Femme Fatale Talks Back: Meenu Gaur on Feminist Filmmaking

“We have to take over spaces because we are not going to be invited in.”

Meenu Gaur is a British South Asian filmmaker, director, and screenwriter. She cowrote and codirected the 2013 Pakistani feature film Zinda Bhaag with collaborator Farjad Nabi. Zinda Bhaag is the story of three young men aspiring to emigrate from Pakistan by any means necessary. The unique mix of serious themes with a playful and vernacular cinematic aesthetic characterizes Gaur’s work and distinguishes it from the standard, art-house aesthetic of much contemporary Pakistani cinema.

Gaur’s newest project is a six-episode web series called Qatil Haseenaon Ke Naam, released globally on Zee 5 in December 2021. The story revolves around several women suffering under the daily grind of patriarchy and misogyny, who take agency over their own lives to enact vengeance on those who have mistreated them. The series uses a noir aesthetic that refuses the high art/low art distinction, offering a pulpy and blood-soaked vision of female empowerment. I spoke with Meenu Gaur about the new series and how it advances a “desi noir” aesthetic.

Ulka Anjaria (UA): What inspired you to make Qatil Haseenaon Ke Naam?


Meenu Gaur (MG): When I watch a Hollywood noir like Double Indemnity, I always think, What if this story was told from Phyllis’s perspective? It would be a completely different story. I love noir, but its gender politics are horrific. And even when femmes fatales are presented in a redemptive mode, it’s still just a simple reversal: she’s bad, she’s coldhearted, but let’s celebrate that. It wasn’t enough for me because it stays trapped within the same binary of good woman versus bad woman, only now we’re celebrating the bad woman.

But if the femme fatale gets to tell the story, that changes everything: it’s her story, and the morality of the story will necessarily change.


UA: Did you have specific influences for the story and vision?


MG: When we started, there were lots of questions. Everybody asked, “What will it look like? What does ‘desi noir’ even mean?” It wasn’t possible for me to say, “Look at x y z film and you will know what I want to do.” I had to patch together presentations through various reference points—from desi and Hollywood web series to gothic stuff and many other influences—to gesture at what I was setting out to do.


UA: Qatil Haseenaon is the story of several women who suffer various kinds of oppressions in the home and in society, but rather than putting up with them, they become these qatil haseenas or femmes fatales. They take revenge against their oppressors. The film’s matriarch, Mai Malki, says, “This is nothing new. A woman’s wrath and fury are ancient. They precede her by thousands of years.” You suggest that these women are not just suffering their particular hardships but stand for this simmering injustice that women have had to face over the centuries. Do you see this primarily as a story of feminist empowerment?


MG: Yes, when you let the femme fatale talk back, it becomes a feminist empowerment project. But it was a lot about myself also, as a woman filmmaker. I’ve spoken about this before, that there’s an expectation that certain genres are not for women filmmakers, say, a thriller or a gangster film or a western. These are all considered “male” genres. Once I was in discussion with a producer for a thriller that had male protagonists and was refused the job, and I heard through somebody else that the producer thought the story required a male director. And I didn’t even realize that it bothered me so much at that time, but it did, because you somehow think people don’t think like that; it’s 2022 and it shouldn’t matter. But they do.


UA: There’s this expectation that women filmmakers, especially feminist filmmakers, should be making realist films. What is it about realism that is seen as so receptive to feminism, and what are you saying about feminism by refusing the realist genre?


MG: You are allowed to tell stories about women in the realist mode; nobody’s going to deny you the relevance of the story. Nobody’s going to deny that it is a noble project. But somewhere in creating that space and then reifying it, you’re also being told what other spaces are not available for you.

And this is the case for filmmakers from South Asia who are making work for international audiences, and maybe for Black filmmakers and other filmmakers who are otherwise marginal. You are allowed to tell the story of your struggle or your community’s struggle, and that’s all. How many times have I done interviews in which the focus is solely on my struggle as a woman filmmaker? I have struggled and I want to talk about it, but I’m not given the space to be like a male director, to talk about my craft or approach to filmmaking or be celebrated on the same terms as male auteurs.


UA: I wanted to turn to the topics of murder, female revenge, and the aesthetic of the show, which is heavily invested in redness and blood. In the first scene women are using cleavers to chop up meat, and there are pools of blood everywhere. How does blood fit into the aesthetic of the show?

If the femme fatale gets to tell the story, that changes everything.

MG: There’s roses and there’s blood. The first episode has so much about roses, and there’s a character who’s called Gulab, which means rose. Red is also the color of revolution, as we see in the final episode. So, partly the way that blood has been used in the show is in that you can’t separate the blood from the poetry.

As far as actual blood is concerned, there’s surprisingly very little in the show. You don’t even see the murder in the first episode, you just know it’s happened. It’s only in the sixth episode that you see a dagger or blood splatter. That’s partly because I wanted to consider what feminine danger would actually look like. The mood is gothic and threatening and terrorizing, even if there isn’t bloodshed on screen. A lot of work was done by the team to create that tone and atmosphere.


UA: That’s interesting. It’s a question of what counts as violence. Blood clearly registers for the audience as violent. But the kinds of emotional or psychological tortures that you see inflicted upon the women in this series sometimes don’t get registered that way. And so, in a sense, the show represents violence in its more invisible forms.


MG: Yes. When you watch a contemporary noir or crime show, you realize how much of it is staged around the body of a woman. A film will open with the body of a woman that has been cut in half or something, and that’s where the story begins. So I thought it’d be fun to turn that on its head, to start with a beautiful woman’s body and have everybody obsess about it through the episodes, as would be expected in the genre, and then gradually have the audience realize that it’s actually a man’s body.


UA: Another notable feature of the show is it is very comfortable with its female characters’ sexuality, which sometimes the social or realist film downplays in order to foreground women’s hardships. Here, they’re beautifully dressed, beautifully made up, very assured in their beauty. There’s also a love story between two men. What for you is the role of sex and sexuality in the show? And why did you choose to highlight women’s sexuality rather than downplay it?


MG: In the mind-body distinction of Western philosophy, in which the mind is considered superior, women are relegated to the body zone, and it is assumed that they’re incapable of rationality. This dominant view makes women, even in intellectual professions, play down their sexuality, their sensuality, their emotion, to be taken seriously. So as a woman filmmaker I wanted to embrace the sensory. The folk, pulp, B-grade aesthetic of the show, or the ways I use song and music, is a defiance of the mind-body binaries from which the high art/low art distinction follows. Susan Sontag has this brilliant essay against interpretation in which she says essentially the same thing: “In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.”


UA: You use that phrase, “taken seriously”—and it’s true: on one hand, we want to be taken seriously, but we also want the right to refuse to always be serious.


MG: Yes. And the humor and playfulness running through the show, it’s all in this amazing feminine universe that includes older women. I wanted to embrace the sexuality of the femme fatale, and I deliberately have much older femmes fatales in the show. Everybody gets to be sensual, playful, and the fact that the last episode ends in a great big dance intercut with a murder is part of that feminine playfulness. Farjad Nabi, the cowriter, just nailed this aspect. This is why there is a blending of poetry and murder, or talking of rage as your lover. It is all a bit naughty.


Nuclear Noir

By Reed McConnell

UA: How did you choose the locations for the show, and where was it shot?


MG: It was shot in three cities in Pakistan: Lahore, Karachi, and a small town just on the outskirts of Lahore. Noir tends to be set in urban spaces, but for my interpretation, what I call “desi noir,” I thought it should be in a universe that is modern, but there’s another sort of old time that is present. It’s crumbling, giving way to something new. I felt that the old city of any city in South Asia would be the right setting for a desi noir. In retrospect, I really got the setting right.


UA: To enhance that crumbling, decaying feel, the locations in which the episodes are set are peripheral spaces: hospitals, graveyards, hideouts, alleys, streets, and of course the courtyard of the shrine. You don’t give us the kinds of recognizable urban spaces we’ve come to expect from realist television.


MG: The characters in the series are not being allowed to occupy the main spaces of urban life, such as the home or the office. One character has to leave her home; another is in an abusive relationship; the nurse faces all kinds of sexism at her workplace. When everyday spaces are hostile, then it’s the spaces that you would associate fear with—graveyards, abandoned buildings—that offer some respite. The nurse comes into her own in an abandoned space, and that scene that ends episode 4, where the character Mai Malki makes the battle cry–like declaration that she’s going to seize power from her corrupt husband, takes place in a graveyard.

It’s akin to squatting. Squatting is occupying space illegally, spaces where you’re not invited in. This is as much about the women in the show as about me. I’m squatting as well, as a woman filmmaker in this noir genre. We have to take over spaces because we are not going to be invited in.


UA: This reminds me of conversations people are having in the US around Black horror. We’ve seen innovative films by Black directors and filmmakers doing similar things to what you’re describing: taking over genres that have always been predominantly white but also, more interestingly, reconfiguring where horror lives. When the threat of police violence, the carceral state, all of these daily figures of terror constitute so much of the Black experience, then the nature of the horror film has to change. Terror is no longer a monster coming from nowhere when it fills your everyday life.

For many women in Pakistan, violence and terror are not enshrined in some figure outside in the dark spaces of the night but are very much in the daily life of the home, the workplace. Do you see yourself influenced by Black horror, or can you see the synergies between what you’re doing and that project?

There is a blending of poetry and murder, talking of rage as your lover.

MG: I had not consciously thought about it, but when you say it, that’s exactly what’s going on. In the traditional femme fatale narrative, it is the woman who is seen as the source of terror, while the reality out in the world is exactly the opposite. The terror is being inflicted on women. I absolutely loved Get Out. There are reviewers who have said, “I wish they had not done all of this baroque business, it’s so exaggerated.” But that’s missing the whole point. A lot of the filmmakers who are doing Black horror are using that aesthetic of an exaggerated reality to make their point. It is realism, but it is an excessive realism.


UA: Or it’s a realism of an extraordinary reality.


MG: Because that is the truth! Anything less would not capture the truth. I find realism not enough. I’m not against realism, and I use realism, but not necessarily in accordance to convention. For instance, in my first film, Zinda Bhaag, I worked with nonprofessional actors, real young men who had had similar experiences to the one that the film was talking about. That was a choice based in realism. But there were also lip-synched songs in it, and a very fable-like storytelling. It’s because somehow realism is not true to the reality I experience. You need that excessive, exaggerated version of reality to make sense of things.


UA: Speaking of Zinda Bhaag, I want to ask you about the relationship between that film and this series. Besides its genre mixing, Zinda Bhaag also utilized Punjabi folk aesthetics, which is largely invisible in contemporary Pakistani films; the revival of art cinema in recent years is much more focused on cultivating a mainstream international art-house aesthetic. Does your interest in vernacularization within Pakistani cultural production continue in Qatil? Or are you going for something slightly different with the noir? Of course, noir is recognizable globally, but you’re giving it this desi inflection.


MG: Yes, you can call it vernacular or folk, and it’s all over Qatil as well, in the magic, the gothic, the poetry, the music, the world where it takes place. It’s noir, which is very Western, but it’s happening on a local scale. It goes back to my interest in rejecting the high art/low art binary. Qatil is pulpy, it’s trashy, and deliberately so. For a story like Zinda Bhaag, with its nonprofessional actors and depiction of illegal immigration, you have a certain set of expectations, and you do not expect vernacular, playful forms to come into it. That film was genre defying in that it refused to fit into the art house/popular binary.

UA: Tell us more about this term, “desi noir.”


MG: Noir is an otherwise Western genre, and it was very important to us that we didn’t just cut and paste it to a local setting but ask ourselves what doing noir in a South Asian context might mean. The reason we chose “desi noir” as opposed to “Pakistani noir” is that desi encompasses all the influences our team brings to the table. I’m British of Indian origin, and my closest collaborator and cowriter of the series, Farjad, grew up in Pakistan. So desi is a great word because it captures the many influences of our music, our story, and our aesthetic. Neither India nor Pakistan, but both and even broader.

The gothicness of Qatil is also very desi. Genres translate differently in our part of the world. Our horror deviates from Western horror because it often has a vindication for the figure who is creating the horror, while Western horror may not necessarily get into the backstory of that figure. I actually love that our filmmaking does that, that you can have a mafia don or a criminal, but you’ll be made to see how an unjust society made him that way. And similarly for ghosts. The retributive mode of horror is common in our part of the world, and that is because good and evil are being defined in interesting ways.


UA: How was the experience of shooting this series different from Zinda Bhaag?


MG: Zinda Bhaag was my debut. It was also our company’s debut. In some ways we had no idea what we were doing. The web series was simpler because I was hired; I was the creator of the series, but I was hired. And that’s a lighter burden than when you are indie filmmakers responsible for the whole thing, from beginning to promotion to everything in the middle. At the same time, Qatil was physically a much harder project than Zinda Bhaag. It was a very tough shoot, in terms of realizing the visual language. The cinematographer, Mo Azmi, who’s now a really close collaborator of mine, was a big part of creating that language for what we were trying to represent, what the spaces should look like, et cetera. But really, it was a tough project for everyone, not just me. It involved living in Airbnbs with my six-year-old in different cities over six months, plus it was during COVID. It was definitely really hard.


UA: How did the web story platform work for you, both in terms of creativity and financing and in comparison to the feature film?


MG: What is going on in the web series world is so exciting. There’s deep sadness about what’s happening with cinema because of COVID. But there’s always been that concern; how many times have we read articles about the death of cinema? And I have to say, I cannot imagine going to a film producer and saying, “I want to do noir. But it will be desi and it will be feminist.” I couldn’t have done that. The universe of the TV/web series has made this possible. And the fact that my producer, Shailja Kejriwal, is a woman and she’s deeply invested in feminist work—that’s what made it possible. I don’t think Qatil would have existed on any other platform.


UA: What are you working on now, and what do you have plans for in the future?


MG: I’m working on two projects right now. One of them, fingers crossed, we’ll be shooting in July and August. But generally I’m in squatter mode. I want to occupy genres hitherto reserved for male filmmakers. I wish that producer hadn’t said what he said about women directors and thrillers, because he’s unnecessarily put me on a trajectory that may not have been my calling otherwise! The Power of the Dog is out there on screens; I have this other friend who also did a feminist western, and that kind of work with genre just thrills me. It makes me excited, how we women filmmakers are writing ourselves into these spaces. I don’t know necessarily where it will lead, but for me, it will lead to at least one or two more things.


This article was commissioned by Sharon Marcusicon

Featured Image: Meenu Gaur. Photograph provided by Meenu Gaur.