As a filmmaker and an actor, it seems you’ve had an interesting year with the CBFC. You had to censor some things in your debut feature, A Death in the Gunj, and then Lipstick Under My Burkha faced a serious challenge to get certified.
A Death in the Gunj is set in 1979 and we had to mute a joke that referred to Indira Gandhi. The censors also wouldn’t allow the tortoise that some of the characters talk about to be called Kalidas because it’s the name of a respected poet.
I know that my worldview is not a majoritarian one, that it’s not a popular way of thinking. I’ve been used to that from a young age. I know the films that I want to do are not easy — in the sense that they are not mass-appeal productions. These kind of run-ins are par for the course. Udta Punjab, Haraamkhor, Lipstick Under My Burkha, all these films had to appear in front of a tribunal. I think the CBFC did us a great service, though — so many more people know about this film now.
What is it about the film that, you think, spooked the CBFC?
I think it’s the desire of women, especially older women in India. The urban younger woman’s rebellion has still been vaguely accepted. Their existence is judged, but it’s acknowledged. But the sexual desire or the ambition of slightly older women, in their 30s, or those in their 50s, is not allowed. My character, Shireen, is not a shrill feminist. She’s not aware of these terms. She is somebody who says, ‘This is my reality, how can I subvert this? Which battles should I pick?’ We don’t get to see much of that in our cinema, we don’t get to witness the lives of these women. Those of us who live in Mumbai or Delhi have notions about what women who live in Bhopal, or smaller towns, are like; and that perception is wrong. Some people are scared by how complex and subversive these women’s lives can be.
When did you join the cast?
Alankrita (Srivastava, the director) came to me with the script a few years ago. We have mutual friends. I read it and loved it. The role was well written and nuanced. This was before I started to shoot A Death in the Gunj. I said yes immediately and we began shooting on location in Bhopal. That felt very genuine. That is a rare feeling because, as an actor, one has to take the material one is given and make it authentic. In case of Lipstick Under My Burkha, I already had that in the writing itself.
Would you say that, since the beginning of your career, you’ve been typecast in Bollywood?
I get roles where I’m the activist type or I’m always morally upright. I’m totally adarsh balika. I’ve been a bad girl very late in my career, Ek Thi Daayan; and there were some shades of grey in Talvar. Page 3 set the tone, and everybody else enforced it. There was a lack of imagination.
A Death in the Gunj had a decent run in the theatres and has been critically acclaimed. You must be thrilled.
It feels weird for me, because it’s so public and people have seen the film. I was intimidated while we were making the film. It was my first as a director. I’d say I’m a curious mix of being confident and nervous. I really am Shutu (played by Vikrant Massey). You want to get along with people and fit in, but you don’t have the wherewithal to do that. So, it’s always a struggle for some people and not some others. It’s about power, really, and that’s what I wanted to show in the film. People can be cruel without thinking, and a lot of that comes from how they’ve been conditioned, and because they can get away with it.
What are you working on now?
I’ve said yes to a few scripts, where I’m not a good girl. But again, they’re a bit unusual, so I don’t know if they’ll get funding. Unless you have a big male star, it’s very difficult to get funding for different kinds of films.