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The Iron Lady of Bollywood: Aruna Raje

From studying in a medical college to entering the film industry. How did you make this transition into filmmaking?

It’s a long story; girls from good families didn’t go into the film industry in those days, so the next best thing for me to do was medicine, as I was a topper throughout school. I used to watch a lot of movies, sometimes more than 3 a day. My mother loved literature, movies, as well as art, so all of that love was passed on to me. Of course, I couldn’t choose filmmaking, so I went into medicine. There, for the first time in my life, I failed an exam, anatomy. That was a big red flag. I hated dissecting cadavers, and in those days, it was a necessity. Of course, my theory was good. I also used to act in a lot of plays, at Grant Medical College, and I think my mother realised this, and she took me out of college and encouraged me to pursue my passion. People were aghast! This is almost 50 years ago, when people thought she was ruining her daughter’s brilliant career. My mother said, “My daughter is not frivolous and I want her to be happy”. I graduated with a gold medal, fell in love at college, and got married. My husband and I made a few films together; the films did well because we did something different, from what was going on in Bollywood at the time.

You chose female protagonists as opposed to the traditional male leads for your movies. Is it something that is inspired from your own life?

Even if there were central male characters, the female characters in my movies were very strong. I think it was inspired by my mother, she was a very independent person- extraordinary and dynamic- and I think I took a lot out of that. My father was a freedom fighter, so the whole concept of freedom, along with the fact that I was a voracious reader, growing up, made my films a little less mainstream. The idea was to produce movies that would make you feel like you are a part of the world, and that it belongs to you.

Feminism is a very widely misinterpreted word, and plausibly a controversial one as well. What does feminism ideally mean to you? What is your view on feminism today?

For me, feminism and what I stand for is creating a new equation, a new order, where men and women can be live together harmoniously, with equal space, and equal opportunities for both. It’s not about being superior to men, or anything along those lines. It’s been a long struggle. Women have been subjugated for a long time.

What sort of obstacles did you face while completing your degree? Since you were the first female film technician in India, there must have been quite a few of those.

The film industry was such that they didn’t listen to you because you’re a woman. Ladki hai. When you were editing film, they found it surreal— as if it’s an animal performing in a circus or something. Taking a shot from the top for corporate films I used to climb up the trees and place the camera myself, based on the kind of shot I wanted. Everyone working there would drop everything and stare. My ex-husband couldn’t do it, so I would do it myself, and I even enjoyed it because I was a tomboy. I had to carve out space gradually. I got a lot of attention, the good kind as long as I was married. After the divorce, it was terrible, because every second person was after me. They all wanted to get me into their beds, pretending to love me, pretending to care, I’ve seen it all now. What we now we call sexual harassment, was called unwanted attention back then, something to live through. The terrible thing was, if you talked about it, they’d go tell the whole world the next day how good a “lay” you were, I’d heard from other people. I didn’t dare open my mouth- I wasn’t afraid- but, I didn’t want this unnecessary gossip to spread. I learned how to let the men down lightly, in a way which wouldn’t invalidate them. At the same time I had to be strict, occasionally I had reason to throw people out my house.

Has the industry changed for the better over the years in the way it treats women?

The industry is still like that with women, and boys as well, now. Boys come tell me, we have such a rough time, with getting forced into being the casting couch and everything. You find it in the corporate world, politics, and so on. It’s difficult because if you have to express yourself through any art form, or make your own film, there’s this underlying desperation for sex. I wanted to live and work on my own terms, I didn’t want a godfather; didn’t have any. Hence, quite a few films never took off. If I want to sleep with someone, it’s a choice I have, it shouldn’t be an obligation I owe anybody.

Did you get any support from your female lead actors, like Hema Malini, Neena Gupta, and so on?
All of them were nice, very kind and supportive. Even among male actors, Vinod Khanna was hugely supportive. There was a time I didn’t have money for my final print, he just got me the money and asked me to pay when I could. Men and women alike have given me a lot of respect for my work. I have a lot of people who love me and are friends with me. If someone asks me what my bank balance is, I say people. I managed to carve out a space like that, I could be whatever I wanted to be.

Did you always want to direct film, or were you interested in acting as well?
Actually, I started with acting, strictly speaking. I’d take a flight from Bangalore to Bombay, would meet some producers or directors offering me a role, and I thought, maybe I could act. My family was a little afraid to allow me to go into films directly. They thought that maybe if you were a trained actor, you’d be able to stay away from all the terrible things you heard about the film industry, which is not true at all. Even though one of my auditions didn’t go well, the team did not let me go. They said I was bright and intelligent; I could do something else as well. How about doing another course? Girls who came into acting came in at 16 in those days and I was about 20. I decided I’d do direction. But you needed a Bachelors first in those days, so instead, I was required to do a double diploma in editing and direction. As a result, I walked off. They kept asking me to come back, so I did, very condescendingly. It turned out I was good at editing, probably because I solved a lot of logic puzzles, Mensa puzzles, etc. I would finish my exercise before all the boys, and I’d go sit in the direction class. It was like doing two courses at a time. While the boys would spend all morning on the practicals, I’d breeze through mine in an hour.

We also had a feature film happening, and we assisted, as it was an institute film. I did the editing work for that, worked on it for one more year, graduated, and then started making films. It was an unusual kind of journey. At the press conference for one of my films, one journalist asked me “Do you expect us to believe that Vinod Khanna, the star, listened to a chit of a girl like you?”, the audacity! I said, ask Vinod Khanna himself! All my life, I faced weird questions. After Rihai, 30 years ago, about the repressed sexuality of women, in the press conference, I got asked questions like”What do you want? You want sleeping rights?” or was accused- “You’re spoiling our women!” I would respond with retorts like, “When people in your circle have an affair, do they go to the red light area or do they do it within the circle?” Any answer to that would be a problem. They would shut up and sit down. I did what I believed in. When I look back, the disbelief was laughable. I didn’t realise I was making such a bold film. It was based on a real story, and I just went along with it.

What have your goals been, post-divorce?

After the divorce, as well as my daughter passing away, I was devastated. During the divorce, I was battling on different fronts, because I knew I had to get back to work again. I had undergone endless therapy sessions with a psychiatrist-friend. I was doing some short films too, at the time. Years later I attended a program, on the Landmark Forum. That was what set me free.

In the program, they claimed that suffering was a choice. That’s when I realised that it was my own inhibitions and sad state that were affecting me, not the actual happenstance or my husband or my friend, who my husband got married to. So I took a bold step, I called them up, with my hands trembling, voice quivering. I called them up separately, and told them that I will never blame them for what had happened, and that I took full responsibility for my life choices— I just want to be happy. After that, I felt liberated, the lid was off. I felt like the sky was not the limit anymore. Then I trained to be a leader, travelled to Australia and the US. I became a life coach and a motivational speaker— I could transform thousands of lives with this work. For three years I left filmmaking and gave my life to this work because I felt like you could make magic with people. And that’s it, now I’m planning another film. It’s been so much action, teaching, working— a very full life.

When I became a women’s activist, one issue I had with what I did was, we didn’t talk to the boys. We talked about empowering women, and boys remained where they were. I wish we’d talked to the boys, and brought them up to where we were. That’s a mistake we made, not bringing men and boys up to level. Now we’re trying to address that, with gender sensitisation, I do programs where I talk to men and women. It’s time to make room for the women. There’s enough in the world for everything, but men had it good for so long and they don’t want to let go. There’s nothing to get insecure about. It’s all about finding a new equation, and living in harmony.

Has your son been helpful, as a support system, throughout all of this?

The turning point, for me to even agree to the divorce all those years ago, was my 8-year-old son. I’d said no to the divorce for his sake. I didn’t want him to be the child of a broken marriage. We were living in that house, and I was persona non grata. That’s when he stood up to me and told me that he was unhappy with the way I was treated at home and that we should leave. I asked him if he’d be alright with me not being able to fulfil all of his wishes. He said whatever it is, we’ll manage it. So, I agreed to the divorce. I only wanted two things, my child, and the books. I made my home with them, and there was no looking back. My son went to London after Switzerland, worked there for 10 years, and now he stays with me. He’s free as a bird, he still prefers to stay with me, which is fine, he gets to do his own thing and live his own life.

Any message you’d like to give to women today?

I’d like to say, stand for what you believe in, really stand for it. You don’t have to be submissive or get subjugated. Create a relationship with the guy in your life that’ll last, that’ll give you happiness. That doesn’t mean compromises, find an equation, a place, and balance where you can be happy. Marriage as an institution has broken down, according to me, today. Take your time, find out if your partner is ready to walk all the way, then go ahead. You have this one life, live it.