Known for films like Nil Battey Sannata, Panga and Bareilly Ki Barfi, Ashwini Iyer Tiwari recently also turned author with Mapping Love. “I wanted to get back to putting pen to paper, taking my time to get involved and engrossed like a writer in its true form,” she says.
Recently, the filmmaker and screenwriter spoke on the ‘Role of Pop Culture in shaping Gender Equality’ as part of Procter & Gamble India’s #WeSeeEqual Summit. On the sidelines of the event, we caught up with her and spoke about her work, gender equality, her book, and lockdown lessons.
What role does pop culture play in shaping gender equality?
The story we tell through pop culture and the changing dynamics of every individual, we would like to see an equal opportunity for both sexes. It is not about choosing one over the other, but by giving an equal opportunity to both. When you are a decision-maker, it is about making a choice because of one’s ability and how good they are, not their gender, but what they bring to the table. Gender should not be the criterion to determine the capability of an individual.
You have always made women the central characters/narrators of your stories, whether it is Panga or Nil Battey Sannata. Is that your attempt to pave the way for equal representation for women in Bollywood?
When I made Nil Battey Sannata it was about a journey of a mother who wanted to make sure her daughter gets the education she deserves. Because no matter who you are and where you come from, you have the right to dream. So, the idea of her going to school along with her was that no one can stop me from following my dream, just like I have highlighted at P&G’s We See Equal summit on Gender Diversity — there is a difference between dreaming, hoping, wanting and making it happen! In every story, I have tried to portray this thought, whether it was Chanda as a mother in Nil Battey Sannata; Jaya as an athlete who gives up her sport because she is now a mother yet wants to go back; Bitti in Bareilly ki Barfi who did not want to follow the norms of society; Ghar Ki Murgi, my short film, about a housewife who is taking care of everyone, but no one asks if she is okay. I was demanding that change through my stories, leaving the audience with an afterthought. We all have hidden dreams and hopes and are worried about rejection instead of asking for what we deserve and waiting to see what happens.
Many filmmakers still shy away from having female leads. As someone from the industry, what do you feel drives this decision/thinking?
Audiences, cinema lovers are not looking at stories led by a woman or one led by a male hero, or by a director of any gender, it is just the story they are interested in. This gives an opportunity to a whole lot of women to helm stories that ultimately are categorised as ‘women-centric’ films. Wonder why? We never view stories led by men as male-centric films. It is about a story and its protagonist, who can be a male or a female. It’s from whose perspective you are telling the story. Sometimes the protagonist is a woman, but the point of view is from a man or vice versa. Hence, a story is a story and that’s what is happening right now where audiences are engaging themselves with all kinds through cinema, online platforms or even in the form of a short story. Storytellers can tell their stories in the best possible form they want to, and that is what matters.
You have added another feather in your cap with ‘Mapping Love‘. Can you tell us a little about the writing process?
Mapping Love was being penned for the past three years. I wanted to write this story with the kind of gravity it deserves because every story has a certain human engagement. Some stories are for films, others are meant for transporting readers to a world where they form visuals through the words. Mapping Love is something I desired to write in a very slow and engaged way. I wanted to get back to the idea of putting pen to paper, taking my time to get involved and engrossed like a writer in their true form.
How different was the experience of writing a novel from a script? Did being a scriptwriter help you, or did you have to keep that part of yourself away?
No, I think a storyteller can tell stories in any form, it is just the mode of writing that changes. You just change your hat and you write according to the medium. Every story has a beginning, middle and end.
You also write poetry; but what is more cathartic and helps you express yourself best?
I write poetry when I really feel like putting some words on paper. More than writing poetry, I paint because that comes very naturally to me.
The pandemic affected everyone in a huge way; how was your lockdown experience?
I have learnt a lot in the lockdown – the idea of mindful living that does not mean depending on anyone to do your thing, where you can cook, clean and be more organised. It also teaches you that one doesn’t need to possess much to live a beautiful life. At the end of the day, all that matters is everyday gratitude for the joy we find in the simplest moments. Similarly, I accomplished my writing, finished one of my screenplays, did a couple of online courses in mindful living, mediation, got back to studying and educating myself with lots of reading and writing. Most importantly, I spent so much time with my family, especially with my children; they suddenly grew up in the past one year. So yes, I got a lot of ‘me time’. I think a whole lot of us got back to our little passions whether it was cooking, trying different things or sketching, painting, dancing, embroidery, watching recipe videos.
You spoke about gender equality at the summit. Any message?
You cannot always demand respect and want people to look at you in a certain way because you’re a woman. But you need to demand and earn that respect with your work where you don’t have to walk behind anyone, you don’t want to walk in front of anyone, but you can walk along as equals; so that’s why it is about equals, right?
If you had to define gender equality in your own words, how would you?
You cannot judge a book by its cover. Gender equality for me is giving equal opportunity and respect to everyone for their minds, for what they bring to the table versus judging any human through their gender.