Making cinema a confidant

Filmmaker Arunaraje Patil’s autobiography 'Freedom: My Story' is a throwback to her days of struggle, perseverance and triumph

Born in 1946 and raised in a newly free India, filmmaker Arunaraje Patil has valued independence and freedom the most in her life. Through more than a three-decade long career, Patil’s vehement support for free thinking and right to choice has been reflected in the characters she fleshed out, especially her female leads. It’s no surprise then that her recently launched autobiography is titled Freedom: My Story.

On an unbearably humid, long-shadowed morning we meet the 70-year-old filmmaker at her sea-facing apartment in Versova, to discuss her book and rather restless career. One would never guess Patil’s apartment houses a filmmaker and a cinephile. There’s not a single film poster, award, medal or certificate in sight. Instead, you spot three giant mirrors hung parallel to each other, some modern artworks, a Tanjore painting, and a somnolent cat curled up in a corner basket. That’s not to say that she hasn’t received any accolades. She has won several National Awards as a director and producer, most notably for her documentaries Mallika Sarabhai (2000), A New Paradigm (2002) and Behind the Glass Wall (2014). “They are all kept in the cupboard,” she reveals. “For me, my audience is more important.”

Making cinema a confidant

With viewers in mind, Patil made a conscious effort to position her films between the worlds of mainstream Bollywood and parallel cinema. Her intention was to retain the artistic essence of cinema but not at the cost of an empty cinema hall. In that stead, she made films like Shaque (1976), Gehrayee (1980) and Situm (1982), which dealt with a range of socially relevant and relatable topics, from superstition to mental health. She co-directed these three films along with her husband Vikas Desai, and together were famously known as Aruna-Vikas. After their separation, Patil returned in 1988 to independently make Rihaee, starring Vinod Khanna, Hema Malini, Naseeruddin Shah, which boldly explored the sexuality of rural women, waiting in frustration for their husbands to return.

Leading by example

At a time when only a handful of women were involved in the technical department of filmmaking, Patil not just directed and wrote scripts but also edited films. “As a director-editor you’re visualising the entire film and not just the shoot,” she asserts. Despite being a self-proclaimed tomboy, Patil found herself struggling to establish her authority over a crew full of men. “Andar se I have a spine of steel, par bahar se I’m soft spoken,” she shares. So the filmmaker decided to lead by example and would move furniture on the set by herself instead of instructing others. “Once they realised that I knew my job and was not simply throwing my weight around, they’d take me seriously,” she recalls, adding that with age, her tone of communication also turned more motherly.

On sets: The director (left) with Vinod Khanna & Hema Malini

On sets: The director (left) with Vinod Khanna & Hema Malini  


Irrespective of age, Patil’s sense of style has remained the same: a pair of denims and a T-shirt. Apart from comfort, the attire also renders her a feeling of equality with the opposite gender. “Three sixty four days of a year I’m wearing jeans,” she jests. “One day I would wear a sari on an occasion, and people in the industry wouldn’t even recognise me,” guffaws Patil.

Making cinema a confidant

Despite being one of the very few female filmmakers in the late ’70s and ’80s Bollywood, Patil feels uncomfortable to be singled out as a woman director. She says, there was a time when the government was keen on creating a separate category for female filmmakers at awards and film festivals, which she vociferously opposed. “We’re not handicapped. Just because we’re women don’t give us an award,” she emphasises.

Being a feisty, self-reliant woman, Patil’s films often mirrored society through a perceptive female gaze. “But female-centric films were handful then, and they are handful now, if you look at the ratio of films being made” she observes. The filmmaker says that Hindi cinema lacks a spectrum as compared to literature. “When it comes to movies, you only have this naach gaana business,” says Patil.

Making cinema a confidant

Censorship axe

In her rebellious pursuit to add a new voice to storytelling in Hindi cinema, Patil ran into her fair share of trouble with the censor board. “They have had a problem since my first film,” recalls Patil. In her debut film Shaque, Vinod Khanna rescues Shabana Azmi from drowning and places her on a bed, where he gently caresses her cheeks as she lies unconscious. In one of the shots, the legs of both the actors appear entangled. “The censor board told us in a peculiar language, ‘They are performing coitus.’ I shot back, ‘Performing coitus?! You can’t perform coitus in that position anyway,” she says with a visible rage, as if it all happened just yesterday.

With Rihaee, Patil was expecting a mutilation by the censor board since the film widely dealt with female sexual desire and infidelity. But the film emerged unscathed. “Aur usme maine zyaada hi rakha tha, kaatne ke liye (And in that film, I had kept love scenes a little extra for them to cut),” she laughs.

Making cinema a confidant

Bouncing back

Rihaee is a special film for Patil since it marked her return to filmmaking after losing her nine-year-old daughter to cancer and going through a separation with her husband. “I realised I couldn’t even die. I had to live for my second child,” she shares. Collecting as much courage and determination as she could, Patil started her company under which she made ad films and later took a loan from the National Film Development Corporation of India (NFDC) to make Rihaee.

For a person who abandoned her medical degree to pursue a technical course at the Film and Television Institute of India, making films was not just a medium of self-expression but also deeply therapeutic. “Making movies is all I know,” she says. Patil hasn’t backed down from making films even at 70. She has pitched a couple of films to producers and is waiting for a nod. On the sidelines, she is also designing a syllabus for Ramesh Sippy’s film school, where she will be taking a few classes as a guest faculty member. But she refuses to be a permanent teacher. “Because I like my freedom,” she concludes.

Freedom: My Story, published by HarperCollins Publishers India is available in bookstores and on

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Printable version | Feb 23, 2020 7:38:39 AM |

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