CBFC needs classes on cinema, gender: Lipstick Under My Burkha director

Alankrita Shrivastava comes down heavily on the 'uneducated, illogical' certification body which sanctions the objectification of women and fears any disruption of the patriarchal order.

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Keyur Seta

Director Alankrita Shrivastava’s Lipstick Under My Burkha was recently refused certification by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), or the censor board as it is popularly known. According to the board, the film is unfit to be viewed by audiences. One of the reasons cited by the CBFC is that the film is ‘lady-oriented’ (sic). That the film is winning international acclaim and awards seems to be of little consequence to the board's members.

In an explosive interview with, Shrivastava shared her thoughts on the controversy and why she believes the CBFC's members need an education. Excerpts:

Your film is winning a lot of acclaim and awards internationally. Did you expect this while making the film?

No, I didn’t think so much. I just started thinking about the story and how to get the film made. I am not the kind of person who thinks so far ahead. Also, I feel it is a very culture-specific Indian story. It’s very rooted. So, I wasn’t expecting people from so many cultures to connect with it. But it’s a very fulfilling feeling. So, I am waiting for people in India to watch it. 

But the film is stuck with the censor board in India, the very country it is set in. 

I think it’s just very wrong that the CBFC is saying they don’t want to certify a film like this because it tells of a very archaic mindset. It’s ridiculous, but it’s also very scary. The CBFC is actually saying that women should not tell their stories from their point of view because it’s not important; they should not express their feelings, thoughts and opinions.

I feel in a country where there is so much discrimination against women like female foeticide, dowry deaths, income disparity, sexual harassment on the streets and violence, it is very important that women get space in popular culture to tell their stories and express themselves through whatever means, be it songs, films, paintings. 

But here we have a legitimate government body legally stating that women shouldn’t tell their stories and how they feel and think is not important. They are branding this film by saying [it has] ‘sexual scenes’ and ‘audio pornographic’ content. This is so wrong, because there is enough sexual content in films. But it’s just there to serve male fulfilment. So you have these item songs and they are random. What is the camera doing going up and down a woman’s body? Does that have anything to do with the story? No! This is something we will accept. Also the term ‘item song’. And double meaning lyrics. We are not saying don’t have that. But there should be a level playing field. 

One of the reasons given for not certifying the film is that it’s ‘lady-oriented’. What do you think of that?

The problem for them is that, for once, women are talking of such things from their point of view. How do I feel? Am I sexually fulfilled in a relationship? Do I not have dreams and desires? Also, the film is not just about that. It’s genuinely about women trying to find freedom in places which are claustrophobic. So I feel it’s very, very wrong to say that only the male-gaze view of popular culture is okay; anything else is not. We are legitimizing the silencing of women’s voices and clamping down of freedom of expression, which is so not in keeping with the Constitution of India that guarantees freedom of expression and gender equality. 

We are in 2017 and we are constantly engaging with a lot of popular culture without thinking about it at all. We feel it’s absolutely okay if stalking is portrayed as love. I have had a stalker and I know it’s really scary. We normalize the objectification of women, eve-teasing as love, stalking as a form of courtship. We feel this is all cool.

But why can’t we have some alternative ways of telling stories of how women actually feel? If a few people might want to watch some alternative point of view, why stop them? They are feeling so threatened that it will disrupt this huge patriarchal order. And this is a colonized mindset that Indians are not mature enough to understand. Why is the rest of the world mature to understand a film and not Indians? Why, as an audience, are you telling me that someone from France, Japan or Cairo can watch something, but I can’t? 

Whoever has written it [the CBFC's note to the producers] is not well versed in English. They should have written it in Hindi. It’s a joke the way they have worded the letter. But I feel what they were trying to say is not about having women characters with the film. It’s about the film speaking from a female point of view. When a female has control over her womb or intercourse, it is problematic for them. Through this the woman says she is not the person who is always acted upon or consumed. 

A lot of filmmakers are of the view that there should be no censorship. What is your take?

I feel the whole concept of censorship is redundant. It has no meaning in a free and democratic country. This censor board can’t even do the job of certification. They have no idea, or they choose to not have an idea, I don’t know. Either they are pretending to be not educated about cinema or they generally aren’t. They don’t know how to watch a film. They have no idea about the connection between cinema and society, the politics of representation in cinema, gender dynamics, what a film means, whose point of view it’s from, what it is expressing, what kinds of narrative exist across the world. Their only point of reference seems to be the mainstream, popular cinema. 

Did you have a word with the members later?

I must recount my experience of the two screenings. First was with the examining committee. They told me that it’s a divided house and they can’t take a decision and they will get back to me in writing. They also told me that it’s a very realistic portrayal of the truth of Indian women. After that I got the letter that said it’s a ‘lady-oriented’ film.

Then we applied for a revising committee screening. There I met Mr Nihalani. He told me that they have made a unanimous decision of not certifying the film. It had nothing to do with one scene or many sequences; it’s the whole film. They said there is nothing to discuss. 

Also the way they conduct these interactions is very lopsided in terms of the power dynamics. They sit and you enter like a criminal. You stand as if you are on trial. It’s as if you have committed a crime by making the film and they have to decide one way or the other. There was no space for discussion. His [Nihalani's] PA [personal assistant] asked whether I have something to say. I said I had nothing to say because he had said everything that had to be said clearly.

I don’t know whether they were expecting me to grovel or beg. I feel the whole concept of dialogue is two people sit on an equal footing. Between a filmmaker and a certification body there should be a transactional thing, not a power equation. Why is the censor board like our [filmmakers'] god? This is ridiculous. I felt very offended as a filmmaker and a woman in terms of how they conducted themselves. 

Konkana Sensharma in LUMB

Were you expecting the film would face such a problem?

Of course not. Nobody makes a film thinking it would be banned. Because they have passed so many such films — Margarita With A Straw (2015), BA Pass (2013), Qissa (2015), Fire (1998), Parched (2016) and Pink (2016).

What should be the solution for this, according to you?

I think the way it [the CBFC] functions has to be dismantled. A certification body has to be set up. But like I said, I don’t think these guys can [do it]. Certification requires a different mindset. You need to decide whether a film is Adult, Parental Guidance 15 or 12. That’s it. I don’t know if the board] can even function that way. I don’t think the same set-up can do this. That’s for the government to figure out.

I feel there should be new independent body whose job is to just certify films. It requires a very different approach. They need some classes. They are behaving like an uneducated lot of illogical people. It makes you feel as if you want to laugh. They are not educated vis-à-vis anything about cinema. Definitely they need some classes on gender dynamics. 

What is your next step now?

We have applied to the tribunal. On 27 March we have a screening for the FCAT [Film Certification Appellate Tribunal] in Delhi. They are a different body. I am quite hopeful that the FCAT can see the film in context. I think they would be able to see the film for what it is. It’s ironic that the film got the Oxfam award, an award for best film on gender equality. We also got an award in France in the oldest and most prestigious film festival in the world. We got a grand jury prize by the French ministry of women’s affairs.

That’s the whole dichotomy of the situation. The feminism of the film is bothering them [the CBFC], which is exactly what is recognized about the film [overseas]. 

Due to the issues faced by your film, will you refrain from making such films in the future?

No, I will not, because I don’t think I am interested in making films just for the heck of it. I make films only to tell stories I wish to tell. Film is the medium that works for me through which I express myself.

I am quite clear that I am not diverting myself from my path. I am interested in exploring the complex, interior world of women. I would rather be the change than cower. I think I have nothing to contribute to any other kind of stories. It takes so much out of you to make such small films that you really want to tell that story.