Meet 14 behind-the-scenes women in film you need to know Advertisement

Meet 14 behind-the-scenes women in film you need to know


By Serena Menon  July 5th, 2018

For the sheer magic their mastery behind the scenes makes possible, these incredible women from the Hindi film industry are undisputable leading ladies in their own right. They’ve paid their dues, stormed a few boys’ clubs, proven their worth, and inspired several generations of young women to pursue careers in film. For this special spread, some of them shared their journeys and challenges, others laid bare their dreams and learnings.

“Don’t ever be apologetic about being female. A lot of us don’t assert ourselves. You don’t have to be aggressive, but it’s fine to be assertive. And it’s fine to lay boundaries,” says Zoya Akhtar, director-writer. Neha Parti Matiyani, cinematographer, says, “Continue studying the profession. Like my boss used to say, ‘The day you stop studying, that’s the end.’” 

From directors, writers and lyricists, to cinematographers, film editors, casting directors and composers — here are 14 behind-the-scenes film stars you’ll rarely see on the red carpet.

Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari

Director, writer
Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari joined Leo Burnett as a trainee, and 14 years later, left as an executive creative director, only to turn film-maker with the critically acclaimed hit Nil Battey Sannata in 2015. “We did seasons [of] Kaun Banega Crorepati and Indian you get behind the camera a lot. Then I tested myself by doing a short film.” In 2013, What’s For Breakfast? won the Dadasaheb Phalke National Award. Tiwari’s Bareilly Ki Barfi (2017), too, came away with glowing reviews and a box-office nod. And now, Alia Bhatt is in her next. But she’s familiar with the industry’s transient nature. “Everything has its destiny. Even if I make five-six films, they should be memorable. My ultimate goal is to entertain people...” she says, before adding, with her infectious enthusiasm, “...and learning more languages. And becoming a psychotherapist, and ultimately a farmer. And if someone could hire me to read books, I’d be very happy.”

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Zoya Akhtar

“Don’t ever be apologetic about being female”

Director, writer
Zoya Akhtar struggled for seven years before she made her striking debut with Luck By Chance (2009), a film about the movie-making business, and all its moods and machinations. Her second, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011), sits steady on numerous cult-film lists, and with Bombay Talkies (2013) and Dil Dhadakne Do (2015), she cemented her place at the top. Is casting for her films still a problem — given that she’s joked about this in the past?
“This is the first time that both my original choices, Ranveer [Singh] and Alia [Bhatt], said yes. It has never happened!” she laughs. While we wait for the award-winning director’s next, Gully Boy, to release on February 14, 2019, her Netflix debut, an anthology film, Lust Stories, is out now. She’s also working on a series for Amazon, called Made In Heaven. Advice she’d give young female directors inspired by her journey: “Don’t ever be apologetic about being female. A lot of us don’t assert ourselves. You don’t have to be aggressive, but it’s fine to be assertive. And it’s fine to lay boundaries.”

Cotton dress, Rs. 3,200, Nicobar. Brass rings, Rs. 3,500 each, Studio Metallurgy. 

Meghna Gulzar

“My films have an intimacy”

Director, writer
No one walks out of a Meghna Gulzar movie — or conversation, for that matter — unstirred. Her debut, Filhaal… (2002), dealt delicately with the subject of surrogacy, and was deemed far ahead of its time. With Talvar (2015), she took India’s most divisive murder mystery, and built a narrative that was so sharp that it restarted the debate surrounding the case itself. It is only fitting then that the film-maker connects her love for movies to this exact intent. “I find the power of the visual medium fascinating because the reactions to a film can never be tepid.” Case in point, her latest: the spy thriller Raazi floored critics across the board, and overshot the Rs. 100-crore mark, making it one of the five biggest openings this year. “For me, it is important that the film I make comes out of the society that I am making it for, because it needs to resonate with them. That’s why my films have an intimacy to them.” Next, Gulzar has her sights set on a film on the life of field marshal Sam Manekshaw. Is her digital debut on the anvil? “I have trouble thinking episodic, but there have been talks. I’ve done something in all formats — music video, short film, documentary. So, I definitely want to explore this too.” 

Silk kurta, cotton pants; both Rs. 18,000, Bharti’s

Nandita Das

“I take myself less seriously”

Director, writer
Wikipedia lists Nandita Das as 48 years old, but the film-maker-actor has nothing to hide. “I am 50, and happy to be. The experiences I’ve had have made me take myself less seriously, without losing my passion. I’m not what I was 20 years ago. I’m less angry; I let go a lot more.” What hasn’t changed, however, is her drive to do more, and to do it meaningfully. From working with NGOs, doing street theatre with late playright-director Safdar Hashmi, to then acting in 40 films, across 10 languages; and spending six years on her new film, Manto — there have never been half measures for Das. “I am now planning a book on the making of Manto, to share the journey at four levels. Creative: the challenges and learnings. Emotional: to juggle being a hands-on mother and helming a film. Sociopolitical: identity plays a big part in politics; and freedom of expression is under threat, and that is one of the reasons to do Manto. Spiritual: what the journey has taught me at a deeper level. Why it is important to let go, to see the larger picture and to not be wedded to the outcome. I’ve done the best I could. This is not going to be the best film ever, and neither the worst.’”

Cotton dress and pants; both prices on request, Injiri

Nandini Shrikent

Casting director

After graduating in English literature, studying mass communication, attending a film appreciation course at FTII, an exchange programme in Finland, and training with veteran art director Sharmista Roy on Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001), Nandini Shrikent eventually (and accidentally) embarked on a career in casting in 2004. “I interviewed for a junior set decorator on Lakshya (2004) when Zoya (Akhtar, the EP on the film) said, 'Why don’t you do the casting?' So, I did. I wanted to be in an AC room,” she says, jokingly. But it wasn’t until five years later that casting actually became an organised department. “When I started, I went to this producer’s office and he said, ‘I don’t need a casting director. I have a camera and an assistant.’ But I just kept at it.” Shrikent is now working on Reema Kagti’s Gold, Akhtar’s Gully Boy, and AIB’s Gormint for Amazon. As for what triggered her love for film, she says, “My mum took me for very good films. She worked with Cinemaya, and eventually curated Osian’s Cinefan Festival. Many directors say that the films they watched there have impacted them. They did the same for me.”

Cotton dress, Rs. 9,250, Integument. Cotton coat, Rs. 7,500, Abraham & Thakore

Neha Parti Matiyani


“Even after 13-14 years in the industry, people say, ‘Oh, really? A woman is shooting that?’ I hope this changes.” Thankfully, for Neha Parti Matiyani, who has worked on numerous films like Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania (2014) and Badrinath Ki Dulhania (2017), these reactions have never been deterrents. “It’s unfortunate that cinematography is considered a male-dominated profession. Because there’s no difference in how I carry out the job, versus how my male counterpart does. But I don’t let this bog me down; no woman should.” The Film & Television Institute of India (FTII) graduate assisted award-winning cinematographer Ravi K Chandran before branching out independently with Mujhse Fraaandship Karoge in 2011. Unlike most Bollywood origin stories, Matiyani’s doesn’t start with her ‘undying love for cinema’. “It was the other way around. I loved photography, which is what brought me to films.” Her motto? “Continue studying the profession. Because the way technology is changing for cinematography is astounding. Like my boss used to say, ‘The day you stop studying, that’s the end."

Silk blouse, Rs. 4,700, Maku. Silk sari, Rs. 11,500, Abraham & Thakore. Metal earrings and cuff; both prices on request, Amrapali Jewels

Tanuja Chandra

“I never want to stop working!”

Director, writer
The industry veteran’s latest film, Qarib Qarib Singlle (2017), opened to a string of positive reviews, but by then, the effervescent Tanuja Chandra was already on to her next projects: she’s developing scripts for a film and a web series, and writing another book, after Bijnis Woman: Stories Of Uttar Pradesh I Heard From My Parents, Mausis And Buas. “I still have to reach the level of success I want; to make many beautiful films. I never want to stop working!” It’s been 20 years since Chandra made a lauded directorial debut with Dushman (1998). Next came Sangarsh (1999), and both developed a cult following for her hard-hitting, realist film-making. She co-wrote iconic movies like Zakhm (1998) and Dil To Pagal Hai (1997), and was the first among a handful of female directors to build a solid career in Bollywood, long before the gender-equality discussion had emerged. Having witnessed the industry from close quarters, is there something she is still waiting to see? “Diversity on a film set. More women, more people of disability, and more people from around the world.”

Cotton dress, Rs. 20,000, Sanjay Garg. Metal cuff, price on request, Amrapali Jewels










Sunaina Bhatnagar

“We women have to fight harder”

Director, writer
For this 32-year-old London School Of Economics graduate, her journey in film started with Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Rang De Basanti (2006), and it is “cinema’s power to influence” that continues to keep her here. “To be able to say things that are so personal and make people feel the same way, there’s nothing like it,” she says. After assisting Imtiaz Ali on Jab We Met (2007), Love Aaj Kal (2009) and Rockstar (2011), Bhatnagar made a well-received debut as the writer-director of the drama Dear Maya (2017), starring Manisha Koirala. Currently, she’s writing her next film, and hopes getting it on the floor won’t be as hard as her debut. “Making your first independent film is a nightmare. There were a lot of reservations [about Dear Maya] because it’s a really ‘women-full’ film. When I was looking for financers, a lot of people told me, ‘Don’t look like you want to make a film; don’t look eager.’ But [to first-time directors], I would say don’t do that. Being cool isn’t going to help. As it is, it’s hard for us to be taken seriously. We women have to
fight harder.”

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Shruti Mahajan

“I am a very dramatic person”

Casting director
With a degree from Delhi’s Lady Shri Ram College, an MBA in HR, and a working stint with Citibank, Shruti Mahajan wasn’t primed for the job of a casting assistant when she applied to work with Yash Raj Films. Now, seven-odd years later, with films like Goliyon Ki Rasleela Ram-Leela (2013), Mary Kom (2014), Lipstick Under My Burkha (2017), Padmaavat (2018) and Padman (2018) on her CV, it’s a different story altogether. “It was meant to happen because I am a very dramatic person, and so is my mother. As a kid, I’d study all week so I could watch Chitrahaar (DD) on Friday. It was never the acting, but the clothes, the glamour — all that excited me,” says Mahajan, who grew up in Jaipur and only moved to Mumbai once she got married. Her future plans, for now, include producing films, and busting one particular myth as often as she can: “People think it is easy for women to get work [in Bollywood] if you are good looking. But that’s not fair; that is really demeaning to anyone’s efforts and the hard work that women put in.”

Cotton dress, price on request, Ilk. Silver-plated brass earrings, Rs. 3,900, DE’ANMA

Jasleen Royal

"Keep doing something”

Singer, composer
At 26, Jasleen Royal is among the youngest composers around — proof that there’s little she can’t do. “As a kid, my brother had taught me an incomplete melody on a keyboard. But I kept at it and completed it,” she recalls. She was five then, and by 16, she had taught herself to play the guitar and mouth organ simultaneously, and was tutoring students so she could buy her own instruments. Royal’s career took off after a wildcard audition for India’s Got Talent — during her BCom at Hindu College, Delhi — put her on TV. She went on to compose singles, open for Parikrama, cold-call composer Sneha Khanwalkar (through whom she got her first singing break in Khoobsurat, 2014), and deliver hits like ‘Nachde ne’ (Baar Baar Dekho, 2016) and ‘Din shagna da’ (Phillauri, 2017). This year, she helmed the music for the Rani Mukerji-starrer Hichki. How did a talented teenager from Ludhiana get this far, so fast? “I just kept doing something, or kept trying to.”

Cotton shirt, price on request, H&M. Linen skirt, Rs. 4,990, Grassroot by Anita Dongre

Hemanti Sarkar

“There’s so much to learn”

Film editor
Born to artist parents in Bengaluru, Hemanti Sarkar grew up on a rich diet of Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen, and assorted Hollywood films, long before she became one of Bollywood’s most prolific editors. “My father was also a founding member of a local film society in Bengaluru. So, I got to watch some great movies. Only Bollywood was not allowed.” Sarkar studied chemistry at Calcutta University, and then thanks to her father’s encouragement to pursue her love for cinema — and a TV show she watched about Steven Spielberg’s editing — she found her way to FTII. “I had read and watched a lot about editing, and I knew the magic was there.” While the uber-reserved Sarkar is happiest keeping a low profile, her filmography, a list of some very acclaimed movies, speaks volumes — be it Peepli Live (2010), English Vinglish (2012), Airlift (2016), Dear Zindagi (2016) or Secret Superstar (2017). “Now I’m working on a horror-comedy [called Stree, starring Rajkummar Rao]. I like trying different things.” Her mantra: “Watch. Observe. There’s much to learn.”

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Anvita Dutt

“I love becoming a rookie again. I thrive on change

Writer, lyricist
At the age of 15, Anvita Dutt clearly announced her life plan to her parents: “‘I am going to move to Mumbai and join advertising. Then, in a few years, when I am very rich, I will start writing for films.’ The ‘very rich’ part didn’t happen, and 14 years isn’t a ‘few years’, but here I am.” After a 14-year stint in advertising, Dutt switched to a writing career with Yash Raj Films in 2008. “I had no idea how to do it. But it was so exciting. I love becoming a rookie again. I thrive on change.” Since then, Dutt has written the dialogue or screenplay for films like Bachna Ae Haseeno (2008), Dostana (2008), Queen (2014), Phillauri (2017) and Pari (2018), and lyrics for songs in numerous others — Student Of The Year (2012), Kahaani (2012), Ek Tha Tiger (2012), Queen and Lipstick Under My Burkha (2017). In a true show of badassery, she even personally accepted a Golden Kela Awardfor Worst Lyrics for ‘Ishq wala love’. Next on her plate is direction, but she can’t talk about the project at this stage. “I told you, I love change.” 

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Gazal Dhaliwal

“Never let go of your patience”


Gazal Dhaliwal has lived two lives. Till 25, she was a male-bodied movie-loving software engineer, who worked at Infosys in Mysore, and religiously waited for three weeks after every Bollywood film’s release to watch it in the theatre. “The government wanted to promote Kannada films, so the release of Hindi films was delayed,” she recalls. “Eventually, I moved to Mumbai to study film-making at St Xavier’s.” Within a year, she became Govind Nihalani’s AD, and then left Mumbai for Patiala, her hometown, to undergo gender reassignment surgery to become the woman she always knew she was. “Govind sir took two days to process the news. On the third day, he told his chief of staff, ‘If you see anybody troubling him, tell me and I’ll take care of it.’” She moved back in 2009 to start her writing career with Tanuja Chandra (they worked on Qarib Qarib Singlle (2017), and she also wrote the dialogue for Lipstick Under My Burkha (2017). Currently, she’s writing the dialogue for and co-writing the screenplay of Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga, which will see Anil Kapoor, Rajkummar Rao and Sonam Kapoor play lead roles. “I remember on my last day at Infosys, my father, my superhero, said to me, ‘This isn’t going to be easy. Just remember working hard is one thing, but never let go of your patience.’ And I’ve always held on to that.”

Cotton kurta, price on request, Ikai by Ragini Ahuja. Metal earrings, price on request, Minerali

Antara Lahiri

“Would love to edit an action film”

Film editor

Thirty days. That’s the time Antara Lahiri had borrowed from her father to either find a job in Mumbai, or return to Kolkata to write content for a greeting card company. “I’m just glad that out of the 150 emails I sent out, one company said they’d be happy to take me on board,” she says. Her love for films, she admits, was born of having been kept from watching too many as a kid. “I was so attracted to the forbidden fruit.” Lahiri made her editing debut with Gattu in 2011, before going on to work on Mere Dad Ki Maruti (2013), Bewakoofiyaan (2014) and most recently, the Kangana Ranaut starrer Simran (2017). Her career goal? “To edit an action film! Most of us end up getting women-oriented movies, which is great, but women in our industry are rarely offered action films, and that’s a real grouse. I’d love to work on one.”

Khadi dress, Rs. 13,900, Lovebirds. Embellished faux leather sandals, Rs. 2,890, Zara. Silver-plated brass earrings, Rs. 2,100, DE’ANMA

Photographs: Prarthna Singh

Styling: Divya Gursahani 

Hair and Make-Up: Jean-Claude Biguine

Assisted by: Pujarini Ghosh (Styling)