Lipstick Under My Burkha: CBFC routinely silences voices challenging narratives of gender, caste
Lipstick Under my Burkha has won the Oxfam Award for the ‘Best Film on Gender Equality’ at the Mumbai Film Festival and ‘Spirit of Asia Prize’ at the Tokyo International Film Festival. One would think that a film that has been internationally lauded for its unique take on issues of women’s rights and empowerment would be honoured nationally; the CBFC, however, has done the opposite – it has denied the film certification on grounds of it being “lady-oriented”, whatever that means.
In a letter to Prakash Jha Productions, India’s Censor Board of Film Certification (CBFC or the Board) refused to certify the film, Lipstick Under my Burkha stating that “the story is lady oriented … there are sexual scenes, abusive words, audio pornography and a bit sensitive touch [sic] about one particular section of society”. The film is directed by Alankrita Shrivastava, and is the story about four women in a small town in India who chase their dreams through discreet acts of rebellion.
Lipstick Under my Burkha has won the Oxfam Award for the ‘Best Film on Gender Equality’ at the Mumbai Film Festival and ‘Spirit of Asia Prize’ at the Tokyo International Film Festival. One would think that a film that has been internationally lauded for its unique take on issues of women’s rights and empowerment would be honoured nationally; the CBFC, however, has done the opposite – it has denied the film certification on grounds of it being “lady-oriented”, whatever that means. There is little doubt that this is an onslaught on feminism, and a silencing of women’s voices that cuts through barriers of caste, class and community.
While the CBFC routinely clears films such as Mastizaade, Kya Kool Hai Hum, and Grand Masti that portray blatant and unforgivable objectification of women, it seems to have a problem with movies that challenge ideas of chauvism, patriarchy and misogyny. In a comment, Director Alankrita Shrivastava has stated, “For too long, the popular narrative has perpetuated patriarchy by objectifying women or minimising their role in a narrative. So a film like Lipstick Under My Burkha, which 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?”
It should be noted that the narrative of the CBFC taking umbrage to “lady-oriented” films is not a new phenomenon. In 2015, Angry Indian Goddesses ran into roadblocks with the CBFC when it gave the film an ‘A’ (adult) certificate, and demanded an additional 16 cuts. The film was considered “India’s first female buddy film”, and portrayed numerous issues faced by women in India such as gender inequality, objectification of women, and sexual violence, amongst other things. Gaurav Dhingra, the producer of the film, raised his voice against the censorship — “This is a clear infringement of the freedom of speech. What’s more appalling is that some words like ‘sarkar’, ‘adivasi’, ‘lunch’ and ‘Indian figure’ have been asked to be muted as well. What is CBFC’s job? Is it certification or censorship?”. Unfreedom, another film, in 2015, that could not escape the clutches of the CBFC and its chairman, Pahlaj Nihalani. The film explores an angle of Islamic terrorism on the canvas of a lesbian romantic relationship. The CBFC stated, after examining the film, that it would stir animosity between Hindus and Muslims, and would “ignite unnatural passions." Shockingly, the Board also demanded that the word ‘lesbian’ be muted in numerous films including Dum Laga Ke Haisha.
Leslee Udwin’s documentary, India’s daughter was also prevented from being broadcast in India by a stay order from court. The documentary examined the December 2012 gang-rape and murder of an Indian physiotherapy student, and the protests that followed. The incident was heralded as “the Arab Spring for gender equality” by Udwin, whose film was banned because, according to the CBFC, it put India in a bad light in the international community.
Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen was also temporarily banned by the Delhi High Court on grounds of containing sexually explicit content and using abrasive language. In 1996, Deepa Mehta’s film, Fire (and later, Water) also ran into troubles with the CBFC because it depicted a lesbian relationship between two sisters-in-law in a Hindu family. At that time, the board allowed an acute moral panic within the country, often conflating sex with disease, often hinting at the notion that if such ‘obscene and immoral’ content were allowed to circulate freely in the public domain, it would encourage promiscuity, homosexual relationships and ultimately, contribute to a rise in HIV infections and AIDS.
There is an identifiable pattern of films that the CBFC censors – the pattern consists of female protagonists who challenge the dominant narrative of gender, caste, class and community, while dismantling patriarchy. The CBFC is not averse to women’s empowerment, but it prefers it under the garb of rampant objectification of women’s bodies; it prefers the tokenism of women’s narratives and the concept of feminism-lite, which often fails the very women who need it the most. The CBFC has, time and again, demanded censorship of numerous films, and has acted as the self-appointed gate-keepers of India’s immutable sanskaars. It imagines harms to the fibre and fabric of Indian culture and society, where dominant discourses are threatened by cinematographic depictions of subversive ideas and transgressive sexualities.
The CBFC, according to Article 19 (2) of the Constitution, can only regulate the freedom of speech through an exercise of reasonable restrictions such as sovereignty, integrity and security of India, relations with foreign states, public order, decency and morality, or contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.
However, the CBFC regulates the content of films on their depictions of women’s lives, and has a problem with “their fantasy above life”. The CBFC, with its patronising character, wants to keep Indian women grounded in culture, their fantasies, more often than not, jettisoned from the films they watch.
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