India Blocks Theatrical Release of Feminist Drama 'Lipstick Under My Burkha'

Courtesy of Jignesh Panchal/Prakash Jha Productions

Alankrita Shrivastava's film, which won honors at Tokyo and Mumbai last year, features "abusive words, audio pornography" and more, says the country's censor board.

After winning accolades on the film festival circuit, Indian female empowerment drama Lipstick Under My Burkha has hit a hurdle at home with India's censor board denying the film a theatrical release certificate.

Directed by Alankrita Shrivastava, Lipstick Under My Burkha won the Spirit of Asia Award at last year's Tokyo Film Festival, followed by the Oxfam Award for gender equality at the Mumbai Film Festival. The film will have its U.K. premiere Friday at the Glasgow Film Festival.

Lipstick revolves around four Indian women, from ages 18 to 55, living in a small town who assert their personal and sexual rights. The cast includes Konkona Sen Sharma (whose directorial debut, A Death in the Gunj, screened at Toronto last year), Ratna Pathak Shah and Sonal Jha, among others.

In an official letter, peppered with grammatical and spelling errors, to the film's producer, Prakash Jha, India's Censor Board for Film Certification said that the film's "story is lady oriented, their fantasy above life. There are contanious sexual scenes, abusive words, audio pornography and a bit sensitive touch about one particular section of society, hence film refused under guidelines."

The letter was posted on the film's official Twitter handle Thursday and quickly went viral. "Ironic. Film wins gender equality award, gets NO certificate," Shrivastava posted on her Twitter account.

Shrivastava also told online news outlet The Quint that she and her producer had "full faith and conviction" that they will be able to bring the film to Indian audiences, adding that the CBFC's decision "is an anachronism really. We are living in 2017, with full access to everything on the internet. Why should a film that tells a story of female desire be stifled? Don't women have dreams? Don't they want things? Aren't our voices important? Don't our stories need to be told?"

As in various cases in the past, the CBFC's denial of a certificate can be challenged by the producers by filing an appeal with the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal. Last year, Jha's directorial venture Gangaajal, starring Priyanka Chopra (Quantico), was denied a CBFC certificate but was later cleared by the FCAT.

In its Tokyo review, THR hailed Lipstick as "a euphoric tale of veiled desire" and questioned how the film would be received at home: "In India, Bollywood vulgarity is OK, but onscreen kissing is an issue, and nudity is limited to art films aimed at foreign audiences. In this context, Lipstick is audaciously outspoken about women's sexual desires and fantasies, both visually and verbally. All this is pretty tame stuff in the West, but one wonders how the Hindi-language film will be received locally and whether its frankness will be cause for scandal."