BY URVASHI BAHUGUNA
IFFI’s delegate registration data for this year reveals a puzzling lack of women. The numbers suggest that for every eight male attendees, there are only two women in the seats. These figures must be taken with a pinch of salt for complex reasons ranging from the disparity between registrations and actual attendance (for which data is unavailable) to anecdotal evidence that the actual gap is closer to 70:30 in the festival halls.
In a 2014 study, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) found that women had consistently made up more than half the audience in American cinemas since 2009, and a 2017 survey in India indicated a similar state of affairs here. Then why are festival goers at the 52nd IFFI largely male?
Are women choosing not to travel to the festival this year because of the pandemic? Studies indicate that women are employing more caution than men when it comes to protecting themselves from the virus. The same trend could be driving the notable absence of even local women coming to watch these movies.
But the pandemic can only realistically explain away part of the divide. Public spaces in India are notoriously hostile to women in both obvious and backhanded ways. Festivals like MAMI in urban centers have the advantage of various forms of affordable public transport and the safety afforded by crowds.
Though IFFI has provided the facility of shuttles between the two festival venues, women (especially those attending in ones or twos) may not feel safe riding in mixed-gender vehicles. There is also the matter of transportation to and from one’s accommodation. The footpaths, even in a place like Goa which has a reputation for relative safety, can be places rife with harassment and other danger for women.
The gender divide isn’t restricted to audience members either. Of the nearly 160 films being shown from the 20th to 25th of November, only 26 are directed by women. Of that number, 5 of these female directors have a male co-director.
One of the defining revolutions of our times has been the recognition and redressal of the historic marginalization of certain voices. The festival line-up boasts an incredible array of linguistic and geographic diversity. One of India’s states, Uttarakhand, has been represented for the very first time in this edition with the screening of Rahul Rawat’s Sunpat (2021) and the first-ever film in the Dimasa language of Assam and Nagaland, Aimee Baruah’s Semkhor (2021), opened the Indian Panorama section.
Yet, there is staggering inequity in the difference between the number of male and female filmmakers included in the line-up. Part of addressing this problem is simply acknowledging it as cold fact. But that can only be the first step.
There is a common bias, seen with great force in literary spaces, favouring creators of old. For obvious reasons, those artists were almost without exception powerful men. Perhaps, we need to strike a better balance between preserving film legacies and opening the door to newer, untested voices.
There are several avenues for a festival hoping to draw in more female viewers such as reaching out to local colleges, offering discounted passes to women and other minorities, screening popular films more than once to provide opportunity and flexibility to women balancing a range of responsibilities, and possibly retaining a hybrid format beyond the existence of the pandemic.
Since there is always a portion of films in the line-up that is meant to attract regular cinema audiences such as popular Bollywood flicks or old iconic Hollywood ones, it may be a worthwhile exercise to conduct a survey of local women cinemagoers to understand what their preferences and concerns are and cater more closely to those.