Award-Winning Film Banned in India, Deemed Too ‘Lady-Oriented’
Lipstick Under My Burkha, an award-winning film directed by Alankrita Shrivastava, just has too much dang lady stuff in it to make it to the big screen, according to the Central Board for Film Certification (CBFC). The CBFC, a 25-member government appointed body refused to certify the film for theaters because it’s “lady-oriented” and includes “contentious sexual scenes, abusive words [and] audio pornography.”
The film follows the secret inner lives of four women of various ages, two of whom are Muslim and wear burkas and two who are Hindu and unveiled. The film explores the women’s desires, sexuality and challenges from societal expectations. Essentially, it’s a story about women and somehow women’s stories are, even today, considered radical and not appropriate for mainstream consumption.
Despite criticism from the CBFC, it’s the film’s lady-oriented nature that won it the Oxfam Award for Best Film on Gender Equality at the Mumbai Film Festival. Nisha Jha, CEO of Oxfam India, said that the film, “ferociously challenges gender-based social norms and…break[s] stereotypes about women and girls in India.”
Critics of the board’s decision believe the issue with the film isn’t the sexual themes (though no nudity) in the film, but that the sexuality portrayed is female and not male.
According to Aseem Chhabra, director of the New York Indian Film Festival, the board has “always been a reflection of the current political party that’s in power in India. So, heterosexual sex, men looking at women in bikinis, men making sexual jokes about women and the male gaze is okay, but ‘lady oriented,’ whatever that means, is not.”
People have encouraged Shrivastava, the film’s director, to circumvent the board’s decision and go straight to streaming, but she is determined to get a theatrical release in India. She filed an appeal with the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal and a hearing will be held later in March.
“The systematic shutdown of a point of view is unacceptable,” said Shrivastava.
This problem is not limited to India and indeed not even limited to film. Women’s stories and women storytellers have been historically devalued and dismissed across mediums.
In a 2016 study of over 2,000 Hollywood films, 78 percent featured a male lead. Even in films centered on female characters, men did more of the talking, taking up more lines of dialogue than the female stars. This trend only worsened for women the older they were. One particularly stunning example from the study came from the movie Mulan, ostensibly about a female heroine who saved her country from invasion. Yet, despite her bravery Mulan delivered fewer lines of dialogue than the dragon. When 80 percent of writer’s rooms are filled with only men, perhaps it’s not so surprising they forget to give women actual lines to speak.
The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media found that in 2015, male characters received twice as much screen time as their female counterparts. When films star a male lead, this gap is even wider, with men getting three times as much screen time. Strangely, in films with female leads men and women get equal time in the film. This data shows us that even when women’s stories are being told, which is rare enough, men are still taking up far more time and space in women’s stories than women are in men’s.
Out of 2016′s top grossing and most talked about films, just over half passed the Bechdel test, meaning they contained at least two women, with names, who speak to each other about something other than a man. This number is improving, but that’s still a pretty low bar to reach, which is why films like Lipstick Under My Burkah are so important. It’s the same reason all lady-oriented films are so important—there just aren’t enough of them.
When you take out all the stories by and for men, as one Cleveland bookstore did this Women’s History Month, there just isn’t much left. And it’s not because there aren’t women’s stories worth telling and women storytellers worthy of creating them.
We’re stuck in a pattern of society-wide self-censorship that, despite evidence to the contrary, promulgates the belief that women’s stories aren’t profitable, or interesting or valuable. Films like Lipstick Under My Burkah scare ignorant people because they threaten the very idea that men and their stories are the most important.
Photo Credit: Lipstick Under My Burkha