From short films, to a book, songs and now comfort wear, she has done it all. Vandana Kohli is a filmmaker and author with an interest in the human mind, aesthetic and efficiency. Educated in Film, History and Commerce from the best schools in India, Vandana Kohli has won awards for excellence at each Institute. She majored in Film Editing at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) and has attended the Professional Program for Producers at UCLA, Los Angeles. Vandana has produced and directed the acclaimed documentary The Subtext of Anger, among several other projects. Her production of the Indian National Anthem has over nine million views on social media. She is the author of HINGE: (Re)Discovering Emotional and Mental Wellness, published by Rupa Publications, 2021. Vandana has served twice on the Jury for the National Film Awards (62nd and 66th). She served as Member, Board of Governors, for the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT), from 2016-2019. She is Founder and Director of Tulip Comfort Wear, an apparel line for women to work-travel-lounge in. Vandana has released two instrumental albums of Indian Melodies on the Piano with T Series, and loves to sing old Indian Film songs with the guitar. As a composer, she released a single – Dekho Na.
1. What was your dream job in your growing up days? Where did you study and how did you start out at the beginning of your professional career?
My dream job as a child was that I wanted to join the police. Then someone mentioned that you have to have sharp eyesight to join the armed forces. Then I thought I’ll read history and literature. I studied at Lady Shriram College as I loved history. I attended a short course in art and one in interior design before studying film.
2. When you started out, did you ever imagine that you would become a filmmaker? Also how did the idea of Tulip comfort fashion brand come about?
I worked with a documentary film maker. He said you’re good but it’s better to go to a film school for formal training too, so I joined the FTII. I majored in Film Editing. After film school, I joined Rajiv Mehrotra, a documentary film maker and then branched out on my own. One of my early projects was a film on major depression in an urban Indian context. It was called Into the Abyss. Another film I produced and directed was The Subtext of Anger. During under graduation I started compering programs for Doordarshan and my producer asked us to write the script, what to shoot, how to shoot, edit the entire program and basically manage the entire program. So film making wasn’t new to me as just after school I had worked at Doordarshan.
The idea for Tulip came about recently when I actively started looking for trousers that were comfortable around the waist. I live in my trousers and I realised that women’s bodies are very different. Our bodies keep changing through the day, so I started sampling and designing for something that would be comfortable all the while. I feel woman’s clothing can’t just be an extension of men’s clothing. The response to Tulip was fabulous and whoever tries it on, understands that we really mean comfort.
3. What were the challenges and how did you overcome them?
If you want to do something that is good and has a certain standard then there are always several challenges. Whether it’s film making or a clothing brand, the challenges are relentless. One has to learn how to deal with challenges on a regular basis as they never stop.
4. Do women in your profession have a hard time getting ahead in their career?
Women have a hard time in general because patriarchy is so deeply embedded in our social systems and structures. I realise that everyone is having a hard time just trying to keep up with the times and the way things are changing and how technology is changing. It’s draining and it takes so much time and energy to keep pace. We, as a species, have never seen such rapid change ever before. The wheel has its own compulsions to turn faster and faster and we are all caught up in it.
5. How good are you at planning your day/week/month? How much do you believe in planning and how much do you leave to destiny?
It’s good to plan in advance. I’m able to foresee things. But it’s also important to flow with what the day brings to you. If you don’t do that things can get unpleasant. Have a plan yet be open to what challenges the day brings and things you can change to make your plans work. I believe that destiny has an overview for you but the effort is all yours. There are windows of time that offer you different things. If the window opens up something dark and difficult to deal with, how you choose to look at it, how you choose to respond out of your own free will,
is always your choice. That’s where growth happens.
6. How do you balance work, other passions and life responsibilities? Is there such a thing as balance? Was it always like this or did you change over the years?
I have had varied interests throughout and I manage them with a sense of passion. I ride on that passion and therefore things can get done. But sometimes passion can be quite exhausting. As women get older, every five years our rhythms change – bodily, emotionally and mentally. It’s beautiful to be able to flow with those changes, accept them and understand them and reorient yourself with them. I’m doing just that. Balance comes from within and it’s a constant quest, but the key lies in our ability to handle disappointment. How do we react to disappointment and how we express it, is also something to observe and constantly recalibrate. The day you’re ok with disappointment, with the event not turning out in our favour and one step ahead, turning out in someone else’s favour, then one is close to a point of deep rooted balance and that’s what frees you. It also takes some self-discipline to be able to purse many passions at one point.
7. What advice would you give to the next generation of female leaders?
Be more sensitive and supportive of women. This is a complaint that runs through and through for many women who have made it in either the corporate world, or in business, public or social sector that they aren’t supportive of other women. They feel that I’ve faced challenges to come to where I am at today, so why should I make it easier for younger women. That’s an insecure thought.
If the idea of a leader is that you incorporate the concerns of as many people as possible in policy, then I would think of not just the women but the men too. A leader is responsible for all in her/his purview.
Also I suggest to bring up your sons to respect their women colleagues. We find that boys respect their mothers, but that’s not enough, is it? It is important to be mindful to not perpetuate the same wheels of oppression that you have faced. Break those wheels and put a cog on them so that they aren’t mindlessly perpetuated. Women leaders should nurture the feminine attribute not just in themselves but also in men. It’s like the river flowing and it needs a river bed, so you have to respect both. One without the other means nothing. So we need to often recognise the feminine in ourselves but also recognise the masculine in ourselves and similarly we should look out for that beautiful feminine and masculine balance in others.
8. Any advice you would like to share with young women entering a male-dominated profession?
To young ladies who are entering their professional careers, there’s a fine line between confidence and contempt. It helps to recognise that. You can disagree with someone, offer them your respect and still put your point forward. That keeps you away from contempt, and allows your confidence to grow. Contempt puts you unnecessarily, and unfairly, in conflict with your environment.
9. Have you ever been so discouraged you wanted to quit?
Yes, very often. But if you quit, it would only harm you. It is important to realise that if you’re serious of expressing yourself, in work or otherwise, one word is crucial – persistence. You have to persist in whatever you’re doing. People who are often neither of means nor very qualified make it big, because they persist with what they are doing. They have been doing it day in and day out through all their challenges and the dreariness of the day. That helps reach a point when dreariness doesn’t bother one anymore, and one is able to move on with the work. It keeps you away from shoddy work.
10. What’s one leadership lesson you have learnt in your career?
A leader doesn’t have to always lead from the front. So we are all potential leaders as we are all affecting someone’s life. The soft overcomes the hard and the slow overcomes the fast, but one has to have the patience to see the results.
12. What are your future plans?
With Tulip I have my hands full, but I also want to make more music. I have just released one of my compositions and I hope to release more of them. The rest I will take as it comes.
– By Namita Gupta