Bhavani Iyer – Feminist writer who remains ‘utterly unafraid’
One of the most interesting subjects of study in any society is how cultural and social change happens. How do people in that society alter their notions of what is seen as positive/negative human behaviour? Who are the leaders and the followers in this process of gradual change? India and within India, Bollywood, is a petri-dish for such observing such changes in social mores because a movie is, almost by definition, a producer’s bet that her perspective on, both, the status quo and on how society is changing will be received positively by the audience. It is in this context that the rise of feminist cinema in Bollywood – movies where women are either the primary protagonist or the story is told from a women’s point-of-view – is interesting to understand. Who are the film-makers who made feminist cinema part of mainstream Bollywood entertainment and how did they do it? This piece in the Indian Express profiles Bhavani Iyer, the screenwriter who is credited some of the biggest Bollywood hits of the past 20 years (eg. Black) and also less successfully but widely acclaimed movies like Lootera and Raazi.
So how did this Bangalore-born daughter of an IFS officer make in big in Bollywood with beautifully written nuanced scripts which give primacy to women over men? First off, Bhavani Iyer seems to be a graduate straight out of the ‘The Victory Project’/ Charlie Munger school of learning: “My father reads like crazy….When I was six, he told me ‘Why don’t you write letters to me and tell me how your day was.’ Then he would tell me to write a story, later a story with only one character. And then about only one thing from different people’s point of view…So, I learned a lot about perspective and the craft of storytelling without being aware of it. My father and I would talk about everything, from William Shakespeare to Julius Caesar…I read a lot of Shakespeare, Somerset Maugham, Roal Dahl, poetry by Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf. These favourites of mine shaped by ability to tell stories that cut very close to the heart.”
The second big influence on her thinking and on her career is the filmmaker Anurag Kashyap who seems to have persuaded her to take scriptwriting seriously and mentored her. After Kashyap read some of her early scripts he asked her to quit her job in journalism immediately and start writing for his films.
Then came director Sanjay Leela Bhansali (SLB) and Bhavani’s break into the big time with the smash hit ‘Black’. What’s interesting by Bhavani’s retelling of how her experience of writing Black for SLB is how SLB treated her like an equal and involved her in the translation of her script into the various aspects of filmmaking eg. casting, costumes, etc. Bhavani Iyer recalls, “I was so young, maybe younger than his ADs, but he would make sure that I had a seat next to him. There were scenes I disagreed with him on and he would listen to me. He gave me so much strength….He wants you to learn and keep getting better.”
We would recommend that you read the full piece in the Indian Express to understand how a conservative patriarchy is under assault not from shouters on the street or on social media but from hard working, conscientious professionals who are gradually remoulding India.