Interview Hindi

Arunaraje Patil: Inspired by the space there is right now

The filmmaker spoke with about her new book, Freedom: My Story, her desire to make another feature film and giving practical advice to young upcoming filmmakers.

Courtesy HarperCollins India

Sonal Pandya

Filmmaker Arunaraje Patil’s journey in the film world has had its ups and downs. Trained at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) as an editor, she was a gold medallist and the first female technician in the industry.  She went to become an acclaimed writer-director with her ex-husband Vikas Desai with the films Shaque (1976), Gehrayee (1980), and Situm (1984). With Rihaee (1988), she branched out on her own and has directed films like Bhairavi (1996) and Tum (2004).

Her first book, a memoir titled Freedom: My Story, details her life story, growing up as a child in Mumbai and Bangalore to joining FTII in the 1960s and her path to becoming an editor and later a filmmaker.

Patil also writes about the personal hardships she faced — her young daughter succumbed to cancer at age nine and her marriage with co-director Vikas Desai ended. But in no way, did Arunaraje Patil give up. She has fought back at every turn, even making National Award-winning documentaries with Mallika Sarabhai (1999), A New Paradigm (2002) and Behind the Glass Wall (2014).

Book excerpt: Filmmaker Arunaraje Patil on her early days as an editor

Freedom: My Story, is an exceptional read, full advice for young filmmakers and how to pick up yourself when life gets you down. In an interview with, Patil spoke about why she finally decided to write her autobiography, her struggles over the years and what keeps her going today. Edited excerpts of the conversation below.

What prompted you to write the book, Freedom: My Story, now after so many years?

Over time, whenever I used to share about my life, people would get very engaged and interested. It was not about one narrow lane [that] I was going in, there were many things I was doing and [being] involved with different groups of people and different worlds. This was always at the back of my mind that it might be interesting to put it down. Then Satya Saran, the consulting editor at HarperCollins India one day just asked me, ‘Would you write?’ I said, ‘Sure!’ That’s how I wrote.

Besides an account of your life and career, it is also a practical filmmaking guide. Did you have that in mind as well when you were writing it?

When I was writing, I wrote whatever was real for me. My early impressions about film are there. When I went to the film institute, I learnt some more things. And when I learnt something how I used it in my profession. Then they told me, ‘This is very interesting. Can you write some more about how you made films at that time?’ So then in the next pass, I added a little more so then I included many more aspects also. One thing I realised, in fact, I think one of the chapters starts with that — to know what not to do is as important as what to do.

Your first choice for your debut film Shaque (1976) were Amitabh Bachchan and Waheeda Rehman, eventually Vinod Khanna and Shabana Azmi stepped in to play those characters. How much does a filmmaker have to adapt when a cast changes during a film?

It’s not like one person can play that [role]. You have two or three possible choices. What we also do is you have your script in place and when you know who is going to play it then you also just kind of adjust it accordingly without changing much. Now it can get moulded a lot more or it can get moulded a little less. I think Shaque got moulded because of the characters we had.

[That is] a major point is Rihaee (1988), for example, if Smita [Patil] was [in it], that whole film would have looked very different. With Hema [Malini] playing [the lead], again, I had to mould myself or my script to make it work. And both would have worked. They would have been different films, but both would have worked. It’s not like this and no another, but you have your wishlist.

In the book mentioned your great friendship with Smita Patil. How was it working with a friend in your film and directing her as well?

It was like magic. What I wanted to say, she could get it and what she was doing, I could get it. In front of the camera and behind the camera, she would be emoting a scene, and like I said, I would have tears in my eyes, almost like I was doing it. That kind of invisible thread, we were so connected and so many things she didn’t say I could understand. There was a lot of love. Just simple friendship, love. People must understand there’s nothing else. There’s so much good feeling you have for another person. I call that love. Even my relationship for Hema Malini, for example, there’s a lot of love and affection. Same was with Vinod [Khanna] and many of my other friends also. It was just this very warm feeling for that person and care.

You have had many run-ins with CBFC over the years that you’ve detailed in the book. Has it changed at all over the years, or remained the same, what can be done to better it?

It’s not changed much, because every person who sits in that place suddenly becomes a holier-than-thou judge. They have to follow guidelines. The guidelines are there and they have to certify. They are not editors and they are not filmmakers. And some of them if they are, if they call themselves filmmakers, it’s even more disastrous, I suppose. They tell you to cut anything. Whoever is sitting there, gets to have a say unfortunately. That’s not how it should work.

This is about interpretation, you see. I was doing a documentary [Behind the Glass Wall] on autistic children, an 80-minute film, which won the National Award. Now, in that, there is an autistic boy, who is crazy about dice; he collects it. The father, who was interviewed, [said he] is very proud and happy that the boy is in the Guinness Book of Records and he’s supposed to be abnormal. They told me, cut out the word abnormal or mute it. I said it’s not derogatory because the whole world has called that boy abnormal and the father is laughing that he’s supposed to be abnormal and look what’s he achieved what normal people have not achieved. I said you all don’t understand the language. I’ll go to the revising committee but I’m not cutting it out. I was very firm because you can’t just mute people’s expression. Then they let it pass without any problem. But I had to take a stand.

You were the first woman to graduate from FTII in the technical field and you were a topper as well. What advice would you give to young filmmakers?

I would say, be true to yourself, be true to your work because that’s important. Projects will come, projects will go, money will come, money will go, but be true to yourself and your project and you will definitely make a name for yourself.

What do you think can be done to encourage more female directors in the industry?

It’s a real problem, actually, even in Hollywood and all over the world. Women have proved many times, we can give you hits, we can give you anything. We can give you an art film, we can give you a commercial film, we can give you a blockbuster, we can give you a Rs100-crore film, we can do everything. But it’s become a boy’s club, unfortunately. I don’t know how long it will take.

My [female] students from last so many years, would not come into feature films because they said it’s a long haul and it’s difficult — all the unwanted attention and all the sexual harassment, people are calling it sexual harassment now but earlier it was not called anything and we had to suffer in silence. So [they] would stay away. But there are a lot of girls who are coming into the mainstream, but a lot more [needs to be done]. Those days, people would go into advertising or into documentary or even television. For many years, they stayed away from feature films. But now they are coming thankfully and it’s good. There are a lot of camerapersons and a lot of women editors [too].

Arunaraje Patil with Vinod Khanna and Hema Malini on the sets of Rihaee (1988)
Courtesy: HarperCollins India

Over the years, with your work in documentaries, you have come across issues you hold dear to your heart. How do you champion these causes now?

When you’re making a documentary, it’s quite possible that the subject touches you very deeply. And then you end up becoming an activist of sorts. Your work doesn’t stop at showcasing what the problem or issue is. I’ve always been there for a long time, standing up for women and women’s rights. The other thing I actually got into was mentally challenged people. So now I’m supporting their cause [and those are] very dear to my heart. That’s how actually you yourself get converted. I’ve worked for around 15-16 years on these films over time and people who worked with me, the cameramen, the recordists, all of them came back and said, ‘Ma’am, our lives are transformed inside of this film.’

Is that why you’re leaning more towards documentaries now rather than feature films because it gives you more satisfaction?

Actually, I want to make a feature film, not that I didn’t want to make. But the thing is I want to make it on my terms, otherwise, it’s not worth making. I’m looking for something, in fact, I’ve pitched two subjects already to people and waiting for the green light.

It would be great to see another [feature] film from you.

Thank you so much. Today what has happened, in 1970s we had parallel cinema, 1980s parallel cinema had become a formula which was not working. Then we had a little bit of middle cinema and 1990s, there was this all-out entertainment, entertainment, and entertainment, so to say. Nothing wrong with that except there’s only that. But then what happened is now there’s a new thing called indie film. So now even in mainstream people are veering towards that, they want to make a little different film.

Even a Dangal (2016) wanted to be a middle-path cinema, veering towards that. You have many such small films. Marathi cinema has completely gone that way. Now again there is a possibility of making any film you want to make. I’m inspired by the space there is right now and I’d also like to make a film. That’s how I’ve also jumped into the fray, so to say. Because now it looks possible.

Arunaraje Pati with Rajiv Mehrohtra at the launch of the book
at the Habitat Film Festival in Delhi.

In the book, you write about the issues a female director faces, from being told what to wear as an assistant director to balancing home and work life with your child on set. Which were the most challenging days on set for you?

Regarding what to wear and what not to wear, it’s nobody’s business to tell you that. (laughs) Only when you’re a child, your parents might tell you how to dress appropriately and that’s all there is to it, because beyond that, even parents should stop telling their children what to wear because they’re grown up. I’ll say that to parents also. It’s a basic, fundamental right and I don’t think anybody should tell anyone what to wear. It’s a little ridiculous actually, it is sometimes so ridiculous that we are having a conversation, but this is a reality, till today.

Being told to wear a sari on sets an assistant director is ridiculous.

It’s ridiculous. [That director’s] whole thinking was so weird. I don’t know he had a problem with women or what his issue was in life. I was a tomboy so I wasn’t going to wear anything else, though one day I did try. Can you imagine, I’m climbing the gate in a sari, jumping over on the other side!

Later on, the other thing was that when we planned the film, we were looking at Waheeda and Amitabh. I was not pregnant. We were planning for the film, we had a producer, we were going on and at that time, it was already five years into our marriage and we were also trying to have kids. Sometimes you don’t actually plan to have a kid, you’re open to having a kid and so I got pregnant. The first kid came along and still the film had not happened, because she was one-year-old by that time. She had grown up a little more. Then the second kid also happened because the film got delayed. We had the last part left and the second kid came along. As a woman, I wanted to be true to both the areas. A woman can do that — multitasking, a woman can do many things at one go and I believe men are not very good at that, by the way. (laughs)

The most difficult thing was with a child, because you don’t want to deny the child anything. When the children were growing up, I also designed my work time accordingly, because I was a freelancer. Till they went to school, I managed to stay around them and as the school hours increased, I could stay out till many hours. Of course, I was lucky, I was privileged I could manage.

If there is a woman working from 9 [am] to 6 [pm], she can’t do that, obviously. But everybody has to find their own way to make this work. At that time, some grandparents were helpful. If nothing else, then they put them in a crèche. You’ll have to find a way to figure out what your heart wants to do. At the same time, I know lots of women who have all the time in the world and yet will leave their children to ayahs and nurses and other people and go and sit in the club and play cards the whole day. That I cannot, cannot accept and like. It makes me angry, actually.

There are a handful of [male directors] who are doing it, very small handful. I can barely count one or two on my finger but in my marriage with Vikas, it was great because he would also give the kids a bath and people would be like, ‘Arre, Vikas gave a bath to the kid!’ So what, big deal, yaar? We are working together and I’m bloody well working like a dog alongside with you so obviously you can share my work.

You've overcome a lot of personal and professional heartbreaks in your life. But in the last few years as you've written in your last chapter, you've overcome a lot and come to terms with life. What keeps you going today?

What keeps me going is, I have a life. I woke up today and I said, ‘Oh, I’m alive today also.’  Every day is a bonus. I’m going to give 100% to whatever I’m doing. Because right now, I’m not bothered what’s happening anywhere. The other thing which is important for me now is giving back time. It’s all about giving back for me. I have been very privileged, I have been very lucky. I’ve done what I’ve done. I’ve lived life on my own terms, now it’s back to give back to the universe. Currently, what I’m doing is I’m working literally day and night. I’ve been designing the syllabus for [Ramesh Sippy Academy Of Cinema and Entertainment], [a graduation programme at] Mumbai university film school. It’s a three-year degree course and that’s what I’ve been doing for the last two months and I’m still at it. But I’m like a soldier who has to keep going. I can’t die before this is complete. (laughs)