We have been speaking for almost two hours when Meenu Gaur fumbles to find the right words for the first time. I have asked the 44-year-old Indian-British director if she has ever faced misogyny on her film sets.
“It’s huge, like huge, you know… Talking about this topic is like, what to say? … It’s like talking about air. It’s difficult to say it’s here or it’s here … It’s everywhere,” she says, simultaneously shaking her head and jabbing the air above it with cupped hands to convey its all-pervasive presence.
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But Gaur, who has directed films and taught filmmaking in India, Pakistan and Britain for two decades, says she is now in a place where she no longer feels the need to engage with misogyny on her sets. “I discard it, I don’t play … Because I know what I’m doing,” she explains with a smile.
Gaur recently finished directing a six-part “feminist noir series”, Qatil Haseenaon Ke Naam (loosely translated as An Ode to Murderous Beauties). The anthology about seven femmes fatales in bloody pursuit of their desires, set in Pakistan and commissioned by Indian streaming platform ZEE5 Global, was released in December last year to positive reviews. “I’m very happy,” Gaur says of her solo directorial debut. “It’s kind of made me feel quite brave in some ways.”
Gaur has been busy promoting it – so busy that it has taken us weeks to settle on a date for our Zoom call.
When it finally happens, in the middle of a weekday in January, Gaur, who is wearing a grey shawl draped over a yellow t-shirt, begins by saying: “Talking about one’s life is very boring … If it gets awfully boring, tell me. I won’t be offended.”
The conversation that follows is anything but boring.
Like most of Gaur’s previous work, Qatil Haseenaon Ke Naam is an India-Pakistan collaboration that seamlessly brings together her passions and politics. It stars some of Pakistan’s best-known actresses, its crew is a mix of talent from India and Pakistan, it is feminist and very “desi” – a phrase that defines, and culturally joins, Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis.
ZEE5 does not share viewership figures but says the series was amongst its top 10 shows in December. Gaur says the feedback has been “positive”.
But her dream project is mired in India-Pakistan politics. It is available for viewing in 190 countries, but not in Pakistan where it was filmed because ZEE5 was banned there in 2020 after a raunchy clip from another Pakistani series it produced went viral.
Gaur, who uses silences and awkward smiles to deftly move on from controversial topics, doesn’t delve into this much, saying simply that pirated versions are being watched in Pakistan and that she prefers to look ahead.
The director, who spent the first 20 years of her life in India before moving to the UK, occupies a unique place in the world of film on the Indian subcontinent. She has chosen, for the past decade, to straddle the schism that divides India and Pakistan by telling stories that are set in Pakistan but carry a bit of India in them.
In these countries, which were one before the British cleaved India into three parts along religious lines – forming West and East Pakistan (now Pakistan and Bangladesh) alongside India – the public consciousness contains both haunting memories of the violence and mayhem that accompanied Partition and the subsequent wars between them, as well as reminders of a shared past and common heritage.
Despite the regular and reciprocal bans imposed by Pakistan and India on the other’s cinema, television and artists, Indians have always found solace in genteel Pakistani TV dramas, and Pakistanis have embraced Bollywood’s escapist cinema.
There have been several creative collaborations, but no filmmaker from one country has chosen to make films in the other. No one except Gaur. It’s the most natural crossover, yet one that remains hostage to political and military vagaries.
But Gaur prefers to talk about films, not the geopolitics that surrounds them.
She has always loved the noir genre, she explains as the soft afternoon sunlight illuminates the corner of her London home from which she is talking to me. She is referring to hyper-stylised Hollywood crime dramas like The Big Sleep, Double Indemnity, Chinatown and L.A. Confidential. But it bothered her that the femme fatale’s story and voice was only accessible through the male characters.
She wanted to give noir a feminist, desi makeover, and ZEE5, the Mumbai-based streaming platform that is trying to create a niche for itself by capturing the attention of the 43 million-strong “desi” diaspora with a mix of Bollywood films and original content in Urdu, wanted Gaur to do it in Pakistan.
Mostly directed by men, noir cinema is an American genre born out of the disillusionment and cynicism that followed World War II. The films are set in decaying cities where dark alleys and long shadows conjure a bleak, male worldview and where the women are glamorous, calculating and possess an allure that hides a moral sting.
“Nobody goes into loops of explanations for male characters. We take Godfather at face value [but] the minute you start telling a woman’s story, upholding certain morality or a moral universe becomes her duty,” Gaur says with the conviction of a film studies professor. “It’s not a question of bad and good for me. It’s a question of her story, full stop,” she says.
In Qatil Haseenaon Ke Naam, Gaur took some of that male privilege and handed it to women.
Her femmes fatales chase their desires — money, power, status, love, freedom, revenge — while conducting a bloody orchestra, at times quite literally. And there is no moral comeuppance awaiting them.
To get the mood and feel of noir, Gaur shot her series in old parts of Karachi and Lahore during the foggy winter months.
“It’s set in this mythical space called ‘Androon Sheher’, like an old city … It could be old Calcutta, Old Delhi, where the buildings have a certain old-world feel but are housed in an otherwise modern city,” she explains.
Gaur’s ‘Androon Sheher’ houses pieces of a shared past and carries a lingering nostalgia for it.
When I ask her about the pre-Partition buildings with Hindu names in the series, she smiles and says, “That’s how all old cities in the subcontinent are. That’s the reality. Changing it would be the effort, right?”
At a time when India-Pakistan hostilities are heating up again over Kashmir, and the treatment of India’s 204 million Muslims, Gaur’s politics is light and its appeal is emotional. It harks back to a past that feels nicer, simpler, humane.
“I feel that the fact that I am British Indian makes a big difference. I could tell the story with lightness and not be weighed down … I think that’s a gift. I also feel that lightness about my other cultural roots, about Calcutta (now called Kolkata). I feel a lightness because I’ve been there and I’m not there, if you get my drift,” she reflects.
The second daughter of a marine engineer father and a “feministy” mother, Meenu Gaur grew up in Kolkata, a city that seems to wear its colonial past with pride. It is visible in the buildings and in the mannerisms and lifestyles of the upper class. Kolkata was also the city where Satyajit Ray (1921-1992), considered one of India’s greatest filmmakers, lived and worked.
Gaur says her formative years at home and in an all-girls school were carefree and full of freedom. At school, she acted in plays and at home, movies were not just watched but discussed.
“Watching films in my childhood is a big part of my memory … Both my parents were very big on film watching and they didn’t have this whole high art-low art thing going on. They were into all kinds of films … Hollywood, Bollywood, Bengali cinema,” Gaur says, recalling how they would often rent a VHS player and watch three or four films back-to-back, late into the night.
Her mother, Gaur explains, always “had all this cinephile-like information about when a film had released, how it was received, what happened to the filmmaker”. It’s from her mother that she inherited a taste for horror and art house cinema.
But it was in Delhi, where Gaur moved at the age of 18 to study political science at university, that she watched the film that would inspire her to become a director.
The Film Society of her all-girls college had organised a screening of Sally Potter’s Orlando, an adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s feminist classic about an English nobleman who transforms into a woman.
“I was just so … I remember every minute of that day … Because I had read Orlando and [to see] that she could do what she did with the form, that it was a woman filmmaker … it was all very mind-blowing for me … I thought, gee, I should actually go to film school and study to be a director,” she says.
She joined one of India’s premier film schools, Jamia Millia Islamia’s Mass Communication Research Centre. But while there, she noticed the entitlement of the male students, who, she says, thought they had the right to “everything important”.
She also observed how assertive women were called aggressive, often to their faces. But it didn’t concern her. “I knew it was good practice,” she says of standing her ground.
After two-and-a-half years of learning filmmaking in India, Gaur wanted to continue her studies and “see the world”. So she applied for and received a full scholarship to the School of Oriental & African Studies at the University of London.
It was in London that she met and later married Mazhar Zaidi, a Pakistani-British journalist and now producer. She became a British citizen and eventually returned to the subcontinent to make films. But it wasn’t to India, the largest producer of films in the world; it was to Pakistan.
It was a story, she says, that took her there – a story she had seen all around her; the story of illegal immigration.
Gaur’s debut film, Zinda Bhaag (2013), which she wrote and directed with Farjad Nabi, a Lahore-based writer, director and her husband’s close friend, is about three young lower middle-class men from Lahore who are desperate to immigrate illegally to Europe through the dangerous sea route, called “dunky” in local parlance.
Gaur says the theme of immigration was one they all felt a close connection to. “We have a lot of very close friends who have, individually and collectively, done this … Have regaled us with their stories of how they went, what happened…. And my husband Mazhar … had covered a story which stuck in both Farjad’s and my mind … It’s a story that repeats itself every five years,” she explains.
Sometime in 1995, Mazhar Zaidi, then a reporter with a Pakistani newspaper, reached a village in Pakistan’s Gujarat just as the bodies of 14 boys who had attempted the journey to Greece were being returned. They were laid out on a cricket field before burial.
The scene is so vivid in Gaur’s mind, it is as if she were there. “There are people on the roofs and all these young boys and ambulances bringing their bodies … it just possessed us,” she says.
In Zinda Bhaag (Run for Your Life), the bodies of friends who didn’t survive the journey keep returning in shrouds, and yet the three young men continue chasing unscrupulous agents and fake passports.
During her research, Gaur says, it became clear that poverty was not the only reason why so many young men felt compelled to risk their lives.
“Often people left because this is what their uncle did … And some people just think that a life of dignity and settledness is only possible in the UK or abroad,” Gaur reflects. The flight is not just about chasing a better life, it’s a rite of passage. It’s what boys must do to become men.
The film, in Urdu and Punjabi, told a uniquely Pakistani story, but one that could have been set anywhere in the subcontinent where migration to the West is a common, ardent dream, and the illegal route is often the only option.
Zinda Bhaag brought together the best talent from India and Pakistan to tell a grim tale without solemnity and pity, but with humanity and a bit of Bollywood romance, song and dance.
The film’s three main leads were Pakistani non-actors, and on a whim Zaidi had called one of India’s most respected actors, Naseeruddin Shah, to play the role of the film’s main attraction, Puhlwan — a buzz-cut, red-haired gambler and thug. Touched by Gaur and Mazhar’s passion and the story, he said yes.
In Gaur and Farjad’s film, the young men laugh, drink, romance and fight even as they struggle to find money for the arduous journey. And even in this story centred around masculinity, there is a touch of Gaur’s feminism.
“Zinda Bhaag,” she explains, “was framed explicitly as an exploration of ‘failure.’ The last lines of the film are about failure as a form of liberation … This idea of distilling a sense of heroism in failure is a very feminist idea because it is a challenge to patriarchal ideas of normality and success.”
Produced by her husband’s production company, Matteela Films, Zinda Bhaag was partly funded by grants, including by a South Asian film project, Let’s Talk Men, aimed at exploring masculinity. But Gaur, Nabi and Zaidi had to put in $75,000 of their own savings and money borrowed from friends and family, and because they were inexperienced, she says they got cheated a lot.
Gaur says making the film was “a near death experience”, but smiles when she adds, “There will never be anything like the successes of Zinda Bhaag in my life.”
Before Gaur puts out anything in the world, she says, she clearly articulates to herself the scenario that would make her happy. “I had said that I wanted one theatrical release. Wherever in the world, I didn’t care… People should buy cinema tickets and watch it… That was my biggest aim,” says Gaur.
Zinda Bhaag released in theatres in three countries — Pakistan, the UAE and the USA. It won awards at several international film festivals, got rave reviews wherever it went and became the third film ever to be officially submitted by Pakistan for the Oscars in the foreign film category. It didn’t win, but it ended a 50-year drought.
The appeal of Gaur’s storytelling lies in her craft, which has the rigour of a film-school-trained director, her fresh feminist gaze, and the pulpy peppiness of Bollywood that she grew up with.
Pakistani cinematographer Mo Azmi, who shot Gaur’s noir series, calls her cinematic language “wacky,” a mix of “French, Italian new wave with hyper stylised Bollywood song and dance from the Sixties and Seventies”.
Zinda Bhaag remains a landmark in the history of Pakistan’s cinema because it came as a relief from the blood-soaked Punjabi movies where loud, mustachioed men settled all matters of revenge and honour by wielding massive axes.
After struggling to survive the devastation and exodus of Partition, Pakistan’s film industry, especially Lahore-based Lollywood, found its mojo in the 1960s and began to flourish. The Golden era of Pakistani cinema — the 1960s and 1970s — coincided with a ban on Indian films. That meant fewer theatrical releases, but it also meant a captive audience for Pakistani films. New directors took risks, made bigger, more ambitious films as matinee stars were born and fawned over.
But in 1977, when General Zia-ul-Haq seized power in a military coup, he imposed stringent censorship and taxes to restrict film production as part of his Islamisation programme. Dancing was banned, traditional attire was preferred, scripts were monitored and soon it became more profitable to turn cinema halls into shopping complexes. Middle-class audiences in cities turned to pirated VHS tapes of Bollywood and Hollywood films, and in semi-urban and rural areas, bawdy Pashto and violent Punjabi language films drew full houses.
By 2006, when the 40-year ban on Indian films was lifted, Pakistan’s Urdu cinema had begun to recover. Some notable films were released and drew audiences back to newly-constructed multiple theatres, but they remained few and far between until 2013, the year Zinda Bhaag was released. It was one of seven films released in theatres that year; together they triggered a revival of Pakistan’s film industry and since then there has been a slow but steady rise in the quality and number of Urdu films being released. In 2019, the year before the COVID pandemic, 23 Pakistani films were released in theatres.
These days, Gaur is working her way through a list of horror films – part of her preparation for her next project, although she doesn’t say whether it is in the genre. When she shares the list with me, it is 68-films long and begins with The Shining (1980), Stanley Kubrick’s cult classic.
Gaur, who has been teaching since she was a student because she “absolutely loves” it, has just finished teaching a gruelling two-week filmmaking course for 118 students at India’s Ashoka University, which, due to the pandemic, was conducted online. She also teaches a course on British cinema at NYU London that, she says, had no woman filmmakers when she started. Now, she shows and discusses films made by Andrea Arnold, Gurinder Chadha and Emma Asante, among others. But one male director Gaur almost always discusses with her class is Stanley Kubrick, as an example of how the world views, consumes and reveres male auteurs.
The story she likes to tell is part of film lore; it is one of horror not just on the screen, but on sets as well.
To get the performance he wanted from The Shining’s female lead, Shelley Duvall – one of a quivering, scared wife whose husband is going insane – Kubrick constantly isolated and humiliated her on the set. He’d often tell her that she was “wasting everybody’s time” and in one instance made her reenact a scene 127 times.
Gaur talks of the fascination this story held in the minds of the men at her film school. “It becomes a story about how great Stanley Kubrick is, right? It becomes a story about what genius is like. My thing is, just reverse it, okay. A female director and a male actor. And had she made him do a take these many times, it would be a story about how she doesn’t know her craft, doesn’t know how to direct. It can never add to her legendary status.”
“Art flows from the artist. Fear and authority are the worst things to use on a film set. Creativity flows best when everybody’s relaxed, having a good time,” Gaur says, adding that there is no screaming on her sets.
While shooting Qatil Haseenaon Ke Naam in a residential area in Karachi, Gaur recalls a lady next door who lost her cool because of the noise. “Her baby was sleeping and she said she’ll call the cops. So we all had to whisper. If we had a good take, we’d all click our fingers because we couldn’t clap. I believe that was the most efficient day on set.”
Everyone I speak with – Pakistani filmmakers, Gaur’s students, actors, technicians, Naseeruddin Shah, her agent – only have good things to say about her.
Actors who worked with her describe someone who spends a lot of time discussing their character, creating elaborate backstories for them, at times making them do physical exercises, like fencing, to get the energy of a particularly confrontational scene flowing. But on set, they say, she directs with a light touch, giving them space to get to that “magic moment”.
Sarwat Gilani, a well-known Pakistani actress who stars in the first episode of Gaur’s noir series, recalls a particular scene where she had to look confused but wasn’t able to get the expression right despite several takes. “Meenu said, when the camera is on my face she will throw a maths question at me and I should try to solve it,” Gilani says.
“What is 28 times 42?” Gaur asked and got the exact expression she wanted.
We’ve been talking for three hours, and the affable, easy-mannered Gaur remains measured and discreet in her responses. She skirts uneasy topics and when she has something less than complimentary to say about someone, she doesn’t share their names.
She laughs as she recalls an incident when she was sending Zinda Bhaag to international film festivals for consideration. A British curator who she says was very important to her, barely watched the film for 10-11 minutes. “When I asked why, he/she said that, ‘Oh, you know, people in our part of the world don’t watch comedies from your part of the world’,” Gaur says leaning back from her computer screen.
“It was a revelation to me … That means, when we take our films to the West, this is why we probably make them devoid of humour,” she says with incredulity.
Gaur recalls another incident from a few years ago when a novelist friend of hers was keen that she direct a thriller written by him. A Bollywood producer was interested in the novel. “He flew to London and told me to my face that actually this is for a male director, this is not for you. How are you going to handle this? It’s a thriller and has all these male protagonists.”
“I can’t tell you his name, but I was quite taken aback. You know this stuff, but till it is told to your face you don’t really believe it. As a woman filmmaker, your canvas is really large. You want to do this, and you want to do that. But then when somebody comes in, completely defines you and tells you, ‘You can’t do this, can’t do that,’ that’s when you realise, oops, that’s how it goes, right.”
But people telling her which stories she can tell, to whom and how has fuelled her ambition and, alongside her calm, there is a restless energy – a desire to get on to the next thing, and then the next.
Gaur is cryptic about the projects she is working on. It could be something set in Sri Lanka or something for an Indian platform, but she sounds especially excited about a UK project. “I can’t share much right now, but it’s a really fun, vibrant, dark coming-of-age immigration tale set in London,” she says, pulling her long, silver-streaked hair back.
Gaur is meticulously preparing for her next role as a “director for hire” in the UK. To familiarise herself with how things work in the country, she is shadowing directors, including those on Eastenders, perhaps the most British television series of all.
The world of entertainment is changing. White male directors, once considered a “safe pair of hands”, are no longer a prerequisite for big projects or success. Gaur talks about Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag and Killing Eve, Jane Campion’s The Power of The Dog that has re-energised the Western genre, and adds: “It’s been a long time coming.”
In 2019, 23 percent of Netflix Original films were directed by women. And in Hollywood, 2019 is considered a watershed year because, among the 113 directors who directed the top 100 movies, 12 were women.
“It’s a culmination. There’s been MeToo, initiatives like TimesUp and now we are seeing this surge of women’s voices … This sort of energy of trying to get these stories out, a certain kind of truth that people are able to speak out … This surge is a long time coming, and it’s finally found a moment,” says Gaur.
In her Kolkata home, Gaur says when she was preparing for her high school exams, she had kept an empty suitcase next to her writing table. “The ambition was to fly the nest and the suitcase was a reminder that I have to study so that this is packed and I can leave,” she says gazing down at the floor.
There are no suitcases this time, but Gaur is ready to fly.