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Women's Day: 20 directors who are changing the game

On International Women's Day, Cinestaan.com takes a look at woman directors who have given a new voice to Indian cinema in the new millennium through their individual visions.

The Cinestaan Team

The identity of women in Indian cinema has changed through the years. The new millennium has seen the rise of women in various aspects of filmmaking, particularly direction, giving rise to a new perspective. The number of women in the director's chair is still low, but we can take heart that it is a step in the general direction of gender equality in the film industry.

Filmmakers like Zoya Akhtar, Farah Khan, Mira Nair and more have stood up to be counted as directors with vision, individuality, and style to match their male counterparts. These directors have brought a unique perspective to stories that were previously ignored, or untold.

On International Women's Day, Cinestaan.com celebrates these directors who are slowly and steadily changing the game, one film at a time. While the list is exhaustive (and in no particular order of importance), it contains filmmakers who have contributed to more than one film in this millennium. Hence, some of the most prominent names like Sai Paranjpye, or Fatma Begum (the first woman director in Indian cinema) find themselves missing out.

This list is not a testament to their or anyone else's contribution, but proof of a new era of female directors who have picked up the baton and paved the way for women to take charge of the film industry in the future.

Gauri Shinde 

The sensitive insight of Shinde, director of English Vinglish (2012) and Dear Zindagi (2017), into the lives and thoughts of women has won her universal acclaim. With a Filmfare award under her belt, Shinde possesses a conviction of thought and sensitivity of expression. This should not be surprising to those who saw her make over 100 advertising films before she evolved into a filmmaker.

Whether it is Shashi Godbole or Kaira, Shinde's stories are built around women who are independent, strong, and compelling enough to be the heroes of their stories. Her ability to tell stories that are impartial to their characters while making fun of their flaws makes her a rare talent in these controversial times.

It would be unfair to categorize Shinde's films as commercial or arty. As she says herself, "No one has told me what they expect from me as a filmmaker. What matters is what I expect from myself."

Zoya Akhtar

Born into a film family where both parents — father Javed Akhtar and mother Honey Irani — are writers, Zoya seems to have taken to writing and direction quite naturally. The filmmaker started off in the movies as assistant director on her brother Farhan Akhtar’s 2001 directorial debut, Dil Chahta Hai. She was also the casting director on his next, Lakshya (2003).

Zoya’s first film as director, Luck By Chance (2009), which followed the story of an actor struggling to establish himself in the film industry, won acclaim (she also received the Filmfare award for Best Debut Director) but failed to make a mark commercially. Zoya had written the first draft seven years before the film was finally made and the casting also took a long time, delaying Zoya’s foray into direction.

Zoya and writer-director Reema Kagti went on to work on a script where three friends, played by Hrithik Roshan, Farhan Akhtar and Abhay Deol, discover themselves on a road trip in Europe. The film was not only a commercial success but also got Zoya her first Filmfare award for Best Director in 2011.

Zoya then made Dil Dhadakne Do (2015), starring Anil Kapoor, Priyanka Chopra, Ranveer Singh and Shefali Shah. The film revolved around a dysfunctional family stuck together on a cruise ship, thus forced to resolve its differences.

Zoya’s direction reflects the times we live in and is laced with understated humour. She is known to work with an ensemble cast that portrays characters that are well-written and multi-dimensional. Her next project, Gully Boy, will be a bit of a departure from her previous films and will portray street rappers.

Farah Khan

Saroj Khan was roped in as the choreographer in Mansoor Khan's Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar (1992). But the film was delayed for multiple reasons and the veteran choreographer couldn’t keep the commitment. In stepped Farah Khan. And the rest, as they say, is history. Khan gravitated towards direction with Main Hoon Na (2004), starring Shah Rukh Khan, and struck gold.

Farah Khan is known to be a specialist in the hard-core commercial genre, which is rare for a woman in Hindi cinema. Her films are always larger-than-life and features established stars. Being a choreographer, the songs in her films boast of elaborate dance numbers with rich sets. She later achieved success with Om Shanti Om (2007), which also starred Shah Rukh Khan. The film became a bigger hit than her debut film. It also marked the debut of Deepika Padukone.

Farah Khan’s career saw a lull with Tees Maar Khan (2010). But she bounced back with Happy New Year (2014). Her films often get criticized for being ‘mindless’. But one can’t deny the high entertainment value they provide. She is married to writer-filmmaker Shirish Kunder and is a mother to triplets.

Deepa Mehta

Born and brought up in India, Deepa Mehta took to making documentaries after her graduation (in philosophy). Her film career only began after she married Canadian documentarian Paul Saltzman. She was chosen to helm Academy Award winner Jessica Tandy’s penultimate project Camilla (1994), which also starred Bridget Fonda.

Mehta is best known to desi viewers, however, for her Elements trilogy – Fire (1996), Earth (1998) and Water (2005). Fire was a story of two parched women while Earth was a period romantic drama set during the Partition of India. Water dealt with the social ills plaguing widows in India and was set in the 1930s.

Mehta has always had an inkling that her subjects would ruffle a few feathers in India. The moral police tried dousing her Fire, while Water was forced out of India and shot in Sri Lanka. Most of her films are critically acclaimed, with Water being sent as Canada’s official entry to the Oscars.

Mehta tried her hand at crossover cinema with Bollywood/Hollywood (2002), poking fun at Indian stereotypes and Bollywood’s famous song-and-dance numbers. She returned to making films on serious subjects with Midnight’s Children (2012), adapted from controversial writer Salman Rushdie’s book of the same name. Be it the Elements trilogy or Midnight’s Children, Mehta has emerged as a brave filmmaker who has refused to be cowed down by threats. Her films may not be masterpieces, but she deserves credit for treading paths not most filmmakers dare to venture in.

Meghna Gulzar

Lyricist-poet Gulzar and actress Rakhee's only child Meghna began her career assisting her father on films like Maachis (1996) and Hu Tu Tu (1999). She went on to direct her maiden project Filhaal (2002), a social drama with two women as the protagonists. The film was critically acclaimed and won laurels for Sushmita Sen.

Meghna touched upon the subject of arranged marriage in her next, Just Married (2007), but the film failed to click. She was among the six directors to helm a story (Poorahmasi) in Sanjay Gupta’s anthology Dus Kahaniyaan (2007).

Many would have written her off, but Meghna proved her mettle eight years later with Talvar (2015), based on the NOIDA double murder case in which 14-year-old Aarushi Talwar and family domestic help Hemraj were found murdered. Vishal Bhardwaj penned the script, but Meghna showed great maturity at handling such a sensitive topic. She didn’t digress from the perceived facts, giving a balanced account of what may or may not have transpired in the case. 

Aparna Sen

Aparna Sen’s name conjures up a certain style of filmmaking. The versatile actress-turned-director made her debut in Satyajit Ray’s National Award-winning Teen Kanya (1961) as a teenager. Primarily an actress in Bengali films, Sen also acted in a number of Hindi films like Immaan Dharam (1977) and international features from Merchant Ivory Productions like The Guru (1969). In the 1980s, she wrote and directed her first film, 36 Chowringhee Lane (1981), produced by Shashi Kapoor and starring his wife Jennifer. The Bengali-English film won Sen a National award for Best Director.

Aparna Sen has made 10 more feature films since, including the critically acclaimed Mr & Mrs Iyer (2001) and 15 Park Avenue (2005) which featured her daughter Konkona Sensharma, who has also directed her first film (A Death In The Gunj) recently. In her fourth decade as a filmmaker, Sen continues to pick stories and characters that resonate and leave a lasting impression on audiences.


Starting out as the naive romantic girl in Bharathiraja's Mann Vasanai (1983), Revathy has scaled her way to become one of the leading directors in Indian cinema. Even as an actress, Revathy carved her own niche balancing commercial success with a pursuit of the artistic ideal. While films like Love (1991) are remembered for Revathy's portrayal of the romantic heroine, Anjali (1991) and Thevar Magan (1992) were proof of her talent.

As director, Revathy's films display a search for the identity of women in an increasingly claustrophobic society. Through Mitr, My Friend (2002), Phir Milenge (2004), and Mumbai Cutting (2011) (she directed Parcel, a segment in the film), she has underlined the familiar struggle of women seeking to find themselves.

Whether it is infidelity or AIDS, Revathy has handled serious issues with the sensitive touch of a veteran. So it was hardly surprising that when news of Queen being remade in Tamil came about, Revathy was the first choice. Even in her performances in 2 States (2014) and Margarita With A Straw (2015), Revathy continues to show an inherent admiration of ordinary women in extraordinary circumstances. Little wonder then that she continues to evoke admiration across industry divides.

Nupur Asthana

Nupur Asthana started her career as an intern on Ketan Mehta’s Oh Darling Yeh Hai India (1995) and went on to write and direct the popular TV show of the late 1990s, Hip Hip Hurray, based on the lives of a bunch of 12th standard students. After directing a few miniseries for television, Asthana extended her youth-centric content to films by directing her first feature in the form of Mujhse Fraaandship Karoge in 2011 with newcomers in the lead.

The film, revolving around the lives of university students and Facebook, received decent reviews from critics and also went on to become a success at the box office, making over Rs30 crore at the time. Mujhse Fraaandship Karoge was produced by the newly launched Y-Films, a wing of Yash Raj Films to produce films with young talent.

Asthana made her second film, Bewakoofiyaan, produced by YRF, in 2014. Starring Sonam Kapoor, Ayushmann Khurrana and Rishi Kapoor, it told how an out-of-job man and his girlfriend (with a concerned and possessive father) survive and save their love in a time of recession. The film turned out to be lacklustre and tanked at the box office. 

Asthana has a breezy style of filmmaking. Her films and TV work are proof that she excels at telling slice-of-life stories. In keeping with her youthful storytelling, Asthana is developing a web series about a young gay couple, titled Romil And Jugal, for Ekta Kapoor’s new content-sharing app. It will be a contemporary take on Romeo and Juliet.

Pooja Bhatt

Pooja Bhatt entered the acting arena in 1989 with Daddy, which was directed by her daddy, Mahesh Bhatt. She carried on giving consistent performances in Dil Hai Ke Maanta Nahin (1991), Sadak (1991), Phir Teri Kahani Yaad Aayee (1993), Sir (1993) and Zakhm (1998).

After being an actress for more than a decade, Pooja Bhatt ventured into direction with Paap (2003), which starred John Abraham and Udita Goswami, who made her Hindi film debut. The film didn’t work at the box office but Paap was a soothing ride with amazing visuals. The film’s melodious music was appreciated though, especially the tracks 'Mann Ki Lagan' and 'Garaj Baras'.

She followed this up with Holiday (2006), Dhokha (2007), Kajraare (2010) and Jism 2 (2012). Unfortunately, apart from Jism 2, which did decent business at the box office, none of the films succeeded. Dhokha did receive some acclaim. The film was a hard-hitting account of how the system sometimes gives rise to terrorism.

Pooja Bhatt does not have a specific storytelling approach. Going by her films, it varies from subject to subject. Like her father, she gives importance to music and never shies away from showcasing bold, intimate scenes.

Tanuja Chandra

Tanuja Chandra wrote Mahesh Bhatt’s Tamanna (1997), a film about a eunuch Tikku (Paresh Rawal) and his adopted daughter Tamanna (Pooja Bhatt). She then wrote the Yash Chopra-directed Dil To Pagal Hai (1997) and followed it up with Zakhm (1998) before making her directorial debut with the revenge drama Dushman (1998).

A year later, Chandra cast Preity Zinta in Sangharsh, which was inspired by the Jodie Foster- and Anthony Hopkins-starrer Silence Of The Lambs (1991).

Unfortunately, Chandra has not been able to repeat her success of the late 1990s. She hasn’t deviated much from her path of making films with the story centring on female protagonists. Yeh Zindagi Ka Safar (2001) was the tale of a young woman named Sarena (Ameesha Patel) trying to unravel the truth about her parentage while Zindaggi Rocks (2006) had rockstar Kriya (Sushmita Sen) falling in love with her doctor.

Chandra did make films like Sur – The Melody Of Life (2002) and Film Star (2005) with male protagonists, but they did not meet much success. Hope And A Little Sugar (2006) was no commercial success, too, but Chandra harped on the hatred for Muslims/Sikhs after 9/11. From Tamanna to Hope And A Little Sugar, Chandra has certainly emerged as a filmmaker with a nose for good stories.

Aishwarya Dhanush

The very fact that she has managed to emerge from the shadows of superstar dad Rajinikanth and husband Dhanush — two men who are among the most celebrated in Tamil films — to create an identity for herself is itself an achievement. Despite being the older daughter of Rajinikanth, Aishwarya Dhanush chose to work as an ordinary assistant director in Aayirathil Oruvan (2010) before turning director.

It was only after learning the craft well that she decided to make 3 (2012), in which Dhanush and Shruthi Haasan played the leads. Even before the film’s release, one of its songs, 'Kolaveri Di', went on to become a global chartbuster. Through 3, Aishwarya sought to not only entertain audiences, but also to create awareness about bipolar disorder. She next made Vai Raja Vai (2015), a commercial entertainer, which did nothing to impress audiences. At present, Aishwarya is directing a biopic on Mariappan Thangavelu, who won gold in the high jump at the Rio de Janeiro Summer Paralympic Games.

Reema Kagti

Writer-director Reema Kagti assisted several filmmakers before making her own film, Honeymoon Travels Pvt Ltd (2007), about six couples on their honeymoon. Kagti assisted Rajat Kapoor on his debut film, Private Detective: Two Plus Two Plus One (1997) and was part of two landmark films of 2001, Lagaan and Dil Chahta Hai, as assistant director to Ashutosh Gowariker and Farhan Akhtar, respectively. She even headed the Indian production unit of Vanity Fair (2004), directed by Mira Nair. 

After her first film, Kagti directed Talaash (2012), a suspense thriller dealing with a couple’s grief after their young son drowns in an accident. Kagti is also a writer, lending a hand to fellow collaborator Zoya Akhtar on Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011) and Dil Dhadakne Do (2015). Her characters are complex, layered individuals who move forward from the stereotypes that usually plague Hindi cinema.

Next, she will direct Akshay Kumar in Gold (2018), a real-life story of independent India’s first Olympic gold medal in field hockey, defeating Great Britain in a significant victory over their former colonial masters.

Kalpana Lajmi

Whether it was Rudaali (1993), Darmiyaan: In Between (1997), Daman: A Victim Of Marital Violence (2001) or Chingaari (2006), Kalpana Lajmi has never shied away from depicting the oppressed state of women in society. Guru Dutt's niece, Lajmi began her career as assistant to director Shyam Benegal on films like Manthan (1976), Bhumika (1977) and Mandi (1983) before turning filmmaker with Ek Pal (1986).

As director, Lajmi's films have focused on life on the fringes of society, often invisible to mainstream narratives. Her heroines often came from the lowest strata of society, oppressed, ignored and equipped with a desire to rebel against this very oppression. Both Dimple Kapadia and Raveena Tandon, known for their work in commercial cinema, won National awards through Lajmi's films.

Critical acclaim did not help her though. After she was diagnosed with kidney cancer, Lajmi had to reach out to the industry for help. Many filmmakers, including Aamir Khan and Rohit Shetty, stepped up to contribute towards her medical expenses. The director has since stayed away from films, but her impact remains strong as ever. For anyone doubting that fact, Rudaali might be a great place to start.

Alankrita Shrivastava

Alankrita Shrivastava moved from Delhi to Mumbai to work with filmmaker Prakash Jha and his banner for six years, assisting Jha and producing films like Apaharan (2005), Dil Dosti Etc (2007), Khoya Khoya Chand (2007) and Raajneeti (2010). She branched out, with support from her mentor, to make her first film, Turning 30!!! (2011). Starring Gul Panag, her directorial debut was about a career woman dealing with the ups and downs of life and love.

While Turning 30!!! failed to connect with audiences, Shrivastava used the time between her first and second feature to properly develop her script of Lipstick Under My Burkha, also produced by Jha.

Set in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, the film highlights the plight of four women who are interconnected through the expectations and demands placed on their lives by society. Picking up awards across the festival circuit internationally, Lipstick Under My Burkha has also been in the news as the Central Board of Film Certification refused to certify it on the grounds that it was ‘lady-oriended, their fantasy above life (sic),’ precisely the reason why her film needs to be seen.

Sudha Kongara

Director Sudha Kongara made a silent entry into the Tamil film industry with her first film Drohi (2010), after working with Mani Ratnam as his assistant for seven years. The film, though a reasonably good one, did not draw audiences to theatres.

For the next five years, there was no news about Kongara. Then came news about a lady who had impressed actor R Madhavan with her extensive research on women boxers in India. It was Kongara. The director, who had originally started writing a story on women boxers while working on Drohi, researched the topic for almost two years, travelling extensively to all parts of the country.

Madhavan, after looking at the kind of research she had done, agreed to play a boxing coach in her film. The film she made after doing such extensive research was Irudhi Suttru (Final Round) in Tamil and Saala Khadoos in Hindi. The movie, which fetched first-time actress Ritika Singh (a real-life mixed martial arts exponent) a National award, not only came in for critical appreciation but also raked in the moolah at the box office. Kongara is now making the same film in Telugu.

Leena Yadav

Leena Yadav’s latest film, Parched (2016), produced by Ajay Devgn, had its world premiere at the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival in 2015. It was only her third feature after her directorial debut Shabd (2005) with Sanjay Dutt and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Teen Patti (2010) with Amitabh Bachchan and Ben Kingsley. Her husband, Aseem Bajwa, was the cinematographer on both these films.

Yadav started out as an editor on ad films and directed a number of fiction and non-fiction programmes for television. Her first two films with big stars did not garner much success but Parched, starring Radhika Apte, Tannishtha Chatterjee, Surveen Chawla and Sayani Gupta, made waves internationally and was critically acclaimed back home.

Yadav, who also writes her own screenplays, does meticulous research on all her films. Like Alankrita Shrivastava’s Lipstick Under My Burkha, Parched focuses on and gives voice to those women whose plights are usually overlooked.

Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari

Ashwini Iyer Tiwari started her professional career by working in an advertising agency. She churned out campaigns for some of the biggest brands in India. She quit advertising after working for 15 years to pursue filmmaking. She started by making a short film titled What’s For Breakfast. The film won the Dadasaheb Phalke award for Best Film Online.

Tiwari made her feature film debut with Nil Battey Sannata (2016). Starring Swara Bhaskar, the film was a heartwarming tale of a mother’s struggle to get her daughter educated against the odds. The film was acclaimed by critics and at various international film festivals. It did average business at the box office.

Tiwari's next is Bareilly Ki Barfi starring Ayushmann Khurrana, Rajkummar Yadav and Kriti Sanon. As she has only one released film till date, it is difficult to explain her method of storytelling. But going by her debut film, it seems she is fascinated by slice-of-life stories of ordinary people. She seems to be driven more by character than story. She is married to Nitesh Tiwari, the director of the blockbuster Dangal (2016).

Mira Nair

Mira Nair has had quite a varied filmography — from documentaries to adaptations and biopics, she has tackled them all. Born in Rourkela, Orissa, Nair attended Harvard University on a full scholarship. By 1987, she had made four documentaries on subjects ranging from a lonely Indian newspaper dealer in New York to Bombay’s female strippers.

She used her documentary experience to make Salaam Bombay (1989) using many non-professionals to portray the lives of street kids. The film put Nair on the world map with awards from Cannes and an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. Since then, she has directed films across continents — Mississippi Masala (1991) in America, Monsoon Wedding (2001) in India, Vanity Fair (2004) in Europe and Queen Of Katwe (2016) in Africa, never allowing a genre or category to define her filmmaking.

Nair seeks out personal stories and emotions, allowing audiences to connect with her characters individually. Besides filmmaking, Nair also oversees the Maisha Film Lab in her home city of Kampala, Uganda, grooming young directors and talent from Africa. The lab is conducted in conjunction with Columbia University where Nair is an adjunct professor.

Nandita Das

As a filmmaker, Nandita Das treads the road paved by Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Shyam Benegal and Deepa Mehta. A consummate actress who proved her ability in films like Fire (1996), Earth (1998) and Kannathil Mutthamittaal (2002), Das has now channelled the same fire into her directorial work.

Das's first film Firaaq (2008) was a bold statement against the inaction of authorities and the inhumanity in the Gujarat riots. On release, the film found itself struggling against the censors, but Das stood firm. The film won a National award for Best Editing, and critical acclaim at festivals around the world.

For her second project, Das has picked a similiarly charged and fascinating tale — the life of writer Sa'adat Hassan Manto. With Nawazuddin Siddiqui as her Manto, Das hopes to recreate the life and philosophy of an individual who symbolized free speech in all its glory. As a filmmaker, Das continues to display the same courage and integrity that set her apart as an actress, something that is necessary in these heavily censored times.

Lakshmi Ramakrishnan

A character artiste who has acted in several Tamil and Malayalam films, Lakshmi turned director with Aarohanam (2012). The film, starring Viji Chandrashekar, Jaya Prakash and Uma Padmanabhan, got mixed reviews with some hailing it for the issue it tackled — mental illness — and the non-judgmental way in which the story was narrated. However, it did not do well at the box office.

Lakshmi's next film, Nerungi Vaa Muthamidathe, released in 2014 with Piaa Bajpai and Shabbir in the lead. The film came in for much appreciation as it dealt with the fuel crisis the nation was going through at that time.

Lakshmi followed it up with Ammani last year. Ammani, inspired by the real-life story of a ragpicker, had an elderly Subbulakshmi playing the lead. Lakshmi herself played a part in the film which also featured Nitin Sathyaa. The film was hailed by critics but flopped at the box office.

Sonal Pandya, Shriram Iyengar, Mayur Lookar, Suparna Thombare, Keyur Seta and Manigandan KR contributed to this article.