How Lipstick Under My Burkha's "lady-orientated" message got it banned in India

Lipstick Under My Burkha won the Audience Award at the 2017 Glasgow Film Festival

Lipstick Under My Burkha won the Audience Award at the 2017 Glasgow Film Festival

There are many ways to react towards a “lady-orientated” film. Ridicule, in the case of last year’s all-lady Ghostbusters. Apprehension, that it won’t make its budget back, as with Hidden Figures, or Bridesmaids. You can even give it the Palme D’Or, as with Jane Campion’s The Piano (though God forbid, the Oscar.) But if you make a “lady-orientated” film in India, there’s every chance it will be banned.

Director Alankrita Shrivastava found this out when she tried to get her new film, Lipstick Under My Burkha, through her local Censor Board of Film Certifcation ( CBFC) – a body she labels “highly patriarchal.” 

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In an act of howling irony, the CBFC refused to classify Lipstick Under My Burkha on the grounds of, in their own words, lady orientated issues as well as sexual scenes, when the point of the film is to show four female characters struggling to find personal freedom in India’s patriarchal society.

In an act of howling irony, the CBFC refused to classify Lipstick Under My Burkha on the grounds of, in their own words, lady orientated issues as well as sexual scenes, when the point of the film is to show four female characters struggling to find personal freedom in India’s patriarchal society.

Shirin feels she must hide her professional success from her husband, who regularly rapes her on his trips home from Saudi Arabia. Beautician Leela takes the lead with her Muslim boyfriend even as her family arranges her marriage to a nice Hindi boy. Rehana hides ripped jeans and metal tees under her niqab when she is around her abusive parents, while Usha fights against the perception that she is now too old for passion or marriage. The director describes the four actresses who signed up to appear in the film as “very brave.”

The film won the Audience Award at the Glasgow Film Festival this weekend (which in the past has given that prize to another lady orientated film, Mustang.) The prizewasn’t simply a sympathetic reaction to getting banned – the film is a gigantic, colourful, satisfying riot.

 

 

 

Alankrita Shrivastava with her award in Glasgow

 

 

Speaking from Glasgow, Alankrita told me, “ I am actually doing ok, I know there is a way forward because we can try to get the decision reversed, although it might take a while. It’s not completely hopeless.

“In the last couple of years a few films have been passed talking about women and their sexuality, so I was quite confident there wouldnt be this too much trouble. But the reasoning they gave me was that it was a very “lady orientated“ kind of film, with “audio pornography” and it is “obscene”, but the main thing is that it is lady-orientated. So thats ridiculous -  it just means they have a very patriarchal mindset.”      

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“There is nothing blasphemous about my film but women being honest about themselves, their desires, their bodies, wanting to have agency over themselves and their decisions and dreams is something they are not used to. Women are always looked at through the male gaze.”

 

Five years ago Alankrita, who worked her way up assisting  on film sets, including in Bollywood, made another female-centric film, Turning 30, and says censorship is something she regularly has to deal with: “they can’t deal with the female gaze, because the mainstream cinema in India is quite different. The dominant cinema is very sexist and objectifying women, and every film will have a song or two when for no apparent reason a girl will dance in skimpy clothing and the camera will pan up and down her body, it has no relevance to the narrative.

“So that is the kind of culture or cinema that India is really used to, where even stalking is treated as love. Streetside cat-calling will eventually be revealed to be love. It is all very warped, the representation of women and sexuality in mainstream cinema.

“There is nothing blasphemous about my film but women being honest about themselves, their desires, their bodies, wanting to have agency over themselves and their decisions and dreams is something they are not used to. Women are always looked at through the male gaze.”

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I have been molested on the streets, I don’t know how many times, but the first time I was 12 years old. These men must have been in their 40s and 50s, they came really close to me and started whistling. It doesn’t happen so much in a city like Bombay (Mumbai) but generally, men feel they can whistle at you, and flail their arms around in the street in order to touch you, and it’s so connected to the culture." - Alankrita Shrivastava.

 

How can Hollwyood throw a rock in Bollywood’s direction, especially if you happen to have sat through The Return of Xander Cage recently? However, Brand India as a whole has received knocks over the last few years, when the extent of sexual violence towards women there finally reached western ears, after a female student was gang raped on a Delhi bus in 2012 and died of her injuries. Last year, a 28 year old woman was gang raped on a bus in Utter Pradesh while her three year old daughter hid from the assailants.

Is there a direct connection between the level of sexual attacks in India and the way its cinema objectifies women?

“There’s absolutely a direct connection,” Alankrita agrees.

“I have lived in Delhi, it is awful, I have been molested on the streets, I don’t know how many times, but the first time I was 12 years old. These men must have been in their 40s and 50s, they came really close to me and started whistling. It doesn’t happen so much in a city like Bombay (Mumbai) but generally, men feel they can whistle at you, and flail their arms around in the street in order to touch you, and it’s so connected to the culture.

“Half of the films made are about glorified stalking – it’s about men who won’t leave women alone but later seem to be in the right.

“Kids are watching these films, but then there’s a film where a woman has agency over herself,  and that is problematic. You can’t say no to the two or three films in a year that change the perspective.”

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While the director predicts that the ban, news of which spread worldwide on social media within hours of the decision, will further damage “brand India”, she partly welcomes the decision. “At least now we can open the conversation about where we are in Indian cinema. At least that’s now a possibility.”

Electra wishes to thank the Glasgow Film Festival