Earlier this week, artistic expression was once again clamped down with the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) not allowing the film Lipstick Under My Burkha, directed by Alankrita Shrivastava and produced by Prakash Jha, to be released. In its statement, the CBFC said the “story is lady oriented” and “their fantasy above life”. The film had, it said, “contanious (sic) sexual scenes, abusive words, audio pornography” that were apparently against the sensibilities of an Indian audience. As has been the case since he took office, Pahlaj Nihalani was once again in the center of it all, refusing to budge from his order. On Saturday, he emphasised that CBFC is needed for the right kind of films to reach the audience. CBFC, he said, will maintain status quo. The larger problem, then, is the status quo.
Watch | Lipstick Under My Burkha was denied certification. But why?
Nihalani’s verdict on Lipstick Under My Burkha is a reiteration of what John Berger had said of paintings: Men act and women appear. While Berger here talks about European nude paintings from the earlier centuries (15th – 19th), his observations have had a far reaching consequence on the presentation of the image and in it, the representation of women. The nude painting always showed the women from the point of view of the spectator who was expected, unofficially, to always be male. If the woman is alone, her view would be directed at the painter behind the canvas, trying to draw him in. If she was in a provocative embrace, her attention would be diverted from the male who is in the image and would again be straight towards the viewer, in a way, letting the viewer believe that her male companion is actually the viewer.
In simple terms, the voyeuristic desire of the male, defined how a woman would be portrayed in images and this idea quickly translated to the moving image. Nihalani’s verdict is in fact, not shocking at all. Nor can we ask him to grow up. Nihalani’s verdict is very much in line with how the representers view women. To blame only him would be to absolve the holier-than-thou Hindi film industry that is up in arms against him. Lipstick Under My Burkha is an anomaly in the film industry itself, without even taking into account Mastizaade (2016) and Kya Kool Hain Hum (2016) for their blatant soft pornography.
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Bollywood hasn’t graduated from its representation of women as the gazed upon and has always looked at women through, what Laura Mulvey calls, the male gaze. The male gaze functions on stripping the female from all agency and seeing her only with respect to a male point of view. In a more sanskari (traditional) version of scopophilia or the pleasure of looking at something to arouse erotic feelings, the Bollywood female has always been styled according to what the male vision of the Indian woman has been: coy, not revealing what she feels, never making the first move even under the aegis of a legal marriage, maintaining the female status quo of being subdued. Her desires are neither projected onto the man she is with nor does she address them in her private thoughts. A passive female action is always in reaction to active male desire. One of the first memories I have of this is Roja (1992), where Roja avoids her husband Rishi’s advances and hides her face in her pallu. In Bombay (1995), Shaila is the coy young bride of Shekhar, running away whenever he comes to her.
In the case that she expresses desire, it will be immediately molded into a more agreeable version: love. Shruti of Band, Baaja, Baaraat (2010) starts addressing Bittoo with ‘tum’ instead of ‘tu’ (a more respectful way of addressing someone) after a night of love making. Kavya softens her outgoing stance as soon as Humpty and she consummate their love in Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhaniya (2014). All mainstream feature films today make the woman recoil with shame if the idea of desire crosses their mind. The women are also present as mere side tracks to improve the scopohillic factor of the film amidst the ruggedness of men and to give the male protagonist a soft edge before plunging into his hypermasculinity that saves the woman and the world. The woman is only the leit motif of male desire. Any Salman Khan and Akshay Kumar film is a sprightly example of this.
Lipstick Under My Burkha, like Angry Indian Goddesses (2015) and parts of Haraamkhor (2016), explores female desire, a wonder unheard of entirely in the Hindi film industry. A mention of both these films uncovers another feature of the female desire: it is only understood in the context of a ‘social issue’. If it exists as an element of actual pleasure, as in the lesbian drama Girlfriend (2004), it will be quickly labelled as a B-grade film, unlike a Mastizaade.
Women exist on the screen in binaries – a good versus bad, an extrovert that becomes an introvert. So when a Nihalani is opposed to ‘lady themes’, it is because he has never seen a woman on the screen beyond the male gaze. Whenever they divert from the norm of being looked at from the male perspective, “human sensibilities (get) offended by vulgarity, obscenity or depravity,” (one of the guidelines under which Lipstick Under My Burkha has been certified unsuitable). Of course, Nihalani is to be blamed. He can let a more subversive narrative out for viewing so that women can be seen as having agency and as not mere objects; but Nihalani is only doing what the industry has been doing for decades: maintain the status quo of the film industry and subsequently of the way people think.