Lipstick Under My Burkha director Alankrita Srivastava: The story of my women characters has become the story of the film

Alankrita Srivastava, 37, on the struggle to release her film, Lipstick Under My Burkha, the problem with censorship in a democracy and why there are not enough women making films. Her film was facing problems with the CBFC for being too lady- oriented.

Written by Alaka Sahani | Updated: July 2, 2017 7:29 pm
Director of Lipstick Under my Burkha Alankrita Shrivastava talks about her upcoming film, EXPRESS PHOTO by Amit Chakravarty

Alankrita Srivastava, 37, speaks about the struggle she faced to release her film, Lipstick Under My Burkha, the problem with censorship in a democracy and why there are not enough women making films. Here are the excerpts from the interview.

The poster of Lipstick Under My Burkha has created quite a stir. Whose idea was it?

The poster does capture the idea of a colourful revolt, defying patriarchy. I love it. Ekta Kapoor and her marketing team came up with the poster after brainstorming with the designing agency. That’s the fun of having a studio like ALT Entertainment. They have just come on board and are doing their best to add value to the project to ensure that the film reaches a wider audience.

You are clearly out to make a statement with the poster.

Of course, we are. Lipstick Under My Burkha is a small indie movie about four ordinary women, but our fight to exhibit it in India has given it a much larger resonance. Our struggle to release it indicates that women are not as free to express themselves as the Constitution of India guarantees. So, it is important for me because of the kind of precedent we are setting. Had we let the authorities ban a film because it is made from the point of view of women, it would have encouraged them to take similiar steps in future. After having struggled for so many months, I am glad that we are trying to put our best foot forward.

What was your reaction when you got the letter from the Central Board for Film Certification (CBFC), which called it a “lady-oriented” movie?

I thought it was ridiculous. When I got the letter from the examining committee, I went ahead and applied to the revising committee. Interestingly, after the examining committee screening, the members who watched it told me that they were a divided house and they would get back to me in writing. Some of them even said that the film showed the truth about Indian women. At the revising committee screening, which (CBFC chief) Pahlaj Nihalani attended, I was appalled by the way they treated us. They don’t even say ‘hello’ to you. There is no conversation that takes place. Once the screening was over, he said that they had taken the unanimous decision of not certifying the film. They did ask me if I had anything to say. I didn’t know if they were expecting me to plead or grovel. There was such a lopsided power dynamics at work. I tweeted the examining committee’s letter after that.

Why did you decide to go public with it?

This was a wake-up call for me. I realised that we have to claim our freedom as women, artists and citizens of India. Even if the Constitution guarantees it, unless we claim our freedom and live it, it would remain hollow. They cited ‘audio pornography’ and ‘sexually contagious’ content as reasons for their decision. Indian cinema does have too much sex, but everyone seems fine with it. When four women characters make it clear that they are not happy with the roles society has prescribed for them, it becomes problematic. This was discriminatory and a violation of a woman’s right to speak up. So many people suggested that I opt for an internet release to avoid censorship. To me, it was like telling a girl to home study while her brother goes to school.

Given the way CBFC has been acting, were you not anticipating trouble?

No, I wasn’t. In my head, there is nothing wrong with the film. There is no nudity. I assumed they might ask for some cuts. However, the truth is, we have been living with censorship for a very long time. As citizens of a free country, I don’t know why we have been living with it and putting two flowers together to indicate kissing. In my opinion, it is not about one person but the entire system. What rankles is the idea of censorship in a democracy. The next CBFC chief might have his\her own idea about censorship. They are allowed to take such decisions under the Cinematograph Act, 1952, which can be interpreted in many ways. We must get rid of this and move to a system of certification. My first film Turning 30 (2011) had nothing objectionable. Yet, it got an ‘A’ certificate.

Did you challenge it at that time?

No. I accepted it as I didn’t want any cuts. They objected to some kissing scenes and showing the lead character in bed with a boy. While certifying its promo, they also had problems with dialogues such as a girl saying, ‘I don’t want to marry you just because I slept with you’. They also objected to a bachelorette scene with male strippers. Even though stripping was not shown but implied, it didn’t go down well with them that women were ogling at men. It just shows the double standards, since they are okay with item numbers like Munni Badnam and Chikni Chameli.

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How did Ekta Kapoor come on board?

We needed a studio to get proper shows and to market Lipstick… properly. Prakash-ji (producer Prakash Jha) asked Ekta to watch the film. She really liked it. She definitely has a lot of muscle in the industry and her coming on board as the pan-India distributor will add value to the film. We are planning to release it on 450 screens. I believe the story of my women characters has become the story of the film. Just like them, the film is also struggling to break out. The film has now gained a political context in terms of popular culture and gender in India.

At the Cannes Film Festival this year, actor Jessica Chastain criticised the lack of women storytellers. What do you perceive as the problem?

We are 50 per cent of the population. Unless half of the films are about women and made by them, the lack of representation of women in movies will continue. This is not to say that all women directors should make films about women alone. But we need to have female protagonists, directors and the female gaze. The industry is a male bastion. Women have to push their way and break the glass ceiling. There is no better time than now to do so.
Personally, the kind of movies I wish to make are difficult as they have to be viable. Some others believe they are not getting opportunities or funding because they are women. Another big issue is that a lot of women get caught up in supporting men and not pursuing their dreams. It requires a lot of tenacity and perseverance.

You assisted filmmaker Prakash Jha for eight years before making your debut as a director. What has been your biggest struggle?

Apart from the problem of censorship, it was challenging to get Turning 30 released, because the market does not seem to care about this kind of films. It was the same with Lipstick Under My Burkha. During the making of Turning 30, a lot of studios would treat me badly, maybe because it was a small, independent movie. During its post-production, I felt no one was taking me seriously. Studios would give me a slot at 1.30 am for two hours for post-production work and I would take it. While making Lipstick…, I chose to work with those who respect small films. You have to learn to put your foot down. For the first day shoot of Turning 30, I had planned some hand-held shots. Two months prior to the shoot, I specified the camera I want to the production people and kept reminding them. Still, the studio sent some other camera. I chose not to go ahead with the shoot because if I compromised that day, I would have to keep doing it.

How have you grown as a filmmaker since then?

I have become much more serious about my craft. I have worked harder on the script and editing of Lipstick…. During the making of Turning 30, I was working like a maniac and not thinking much. I shot it between the schedule of Raajneeti (2010) and took a break only to write its script. Attending the NFDC Sciptwriting Lab for Lipstick… really helped me. I started thinking more deeply about writing. What I was trying to say then and now remain the same. Both the movies talk about women finding courage.

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How has your politics shaped up amid all of these?

I come from a progressive family. My mother, who used to work with the UN, and her brother got into IIM together. My uncle worked to support my mother’s studies. I went to a boarding school (Welham Girls’ School, Dehra Dun), which encouraged us to think and read and educated us about women’s rights. After that, I went to Lady Shri Ram College in Delhi. I guess I have been brought up like that.

When did you decide to be a filmmaker?

Cinema is more about storytelling; politics is inherent in any story. When I was in junior school, the Class XII students had made an audio-visual presentation on the founder’s day. I got goosebumps watching it. From that moment, I wanted to tell stories, not just with words, but visually.

What comes after this?

I have some ideas, but I haven’t had any time to write. Lipstick… is constantly travelling. It has been to 35 film festivals and won 11 awards so far. It is scheduled to travel to some more festivals. After its India release, we are going to start our Golden Globe campaign in August.

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