The Director of ‘Lipstick Under My Burkha’ On Films, Sex and Feminism

As an 11-year-old in Welham Girls’ School in Dehradun, Alankrita Shrivastava attended a screening of an audio-visual made by her seniors for the school’s annual-day function. It was held after dark in an open space on the campus. The students watched in silence as the images unfolded on screen, the soft cool breeze of Uttarkhand’s foothills casting a magical spell in the darkness. “It was beautiful,” says Alankrita more than two decades later. “I had goose bumps seeing that amateur AV for the first time. That’s all I wanted to do in my senior year – make a film.”

cover neIn fact, she made many films, the most recent of which managed to get under the skin of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC). Directed by Alankrita, Lipstick Under My Burkha won 10 awards at film festivals around the world from November 2016 till June 2017 – including the Oxfam Award for the Best Film on Gender Equality at the Mumbai Film Festival, the Spirit of Asia prize at the Tokyo International Film Festival, the Best Film at Glasgow Film Festival, and the Grand Jury prize at Films de Femme, Creteil, France.

But its Indian release was struck down by the censorship body earlier this year.

With a stellar cast including Konkona Sensharma, Ratna Pathak Shah, Aahana Kumra, Plabita Borthakur, Sushant Singh, Vikrant Massey and Shashank Arora, the film revolves around four women from small-town India on a quest to express their desires and dreams within the confines of their restrained lives. The censor board, while refusing to certify the film, said, “The story is lady oriented, their fantasy above life. There are continuous sexual scenes, abusive words, audio pornography and a bit sensitive touch about one particular section of society, hence film refused (sic).”

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Konkona Sensharma in ‘Lipstick Under My Burkha’

But Alankrita, who did her Bachelor’s in journalism from Lady Shri Ram College and Master’s in mass communication from Jamia Millia University in Delhi, was not one to take it lying down. “There is no nudity in the film. To use the word ‘pornography’ is just ridiculous. There are hundreds of other films that pander to the male gaze – in fact, many mainstream films blatantly sexualise and objectify women – but those films are cleared for release while a film that presents the female point of view is not,” argues the 37-year-old.

She adds that the censor board’s decision stems from its discomfort with the film’s portrayal of women whose needs are not fulfilled in conventional relationships and who take control of their sexuality through small acts of courage. “That threatens the patriarchal order of society,” maintains Alankrita, who, along with the film’s producer Prakash Jha, appealed to the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (FCAT) to overturn the CBFC ruling.

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Ratna Pathak Shah

Alankrita is no stranger to challenges. Having spent her formative years reading about literary heroines at her progressive all-girls boarding school, Alankrita entered college with a sense of empowerment. But personal troubles pushed her to look for a deeper meaning in life. Alankrita’s mother battled cancer twice while Alankrita was studying. Her father too suffered severe illnesses when young. Alankrita says she had to grow up very quickly, in order to be the pillar of support for her parents and her younger siblings, especially her brother who is 18 years younger than her. Right from the first film she made, it was clear that she was deeply drawn to the stories of women finding strength and courage and happiness. “In fact, my diploma film was based on my mother’s battle against cancer,” she says.

Encouraged by her mother to pursue her dreams, Alankrita moved to Mumbai as she was finishing her Master’s. Both her parents were recovering by then, and she found she was able to shift base. She began working as a trainee assistant director on Prakash Jha’s GangaaJal earning barely Rs 5,000 per month and living in a redeveloped slum. But she grew steadily in her career, moving from assistant director to chief assistant director on Apaharan (2005) as executive producer on Khoya Khoya Chand and Dil Dosti Etc (both 2007), and then as associate director for Raajneeti (2010). She wrote and directed a short film featuring Tisca Chopra about a woman in an abusive marriage.

As a single girl in Mumbai trying to make a life for herself, her experiences were echoed in her first feature film Turning 30!!! Released in 2011 starring Gul Panag and Purab Kohli, it was set in an urban milieu that Alankrita herself identified with: an upper middle-class, English-speaking single woman dealing with relationships and social and career issues around the time she turns 30.

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Plabita Borthakur

Even after a decade of work in the industry, Alankrita found the lack of female voices disconcerting. “Our film industry has a very narrow view of gender dynamics, politics of representation, the context of the gaze, alternative narratives,” she says, adding that it is vital for a society to allow the female perspective and have more women making films. “I feel like I am always on the back foot in terms of not filling into the paradigm of mainstream cinema. There is a need to be defensive about the films I make.”

In 2012, Alankrita wrote the first draft of Lipstick Under My Burkha. She then applied for and was selected for a screenwriter’s lab at the National Film Development Corporation of India (NFDC), and was able to hone the script there. “The screenwriter’s lab was a turning point for me.  It enabled me and helped me figure out my voice, and I had a fantastic mentor in Urmi Juvekar,” she says. “My previous films and my new scripts all have a consciously female gaze. They are about women finding courage, happiness and freedom in the depths of their lives,” she adds.

By the time she finished making the film, however, tragedy struck. After battling illnesses for three years, Alankrita’s father passed away in March 2016, when he was 61.

Alankrita says it was a very difficult period for her, but she just carried on with her life and work as best as she could. Her father’s memory alive and raw, she travelled with the film to festivals around the world – Tokyo, Stockholm, Miami, Paris, Glasgow, Tallinn, London, Amsterdam, Los Angeles, New York, Cairo, Dallas, Washington, Athens, Hawaii, Seoul, Shanghai, Geneva, Spain.

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Aahana Kumra

In December 2016, she applied to the CBFC to certify her film for public exhibition in India. “But the story of four ordinary women trying to steal a little freedom from the claustrophobia of their lives was deemed unfit for public exhibition,” she says about CBFC’s February ruling, which triggered a public outcry with hundreds of women and women’s organisations taking to social media to voice their indignation. #LipstickUnderMyBurkha was the most trending hashtag in India for several weeks.

In April 2017, based on Alankrita’s appeal, FCAT directed the censor board to grant an ‘A’ certificate to the film and clear it for release, with a few ‘voluntary’ cuts of certain Hindi words and scenes. “The Examining and Revising Committee of the CBFC have misdirected themselves in denying certification on the ground that the story of the film is women-oriented. There cannot be any embargo on a women-oriented film or one containing sexual fantasies and expression of the inner desires of women,” observed the Tribunal in its order.  However the certification for the film finally came through only on June 3 (trailer below).

The film is now slated for a July 21 release with Ekta Kapoor’s Alt Entertainment as presenter and pan-India distributor for the film. “Rarely do we have credible entertainers that stimulate the mind and are peppered with spunk and humour,” the media baroness told The Indian Express about Alankrita’s film, adding, “Lipstick Under My Burkha signifies a rebellion of the mind. I believe that this is story that needs to be told and wanted to put all the muscle behind a film like this.”

Alankrita’s life experiences have led her to this point, believes Alankrita, to be able to fearlessly challenge gender stereotypes in popular culture, and to speak up for the right of women to express themselves. “I think obstacles in life have to make us stronger, they have to make us grow,” she sums up.

This interview was the cover story of eShe July 2017 issue. Read the full issue here.

This interview was co-published on News18.com