In the early 1980s, thanks to her mother, the artist Lalitha Lajmi, I met Kalpana Lajmi. When I was making a TV series for Channel 4, UK, on women filmmakers, I asked if I could interview her on camera. She graciously agreed.

When we started filming, Lajmi came across as a strong and vibrant personality, very serious about her work and equally able to enjoy a good laugh. I met her several times after that, and she would regale us with stories of the film industry and the many film personalities that she knew. Her descriptions were often hilarious, always honest and full of affection when talking about her community of filmmakers.

It is film directors like Kalpana Lajmi who helped to open the doors for women wanting to work behind the camera. We forget the uphill struggle the previous generation of women had to face to persuade actors to act in their films,to get financiers to believe in them, and to find open-minded distributors to show their work. But Kalpana Lajmi was a doer and she somehow managed to bring to the screen some of her more cherished projects. I think of the unusual Ek Pal (1986), which was her first feature, and the atmospheric Rudaali (1993). Her association with Bhupen Hazarika has been documented by Kalpana herself in the recently released book Bhupen Hazarika: As I Knew Him. It tells a beautiful story of dedication and love. There are many people who are going to miss her. Here are excerpts from our 1988 interview.

Kalpana Lajmi: I don’t think it’s been very easy for women to work as directors in India because we haven’t had very many women film directors. Ever since the film industry was created in India, one has associated women on the screen rather than behind the screen. That said, since the past seven or eight years, there have been a few women directors like Aparna Sen, Sai Paranjpye, Vijaya Mehta. But when you really look at their backgrounds, they’ve always been associated with films in some way or the other, if not cinema then theatre, or they have had relatives associated with cinema.

So I don’t think it’s been very easy for women who are not connected with the industry to come into it. Secondly, I don’t believe there is a school of any kind where women have been encouraged to study cinema as an art form. So most women who join films start off as assistants, but even becoming an assistant is tough. They don’t know whom to approach. So that in itself is a put off.

Dil Hoom Hoom Kare, Rudaali (1993).

Nasreen Munni Kabir: How difficult was it for actresses to join films?
Kalpana Lajmi: I think it was very difficult till the ’50s or the ’60s, because working in films had a social stigma attached to it, so many of the character actors or actresses who entered films didn’t have any kind of training or education as such. And as you know in India, any woman associated with the theatre or film was seen as being from the prostitute class or the ‘baiji’ class or the singing class.

By the late ’40s, there was a gradual change. And by the 1970s the change was total. So a lot of fresh talent came to the fore. People started looking at cinema with a more educated outlook. Families agreed that their daughters could act in films and would be still regarded as women of repute. There was also a new crop of actresses who trained at Film and Television Institute of India in Pune who joined films from the 1970s.

So, it has become much easier. There are systematic approaches to entering films for actors, and men and women are given an equal chance. With the Film Institute and the National School of Drama, a lot of fresh talent has come forth. I think people like Shyam Benegal have been very instrumental in giving a break to a lot of young women in different kinds of roles. And that has meant women could consider acting an honourable profession, without having the need to be a glamorous type. The idea of casting a glamorous girl, or a chocolate-boy hero had gone by the 1970s.

There is much more accessibility for actresses today [the reference is to the late 1980s] than it was years ago. Women are in a position to approach directors. They are more poised and suave, they are educated, and with the kind of family background they have, they can walk in, ask for a role, discuss a script – none of this was likely 30 years back.

Darmaiyaan (1997).

Do you feel the kinds of roles women play now in the 1980s have an impact on audiences?
Yes, definitely. I can vouch for the roles thinking actresses like Shabana Azmi or Smita Patil play. They think about the character they are asked to portray, and only if the role makes sense to them, do they accept it.

I think the kind of roles they play have greatly helped in building their image off screen too. Today Shabana or Smita are known as intellectual actresses, which is something unheard of in the ’50s or the ’60s. An actress was never given a separate identity as a woman off screen. For example, Waheeda Rehman was known as Chaudhvin ka Chand’s heroine or Madhubala for another film. Probably the first actress to have a separate social identity was Nargis, who introduced a change partly because she was educated in the real sense. Creating a persona off screen for an actress was rare in earlier times. Now it’s complete change.

The roles have changed too.
Yes, definitely. I wouldn’t say that’s true of our traditional commercial cinema, which is, I believe, an extension of our nautanki. I think producers and distributors really want to play it safe all the time. So the role of women in formula cinema has not largely changed. In fact, in certain aspects it has probably degenerated. They have no role at all. They are often just props in an entirely male-dominated script.

But there are definite roles for women in what people call the parallel cinema, new cinema or art cinema – I don’t like labelling it and prefer calling it “better cinema”. There have, of course, been women-oriented scripts written, from Satyajit Ray down, men have written about women and given them better projection. Think of Madhabi Mukherjee in Mahanagar or Charulata or Shabana in Shyam Benegal’s Ankur. In Ankur, Shabana is a poor, illiterate young woman, but unlike the formula cinema in which she would’ve had to have been raped by the zamindar’s son, in Ankur she is not. She makes love with the zamindar’s son willingly, because she decides it is better to keep him happy and not go hungry.

So women today, whatever decisions they make, whether it turns them into an anti-heroine or not, are largely more definite characters than they were in the ’40s and ’50s.

Then again, if you look at Bimal Roy’s Devdas, or P C Barua’s Devdas, Paro is a far more definite character than the hero, Devdas, who is an anti-hero. But then that is not Bimalda or PC Barua; it is Sarat Chandra Chatterjee, the writer of the novella. I feel where women had a definite role is a credit to the writers – to literature on which some of the early films were based.

Today, it is the film director and the scriptwriter who define women’s roles, as they are the ones writing original screenplays that are not necessarily based on literature.You asked what about the role of women behind the screen? I think it has become very important for women directors like Aparna Sen – or myself for that matter, or Sai Paranjpye, or Vijaya Mehta – that we make films with emphasis on women. I think the psyche of women is definitely different from the way a man looks at the role of women.

Ek Pal (1986).

Can we talk about ‘Ek Pal’?
Ek Pal was a story, which I found with great difficulty. It was my first film and I wanted to be very honest about what I was saying. Not because I had made it, but I do feel Ek Pal is a film far ahead of its times. It shows an Indian woman breaking away from the traditional mould of a ‘Sati Savitri’.

I got the finance with great difficulty and with great difficulty sold it to a distributor. Because the entire distribution channels of this country are dominated by traditional businessman and they were completely shocked by the film’s story because Ek Pal is the story of a woman who expresses her sexuality openly. She is married, unhappy with her husband, and so decides to have a child with her lover.She has to face the reactions of her traditional parents, and she even decides to break away from society altogether, to stand by this love child. She believes a woman is not just a wife, sister or daughter – but bearing a child is also part of being a woman. That is the essence of Ek Pal.

The celebrated Maitreyi Devi wrote the story. Shabana, as you know, is very educated and a very expressive person in real life, and her character comes across strongly in the script.

When I first started working on the film, the reactions of the women who were working with me was amazing – they were elated, because they felt I was doing something that they had always wanted to do and couldn’t. In the story, the husband accepts her back because of her honesty. She tells him, “Either take me back with the child or don’t take me back at all.” And he accepts her and the child. That is something none of the men on the sets, including Dr Shriram Lagoo, could accept.

Tell me about the reaction of the audience.
Well, 100% of our cinema audiences are what is termed as the “masses”. They did see Ek Pal, and were probably thrilled with the content, but not the form. Because it is not the fantasy form, it is not the formulaic form, but 30% of the audience, the people who usually watch films in their drawing rooms because of the invasion of video, have loved the film. It was, what you call, a super success. Producers and distributors always say they don’t want to take any risks. But I don’t know what they mean by taking a risk because I think the audiences are prepared for change and welcome even the slightest change in cinema storytelling.

As far as the female audience is concerned, Muslim women would wear their burqas and go and see the film. It ran houseful for 15 weeks in a traditional cinema hall called Basusree in Calcutta. The audience was made up of entirely woman. I don’t know whether they went for the purpose of being titillated, or whether they were really thrilled to see a woman expressing her sexuality openly, which was probably something they would want to do, but dare not.

I don’t know whether some people think Kalpana has taken the liberty of saying that women should express their sexuality. In other words, they should go haywire, and be given an opportunity to break the norms. I don’t know if that’s the reason why it was such a super success, or because for the first time, it unveiled the hypocrisy that exists. But I still feel the film was far ahead of its times. I also feel it is up to the filmmakers to raise audience tastes. I am not the kind of person who thinks, for 75 years we have had the traditional song and dance situation in the formulaic film, I am going to make that kind of cinema only.

It’s up to a few of us at least to try and inject something new and appealing. Seen from that light, Ek Pal was really appreciated. The distributor didn’t take it to the mofussil areas, I mean the small towns, but then how would I know what the mofussil man or woman feels? But since it played in the big cities, I knew what the response was.

Situations like the one showed in Ek Pal exist in the lower classes and the upper classes and are more easily acceptable. It is the middle-class who gets horrified. It is the middle class who wants to act out, but can’t.

I don’t know how Ek Pal would have turned out if a man had directed it. But as a woman filmmaker, it has been very difficult to make films.