The question put forth in the title is the one that Rehana Abidi (played by Plabita Borthakur), one of the four protagonists of Alankrita Srivastava’s latest release Lipstick under my Burkha (India, 2017), asks in the film while interviewed by a journalist at an agitation against the decision of banning jeans for women in the college. The irony of the utterance comes to a full circle through the refusal of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) to release the film in India. Two points are of tremendous importance in the letter of refusal from the CBFC. The film was denied release because “the story is lady-oriented, their fantasy above [sic] life. There are contanious [sic] sexual scenes and abusive words, audio pornography and a bit sensitive touch about one particular section of society” (emphasis mine). The basis for the embargo on the exhibition of the film in India seems to connect to the narrative’s depiction of four women exercising choice in their own lives, a premise which the CBFC considers as “their fantasy” about life. Indeed, as long as India continues to function under the values of a toxically misogynistic patriarchy, such hegemony will insist that women’s right to choose be no more than a fantasy. Clearly the decision-makers at CBFC became uncomfortable with the unabashed representation of women exercising choice in the film. The second argument regarding abusive cuss words and audio pornography is flimsy because the same censor board repeatedly released other films with the same lurid language, sexual scenes, and item songs with overt sexual innuendos. For example, BA Pass (Dir. Ajay Bahl, India, 2013), a neo-noir film about a male prostitute; Mastram (Dir. Akhilesh Jaiswal, India, 2014), a fictional biopic of the Indian erotica writer by the same name; Kya Kool Hain Hum 3/ How Cool Are We (Dir. Umesh Ghadge, India, 2016), a sex comedy about two young men turned porn stars; Jism 2/Body 2 (Dir. Pooja Bhatt, India, 2012), an erotic thriller; and Ragini MMS 2 (Dir. Bhushan Patel, India, 2014), an erotic horror film, were all released by the same CBFC – some with suggested cuts and some with an A (Adult) certificate.
In recent times, films with overt sexual innuendos were not only released, but became superhits. The lyrics of those songs are structured with the male fantasy in mind, locating women to a place where they are no more than sex toys. These songs have produced a ripple-effect such that this kind of digressive performativity has become a genre of its own – called item songs. In everyday male parlance women are referred to as ‘item,’ or `pataka’ (= bomb). I’ve included some YouTube links below, both the lyrics and gestures reflect the observations I have made.
I argue that the evidence suggests sexual content, lurid language, and sexual scenes are not what landed Lipstick under my Burkha in trouble. There are other issues with the way in which the film challenged the Indian patriarchy by unmasking cultural practices of systemic and structural violence against Indian women, irrespective of their class, caste and ethnicity. Besides this, the film is also highly critical about certain regressive cultural agendas of the Hindu majoritarian politics of the militant Hindutva of the Sangh Combine (Mukherjee et al (2008) in RSS, School Texts and the Murder of Mahatma Gandhi). For example, the film refers to the official jeans ban for the female students on college campuses. Such official banning of particular clothes was done in Kerala in 2016 and is gradually spreading over other states, although an undercurrent of hostility regarding women’s clothing has always been there in India. On 30th March 2017, a circular from the directorate of higher education, Uttar Pradesh Government, prohibited wearing of jeans and T-shirt on campus. It is not a coincidence that the circular was issued immediately after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – backed by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) – came to power in the state by winning absolute majority in the 2017 state elections. It is this bold representation of the reality of Indian women and unravelling of the sheer double standard and gynophobia of the Indian patriarchy that put the film in a stand still.
The film subverts the format of mainstream Bollywood films on several counts. The film is bold in that it doesn’t play safe as some of the Bollywood films on women’s issue do. The much-hyped so-called Bollywood ‘feminist’ blockbuster Pink (Dir. Aniruddhra Roy Chowdhury, India, 2016) is a case in point. This film is about sexual violence against women and their retaliation. However, the rebellious female protagonists are rescued through the intervention of a patriarch, thereby making the film a token lip-service regarding the grave issue of rape and other forms of sexual violence against women running rampant in Indian society. Since the film was able to tick all the boxes, the CBFC didn’t find it particularly confrontational. In contrast, the Lipstick team decided to take the untrodden path representing a serious kind of female bonding, marital rape, women’s exploration of their own sexuality, the exercising of choice, and no sense of neat closure. It didn’t surprise me that the CBFC found the film offensive. It was intended to offend the patriarchy, and, when Indian patriarchy was made to stand in front of a mirror through the film, the discomfort was palpable. Hence, this discomfort has translated into the administrative refusal to issue the release certificate to the film for exhibition in India. This film has the potential to be a trend-setter; if released, there may be other project that challenge modes of normativity through gendered self-expression. Indian popular cinephilia renders films a unique power as a tool of enormous cultural influence. To this end, CBFC on behalf of the Indian patriarchy wanted to stop this dissenting voice from being heard; the justifications listed in the refusal letter are just hollow words.
Sanghita Sen is a PhD student in the Department of Film Studies at St. Andrews University. Her research includes Indian and Transnational cinema, film genre, and feminist film theory. For inquiries regarding her work, she may be contacted via email: firstname.lastname@example.org.