While the Trump era in America has enraged and galvanized feminists here, there’s a women’s liberation movement in India that is still struggling for the most basic rights and freedoms. Of course, India is a very different nation and it has far more misogynistic traditions, patriarchal prejudices and an inert legal system to overcome. The marked prevalence of violence against women there is appalling.
Thankfully, there is a tradition of Indian feminism that is now getting a spark by a slate of new films this year, including, “Anaarkali of Aarah,” about a female singer who exacts revenge after being abused, and “Sonata,” an all-women ensemble. And leading the way is “Lipstick Under My Burkha,” directed by Alankrita Shrivastava. The film was released in India earlier this year, after being initially banned by a government film board for, in part, being too “lady oriented.” After making cuts, Shrivastava reversed the decision and the film has become a critical and box office success.
Salon interviewed Shrivastava about “Lipstick Under My Burkha,” which was released in the U.S. last weekend, and found the experience quite liberating.
Who are your primary influences as a filmmaker?
I am primarily influenced by books, not so much by films. I find that my work as a filmmaker is constantly drawing from literary influences.
I have grown up reading constantly; From popular bestsellers, to crime fiction, to literary fiction. I think the basis of my work is the fact that I have always been reading.
A lot of female writers have also influenced me. Doris Lessing, Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen, Toni Morrison, Alice Munro, Elfriede Jelinek . . . And more recently Elena Ferrante, Barbara Pym and Penelope Fitzgerald.
I also draw a lot from looking at paintings. I often map out characters, based on paintings or works by particular artists that I feel reflects something about those characters. But this is more at the time of preparation for the film shoot.
In terms of films, I am most drawn to world cinema and independent films. I love Iranian films. Some of my other favorite filmmakers are Almodovar, Wong Kar Wai, Nicole Holofcener and Andrea Arnold.
But I guess I am also deeply influenced by the women I see around me in real life. And I guess that is why I love writing and directing films about women.
What inspired you to make “Lipstick Under My Burkha?”
I think I was preoccupied with thoughts about how free am I as a woman. Growing up, I never felt anyone imposing limits on my freedom. I was always encouraged to think for myself and live my life the way I wanted to. And yet I found that as a grown woman I don’t feel fully free. And something keeps holding me back. I thought I should explore this more deeply.
And I thought that rather than exploring this theme through a world similar to mine, why don’t I explore it through a world where women actually have constraints on their freedom.
And so I started thinking about these four women who are not economically so well off and who are expected to play certain clear-cut roles in society and yet, just like me, they keep dreaming of freedom.
Why did you make the lead characters both Muslim and Hindu?
India is a diverse country. And I do think that it is important for the multi-cultural ethos of the country to be reflected in popular culture and cinema when it lends itself to the subject matter so easily and beautifully.
Patriarchy knows no religion. Indian women, cutting across religion, are often boxed in by the prescribed roles that a patriarchal society sets for them. But women are living, breathing people who have their own dreams, aspirations, ambition and desires. And this desire too cuts across divisions of religion.
In a world where it is hard for women to pursue their dreams in the open, they are bound to rebel in secret. This holds true for women, be they Hindu or Muslim.
And so “Lipstick Under My Burkha” has two characters who are Hindu and two who are Muslim.
Also, the film is set in the old city of Bhopal. Here Hindus and Muslims live in very close proximity. And I like that organic and chaotic harmony.
Was it difficult getting financing for the film? Were you advised not to make it because of its controversial nature?
I have worked with the production company, Prakash Jha Productions, since I finished college. I worked on several feature films in various capacities.
My first feature film, “Turning 30,” was also produced by them.
Because of my long term relationship with Prakash Jha Productions, it was not difficult to get financing for the film. And I was never questioned about why I wanted to make this film.
However, it was a very long and difficult journey. Even after the film was green-lit in principle, it took a long time to actually start production.
It took a while after the film was ready to actually get the film out.
I believe that the reason a film like “Lipstick Under My Burkha” found funding in India was because it was an independent producer (Mr. Prakash Jha) whose company self-funded the film. Mr Jha is a brave producer who was willing to take the personal financial risk. I doubt very much that any studio in India would have ever funded the film.
Even when it came to finding distribution in India, studios in India were not interested in supporting the film. It was finally a female studio head, Ms. Ekta Kapoor, who jumped in to get the film released.
I think studios in India are not very open to backing alternative independent films that don’t toe the line of the mainstream paradigm. They prefer playing safe. And in that sense “Lipstick Under My Burkha” was anything but safe! I am glad it somehow got made and made it to theaters. And it was wonderful that it actually was a commercial success in India.
Are you thankful the censor board helped generate a lot of media attention for the film?
I can never be thankful for any kind of censorship. It is shameful that a free and democratic country like India can legitimately gag a film for being too feminist.
I am glad that we have a judicial system in India that enables us to get drastic decisions like this reversed.
The good thing that came out of the censor board decision is that important conversations about the representation of women in cinema began. Conversations that had been due for decades perhaps. For the first time, the mainstream media was actually writing about the missing female gaze in Indian cinema. And the fact that cinema has been controlled by men and shaped by the male gaze for decades and decades. Conversations on the objectification and stereotyping of women in cinema on the one hand and the complete lack of space for films with alternative points of view on the other hand. I am happy that we succeeded in sparking off and steering the conversation in this direction.
On social media too, there were so many conversations about how women are portrayed on screen. And how cinema in India far from represents the living, breathing women of India.
As an artist, I think it is important to challenge the status quo of society, and if a film does that then I think it is a positive thing. In that sense, “Lipstick Under My Burkha” has been a watershed in creating debate and discussion about the gender norms of popular culture in India.
Regarding the cuts you made that the censor board requested; Did you feel like you were compromising the integrity of the film?
Just to clarify, the Censor Board rejected the film outright. They never asked for any cuts. They just said a blanket “No” to the public exhibition of the film, in effect banning it.
It was the FCAT, the quasi-judicial body that we approached to reverse the decision, that asked me to make cuts. There was no way of getting the film certified without making a compromise. So, I had to reduce some seconds of the sex scenes. Between the film not being allowed to release at all and reducing a few seconds of sex, I thought it wiser to make the changes to ensure that the film releases in theaters in India.
There was no choice in the matter! As a filmmaker, it is frustrating. But it would have been far worse if the film had not seen the light of day at all. I did what was the most practical thing under the circumstances. Sometimes to win the war, you have to lose a battle.
The fact that “Lipstick Under My Burkha” got released is a huge victory for the voices of women in India. And I feel very vindicated.
I don’t believe in any kind of censorship. No cuts, reduction, deletion, muting of words at all. But in India we are constantly subjected to this censorship. And there are laws that allow this kind of censorship. For the system to change, the laws about censorship have to change.
The whole experience with the banning of the film did feel like the story of the characters in the film in some way was becoming the story of the film. It was rather ironic.
What hope do you have that Indian women like those in “Lipstick Under My Burkha” will be able to achieve significant freedom and autonomy in the next five or ten years?
I think women from small town India are on the cusp of a lot of change. They want more freedom, they want to live out more of their dreams, but society keeps trying to confine them. I wish the next decade spells hope for a lot of women like the ones in “Lipstick under My Burkha.” I definitely think there will be more women getting educated and working and becoming financially more independent. But I am not sure that there will be a seismic shift towards them definitely having more agency over their own lives and bodies.
Patriarchy is very entrenched and tradition often binds women in ways we do not even realize. Women often tend to just take jobs rather than choose careers. And then family always comes first. Crimes against women abound. Public space in India is still owned completely by men. The preference for a male child, arranged marriages, dowry . . . . The fact that marital rape is not even a crime!
I don’t see all of that changing very fast. But hopefully women will keep subverting their prescribed roles in society and keep breaking away to live the lives they dream of. . . . Even if just some little pieces, one step at a time.
What impact is the film having in India?
Most of all, the film has got a lot of love, and appreciation. And that has been overwhelming. The film trade insiders are stunned that an alternative film like this has done well. It’s a great sign for a new, more independent cinema. For more female driven cinema. I think the film has given a lot of younger filmmakers hope.
Nobody was expecting that so many people would actually buy tickets and go to the theatre and watch the film. The response has been really heartening.
Many women have found the viewing to be a very emotional experience. They are seeing themselves, their mothers, aunts, sisters, cousins, grandmothers in the film. I think there is a feeling that a film has spoken about many unsaid female experiences, and with honesty. I think that is new for cinema in India.
For some men, I think it has been a different viewing experience. Many men have reported how they never thought about women’s lives much before. Some men have really found the film to be an eye-opener for them. There has been a fair amount of discomfort for men watching the film too. Nervous laughter at the darkest moments in the film, simply because they did not know how to react. They have never had to confront reality on screen before. Some men who watched the film felt too embarrassed to tell neighbors and family they had seen it.
Overall, after most shows there was an impulsive standing up and clapping in screens. Even after all the awkward laughter.
And on social media people have been debating about the film. There have been many, many write-ups on what the film means for gender politics in India. I think the greatest impact the film has had is that it is making people actively discuss gender inequality in society. And gender representation in cinema. In a country with such deep biases against women, I think that is great achievement.