The director of an award-winning Indian film is fighting film censors to ensure that Lipstick Under My Burkha gets released in the country.
Alankrita Shrivastava was recently informed in a letter – badly-worded and full of spelling mistakes – that her film was being denied a censor certificate for being too “lady-oriended [oriented]” with “contanious [continuous] sexual scenes”.
The Central Board of Film Certification also complained that the film “has abusive words, audio pornography [meaning phone sex], and a bit sensitive touch about one particular section of society [implying it could hurt Muslim religious sentiments]”.
This effectively means that the film, which stars talented actresses like Konkona Sen Sharma and Ratna Pathak Shah, cannot be screened in Indian cinemas.
The film about four women from small town India had its world premiere in Tokyo a few months ago and since then has won several awards at film festivals globally.
Earlier this week, it had two showings at the Glasgow Film Festival. Both were sold out and the film won the Audience Award, the only prize handed out.
It’s also been shown in Stockholm, Cairo and Estonia and in coming weeks will travel to festivals in Miami, Amsterdam, Paris and London.
‘Popular gaze is male’
So why has the censor board got its knickers in a twist over it?
“Because the censors are not comfortable with the alternate point of view, they are afraid of the female point of view,” Ms Shrivastava told me on the phone from Glasgow.
“They are used to viewing life from a male point of view, the popular gaze is male, stalking is love, Eve-teasing is courtship.
“My film is from the point of view of four women, their dreams and fears.”
The film’s trailer is delightful and gives a glimpse into the worlds of its women protagonists: A burka-clad college student who wants to be Britney Spears, a beautician who loves being photographed so much that she takes selfies even while having sex, a mother of three who yearns to be treated like an individual and not just a baby-producing machine, and a widow in her fifties who saucily fantasises about a much younger man.
“The women live in a small town, with their small dreams, they have very suffocating and restricted lives and the film is about how they fulfil their dreams,” Ms Shrivastava says.
The title uses the idea of lipstick hidden under a burka as a metaphor for hidden dreams and a pulsating desire to break free even when restricted.
Film censorship in India has always been quite erratic but the censor board has faced increasing criticism in recent years from the film industry, which accuses it of being irrational, making decisions on an ad hoc basis and being in conflict with India’s changing society.
The board is often in the news for demanding that filmmakers edit out scenes involving sex and violence, swear words or even a kiss.
Ms Shrivastava says the censor board is trying to “silence her voice”.
“The Central Board of Film Certification is outdated and illogical. Its members have no idea about gender issues and gender politics,” she says.
“Are you saying only the male point of view is relevant? It’s 2017, why should women be silenced?”
She says she is now “determined” to fight the censors.
“India is a robust and vibrant democracy. I’m going to appeal against the censor decision. I’m a very hopeful, optimistic person, so I’m sure the film will be released in India soon.”