“That moment comes in every girl’s life, when her desire to become a woman awakens.”
That’s how the trailer of Lipstick Under My Burkha begins. It is that it doesn’t beat around the bush, it doesn’t employ coy dialogues and it doesn’t slyly swerve around uncomfortable corners. It’s explicit, audacious, provocative, and vocal. Lipstick Under My Burkha celebrates female sexuality – a rarity in Indian cinema – in all its raw glory. It’s a beautifully-crafted billet doux to womanhood.
The film marks the onset of a new tribe of women filmmakers, like Alankrita Shrivastava, who’re taking it upon themselves to trigger a paradigm shift in the otherwise demure, buttoned-up film industry that rarely releases bold films.
Lipstick Under My Burkha provides a voyeuristic journey into the lives of four women, different in age and background, who reside in Bhopal. Each character possesses her own set of inhibitions, her own set of desires that revel in sexuality, and nurtures her own set of dreams. The characters ache to rebel against the hidebound social norms and the expectations placed on women – the domesticity, the coyness, the submissiveness, the belief that women must never nurture sexual thoughts or think about sex as a pleasurable act. Through these women, the film therefore, holds a mirror before society depicting how repressed women really are. And these charming characters rebel against the socially-defined gender monoliths in their idiosyncratic ways.
In its intent, Lipstick Under My Burkha fiercely works at trampling over the age-old stereotypes associated with Indian women. It pans the lens towards them, detailing their needs, desires, aspirations and how they struggle to negotiate their way in a patriarchal country, through a charming, witty narrative.
Evidently then, the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) raised qualms about issuing a certificate for the film. It released a statement that announced, “The story is lady oriented, their fantasy above life. There are contagious sexual scenes, abusive words, audio pornography and a bit sensitive touch about one particular section of society, hence film refused under guidelines 1(a), 2(vii), 2(ix), 2(x), 2(xi), 2(xii) and 3(i).”
The Board’s decision raised many eyebrows and irked many. Not only does the decision defies the definition of one’s freedom of expression, but it indicates that certain “lady oriented” films are bound to be suppressed in a patriarchal society.
The Board’s decision, anchored in conservatism and condemnation, pointedly declares that the film is “lady oriented”, one that depicts a woman’s “fantasy above life”. To the Board – and a predominant section of Indian society – the idea of a woman nurturing fantasies (sexual or otherwise) is an alien concept. The film is also considered inappropriate since it inhabits sexual episodes and is laced with profanity. This reflects the absurd close-mindedness the CBFC stagnates in, one which refuses to uphold a progressive outlook. A mouthpiece of a conservative government, CBFC carries a problematic paternalistic persona, making ineffective attempts to “protect” an audience that is mature and intelligent to make its own inferences while watching the film.
Ironically, Lipstick Under My Burkha has been admired overseas. It won the Spirit of Asia Prize at the Tokyo International Film Festival and was applauded across a string of international film festivals. At home, it won Oxfam Award for the Best Film on Gender Equality at the Mumbai Film Festival. It’s disconcerting therefore, to have the film rejected in its own country.
In the 21st century, films such as Shrivastava’s, which are bold, provocative and re-sculpting the language of Indian cinema should be welcomed with open arms. Unwilling to cower down to the ruling of the Board however, Shrivastava promises she will battle it out for the film’s release.