It’s 2015. The Lunchbox has been nominated for the BAFTAs. Guneet Monga is now a global name (her fame had been building in small circles since the launch of Kavi, an award-winning film on bonded labours in India, in 2009), and independent Indian cinema is finally having its moment. What was Guneet thinking about at this point? “I was depressed,” she says candidly. “I was told that I was just a fluke, and that I got lucky. It kind of took away my spirit, and I spiralled downward. I didn’t know if I wanted to do this anymore.”
Guneet’s thoughts were perhaps the best reflection of the challenges women filmmakers face in the country and the battles they continue to fight. What drives Guneet in this space where she has to constantly prove herself, is the commitment to change the game for women who come after her. Of the several things she undertakes to shine the spotlight on independent Indian cinema and women in films, her recent project Indian Women Rising (IWR), stands out the most.
Kaftan, INR 17,800, by Payal Khandwala; earrings and rings, price on request, by Studio Aesthe
Including Guneet, IWR is a collaboration among four powerful women—producer and director Ekta Kapoor, author-director Tahira Kashyap and Producer and Executive Vice President at Balaji Motion Pictures, Ruchikaa Kapoor Sheikh. The project is an attempt to disrupt the status quo and amplify the voice of Indian female filmmakers. “As an independent film producer myself, I know how hard it is to market and distribute your film. Between the four of us, we have our share of experience in the industry and the power to back first-time directors,” Guneet explains. Bittu, a short film based on a real-life incident from 2013, where 136 school children were hospitalised and 22 died after eating school lunch that was contaminated with pesticide, was IWR’s maiden project.
Guneet also has her own production house, Sikhya Entertainment, that she launched in 2008 with her mother. “I was 21 when we started, and the main challenge I faced back then was ageism. People thought I was too young to do this. We made a film, and then I shut the company since I lost my mum and was unsure if I could do this independently. I then took up a job at Balaji, and worked for Anurag Kashyap for a couple of years before returning to this—this time, knowing I could do it. The journey has been tough. It’s one step forward, two steps backwards, but all that you can do is show up and try and find magic in the madness,” she shares. As indie films are still at a nascent stage in India, I ask Guneet where she draws the strength to keep going. “I follow a spiritual practice, and that allows me to draw strength from within. We don’t need outside validation,” she smiles.
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Guneet’s latest project is Zindagi In Short, a series of short films that bring together new directors and stellar actors. “The thought was to give filmmakers a platform to narrate slice-of-life stories. I feel short films are a great medium to discover new voices.” And how does she pick these stories? The answer is heartfelt—“I feel an emotional and spiritual connection with stories. When I choose a story, I fall in love with it, and I love this feeling. The connection is so pure; it’s what keeps me alive,” she says.
I end the interview with a reflection on the year that was. What was it that kept her busy during the lockdown? “I love to sit and meditate. I love doing my prayer rituals as they give me a lot of clarity and keep me aligned and centred. I’ve also learnt how to cook, and I am now an aspiring vegan,” she laughs. “I also got some time to read and watch stuff. This was a time when I got to be silent. I appreciated that.”
Guneet has recently been conferred with the second highest civilian French honour, Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters, and with the warm reception of her newest production Pagglait, she is well on the path to making Indian cinema inclusive, relatable and globally known.
Photograph: Prabhat Shetty; Styling: Shaeroy Chinoy; Hair & Make-up: Jean Claude Biguine India; Assisted by: Jainee Bheda (Styling)