Zee Cinema Hosts Panel at 5th Annual Women’s International Film & Arts Festival
By: Sabrina Siddiqui
A panel convened last week by media giant Zee Cinema highlighted various perspectives on the history of Indian cinema and its portrayal of cinematic women over the years. The event took place Monday, March 29 at the 5th Annual Women’s International Film & Arts Festival, FL. and brought together independent filmmaker and actor Paras Chaudhari, New-York based actress Ami Sheth and Vice President of Zee Programming Jaideep Balial to discuss the evolution of Indian filmmaking, independent versus mainstream films and, more specifically, the on-screen treatment of women in Indian cinema.
Balial, VP of Programming of Zee Network in the U.S., Canada and the Caribbean, said Zee took a particular interest in hosting the panel in light of its predominantly female viewership: “Most of our viewership in [America] is women who are either at home or working. We thought it would be apt for us to chip in and help this organization that was doing a special about women in Indian cinema.”
Balial was particularly drawn to the idea of examining where Indian women fit into modern-day American culture. “When a woman moves here from India, they are exposed to far more, sometimes resulting in a culture shock,” said Balial. “It’s a whole new world, so you have women evolving in their tastes and expectations and, given our network largely caters to that population, we thought this to be a good opportunity to engage in.”
These sentiments were further echoed by Chaudhari, who graduated from Syracuse University and left behind the corporate world after four to five years in the work force to follow his passion for cinema by co-founding Crescent Street Films. The son of immigrant parents, Chaudhari was two years old when his family relocated from Gujarat to the U.S. and maintained a relatively strict household compared to many of his friends. “For [me and my sister] we were in the house, while our friends would go out, and it was like, you’re going to watch a Bollywood movie tonight, or an episode of the Mahabharat.”
It was not until college that Chaudhari truly dove head-first into Indian cinema, although he interestingly deviated toward 50s and 60s films over the contemporary, stating this was the work that truly shaped him, that of his parents’ generation rather than his own. In his film Astoria Park, Chaudhari tries to merge his appreciation for tradition and values with the modern, ‘Western’ world in which he grew up.
Moreover, he deliberately wrote strong female characters who, in his words, “make their men stronger.” Chaudhari stated that there are subtle hints at tradition in the way one of his female protagonists breaks into Gujarati when speaking to her boyfriend, but at the same time there is another character who dons the hijab but falls for a Greek Orthodox man, thus embodying the complexities of assimilating traits from multiple cultures.
Sheth, who interestingly was the only female on this women-oriented panel, appears in Chaudhari’s film and says she used the panel as a vehicle to provide her perspective as a young South Asian American actress and offer that female perspective.
While not as familiar with Indian cinema, having mainly watched films at home with her parents but not so much throughout her upbringing, Sheth said the double standards surrounding South Asian women both on-screen and off are often difficult to face.
“If you’re looking at Bollywood cinema, they didn’t even kiss until recently. It’s very different for being an actress in New York or in the U.S. where sex is just a part of everyday normal television or movies, while those scenes are almost unheard of in India.” Having been raised on this side of the globe, Sheth placed emphasis on a woman’s comfort level with her director for intimate scenes rather than some form of mandate that South Asian women should not participate in such scenes. “With being South Asian and a woman, it’s just part of me and not something I think of outright. Yes, it is a fine line there being a woman and deciding, ‘are my parents going to watch this?’, but that is not what makes me take a role or not take a role.”
The panel was part of WIFF’s nine-day program, held during Women’s History Month and consisting of film exhibits, seminars and panel discussion of films from across the globe.