India’s hardline censorship body, The Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), has refused to classify Alankrita Shrivastava’s female empowerment drama, Lipstick Under My Burkha. The decision effectively denies a theatrical release of the Hindi film in its homeland, pending severe edits by the filmmaker or appellate court action by the distributor.
Starring Konkona Sensharma, Ratna Pathak Shah and Plabita Borthakur (pictured, above), the pro-feminist comedy/drama focuses on four women in a small Indian town who each seek a small degree of personal freedom in their daily lives. It played to acclaim on the 2016 festival circuit, earning the Spirit Asia Award at the Tokyo Film Festival and a Best Film on Gender Equality prize at the Mumbai Film Festival.
In a letter to producer Prakash Jha (subsequently posted on the film's social media platforms), The CBFC stated, “The story is lady oriented, their fantasy above life. There are contanious sexual scenes, abusive words, audio pornography and a bit sensitive touch about one particular section of society, hence film refused (sic).”
The body cited violations of a number of guidelines to which submitted films must adhere, including: vulgarity, obscenity or depravity; scenes degrading or denigrating women; sexual violence against women; sexual perversions; and visuals or words contemptuous of racial, religious or other groups.
Speaking to the press ahead of the U.K. premiere at the Glasgow Film Festival, Shrivastava (pictured, right) was defiant in the face of the ruling. “I will battle this out and do whatever it takes to ensure that audiences in India can watch the film,” she said. “I believe the decision to refuse certification is an assault on women’s rights. For too long the popular narrative has perpetuated patriarchy by objectifying women or minimising their role in a narrative.”
Shrivastava was adamant that the traditional gender bias endemic to Indian culture was a factor in the decision. “A film like Lipstick Under My Burkha, that challenges that dominant narrative, is being attacked because it presents a female point of view. Do women not have the right of freedom of expression?,” she demanded. “India is so steeped in its discrimination against women, it becomes evident in such decisions. In a country where there is so much violence against women, and such double standards for women, rather than encourage women’s stories told by women themselves, our stories are stifled.”
In a positive review published in November 2016 following the Tokyo Film Festival screening, trade paper The Hollywood Reporter pre-empted the controversy, stating, “one wonders how the Hindi-language film will be received locally and whether its frankness will be cause for scandal.”
Like many of his contemporaries, Prakash Jha (pictured, right) has clashed with The CBFC in the past. His 2016 film Jai Gangaajal, starring India’s biggest international movie star Priyanka Chopra, was denied CBFC classification before being cleared by the next level of industry bureaucracy, the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal. Hollywood has also felt the sting of CBFC disapproval, with Barry Jenkin’s Oscar nominated Moonlight having scenes of same-sex affection, swear words and heterosexual lovemaking excised before classification was allowed; in 2012, David Fincher denied Indian audiences a theatrical release of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo when he refused to make extensive CBFC-sanctioned edits.