Lipstick Under My Burkha has bagged several honours like the Oxfam Award for Best Film on Gender Equality at the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival, Audience Award Best Film at the Glasgow International Film Festival, Grand Jury Prize for Best Feature Film at the Films des Femmes Creteil, Paris among others. The Central Board of Film Certification however, has refused to certify the film saying it is ‘lady-oriented’, has ‘sexual scenes, abusive words and audio pornography’ among other things. Director Alankrita Shrivastava opens up to Koimoi on why she feels the CBFC is legitimizing the silencing of women’s voices and freedom of expression which goes against the Constitution of India…
Lipstick Under My Burkha has been appreciated in various festivals across the globe. While making the film, did you expect this?
No. I didn’t think so much. I started thinking about the story and then how to get the film made. I feel it’s quite a culturally specific story, Indian story. I didn’t expect so much international attention. People from so many different cultures connected to it. It’s a very fulfilling feeling. I’m just waiting for people in India to watch it.
Is it sad that it’s stuck in India, the very country where it has been made?
Yes. I think CBFC’s refusal to certify my film is very wrong. It hints at a very archaic kind of mindset. It’s very ridiculous and also very scary because CBFC taking this decision actually means that women should not tell their story, especially from their point of view, they should not express their thoughts and feelings. I feel in a country where there is so much discrimination against women, where there is female feticide, dowry deaths, disparity in terms of salary, sexual harassment on the streets, violence against women— it’s very important that women get the space to tell their stories. But here we have a government legitimate body, which is legally stating that no, women shouldn’t say anything! Also, they are branding the film, saying sexual scenes and pornography; I feel that’s so wrong because there is enough sexual content in (other) films. For example in an item song, what is the camera doing going up and down a woman’s body? Does it have anything to do with the story? No! Even the term item song, and the kind of double meaning lyrics they include— that is something we accept. There is enough sexual content to fulfill male fantasy and desire. The problem with them (CBFC) is that, women are talking about them from their point of view. The film is about women trying to find freedom in spaces which are claustrophobic. We are legitimizing the silencing of women’s voices and freedom of expression which is so not in keeping with the Constitution of India.
Item numbers are never banned by the CBFC, which is refusing to certify Lipstick Under My Burkha. Do you think this is hypocrisy?
I am not in favour of banning anything. I feel the audience should have all kinds of content available to them. Yes it’s hypocritical because it’s not like there is not enough sexual content in films, it is just the way it’s portrayed. Their problem is with the female point of view. If you keep showing me the female body from the male point of view, that is absolutely acceptable. That’s a scary thing! We are in 2017! We feel absolutely okay when stalking is portrayed as love, I have had a stalker and I know it’s really scary. We normalize objectification of women; we normalize eve teasing as love, stalking as a form of courtship. If a few people want to watch films with an alternative point of view, why stop them? Why are you so scared about maintaining patriarchy? It’s a small story of four ordinary women and they are feeling so threatened! They are so scared of women who are trying to be free. We are a democracy, we vote for whoever we like. Then why can’t we watch what we like? I feel it’s a very colonized mindset that Indians are not mature enough to understand a film. How is the rest of the world able to understand a particular film and not Indians?
Do you think the Censor Board should not exist?
I feel the whole concept of censorship is redundant. It has no meaning in a free and democratic country. This Censor Board, according to me, can’t even do the job of certification because they have no idea! Either they are pretending to be not educated about cinema or they are genuinely not educated. The way the board functions right now, I don’t think they have any idea about the connection between cinema and society, the politics of representational cinema, gender dynamics, the politics of the gaze, what kind of narratives exist across the world etc.
What are you planning to do now?
We have applied to the Tribunal. On 27th, there will be a screening for the FCAT (Film Certification Appellate Tribunal) in Delhi. I’m quite hopeful.
Did you have a word with anyone from the CBFC?
I want to recount my experience of the two screenings with the Censor Board. We screened it first for the examining committee after which they told me that it is a divided house, we can’t take a decision, we will get back to you in writing. They also told me that they felt it’s a very realistic portrayal of the truth about Indian women. After that we received a letter which says that it is a ‘lady-oriented’ film and we are refusing certification. Then we screened it for the revising committee where I met Mr Nihalani (Chairperson, CBFC) and the others. After the screening, he told me that we have made a unanimous decision to not certify the film, it has nothing to do with one scene or many sequences, it’s the entire film. There is nothing to discuss. I felt like a criminal on trial, who has committed a crime. There was no space for discussion! I felt very offended as a filmmaker and as a woman.
Did you expect such a decision from the CBFC?
Of course not! Nobody makes a film thinking that it is going to be banned. I am quite surprised. They are behaving like an uneducated lot of illogical people. You don’t want a body like that to be in charge of certifying films.
One of the reasons cited by the CBFC to not certify your film is that it is lady-oriented. What do you have to say about this?
Whoever has written the letter is probably not well versed in English. The way they have worded the letter is a joke. There is no nudity, not even a cleavage shot in the film. I think they tried to mean a female point of view by saying ‘lady-oriented’. That point of view is what they find threatening. I feel when a woman wants to claim ownership over her own body, it challenges patriarchy. The feminism of the film is bothering them.
Lipstick Under My Burkha— why did you choose this title?
When I first thought of the film, I thought of the title and the four characters emerged really at the same time. For me the title is metaphorical which signifies veiled dreams and hidden desires. No matter how much women are constrained, suffocated, they will never stop dreaming and fighting for their freedom.
Did you select the cast?
I want to give complete credit to my casting directors Shruti Mahajan and Parag Mehta except for Koko (Konkona Sen Sharma) and Ratna (Pathak Shah), whose names I suggested. They have worked very hard on the casting and have done a fabulous job.
When and where did you shoot?
We shot in Bhopal. It took approximately 50 days. We finished shooting around March 2015.
Given the current scenario, would you refrain from making similar films in the future?
Never. I don’t feel discouraged and I am not going to change my path. I’d rather be the change. I will continue to tell the stories which I want to tell through my films. I am honest with what I am writing, shooting, making— that honesty is everything that I have.