We are just about getting used to the idea of female directors. Cinematographers, less so, as a conversation with three passionate practitioners reveals.

Fowzia Fathima (aged 47), Deepti Gupta (aged 46) and Priya Seth (aged 44) sat down with Scroll.in on a warm evening in Mumbai to sift hype from the reality about women directors of photography in the Indian film industries. Their accounts shows that progress is poor. Women cinematographers are rarely given the opportunities so easily available to their male counterparts. They are expected to focus on “women-friendly” subjects and must curb their instincts and personalities if they hope to be taken seriously. They are expected to display male-level aggression on the sets, but are derided as trouble-makers if they speak out.

This low visibility ensures a vicious cycle that seems hard to break: because women DPs are not allowed a foot in the door, they get shut out almost completely.

And yet, there are many more female DPs than before, especially in the Hindi film industry. This is one of the reasons why, in 2015, the Indian Women Cinematographers Collective was set up by Fathima, Gupta, Seth and Savita Singh. The organisation hopes to increase the reach of its members (78 thus far and counting) and generate dialogue and debate on the blatant and unthinking ways in which women DPs are denied employment.

Fowzia Fathima, Deepti Gupta and Priya Seth each have been behind the camera for over 15 years. Fathima’s credits include Mitr My Friend and Mudhal Mudhal Mudhal Varai, and she has also been teaching cinematography for several years. Gupta has shot films (including Honeymoon Travels Pvt Ltd), music videos and documentaries. She made her directorial debut this year with the documentary Shut Up Sona, about the outspoken singer Sona Mohapatra.

Seth is an accomplished underwater cinematographer, and apart from shooting commercials and running a location studio, has also lensed Raja Menon’s films Barah Aana, Airlift and Chef. Despite having a wealth of experience between them and having been a part of moneyspinners, the women have been dodging curveballs throughout their careers. “The films don’t add up; every job is an island,” Gupta said.

As this bracingly honest conversation reveals, the prejudice runs deep and must be confronted if we are to have any meaningful debate on the contributions of women to filmmaking.

What are among your earliest memories of cinema?
Deepti Gupta
: I knew early on that this was what I wanted to do. When I was five, my father taught me to use a rangefinder camera. I never missed the regional-language films shown on television. And I have loved Guru Dutt since I was eight.

Fowzia Fathima: Everybody in my family in Chennai was a film buff. My father was into Alfred Hitchcock films and cowboy Westerns. I would accompany my grandmother for re-releases of Muslim socials. My aunt was a Sivaji Ganesan fan, and I soaked in all in.

Priya Seth: My parents were very average film watchers. I had more exposure to music and theatre as a kid. At boarding school, we didn’t have access to TV. A lot of my visual memory comes from paintings and still photography.

When I was in college, I was interning at the UTV company, and at some point, I decided that I wanted to do sound design or cinematography.

Mitr My Friend (2002), shot by Fowzia Fathima.

Tell us about your formative years, from studying and training in cinematography to applying your skills.
Deepti Gupta
: I think I was the only female who applied to the Film and Television Institute of India. We didn’t have too many predecessors who made it easy for us. I was taunted at the institute, will you continue [with cinematography as a career]? Do you want to work or settle down?

I was also once asked, do you know the weight of a camera? Luckily, the editor Renu Saluja was in the room, and she turned around and said, shut up.

Fowzia Fathima: At my FTII interview, I was asked, why should we waste a seat on you? I was challenged by that and was bursting from the inside. I took an oath then and there, with my hand out and all: come what may, I will study cinematography.

Priya Seth: That’s what it takes, sometimes.

When I was doing my filmmaking course in New York, my professor asked me, is there work back home? I never had any idea that my gender would limit what I wanted to do with my life. I studied at Welham Girls’ School, where there was zero discrimination. But when I started out as an assistant, there were no women working, and the environment was hostile.

I remember the first day I was on a film set. A guy came to me and said, if you lift one of the crane weights, I will give you a hundred rupees. I lifted two crane weights and said, give me 200 rupees. I got really serious about it, and I took the money from him.

I was also asked about the camera’s weight at the interview for membership to the Western India Cinematographers Association. It’s so offensive.

What does it mean to be a female director of photography in India?
Fowzia Fathima
: You are not even on the periphery of the imagination.

People ask me, why don’t you work with big directors? The big directors should be asked, why haven’t you worked with a woman DP?

Deepti Gupta: It happens even before you enter the room – you are not even called to the room.

Priya Seth: That’s a great point – you don’t even feel the discrimination because you’re not even in the room. You feel this sense of insecurity, that you are not good enough to even be called. When you are young, it is hard to have maturity. Why are others getting films and not me?

Deepti Gupta: And once you get work, you won’t be treated badly, since you tend to be hired by evolved human beings.

I shot my first film right out of college. It was called Ranu and was for the Children’s Film Society of India. Then I worked on a British production and then – nothing. The films don’t add up; every job is an island.

For instance, I shot the music video of Rabbi Shergill’s Bulla, directed by Anand Surapur. The video was hugely talked about, but nothing happened after that. I was told, we love your work and we are waiting for the right thing to shoot with you – the right subject for a woman!

Shut Up Sona (2019), shot and directed by Deepti Gupta.

Priya Seth: The mainstream is extremely hostile to women DPs. This hasn’t changed at all, no matter that people say. There are different standards for male and female DPs. The diverse pool is simply not available to you.

Sometimes, you get hired by the director, but mostly, it’s the producer or the production manager. It depends on the exposure level of the production manager. When you talk to some of them, you realise that they will never take direction from a woman. Their egos will be shattered.

In my case, there was Airlift. It was incredible. Despite Airlift being a mainstream film, starring Akshay Kumar, and making all that money, it’s not that I have been accepted.

If I had been a male DP, I wouldn’t have had time to breathe after Airlift. I don’t mean any disrespect towards my peers, but there was a film that came out around the same time as Airlift, and everything happened for the male DP of that film. Everything helps in the end and nothing helps in the end.

Deepti Gupta: It happens in an unconscious way. They don’t even know how invisible their bias is. Why do you need a female? There has to be an extra, special reason to hire a woman DP.

Women DPs tend to work with very few people and tend to have longstanding relationships with them. Not a lot of people in the mainstream are open to female DPs. Even Honeymoon Travels Pvt Ltd was initially considered an indie project before it became a mainstream production.

Do you find yourself having to work doubly hard to prove yourselves?
Fowzia Fathima
: I got a lot of visibility because I started out working with PC Sreeram. But where would a man have landed up with that kind of visibility?

PC Sreeram connected me to Revathy, and I went to work on her film Mitr My Friend, which had an all-female crew. I did mainstream films back to back, but they were usually one-offs. I often ended up working with first-timers – in fact, I became a kind of specialist with first-timers. I was doing double the work and even unacknowledged work at the cost of my own cinematography.

Deepti Gupta: So many of us are multi-tasking in various ways. Priya runs a studio for locations. Fowzia is teaching. So many of us have become producers and creators. Women are doing whatever it takes to get their films made. Take Pooja Gupte – she is doing amazing work as a producer and a cinematographer. Archana Borhade has shot, co-produced and co-written her own film. The spirit to make a film is so strong.

Priya Seth: Whatever it takes…

Do you find yourself curbing your natural instincts because of expectations arising from your gender?
Fowzia Fathima
: When I was working in the Tamil film industry, I found that I would be looked at in certain ways. If I spoke in a friendly way, it would almost be like I was soliciting. It would be taken as something else. It is so much easier for the guys.

Priya Seth: You know how you say after work, let’s go out for a drink – as women, you don’t do that.

Deepti Gupta: At the end of the shoot, it’s like, okay, see you tomorrow. I knew directors who would use expletives all the time but wouldn’t swear in front of me. They would feel inhibited.

Fowzia Fathima: I remember using the f-word once on a set. A complaint went to the producer and then to the board of the corporation that was funding the film. I had to go and explain myself.

Priya Seth: Sometimes, I would not get taken on outdoor shoots because there was nobody who could share a room with me. It can be a huge logistical problem.

Deepti Gupta: I have experienced both extremes – either start out as a DP and have my own room, or sleep on the floor.

Fowzia Fathima: Yes, sharing your room with hair dressers and dance assistants has happened. Then you talk to them and realise that they have their own struggles.

Priya Seth: PMS [pre-menstrual syndrome] will be thrown in, or, oh, you are a bitch. We have censored ourselves so much in any case. Then you dress androgynously. You don’t want to be perceived as a woman at all.

Deepti Gupta: Fowzia once wore a sari to a practical class at FTII. That was so cool.

Fowzia Fathima: When I started working, I was bossy, I would shout a lot and be loud on the sets. I wanted to fit in so desperately. That’s how I got accepted.

I had a child after doing five films. I started seeing things differently. I felt, everybody is somebody’s child, so how can I shout at them? Men too suffer from this – if they are gentle, they are not considered assertive.

Priya Seth: You come on doubly strong because nobody should be allowed to say that you can’t command control of your crew. It’s only as you grow older that you get more comfortable.

Airlift (2016), shot by Priya Seth.

How did the three of you eventually connect and decide to set up the Indian Women Cinematographers Combine?
Deepti Gupta
: Fowzia came to FTII one year after me. Priya visited the FTII campus when I was in the second year, and I was thrilled to see her.

Fowzia Fathima: I have done all kinds of films, even B-grade films. Putting the politics aside, either you have your livelihood or you don’t.

I thought it was better to go into teaching since my work went through so many phases. I headed the cinematography department at the Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute for some time. I then settled in Kerala, which was something else. The concept of female technicians barely existed. I felt so lonely and isolated. People told me, nobody will call you and give you work.

I started worrying about the other women DPs. By that time, I had got to know Priya, Deepti and Savita Singh. I knew around eight to ten people, and I felt there should be more. I felt that we should be connected. We needed to hold each other’s hands. My first call was to Deepti.

Deepti Gupta: I felt that this amazing. DPs usually don’t talk to each other since they don’t really work with each other. I then picked up the phone and spoke to Priya, and it was like I had known her for years.

Each of us started calling the people we know. We now have 78 members.

What does the IWCC hope to achieve?
Fowzia Fathima
: The members are different people with different levels of experience. What we are doing is recognising the need to support each other, share information and technical knowledge, and tips on assignments. We try and recruit from within the group. This happens with men all the time, and you never hear about it.

What we want is for all our members to be employed.

Deepti Gupta: We have been able to make some headway in making our members visible. We put them onto projects or juries.

When we set up the IWCC, we had a lot of conversations on the female gaze. There are people who don’t care for the politics of the gaze, which is fine with us. Some people are part of misogynistic narratives, and it is their choice.

But those of us who do, who want their politics to be a part of the image-making, we are keen on sparking off conversations.

Priya Seth: There is this awareness that something I am shooting will have an impact.

Sometimes I feel that we are in this dust storm, and we keep rolling by ourselves. It is lovely to see everybody celebrating each other.

How important is it for women DPs to organise and create a community?
Fowzia Fathima
: There are more women filmmakers now than when we began, but there is no shift. There is this band of women who wants to prove they are better than the men, and they are not on the side of women at all. I, for one, would not blame them.

Deepti Gupta: Yes, these women are fighting their own battles.

The time has come for us to support each other and make each other’s work possible.

Priya Seth: Fowzia is like the conscience of women cinematographers. She is sitting at the top and bringing all of us back by remembering the larger questions.

We are at the top of this heap, in a sense. Only we can ask these questions, because we have been around for so long. There isn’t any major shift in the mainstream. It’s like nothing has permeated at all.

Where is the responsibility of women producers and directors in this country? If you want to empower women, who are the hirers? A man’s right to livelihood is far more important than a woman’s right to livelihood. It is shameful.

What is your advice to young women who want to follow in your footsteps?
Priya Seth
: I would say, leave, don’t come here!

I want to blow this whole thing up. I don’t care about losing work. There is work, but it’s not the kind of work I want to do. I want to do good storytelling, good narratives – just good films.

I want to call out the bullshit. People say, oh, you are the activist type. I say, yes, and? There’s nothing more to be said. There has to be a fundamental shift in the approach to this whole thing.

Fowzia Fathima: I too have discouraged men and women all the time. But all these things will add up somewhere and change things down the way.