Alankrita Shrivastava is a surefooted, courageous young woman whose unapologetically feminist film ‘Lipstick Under My Burkha’ has sparked much conversation even before its release. While Bollywood has been rife with films that perpetuate male chauvinism and the male gaze, films that explore a female point of view and sexual freedom can probably be counted on one hand, and ‘Lipstick’ definitely breaks new ground. Happily, the film was cleared for release in India through an appeals tribunal last week, after it had been unfairly banned by the censor board earlier this year, calling it “too lady oriented”.
The film played to a full house on opening night at the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles last month and received an enthusiastic audience response. Alankrita tells us what inspired her to make this film and why, despite the obstacles, it has been a rewarding journey.
Among your lead female characters, you have two Hindu and two Muslim women. Was that a conscious decision? Did you have to worry about not hurting any religious sentiments?
No, it wasn’t conscious that there are two Hindu and two Muslim women. I think the characters just emerged as they were. India is a very diverse country and we’ve all grown up with people around us of different castes, religions and cultural traditions. I have friends who are Muslim and people in my family who are Muslim, even though I’m a Hindu. I don’t feel any sense of otherness with them. I wanted to, in fact, make a film that doesn’t have that sense of otherness. Essentially it’s the story of four women and they’re all one at the metaphoric level. It’s really about the female soul trying to live a little, find a little freedom, even amidst webs of claustrophobia. I feel that there’s something very deep that connects women across cultures, countries, castes, communities and class. We’re all living in a state where, in different ways, one is always fighting for equality. I might be fighting for equal pay or better daycare or more maternity care, I might be fighting just to live, I might be fighting to not be forced to pay dowry, I may be fighting for an education – it could be anything. The cultural context is different, but there is something deep that unites women. And I wanted to get to the soul of that.
“It’s the story of four women and they’re all one at the metaphoric level. It’s really about the female soul trying to live a little, find a little freedom, even amidst webs of claustrophobia. I feel that there’s something very deep that connects women across cultures…”
I love that you used the swimming pool as the catalyst for Ratna Pathak’s story in the film. The taboo of the swimming costume is quite prevalent in India, especially in small towns. You have used that beautifully. Can you talk about that?
Yes, I think it’s much more than the physical act of swimming. It’s the story of her sexual reawakening. So I feel that water is a good metaphor because it’s tactile. And going into the water is a way of her becoming aware of her body again. It’s like you start physically experiencing sensation again. You feel your skin. That’s the reason that I picked it.
“Water is a good metaphor because it’s tactile. And going into the water is a way of her becoming aware of her body again.”
When your film was first banned, did the censor board suggest any cuts?
The censor board outright refused to release the film. No cuts or anything. They cut every film. That’s the normal way of getting a certificate from CBFC India. They always offer cuts. It wasn’t that at all. They just said that you can’t exhibit the film – there’s no certification. Honestly, I feel that cuts themselves are a big deal. But in India, it stopped being a big deal because they do it all the time. It’s a norm. But in our case, it was like delegitimizing the film. It’s like having a child and the child not getting a birth certificate.
“Honestly, I feel that cuts themselves are a big deal. But in India, it stopped being a big deal because they do it all the time.”
‘Lipstick’ was produced by Prakash Jha, who you have worked with in the past. Was it challenging to fund the film?
Yeah, in that sense it wasn’t so much of a challenge. Once I decided that I wanted to make this film, I gave him the script and he was on board. It took us some time to set up the project, but he was, in principle, ok. I never took the script to anybody else. But I do feel that the reason I got funding for the film is because he’s an independent producer and he wasn’t getting the film funded by a studio. I’m not sure whether a studio would’ve funded my film. It takes someone quite brave and visionary to fund a film like this in India, where people are so scared of taking risks and dealing with anything that is slightly alternative.
“I’m not sure whether a studio would’ve funded my film. It takes someone quite brave and visionary to fund a film like this in India, where people are so scared of taking risks.”
Looking back, would you have done anything differently with the film?
I don’t want to think about that because there’s no end to that path. Once I make a film, I get over it. In a sense, I know that it’s true for who I was at that time. I could never make Lipstick -the same film, again. You keep growing and changing as a person. And of course one tries to do one’s best at that time, considering all the circumstances and how you look at life. I don’t like to look back and wonder what I could’ve done differently. Whatever learning I’ve had, I’m going to apply to my next film. But I’m not the kind of person to dissect my previous work because then I’d just get depressed.
“I know that it’s true for who I was at that time. I could never make Lipstick -the same film, again.”
What would you say was the most rewarding part of making this film?
I think for me, the most rewarding thing about making this film is when I see the audience react to the film. It makes everything worth it. I’ve been through a lot to make this film. It’s been a very long and very difficult, painful journey. A lot of struggle, a lot of obstacles and until the release, it will still be like that. But I feel like when the film touches the heart of even one person, everything is worth it. And I would do this again, no matter how hard it was.
“When the film touches the heart of even one person, everything is worth it. And I would do this again, no matter how hard it was.”
Alankrita Shrivastava has previously written and directed ‘Turning 30!’ (2011). ‘Lipstick Under My Burkha’ was screened at the Mumbai Film Festival (MAMI) in October 2016 and at the Tokyo International Film Festival (TIFF) in December 2016. The screening at the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles in association with Hollywood Foreign Press makes the film eligible for entry to the Golden Globes.