The urge to shut women up is really strong in the country : Lipstick Under My Burkha director Alankrita Shrivastava


Written by Dipti Sharma
| New Delhi |
Updated: March 11, 2017 9:43 am

Lipstick Under My Burkha: I don’t see this ban as an act by an individual. To me, the CBFC is a Government body, says Alankrita Shrivastava.

In an interview with, Lipstick Under My Burkha director Alankrita Shrivastava spoke about censor board, her movie, feminism and what it means to be a woman filmmaker. Below are excerpts from the interview:

Were you expecting such a decision (on refusing to certify film Lipstick Under My Burkha) from censor board?

No, I wasn’t. It gave me quite a shock. Previously films like Margarita with a Straw, Parched, Qissa, BA Pass, Fire had been certified. So I assumed Lipstick Under My Burkha also would be.

Do you find the decision politically motivated?
I have no idea. All I know is that the CBFC has exposed itself to be an outdated regressive body that is patriarchal and does not know how to view cinema in the right context.

During the last few months, several films ( including Ka Bodyscapes) have faced problems with CBFC. In that sense, do you still see ‘Lipstick Under My Burkha’ ban as a specific case?

I have not followed the Ka Bodyscapes case properly, but if I am to understand correctly, their battle has been on since last year. They have already been to court. Haraamkhor too had a long drawn struggle. Udta Punjab was ordered to make a zillion cuts. So obviously the issue is with censorship as a whole. It does not tie with a democratic country where the freedom of expression is guaranteed by the constitution.

The specific thing about the decision on Lipstick was that it exposed the sexism, the discrimination against a film with a female point of view. It revealed their insistence on propagating only a certain male-gaze dominant narrative in popular culture. And in a sense, their other decisions also reflect their narrow-minded approach to cinema and their discomfort with any alternative point of view.

Normally, we don’t see film industry getting united, speaking and protesting such decisions. Are you getting support from film fraternity?

The film industry is a large amorphous group of people. And I’m quite sure that no rational filmmaker is really pro-censorship. Everybody wants a system of certification. I don’t think there is any doubt about that. And most importantly, the producer of Lipstick Under My Burkha, Mr Prakash Jha, is a veteran in dealing with the censor board.

And we are getting support from people across the country, from the media, from civil society (Oxfam, Amnesty among many others), from fellow filmmakers. The voices of support are much beyond the suburbs of Mumbai. People from people different parts of the world are reaching out in support. It is amazing.

Do you as a filmmaker and a woman have a problem with women being objectified in films when they are featured in the item numbers?

I don’t believe in objectifying women. I am quite conscious of my female gaze. I would not make the camera go up and down a woman’s body for no narrative reason. That does not mean that a woman cannot be sexual. But that she needs to be in charge of her own sexuality. This is the battle of the gaze in cinema. But I have no issues with any kind of content that is created. As long as the audience has choices. If we only feed the audience a certain kind of culture, then that becomes the dominant culture. People should be free to engage in all kinds of films, songs, books and decide for themselves.

Also, there is commerce attached to the culture industry. I don’t think it is incumbent upon all women to challenge the representation of women and the status quo. So women are willing participants in the business and that is fine. Also, women subvert these situations too. Even if they are participating in creating a culture where they themselves are objectified, they rebel in insidious ways. And they empower themselves to use their personas. So that is fine. As long as it is not the only option available to women in the industry it is fine.

Feminism really does mean that women have the power to choose. And then they can choose whatever they like. Therefore, it is important to have a healthy cultural space with all kinds of points of view. I personally feel strongly about the representation of women in culture, so I will not perpetuate the objectification of women. But I know that it is not a cross for every woman in the industry to bear. Women cannot be burdened with challenging the status quo. If they feel strongly, they will do so. And they will do so in ways that are unique to them.

Do you also see it as the hypocrisy of CBFC when often vulgar, obscene items numbers are passed without censorship?

The hypocrisy lies in the fact the CBFC refuses to provide a level playing field to all kinds of narratives and points of view. The hypocrisy is in the fact that sexual content – if it is created for the purpose of fulfilling male desire is alright. But the minute women have agency over their sexuality, it bothers the CBFC.

Women, then, according to the CBFC should exist only to play the roles ordained for them by men. Aren’t women living, breathing people? With dreams, desires, flaws, depth, darkness and light?

During the last few years, we have had many women-centric films but few explore women’s desires and fantasies. Why it’s so?

I think it is easier to think of women as worship-worthy. The purity and goodness of women are considered sacred. They are then heroic, above censure, virginal almost. I think women who are real and grey are rarely portrayed in cinema.

A woman having agency over her own life and body and desires threatens the male ego I think. She challenges the status quo. A “great” woman is above it all, so perhaps she doesn’t challenge the status quo. We need to see many more real, regular, ordinary women with their idiosyncrasies and vulnerabilities, on screen. Just people. We have a long way to go. But I think things are beginning to change.

Lipstick Under My Burkha caters to a certain audience. However, do you think as a society we are mature enough to see films like Lipstick Under My Burkha?

Lipstick Under My Burkha is a very accessible film. I think anybody can watch it. As a society, we are definitely mature enough to watch it. For how long will we keep treating the Indian audience as incapable of understanding cinema? Why is the rest of the world capable of watching the film, but not people in India? The CBFC’s method of functioning is insulting to the Indian audience. If the adult audience can vote, why can’t they choose the films they want to watch. One would think voting was a far more important responsibility.

Lets give the Indian audience more alternative stories, lets work towards helping the audience see that there are other kinds of films that they can watch. And I believe that the audience will watch them.

A lot of media outlets in the country have related Gurmehar Kaur and Lipstick Under My Burkha ban as country’s failure to respect its women. Do you think that both issues originate from same parochial mentalities?

The climate in India is one that is uncomfortable with women speaking out. There is the constant pressure to keep us quiet. I feel everything is connected. Violence against women, eve teasing on the roads, dowry, female foeticide, single women not getting housing, corporate glass ceilings, trolling of women on twitter, the objectification of women in popular culture, sexual harassment at the workplace, unequal pay, domestic violence, body shaming, date rape…

This is the environment for women in the country. In such an environment when women speak out, it challenges the status quo. It challenges the stronghold of patriarchy.  So whether it is institutional, like the CBFC, or trolls on twitter, the urge to shut women up is really strong. But we have to create a healthy atmosphere for women in India. And a culture that encourages female voices and female points of view is really important.

Who would you blame for Lipstick Under My Burkha ban?

I don’t see this ban as an act by an individual. To me, the CBFC is a Government body. I don’t care who is running it. I care that it is functioning in a way that it is throttling freedom of expression, and openly and clearly attacking women’s voices. And as a woman and as a filmmaker it is my duty to question this method of functioning. A society that legitimises the silencing of women is doomed for disaster.
How do you see yourself – a filmmaker struggling to get her film passed by censor board or a woman filmmaker fighting for her feminist movie?

I am a woman who is a filmmaker. My first concern is the attack on women’s rights. My second concern is the attack on freedom of expression in general. I think for me it is more than just trying to get my film certified. I feel what is under threat is specifically the right of women to tell their stories. And that is very dangerous for any society. I want Lipstick Under My Burkha to set a precedent, that it is okay for women to tell their stories from their point of view. And that filmmakers can make films free from the fear of censorship.

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A lot of people in the country including educated ones are still not very clear about the idea of feminism or shy away from expressing their views on it. What do you think about it?

I am a positive and optimistic person. I believe that the fact that we are having so many conversations about feminism is fantastic. Feminism is really the belief that women and men should have equal rights and opportunities. It is high time the stigma around the term feminism is done away with.

We need to own our feminism. Our predecessors have fought hard for women to have the right to vote, to work, to not be married off as children, to not have to jump into the pyre when the husband dies…  It is time for us to move forward building on what we have inherited.

Also, I feel just because people don’t want to use the word feminist does not mean that they actually don’t believe in gender equality. Some young girls are perhaps afraid of the term. But they are all enjoying the fruits of the feminist movement. And the idea of feminism is not to pressurise women to label themselves feminist. It is more important that they are actually able to fight for equality in all areas of their lives.

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