There were 399 films from 79 countries screened at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), the 40th edition of one of the world’s most prestigious film festivals. From the 38th year, a majority of the half a million attendees have voted for their favourite film as part of ‘Grolsch People’s Choice Awards’ that has often been an Academy Awards predictor, with past winners including Slumdog Millionaire, The Silver Linings Playbook and 12 Years a Slave. Among this year’s favourites were big-ticket names like Ridley Scott’s The Martian (starring Matt Damon) and Scott Cooper’s Black Mass (starring Johnny Depp). While the top prize went to Lenny Abrahamson’s emotional thriller Room, a little Indian film beat the aforementioned names, and hundreds of other star-studded films to win the first runner’s up prize. The journey of Angry Indian Goddesses, director Pan Nalin’s third fictional narrative and his ninth feature film in all, with an eclectic cast of Anushka Manchanda, Amrit Maghera, Sarah-Jane Dias, Sandhya Mridul, Pavleen Gujral, Tannishtha Chatterjee and Rajshree Deshpande, was just getting started.
It’s been over a month since the prize, and the film, being called ‘India’s first female buddy film’ has now travelled to the Atlantic Film Festival, the Zürich Film Festival and the Rome Film Festival, been sold to distributors all over Europe, South America and even the Middle East, and is drumming up all sorts of noise for its India premiere at the Mumbai Film Festival in October- end, and a likely Diwali release, alongside Sooraj Barjatya’s Salman Khan-starrer, Prem Ratan Dhan Payo.
“Seems like a good decision to go with Salman bhai,” laughs Nalin, as he’s fondly called, with his signature top hat firmly in place, “He is back, but our marketing is that we aren’t back; we were always there. The ‘Goddesses’ are omnipresent, you just never saw us.”
It is quite something that an industry that produces over 1,500 feature films each year in various languages hasn’t yet been able to give us a memorable film—or any film perhaps—about female ‘buddies’. It took Nalin, who is based out of Paris and Mumbai, and shuttles between the two for work, a couple of years just to get the film financed. “When I wrote the first treatment of the film, producers asked me, ‘Who will watch this film?’ They said that the audiences are not ready… ek ladka daal do (put a boy in it). When Kahaani worked and I went to them again, they said, ‘That’s a fluke’ or again, ‘get 4-5 stars and maybe then it will work’. But I believed the Indian audiences are ready for good content, and with every rejection, my belief became stronger.”
It is perhaps an idea whose time has come. In the current climate, where films about strong women protagonists are doing wonders at the box office (this year alone, Kangana Ranaut’s Tanu Weds Manu Returns, Anushka Sharma’s NH10 and Deepika Padukone’s Piku were all hits), it was inevitably the right moment for a ‘female Dil Chahta Hai’, as the film is being called by critics.
“It started at a coffee shop where a bunch of young, urban girls were chatting,” For Nalin, best known for his award-winning film Samsara (2001), a runaway hit internationally, and the critically-acclaimed documentary, Faith Connections (2013), this was a departure from his usual subjects. "I told my associate director, Dilip Shankar, to observe them; there was something in their body language, and their friendship, that wasn’t ever explored in films. I wanted to be friends with these girls!”
As much as the idea of a film about female bonding excited him, at first, Nalin wasn’t completely certain that he would be the right person to direct the film, as a man. But his background egged him to give it a shot. Having grown up in the Gujarat countryside, Nalin was privy to the treatment meted out to women in small-town India. When his parents, who couldn’t read or write, decided they wanted a better future for their children, and sent their daughter, Nalin’s elder sister, to study in Ahmedabad, they were faced with violent opposition by the town and were the subject of much derision.
But it wasn’t all that easy for Nalin and Shankar to pull this off on their own. Besides the fact that the film needed to be authentic to the point of view of young, feisty urban women, the duo, who started observing women closely wherever they went, were often misunderstood as lechers. “One time in Kolkata, I almost got beaten up,” Nalin laughs. It was then that they brought on board two women writers, Subhadra Mahajan and Arsala Qureshi, to research in the media about Indian women with a single focus: to find out positive stories of Indian women succeeding.
The stories they dug up helped Nalin’s team give a structure, but they decided to keep the screenplay loose, since they wanted to build the story organically. Their starting point were the auditions, where 200 girls from all over India were tested, but in a unique manner. Girls were called to the casting office, where Nalin and Shankar spoke to them, for up to an hour each. The questions varied from ‘How was your childhood’ to minute details of how they were treated by their families. There were two big learnings for Nalin in this process.
“Have you ever cried in the gents toilet?” Nalin asks rhetorically. “Probably none of us have. But we once met a girl who told us that she worked in a big call center in Malad with 900 other girls, and that she could guarantee that each one of those girls had cried in the toilet at one time or the other. They would cry about problems at home, sexual harassment, unsupportive spouses, or anything else. When we did our first test screening through a top ad agency in Mumbai, I asked the girls in the test audiences if they cried in the loo too. Slowly, all hands went up.”
The other thing that struck Nalin and his team was the unconscious inequality that was being created at each girl’s home through another woman: the mother. “We may have the illusion of a patriarchal society but the mother is very powerful,” says Nalin.
“A mother may not mean it, but when you scratch the surface, a secondary treatment towards women is visible. For example, a hot chapatti at home would go to the son instead of the daughter. If it’s hot and the mother has only one cup, she will give it to the son and not the daughter. Somewhere, I felt that this is ingrained deeply in the psyche of mothers in India, and if they made a change, we would have no issues in 50 years from now. So I decided to incorporate both these behaviors, and several other things I learnt from the audition process into the film to keep the story real.”
“What I gathered was that they were not looking for actors, but for people who had the courage to expose themselves and be real,” explains Sandhya Mridul, the senior-most actor among the ‘goddesses’, who runs a casting company herself and was among the first to be cast.
Even the way Nalin approached the characters was “organic”, once he had chosen a group of goddesses he called “magical”. “So we did four weeks of intensive workshops with these girls, but not for acting,” says Nalin. “We had sessions of yoga, meditation and the inner journey, where we asked the girls to think, feel and liberate themselves. In these weeks, the girls must have cried at least 50 times. They probably couldn’t believe they had come for a film and not to see a shrink.”
“I have always kept acting separate from the person, so if I’m howling in a scene, I’ll be laughing the moment there’s a cut,” elaborates Mridul. “But in this film, I couldn’t do that. If I was crying in a scene, I continued to cry, until I vomited outside, lit a cigarette and then came back. It was an emotional rollercoaster. We cried a lot, laughed a lot, and went through a lot, but invariably, we had each other.”
“The atmosphere on the set was one of trust,” says musician and rocker Anushka Manchanda, who is making her debut with the movie. “We were hanging out on the set, wearing what we wanted to wear, smoking, talking, abusing, discussing about sex and orgasms at lunch. There was no need to censor ourselves. I was like, ‘acting is so enjoyable, yaar!’ and the other actresses would scream saying ‘this doesn’t ever happen’!”
Nalin and Shankar created this safe environment for the girls to push them even further, by asking them to create their characters themselves and giving them activities such as talking like their character, sitting like them, eating like them, and even collectively going out in the evening for dinner as their characters.
“They made us draw the route from our houses to our schools and what we see on the way as our characters,” says Manchanda. “We were asked to write a letter to our fathers when we were 16. When we gave our first shot, we had a ready background as those people and a shared history too.”
“I couldn’t sleep for three days trying to write that letter,” adds Mridul. “My father had passed away when I was 15 and I had blocked those memories. So when I had to write a letter to my father a year after, I somehow did it, and then called my mother and howled on the phone. Reliving our childhood memories brought out the truth in us, and that was the point. Gaurav Dhingra, our producer, would joke that the biggest production expense on the shoot was Nutella and peanut butter sandwiches, and tissues. The girls would cry, use the tissues and then eat those sandwiches.”
Nalin, whose past work is characterised and admired for its deeply spiritual themes and ideas, led the entire exercise to create a “spiritual bond” between the “goddesses.” Why Goddesses? Because “women are attractive and sexy, from the Anglo definition, and they are ‘devis’, from the Indian one,” explains Nalin. “But what I like most about the word is the connection of Goddess to Kali and Rudrani, the goddesses who would take a ferocious form to create a new world order whenever they would get angry. The goddesses in this movie are angry because of Nirbhaya, sexual harassment, corruption, bad partners, and more, but this anger is fueling change. And this film’s spiritual depth is rooted in that change.”
Actor Tannishtha Chatterjee, who has an extended special appearance in the film as one of the goddesses, puts things into perspective: “On one hand, we call women goddesses, and on the other hand, they are raped, abused, and stripped of dignity, just like everything else we call ‘mother’, like the environment or several animals. Our anger is against this system. This is the first generation of India where every woman is aspiring for a career outside of being a mother and a sister, or fulfilling our professional and personal desires. We are free and liberated, and ready to explode if we are subjugated.”
And this is evidently a feeling that has resonated with audiences worldwide, as the film continues to roll its punches with standing ovations in all screenings. At TIFF, where initially, the AIG team was supposed to do only 8-10 interviews, the cast and crew ended up doing over a 100 interviews in a week, even as the goddesses were stopped on the streets for selfies “with their tongues out, just like Goddess Kali,” says Tannishtha.
And this is not limited to the Indian diaspora. In fact, most of the people who voted for the film and came for the multiple screenings were not Indians. “Greeks told me that this is a Greek film, the Brazil distributor told me that I’ve made a film on Brazilian women, one American girl came and thanked me for giving her a voice,” smiles Nalin. “We didn’t expect the response to be so universal. One man told me that the women in the film reminded me of his mother and wife at various times. I’ve not strived to make a film about issues but a film where, if you are entertained, then you may just get inspired too.”
“I think Nalin has cracked the code,” Mridul says. “Women don’t want solutions, they just need to be heard. And this film gives them a voice. This is no man-hating film, in fact we are sure men will love it.”
“I really believe that men would come from this film thinking, ‘Wow, I learnt so much about women today,” grins Manchanda. “And women will come out of theaters saying, ‘F**k yeah!’”