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Film director Gauri Shinde attends the 'English Vinglish' premiere during the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival at Roy Thomson Hall on September 14, 2012 in Toronto, Canada. (Getty Images)
Film director Gauri Shinde attends the 'English Vinglish' premiere during the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival at Roy Thomson Hall on September 14, 2012 in Toronto, Canada. (Getty Images)

The female gaze

Bollywood director’s first film was an apology and a thank you to her mother

By Gayatri Rangachari Shah and Mallika Kapur on November 19, 2018

It’s October 4, 2012. A nervous Gauri Shinde waits in a movie theatre in Goregaon, Mumbai, after the Indian premiere of her directorial debut, English Vinglish. It is a huge affair, with tons of stars and industry stalwarts in attendance for the late actor Sridevi Kapoor’s “comeback.” As the lights come on afterwards, the celebrity audience is exuberant. They are blown away by the film.

Through all the mayhem and congratulatory hugs afterwards, Gauri looks for her parents. It’s getting late and she is concerned about them. Finally, they appear in the crowd. The moment is overwhelming. Her mother, unable to express herself in the crush of people, goes home. Only later, after the initial excitement of the release died down, Vaishali Shinde put her hand on Gauri’s hand. With tears in her eyes, she said in Marathi, ‘Maalaa kiti chaan vatla’ (‘this was meant for me’), referring to the film’s dedication. It was meant for Vaishali. That’s when Gauri knew her mother loved her film.

Every once in a while, a movie comes along that entertains, uplifts the spirit and illuminates an aspect of the complexity of the human condition. So it was with English Vinglish, the drama written and directed by Gauri Shinde. It turned into an unexpected blockbuster and created a buzz around the newcomer. Suddenly, this debutant director, not yet 40 years old, was the toast of filmdom.

English Vinglish catapulted Gauri into the limelight. Her journey demonstrates that success is within reach if you have hope, work hard and aim high. That’s what a young girl from Pune, with no film background, relied on to make a name for herself in the rough and tumble world of Hindi cinema. She belongs to the new Bollywood, one that is defined by talent, diligence, perseverance, and professionalism.

English Vinglish, with its deft portrayal of a middle-class Indian family, tugged at our heart strings with its honest depiction of Indian family dynamics. It centered on a middle-aged woman called Shashi Godbole, who runs a laddoo business out of her home but is taken for granted by her family and mocked for her lack of English fluency. The actors, especially the late Sridevi, who appeared on screen after a gap of 15 years, delivered fine performances. That is a testimony to their talent and to the director’s skill. Gauri was able to elicit touching, realistic acting from her cast.

The movie premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2012 to a 10-minute standing ovation. As Gauri left the Roy Thompson Hall, she was stopped by an elderly Iranian woman who hugged her, cried and said, “Thank you for making this film, it’s my story!” English Vinglish is the story of so many women around the world, some of whom, like Gauri’s mother, struggle to speak English and are often taken for granted. Typically, they toil silently and selflessly for their families, without recognition and without respite, and become subjects of ridicule — harsh or soft. After the film’s debut in India, the public was full of praise, as was the film industry.

It was the first time Sridevi had worked with a woman director. The two clicked immediately. Weeks before her tragic passing, the actor said, “It was wonderful to begin my second innings with Gauri. She was absolutely marvelous to work with and I blindly followed her. She knows exactly what she wants and gets the best out of everyone. That is the best quality I have noticed in her. Though she has her own mind, she’s very open to suggestions and ultimately she will take a call as to what she wants. She’s chilled, and that puts actors and technicians at ease.”

Gauri followed up the success of English Vinglish with 2016’s Dear Zindagi, headlined by Shah Rukh Khan and Alia Bhatt. Here, too, she dealt with a complex subject based on a female protagonist. The plot centered on a young cinematographer (Bhatt) who flounders as she deals with difficult family and career issues, and so she turns to a therapist.

Alia calls Gauri an instinctive director. “It was one of my most expressive performances and that’s because Gauri really pushes you to go deep within,” says the actor. “Sometimes, we would just have conversations telepathically because she would instinctively connect with you. She’s someone who believes in striving at every step, so every scene for me was a challenge.”

Dear Zindagi received critical acclaim for tackling mental health and therapy, did reasonably well at the box office, although not as well as English Vinglish, and cemented Gauri’s reputation for exploring thorny subjects in an accessible manner. Both Gauri’s films tell the story of a woman trying to navigate her way through life. One does it through language, the other, through therapy.

Gauri describes English Vinglish as a story ‘about a woman who is trying to work on her self-esteem, who is bored of her situation and wanting to break free. In Dear Zindagi, it’s about a young girl feeling lost, despite being so confident and successful, and not being able to grapple with the dilemmas and confusions of life.’

Fame hasn’t affected Gauri; being around big-ticket movie stars hasn’t changed who she is. She loves making movies but remains grounded. This is no starry, larger-than-life director. She is approachable, not intimidating, and is quick to laugh, putting others at ease. Dressing like a typical creative professional in the Mumbai movie industry, she sports loose-fitting shirts, comfortable pants and sneakers on most days. Her mass of curls is usually pulled back into a bun and her glasses sit atop her head when they aren’t required. The look is completed with a worn, brown-leather, cross-body sling bag that contains her phone, cigarettes and chewing gum.

Despite her easy-going manner, there’s no doubt that Gauri is the boss lady on the sets. Often surrounded by 10 men at a time as the camera rolls, she issues instructions calmly. Some directors scream and shout. Not Gauri. “It was a very relaxed atmosphere,” recalls Alia about the Dear Zindagi set, adding, “At the same time, it was a hard-working atmosphere. Like when she wants the work done, everyone is on their toes. Having said that, she likes to have fun — she would randomly play the film’s music, and if there’s a nice light scene, she’d be like ‘OK, now just dance!’” Alia says Gauri liked to chat about different subjects and that helped them get to know each other on set.

Gauri is seen as an actor’s director — clear about her vision, true to her script, yet open and willing to listen. Sridevi had said, “For actors, it is very important to have a good director — it becomes like a cakewalk, you don’t have to worry about the script, or about the look, because the director is so clear. With Gauri, there’s no confusion, no tension. English Vinglish was Gauri’s baby, she created it, she gathered the character, the story and so I believed in her. That’s the reason I just surrendered to her.” Alia agrees. “Her emotional quotient is very high, and she manages to bring that emotional quotient within you just by helping you explore it within yourself. It was almost like therapy … shooting with her.”

Gauri is also a writer, and her stories explore untidy emotions authentically. Her husband, filmmaker R. Balakrishnan (Balki), says, “As a writer, she is pure in her heart. She doesn’t conveniently manipulate the screenplay for it to have an effect or an impact. That is her biggest strength. When she makes a film, she adheres to the feeling with which she wrote the script, which is a challenge for all filmmakers.”

Taking inspiration loosely from her own life, Gauri doesn’t shy away from tough subjects. Her point of view is seen as fresh and original. Her idiom is contemporary and based on the experiences of urban Indian women. The lyricist and scriptwriter Kausar Munir says Gauri puts content above everything. Munir, who has worked closely with the director as dialogue supervisor for English Vinglish and as a lyricist for Dear Zindagi, says that Gauri never compromises on anything essential to the script. “She is very authentic about taking decisions when it comes to what the film and script requires rather than any other frills and fancies that come with it,” Munir says.

She adds that Gauri is not one to be influenced by market forces or the glamour of the business. “With a big star like Sridevi coming on screen after so many years, it could have been so easy for her to cash in on that stardom. She could’ve had a dance number or song, but she didn’t. It was about Shashi, the character. Sridevi did a fantabulous job of portraying Shashi. All her actors, technicians, producers, they serve the script and not the other way around.”

Gauri first established herself with ad films and continues to be much sought after in that field. She’s directed over 100 TV commercials for well-known brands like Axis Bank, Havells and Tanishq. Early in her career, she also worked on documentaries on Kashmir, Leh and Ladakh, and made two short films, Oh Man! (2003) and Y Not? (2005), which were screened at international film festivals.

The cover of Changemakers: Twenty Women Transforming Bollywood from Behind the Scenes, by Gayatri Rangachari Shah and Mallika Kapur.

Directing a full-length feature seemed like a natural, if daunting, extension. Like Kaira, Alia’s character, says in Dear Zindagi’s opening scenes, “I want to shoot my own feature film, enough of this patchwork, I can’t keep waiting for other cameramen to fall ill. No one will even know that I’ve just shot this entire scene, I want to shoot my own film.”

Filmmaking isn’t for the faint-hearted. Creating and crafting a story that is put out into the world and judged as either good or bad requires passion and nerves of steel. “Sometimes you think, I was quietly sitting in my room, doing my own thing, why did I have to put myself out there for criticism? Why be this vulnerable person?” She says this as she paces around her office in Mumbai’s Bandra neighborhood where she and Balki run the aptly named Hope Productions. In the driveway sits a black Hackney cab, brought back from London by Balki. Photos of actors and films made by Gauri and Balki adorn one wall of the reception area. Above a doorway is a framed photo of a silver chappal with the caption “new steps, new directions” written underneath.

Born on July 6, 1973, Gauri grew up in Pune, which was, in the 1970s and ’80s, still a small town with a blissfully bucolic atmosphere. Vijay and Vaishali Shinde raised their family in a small bungalow with a garden.

Gauri was the middle of three children. Her brother Indrajeet is five years older and Abhijeet is four-and-a-half years younger. Vaishali says her daughter was “hoshiyar (smart), sensitive, ziddi (stubborn) and bold.” Gauri cycled to St. Joseph’s High School Convent nearby. She played sports — basketball, badminton and table tennis — at the district and inter-college levels and hung out with friends. Being at an all-girls school fostered a strong sense of camaraderie between the students.

Movies were not an obsession. Gauri recalls watching progressive Marathi films and theater. The first English movie she saw was The Sound of Music, with her father. She credits him with introducing her to different types of cinema. Another film that made an impact, albeit a negative one, was The Deep, a 1977 film made by Peter Yates. It heightened her fear of water. Like most Indian households in the 1980s, the Shindes watched the local language televised movie on Saturday evenings and the weekly Hindi movie on Sundays. At 13, Gauri fell in love with Jackie Shroff after watching the romantic action film Hero, in which he played the lead role.

In the pre-Internet, pre-cable TV era, Gauri spent her free time immersed in books and writing letters. She had 10 pen pals, wrote poetry in school and college and read voraciously. She had to be told to put off the lights and go to sleep. Her father encouraged the children to go to libraries. The British Council Library was a favorite haunt. “I used to be excited to go to the library and exchange books,” Gauri recalls.

Vaishali loved making things and when Vijay’s factory, which manufactured geysers and taxi meters, floundered, she stepped up and started making and selling spices. She did so well that Vijay also joined the business. The brand sold both domestically and overseas under the name VV Products. Vaishali is renowned for her Kolhapuri masala, which adds a robust flavor to meats and vegetables. At home, the smell of cinnamon, cloves and red chili would waft through the air. Gauri and her brothers would help their parents with the business and, to this day, Gauri uses her mother’s spices to cook. She told her mother, whom she affectionately calls the “Mistress of Spices,” “I’ll have to stop eating food once you’re not there.”

Although Gauri didn’t realize it at the time, her mother was a role model. Married at 18, running a business in her early twenties, and tending to the home and raising three children was no mean feat. In past interviews, Gauri has stated that she made her first film to say sorry and to thank her mother.

For Vaishali, educating her only daughter was a mission. She herself had a diploma in home science and had wanted to come to Pune to attend the reputed SNDT college, but had not had the opportunity to do so before marriage. “After Gauri was born, I thought I would let her study a lot. Afterwards, she really wanted to go to Mumbai. My wishes were not fulfilled, so I wanted my daughter’s to be,” Vaishali has said.

Watching her parents run a business spurred Gauri to study commerce, since she thought that she would one day own a business herself. “I thought I’m going to be this kick-ass businesswoman without knowing what I was going to do.’ She calls that decision the biggest regret of her life, and often ends up hiding the fact that she studied the subject. ‘For someone like me, it made no sense. I tell people I studied literature!” she jokes.

Gayatri Rangachari Shah is a journalist and columnist whose work has appeared in both national and international publications like the New York Times. She has a fortnightly column, “Flight of Fancy,” in The Hindu. She is a contributing editor at Vogue and Architectural Digest and India head at Tina Brown Live Media. Gayatri covers a variety of subjects, including culture, gender, design and education, and has profiled leading personalities around the world. She lives in Mumbai with her husband and two children.

Mallika Kapur is an international news journalist. She is currently a senior editor at Bloomberg Live, APAC. In her twenty-year career that spans three countries, she has been a producer, anchor and correspondent for CNN in London, Mumbai and Hong Kong. She has reported extensively on key economic, political, social and gender issues in India and covered some of Asia’s biggest breaking news stories for the network. She resides in Hong Kong with her husband and two children.

Changemakers: Twenty Women Transforming Bollywood from Behind the Scenes was released in September.