 1984. National Award-winning cinematographer Ashok Kumar Agarwal was in a dilemma. Because of a clash of dates, he had to choose between India’s first 3D feature, My Dear Kuttichatan, and a Rajnikanth-starrer Kai Kodukkum Kai. Finally Agarwal decided to send his young and chirpy first assistant to film Rajnikanth. All of 26, B.R. Vijayalakshmi became the first Asian woman to crank the camera independently.
“I put on a brave face even while the direction assistants teased me that there wouldn’t be any images on the film,” recalls Vijayalakshmi, now 55. “The only person who wasn’t tense and had no reaction whatsoever was Rajni sir. If not for his confidence in me, I couldn’t have done well that day.”
The daughter of legendary south Indian filmmaker B.R. Panthalu, Vijayalakshmi had started assisting Agarwal on the sets of her brother B.R. Ravishankar’s first film, after graduating in interior design. In those days the only women on the sets of a film were the actors and the occasional choreographers and make-up artists. Although Vijayalakshmi expressed interest in studying the craft professionally, her mentor advised against it saying that on-the-job training was the best. She later went on to work with renowned directors from the south like J. Mahendran, Bharathan, Padmarajan and Fazil and worked on 21 Tamil films and one Kannada film.
Cut to 2013. While the country is celebrating 100 years of cinema, it is saddening that only a handful of women like Vijayalakshmi have taken up the camera in India. To date, there is not even a single registered woman member in the Indian Society of Cinematographers, which works on an invite-only membership scheme.

Growing interest
Santosh Sivan, national award-winning cinematographer and one of the founding members of ISC, agrees that the numbers are few. “It is true all over the world,” he says. “But the numbers are definitely growing.” As for the membership issues, Sivan says, “As it is the ISC has very few members. But there are plans in the near future to invite deserving cinematographers and I’m sure it will certainly include a few women, too.”
There is a healthy progression in the number of women students enrolling for the cinematography courses, says Meghana Ghai Puri, president, Whistling Woods International Institute of Film, Fashion and Media, Mumbai. “There is a certain perception, which has been built over the years, about cinematography as a man’s job,” says Ghai Puri. “The heavy cameras and the physical effort involved might have kept women away from it. But times have changed now and girls do not shy away from following their dreams, whichever field it may be.”
It was such a dream and a love for ‘good old Doordarshan movies’ that brought Anjuli Shukla from her home town in Lucknow to Film and Television Institute of India, Pune. “Although I had made up my mind to learn filmmaking, it was only at the institute that I realised what interested me more was shooting images that told a story,” says the first woman cinematographer to win a national award (for Kutty Srank). She started as an assistant to Sivan, with whom she has done a dozen films, including two Hollywood productions Before The Rains and Mistress of Spices.

Picture imperfect

Shukla says she has come across no discrimination based on a technician’s gender. Says Sivan: “I can’t think of any general bias against women and most camera persons do encourage women cinematographers who want to train under them. There are so many women behind the camera today like Anjuli Shukla, Bakul Sharma (Vroom), Fawzia Fatima (Mitr, My Friend) and Deepti Gupta (Honeymoon Travels Pvt Ltd), to name a few. In fact, a very good friend of mine, Keiko Nakahara from Japan, is shooting the biopic of Mary Kom.”

But Priya Seth, who specialises in underwater cinematography and has worked in films like Dhobi Ghat, 1947 Earth and the Kate Winslet-starrer Holy Smoke, feels that there is rampant discrimination in our ‘testosterone-driven’ industry. “There have been instances when many producers and directors did not want to shoot with me, even before they were aware of my work, purely on the basis of my gender,” says Seth. Vijayalakshmi, too, recalls an incident that happened during her days as an assistant. “I once heard a very famous producer remark that it wasn’t possible for a woman to shoot an entire film alone,” she says. “I felt a bit depressed since I had already worked as an assistant for four years then.” But she continued to chase her dream and after she finished work on her 19th film, the same producer came around and complimented her.

Weighty issues?
Many women refuse to accept the popular notion that the weight of the camera and equipment is the main deterrent in this field. When a producer teasingly asked Brianne Murphy, the world’s first woman cinematographer, whether her camera was too heavy for her, she retorted: “No more than carrying a child”. Murphy became the first woman member of the American Society of Cinematographers in 1980, almost 60 years after the organisation was founded. “I don’t feel that as a cinematographer I have put in more manual labour than the women who work on agricultural fields,” says Vijayalakshmi, who is now vice-president of audio visual content at the Chennai division of Saregama India Ltd.

Priya Seth at work
Priya Seth at work

Seth accepts that her line of work involves physical effort and that she tries to adapt to these needs. “Underwater cinematography is replete with challenges for anyone, man or woman,” she says. “I am aware that as a woman, the physical demands of this profession are higher for me than it would be for a man. So, I’m particular about my fitness. Maybe, more than a man would be. I need to have a certain level of body strength to shoot underwater, so I make an effort to stay fit.”

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Many directors believe women cinematographers have an eye for detail. Gender doesn’t define sensitivity, feels Seth. “Maybe it defines sensibility and perspective. Yes, the female gaze might exist. But at the end of the day filmmaking is a collaborative process,” she says. “So how much a woman cinematographer’s gender sensibilities influence the final product is hard to say. A woman filmmaker will definitely bring about a big difference in perspective.”
Alexis Krasilovsky, professor, department of cinema and television arts, California State University, Northridge, has directed a documentary on women cinematographers, titled Shooting Women. She believes the Indian industry is much ahead of Hollywood with regard to the opportunities available for women. “While travelling around the world for my documentary, I found that French and Indian cinema seem less sexist than Hollywood,” she says. “A camera woman in these industries can be an artist, dealing with focus, light and movement, whereas in Hollywood, the emphasis is more on the latest technical gizmo and whether you can schlep it across the ranch.” Shukla, too, feels positive about the future of women cinematographers in the country. “There is a world out there waiting to be photographed,” she says, “and there is a place in it for everyone.”

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