Director of 'Lipstick Under My Burkha' on Feminist Film Being Banned in India (Q&A)

Courtesy of Jignesh Panchal/Prakash Jha Productions
'Lipstick Under My Burkha'

"Anyone can vote in India, so if they have the power to choose their leader, why don't they have the power to choose the type of films they want to watch?" asks Alankrita Shrivastava.

When director Alankrita Shrivastava was told that her award-winning feminist film Lipstick Under My Burkha was banned from being released in cinemas in India, she was stunned.

“I’m angry,” she tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Not just because of the film, but what it says about society, and how I’m living in a country where women are not totally respected. It’s like the censor board are trying to say, ‘Shut up, your voice doesn’t count.’ It’s a systematic way of suppressing female perspective on storytelling.”

India’s Censor Board for Film Certification issued a letter explaining the ban, saying its reasons include the film being “lady orientated” and having “sexual scenes, abusive words.” The film tells of four women, ages 18 to 55, who are asserting their personal and sexual rights. It won a gender equality award at the Mumbai Film Festival last year.

Shrivastava, speaking from the Glasgow Film Festival where her film won the audience award this weekend, says she will appeal the decision.

You had been confident your film would get certification in India…

I was not expecting this at all. There have been other [female-led] films, such as Parched and Margarita With a Straw, that had been certified. There were two screenings for the certification. At the first, they told me it was a really hard-hitting film, showing the reality of life in India, but they said they hadn’t come to a common decision. And that’s when I got sent that strange letter. Then we applied to the revising committee, and there was another screening, and they called me in and said, "We’ve made a unanimous decision that we are not going to be certifying your film."

You must have been shocked.

It’s even just the power politics of how they treat you. You go into a room and nobody even gets up to say hello or asks you to sit down. And as the filmmaker, you’re all alone, you just stand there like you are like a criminal being brought into court, and they talk down to you. They told me they didn’t have a problem with a particular sequence or scene, they found the whole film problematic.

Are there particular scenes in your film that could be seen as controversial?

I don’t know if there are particular scenes. In most films that come out of India, a woman will never articulate her own desire, she will always be acted upon rather than proactively act. There’s a character in the film who is in her 50s and has a sexual awakening, feelings and desires. The board felt uncomfortable about this. The truth is, in Indian films, we don’t talk about these things, everything is so unsaid. We have double meanings in song lyrics which are very derogatory to women, and for no particular reason a camera will pan up and down a woman’s body. But we need to have other narratives.

What’s been the reaction from people in India?

It’s been phenomenal. When we put out the trailer, we got an amazing response on social media, and the mainstream media have been very encouraging. I feel the time is right, the audience is ready for a film like this. The censor board shouldn’t be like a moral guardian saying "You can’t watch this." Anyone can vote in India, so if they have the power to choose their leader, why don't they have the power to choose the type of films they want to watch?

Have you experienced misogyny in the Indian film industry before this?

A woman like me has a tough time because of the stories I want to tell. There is a big difference between independent films and big films with a star cast. A lot of the big films are about treating women like objects. I was fortunate because our producer funded the film himself, but I do wonder whether any Indian studio would have funded this, and that’s the tragedy. In India we have a long way to go before there is gender equality and freedom of expression.