When director Alankrita Shrivastava set out to make her second feature film, she had no idea that a modest story about four small-town Indian women would create such a furor.
“Lipstick Under My Burkha,” which follows two Hindus and two Muslims searching for personal and sexual freedom, was blocked from Indian theaters this year by the national censor board even as it collected awards at international film festivals.
The censor board cited the film’s “lady-oriented content,” “sexual scenes” and “audio pornography” – reasons that might have confused fans of India’s mainstream Bollywood cinema, in which writhing dance moves, blatant double entendres and near-naked bodies are practically requirements for a studio release.
The decision made Shrivastava’s film, which opens the 15th Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles on Wednesday, the latest flashpoint in an escalating culture war in India, where powerful conservative forces are exerting increasing control over art and expression.
The Central Board of Film Certification, whose chairman Pahlaj Nihalani was appointed after a Hindu nationalist party rose to power in 2014, stoked controversy last year for demanding cuts to a movie about the drug menace in the northern state of Punjab. Many independent artists also objected when the government installed loyalists to lead India’s most prestigious film school, and after the country’s Supreme Court made standing for the national anthem mandatory at movie theaters.
Shrivastava said the censor board has hardly objected to films that objectify women or insert them into stock, nonthreatening roles: the pin-up, the good girl, the vamp. It is part of the challenge of independent cinema in India, which struggles to find an audience in a Bollywood-obsessed country.
“They [the censor board] are very interested in perpetuating the male gaze, and anything that is an alternative point of view makes them uncomfortable,” Shrivastava said. “Their point of reference seems to be mainstream cinema that has very convenient representations of women… and there’s no space for ordinary women with their ups and downs, their flaws, their quirks. That representation is really missing in Indian culture.”
Those stories are what Shrivastava sought to explore with “Lipstick,” whose intertwined stories involve a Muslim college student who wears a full-body burkha at home but rebels by shoplifting lipstick and clothes; a Hindu beautician with a robust sex life who is being forced into an arranged marriage; a Muslim mother of three with a repressive husband; and a 55-year-old Hindu widow trying to restart her life.
Set in the central city of Bhopal, which like all Indian urban centers is experiencing a dramatic transformation, the film also grapples with the tension between tradition and change. The widow, who in orthodox Hindu culture would be expected to mourn for the rest of her life, secretly devours steamy pulp fiction, dreaming of a sexual reawakening she is not supposed to have.
“They live these very claustrophobic lives and they want to live a little, feel a little bit of freedom,” Shrivastava said. “It’s about their secret desires, their secret dreams and acts of rebellion to help them find breathing space.”
It is not clear what the Indian censors objected to. The letter they sent to producer Prakash Jha is oddly worded and riddled with misspellings, at one point referring to “a bit sensitive touch about one particular section of society.”
If the censor board meant Muslims, who make up 14% of India’s 1.25 billion people, Shrivastava said she set her story in Bhopal because Muslims and majority Hindus live alongside each other in older neighborhoods there, unlike other Indian cities where the communities are more segregated.
The film has achieved a notoriety that surprised Shrivastava, who only wanted to tell a story from a female perspective.
“I fear that when people watch it, they will think, ‘What is there in this film, there’s nothing explosive!’” she said. “It’s really just the point of view.”
Last week, before leaving for Los Angeles, Shrivastava screened “Lipstick” to an appellate body that will decide whether to overturn the censors and allow it to be released in India.
“I feel we have to fight this,” she said. “The more we give in the worse it’s going to get. It’s 2017 and India is a free and democratic country. We have to make that democracy real for ourselves.”
“Lipstick Under My Burkha” opens the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles on April 5 at at 7:30 p.m. at Regal Cinemas L.A. Live, 1000 W. Olympic Blvd.