Zoya Akhtar, Janhvi Kapoor, Catherine Hand also honored at awards gala co-hosted by WIFT and DCSAFF
By Geeta Goindi
Bethesda, Maryland, September 10, 2018 – Indian actress and global icon Aishwarya Rai Bachchan has been conferred with the inaugural Meryl Streep Award of Excellence at an exclusive event co-hosted by Women in Film & Television (WIFT) and the DC South Asian Film Festival (DCSAFF).
“This is surreal and I am truly overwhelmed”, Bachchan said upon receiving the award presented by Oscar-nominated actress Candy Clark. “I could just be sitting and smiling away, beaming, having a complete fan girl moment watching all of Meryl Streep’s work”, she gushed referring to a video clip highlighting the Hollywood legend’s famed film roles.
Streep is a three-time Academy Award-winning actress (‘The Iron Lady’, ‘Sophie’s Choice’, ‘Kramer vs. Kramer’) who has been nominated for a record 21 Oscars.
“This is a dream come true to receive an award in the name of the very iconic Meryl Streep”, Bachchan told a select audience at a gala event held at the Hyatt Regency in Bethesda. “The little girl in me can’t quite believe I’m standing here and receiving an accolade for doing what I love doing. We call our passion work here in cinema and to be able to do that every waking morning is a true blessing. And then to top it all, to actually receive an accolade in the name of someone you have admired watching your entire life is an unbelievable moment! So, thank you so much WIFT for making this little girl’s dream come true and to have me be the first recipient of the inaugural Meryl Streep Award of Excellence”.
Streep herself has been quoted as saying, “Well, in Bollywood, Aishwarya Rai is quite famous. She is elegant and gorgeous”.
Donning a shimmering black fishtail gown and accompanied by her mother Vrinda Rai and six-year-old daughter Aaradhya to the awards ceremony, Bachchan epitomized beauty and grace with a good deal of emotion.
“Today, I am grateful to my Mom who has had me believe that I can go out and achieve my dreams”, she said to applause. “I am because of you”, she said looking at her mother seated in the front of the spacious ballroom. “Thank you for just in unspoken words always being there and being my anchor”. She also thanked her daughter “for just having me discover being a mother is the best part of being who I am. This is extremely special for me today that my mother and the little angel who has given me reason to be mother are here with me while I receive this honor”, she said.
Looking at Aaradhya, she continued, “My darling little girl, the world is your enchanted garden, is your dreamland and you can go out there and achieve whatever you want because you are the strongest, most empowered person on this planet. And this is to all the little girls. Go out there, achieve, and dream on. We can all do it; we always will”, she declared.
Besides being the reigning queen of Indian cinema, Bachchan is a global ambassador for her country, a former Miss World (1994) who is still considered the most beautiful woman in the world, a classically trained dancer, and the face of international fashion labels. She has numerous accolades and awards to her credit including the Padma Shri conferred by the Government of India in 2009 for her contribution to the arts.
Following the ceremony here, Bachchan told journalists, “Winning any award or accolade isn’t a single accomplishment. I’ve managed to do what I do because of all the professionals I’ve worked with and, more importantly, because of the love that my audience has given me throughout my career. So, to all my well-wishers all over the world, thank you for your love, your support, your encouragement to inspire me to do what I do every waking day of my life”.
Clearly proud of his wife’s achievements, Aishwarya’s husband, Abhishek Bachchan, tweeted: “And the Mrs is awarded the Meryl Streep award for excellence at WIFT. The little one gives her a congratulatory hug, and I look on (to the photo), a very proud husband”.
At the helm of the awards gala, diligently spearheading the proceedings, were: the husband-and-wife team, Manoj and Geeta Singh, co-founders and co-directors of DCSAFF; Petrina D’Rozario, founding president of the WIFT India chapter, a journalist-turned-documentary-film-maker; and Kimberly Skyrme, a casting director who manages Women in Film Arkansas (WIFA).
Together with Bachchan, awards were presented to three other “forward-thinking” Indian and American women: director Zoya Akhtar – Wyler Award of Excellence, named after Academy Award-winning director William Wyler (‘Ben-Hur’, ‘Wuthering Heights’, ‘The Little Foxes’) and his daughter Catherine Wyler, a DC-based movie producer; actress Janhvi Kapoor – Face of the Future, recognizing her successful debut in the film ‘Dhadak’ released earlier this year; and Catherine Hand – Producer of the Year for ‘A Wrinkle in Time’ (2018), a science fiction film starring Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling and Storm Reid. The film is based on a best-selling novel of the same name, and is directed by Ava DuVernay. Hand and DuVernay also received Film of the Year award for breaking barriers and re-imagining the book’s characters as black or mixed race.
Akhtar, of ‘Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara’ and ‘Dil Dhadakne Do’ fame, was introduced as “one of the most celebrated directors in India”. She is the daughter of renowned lyricist Javed Akhtar and screenplay writer Honey Irani, and very articulate and passionate about her work.
She recalled watching ‘Ben Hur’ on a video in the eighties and heard the word ‘epic’ associated with a movie for the first time. “This moment here, winning the Wyler award, is surreal and epic for me”, she told the audience at the gala. Akhtar thanked “the one and only Catherine Wyler for not only carrying her father’s legacy forward beautifully”, but for paving “the way for many women to have the opportunities her father did”.
“If there was ever a time we need more female voices, it is now”, she emphasized. “They are emerging and they are not going to be stopped. In my industry alone, every year women directors are increasing two-fold. It’s a tricky space because we work in a very male-dominated arena and we cater to a large patriarchal audience. It’s a balancing act – on one hand my most commercially successful film is about three men, and on the other hand, I keep getting asked why am I, a woman, making such films. The reply is simple: I will not fight my way out of one box so you can put me into another. I will make what I want”, she said to applause.
“I really believe that no matter what stories you tell, your perspective, your world view, your ideals will come through. This belief is validated by WIFT by giving this award. I am really grateful. I promise to pay it forward. I promise to enable as many women of my tribe as I have been fortunate to be enabled by”, Akhtar said to more applause.
Kapoor, 21, is the eldest daughter of late actress Sridevi (1963-2018) and film producer Boney Kapoor. Looking pretty in a shimmering pink corset dress, she graciously accepted the award from Maryland-based entrepreneur and philanthropist Frank Islam.
“I am so humbled to get this award”, she said in her remarks to the audience. “It is so encouraging and I promise to keep working hard and giving this my everything because nothing matters to me more than acting and entertaining you all, and hopefully moving you all with my work”.
In her acceptance speech, Hand revealed, “The one thing I wanted to do for 50 years was to be a film producer. So, this award means so much to me”, she underscored. “There was a group of people – WIFT India – who felt that I would deserve the Producer of the Year award”, she added with much appreciation.
Hand had a message for women in the entertainment business: “We have to reclaim our personal power and shape our future, just like the heroine in ‘A Wrinkle in Time’. We need more opportunities for women, especially women of color”, she said hoping the diversity of the cast in her film “becomes the bar”.
At the very outset, D’Rozario set the stage for the event. “This evening, we are here to celebrate the achievements of four women who have stood the test of time, are breaking new ground, and shaping the future of women in the industry”.
It is noteworthy that WIFT India is part of the umbrella organization WIFT International (WIFTI) with some 40 chapters worldwide and over 10,000 members. The non-profit organization established in 1997 is dedicated to advancing professional development and achievement for women working in all areas of film, television and digital media.
“I think the work that WIFT has been doing for years now is just incredible and so empowering to know that we together can come, recognize, empower and strengthen the conviction of all the women here in film and television”, Bachchan said at the awards gala. Drawing attention to her fellow recipient Akhtar’s remarks about living in a society which is largely patriarchal, she pointed out it extends beyond the borders of India, rather exists the world over.
“That is why having bodies and organizations like WIFT give a larger platform to our voice where we feel the need to empower and strengthen our position as women in film and television is a calling not just of a couple of decades ago, but we recognize it is still the call of the moment”, she said. “It is something that we together need to focus on and work on, bringing about the change. I agree we need not be pulled out of one box and put into another, but we together can positively work at giving voice to what we believe. Hence, let us empower each other. Let us come together and strengthen our position and do the work that we want to do in this field that we have chosen. Let us make our dreams come true because we can, we do and we will”.