Kanika Dhillon, the incredible writer behind critically-acclaimed films such as Manmarziyaan, Kedarnath and Judgementall Hai Kya, explains exactly what it’s like to work in sexist and misogynistic Bollywood.
Dhillon, who has been receiving rave reviews for her latest film Guilty, spoke to us about how the idea of the Netflix movie came about, gender bias that she has faced in the film industry and how it almost wreaked havoc on her career.
Excerpts from the interview:
What was the trigger point to write Guilty?
Guilty was one of the first stories that I wrote. While I was writing Manmarziyaan, that’s when the germ of Guilty began. And, then the Metoo movement broke out. When it happened, it kind of threw up what was so ugly in our society and what was broken and perhaps also how helpless we were. So, it was not like just one day I thought that let’s write Guilty. Guilty is a manifestation of the society we live in and the kind of judgment we form of people around, and the entire issue of sexuality. We are extremely hypocritical society. We do not like to talk about sex; we do not like to talk about rape; we do not like to talk about sexual assault. Everything related to sex is a taboo. Also, we are very unjust society when it comes to sexuality. Misogyny and patriarchy are deeply rooted within us. So, Guilty is not just a germ or an idea that came about in Ruchi’s or my mind overnight. It is a collective experience that we have seen; faced; noticed and observed in the society we live in.
Every so often, when filmmakers or writers from upper class or upper caste tell stories of the less privileged, they tend to be overtly sympathetic. But what I like about Guilty is that it doesn't fall in that trap. I like the way how Akansha Ranjan Kapoor's character of Tanu is so out there and unapologetic throughout the film. Was it something that you consciously thought over?
I’m glad you asked this question. Unfortunately, women have the same struggle regardless of their class. We all are victims of patriarchy and misogyny and we all are the perpetrators of it also. I have repeatedly said, and more so recently, that women are equally responsible for the sorry state of affairs; for misogyny and patriarchy that exist; for us to kind of be second class citizen to men. We are equally responsible because ultimately women are raising these men. Having said that, when a person from upper class comes and tells the story of somebody who is from another ecosystem, I guess you tend to be apologetic. It’s a subconscious thing. But as women, when we are subjected to a lot of these situations ourselves-- the culture of silence and disbelieving a woman, discrediting a woman-- we have been a part of it. We have been a victim of it and we have also been perpetrators of it. So, you get to be fearless because you have been there and done that. Then you go around and say, ‘Screw this! I’m not going to apologise for anything because I know how it feels when you cross the line.’ So, I’m not second-guessing firstly, and hence I don’t have to be careful, and hence I don’t have to be apologetic.
So, there’s always going to be a difference of degree between people who are actually in there and have suffered those things and they tell a story versus someone from the outside say it. Because the degree of fearlessness, brashness and rawness will be different. And, you’ll feel it. That’s why it’s really important for women to tell women stories. I’m not saying that men cannot be empathetic towards women or they can’t tell great stories, but I’m just saying that the onus is more on us and we need to take more responsibility.
This reminds me of what Anubhav Sinha recently said in an interview. He said that working with Mrunmayee Lagoo on Thappad taught him a lot about woman's perspective, which he would not have had, had he written the entire film by himself. So, did you feel that you had sort of an advantage because you were already working with a woman director (Ruchi Narain)?
Absolutely! It’s been a delight to work with primarily an all-female crew because we didn’t have to start from base A. We were already together, say, on base y. I completely believe that sisterhood, and she for she, and women standing up for other women is the only way forward. And working in a professional environment where it’s an all-women team, it’s really liberating and empowering because we come from the same place. We’ve been cornered in the same places. So, when you creatively collaborate with that kind of energy, it becomes a very strong bond that perhaps I wouldn’t have formed with my male director. But I did form that with a female director because we had collective wounds. We have common wounds. So, I thought it was a great experience and I would want to collaborate with more women filmmakers and actors. Because I genuinely believe that female energy is really magical and when it has the right intent and platform, we can do a lot.
And, that's what Guilty also tries to convey because the agency throughout the film lies with the women. It doesn't indulge in the sort of male saviour complex...
In real life, I have rarely seen a man coming to a woman’s rescue. I have seen women falling down, broken and then putting the pieces back together themselves. So, why don’t we see it in our stories? I can guarantee that in real life, men rarely come to rescue women. We can either see it as a lens of victim or empowerment that ultimately the power lies in our own hands. When we decide to empower ourselves and take matters in our own hands is when the things around us are going to change. I think it’s a great thing that we should know that there is no hero that is going to come and save us. Because we are our own heroes. So, let’s not have a discourse of being a victim. Let’s be the hero of our own film because that’s what we literally do in our real lives. So I think propagating this narrative in films that men are going to be your heroes is again pandering to the same old narrative which is frankly old, boring and is a disservice, more so in the rape cases. We can’t control the legal system and the lapses in the law of the country, but what we can control is our minds, thoughts and our judgments. We can control the environment that we as women create. We can be fierce and protective about it. So that’s in our control, at least let’s get that right. That is the starting point of Guilty. Guilty primarily sees rape from a woman’s perspective precisely because of this.
Where did you take inspiration for writing Kiara Advani's character of Nanki?
Nanki is somebody who is trying to deal with her internal demons and she is trying to break free. The reason why she has so many tattoos is because I knew of a friend who was obsessed with getting tattoos. She used to keep getting herself inked and I’d ask her, ‘what is this obsession with the tattoos?’ She told me, ‘when I get myself inked, the pain of what I feel sometimes gets drowned in this immediate pain and I enjoy it.’ She was a victim of sexual abuse when she was young. So, I did draw Nanki’s character from a lot of friends I knew very closely.
Another thing that struck me with my personal friend was that she actually thought that she was responsible for somehow inviting this. How in the world have we managed to achieve this, not only men but women? Our mothers, aunts, sisters are conditioning us to tell us, ‘You’re wearing clothes like that, you are inviting a man’s gaze.’ In fact in Kedarnath, there’s a dialogue, which I deliberately put, where Mukku’s sister (played by Pooja Gor) says, ‘Agar aapki chaal naagino wali ho toh sapere utha le jaate hai (If your walk is like a serpent then snake charmers take you away). Now that is the conditioning. We might say it just as a matter of fact but these little thoughts are normalised in our day to day lives. Basically you’re saying that you invite the storms in your lives, and hence the onus lies on you. It’s the biggest fraud and the most violent lie that has been sold to us by our own parents, mothers, brothers and sisters. Some generation has to put a stop to it. That’s why in Guilty, Tanu goes all out. She is literally grinding herself with a man and inviting him to come sex with her but it is absolutely fine because she still is not inviting rape. That’s what we want to say.
But I feel that Tanu doesn't get enough space to channelise her anger and trauma in the end. The revelation of Nanki's MeToo story in the climax somewhere dilutes what Tanu goes through because suddenly the spotlight is on the former, even though it should have been on Tanu...
See, Tanu’s struggle is going to continue. She has to face the court and the legal system. Her biggest validation after a point became the immediate ecosystem. Because she liked the guy and put herself out there and everyone around her believed that she was asking for it, her first validation was, ‘even if I was asking for his attention, I was not asking for rape.’ That was Tanu’s first victory and that was a huge step to be able to get validation from your immediate ecosystem. The things are bad, so much so that if we are a certain way then we don’t even have the right to be recognised as a victim. So, we deliberately wanted Tanu’s landing to be that this ecosystem is pointing fingers at her and not even giving her the dignity of being a victim, and she has to earn that. That is where we wanted to end it because that is the beginning point literally.
There was a full landing of Nanki’s MeToo story as well, that why she had this mindset and why she was doing what she was doing, but sometimes you have to take some edit calls. As a woman, Nanki’s biggest validation was suspension of judgment of another woman by breaking that culture of silence for her ownself. But because of some edit calls, it didn’t get underlined so much. But my whole idea for Nanki was that since she was made to believe that she was responsible for the sexual assault that happened to her while she was a child, she so deeply believed that Tanu was responsible for inviting the rape. That’s why the climax of Guilty is not in a court but it is between these two women. Because first Nanki has to believe that she was not responsible for getting molested while she was young, hence Tanu who got raped by her own boyfriend, is not responsible for inviting the rape. And it’s a very subconscious thing that is ingrained in a woman that when somebody molests her she tends to think that it’s her fault and then she projects it on other women also. So when you believe in yourself that it’s not your fault is when you will give respect to somebody else who goes through the same experience. And, it’s unfortunate that we have to start from such a basic.
I also feel the scene, where Tanu says she will not do the settlement again as she wants justice, should have been explored more. While watching that particular sequence, I felt that her justification for accepting money the first time was showed in passing.
As writers, Ruchi and I did have a lot of conversation about it. When you are in the middle of the storm and you are not willing to be quiet about it then you get influenced and take some wrong turns. But taking wrong turns still is not good enough to let the accused off the hook. Whatever wrongs this woman may do, it still doesn’t make it okay for her to be raped. She may have taken settlement so what is wrong in that? She’s been assaulted, she’s looking for some sort of comfort and revenge. She is lashing out and it’s okay if she takes turns that you think she should not. First of all, who all are we to tell her that this is how you have to behave? The bottomline is that nothing can justify rape. That scene is important because it tells us-- ‘As a victim, I may take wrong turns; I may not behave like a victim; I may not fit into your definition of how an earnest woman would be, but you screw yourself because I don’t really care.’
What’s your biggest fight as a woman in the film industry?
I’ll be very brutal about it. Across the world and especially in India, men refuse to acknowledge that a woman is doing well in her life because of her talent. Somehow the first thing that they’ll say is, ‘Oh, has she slept her way up?’ I feel that the men who gossip like this, they actually do it in real life. They think that sleeping their way up is a great way to do it, hence you are projecting it on other people’s success and validating the other person’s position. So next time when you hear a man of this industry, cracking a joke that ‘I think this woman is sleeping her way up,’ immediately know that this man is a predator. And, this judgment is something that women face across the world. Men judge them more because they get very insecure and scared. There’s an inherited insecurity in men in professional spaces with women. Even when a woman is stern with the driver or the staff she works with, they don’t like it inherently.
I know there are certain directors who don’t like being told by me that ‘sir, I think you are wrong.’ They don’t like a woman telling them that it’s not correct. I face it a lot. But I have had the good opportunity to work with a few of my directors who have been really collaborative and don’t have any complex or ego about collaborating with a woman. I really feel that as a woman, I can only collaborate with directors who are very secure in their masculinity.
In your career, were you ever made to feel that you wouldn’t be paid as much as your male counterpart because you were less worth working with?
Forget the paycheck, there were multiple times when I started out that I wanted to leave this industry and go. I was harassed; I was propositioned; I was made to feel that the only way I’m good enough is to have a happy face around; I was made to feel that I’m being kept around because I was easy on the eyes. I have a lot of anger because my journey has not been easy. As I continue telling stories and facing judgments by men, I just become fiercer. Since I have been made to feel so unworthy because of my sex, I hit back harder, and today, I want to charge the maximum that I can. Today, I’m amongst the highest paid writers in the industry because that’s where I wanted to be. And that is something I promised myself because I was made to feel victimised, harassed and not good enough. They were not even interested in knowing what I had to say and write because there was so much judgment about me before I even walked into a room. So, I promised myself that one day, I’d be there where they will have to pay me my price. And, it has come from very bitter experiences that I have had and these people know who they are.
But I’m glad and grateful that now I’m working with people who are secure. Like I said, there’s no man who will come and help us. There was no man who came and helped me. I have helped myself. And, I just want to tell all those girls who are working in this industry that help yourself and reach out to other women and be there for other women.