Interview: Alankrita Shrivastava – 'Women's stories need to be told, women's voices need to be heard'

Interview: Alankrita Shrivastava – 'Women's stories need to be told, women's voices need to be heard, and the female point of view is crucial to a healthy popular culture.'

Lipstick Under My Burkha director talks strong women, resistance and patriarchal societies ahead of the screening of the film at the Edinburgh Asian Film Festival

Displays of female empowerment and defiance can often be met with disapproval from societies, a sad fact that history has lamentably taught us. When Alankrita Shrivastava started work on her latest feature film Lipstick Under My Burkha, there was an expectation that it may face some criticism in India. After all, its honest depiction of four female characters fighting for their freedom in a patriarchal society is a far cry from the typical Indian blockbuster, with its story lines of impossible love, passion and romance. But the reaction to the film was far more extreme than anticipated, with India's Central Board of Film Certification refusing to certify the film, essentially preventing it from being released in the country. Among the many ludicrous reasons given for this response, one was that the film was 'lady-orientated', highlighting the perceived threat of a strong female character.

Since receiving this decision from the CBFC, Shrivastava has fought hard to ensure that she is not silenced, with the film being screened at various film festivals around the world and also winning numerous awards. As Lipstick Under my Burkha comes to Edinburgh to close the 2017 Edinburgh Asian Film Festival, we caught up with Shrivastava to find out more about her experiences with the film and the global reaction to its timely themes.

How did you feel about the initial response the film received in India? What do you think this says about society's attitude to strong/independent women in general?

India is a deeply patriarchal society. There is severe violence and discrimination against women. In that kind of a society, it is very telling that the film certification board, which is a government body can legitimately ban a film because it is 'lady-oriented.' This is a systematic silencing of women's voices and a clamping down on the freedom of expression of women.

Popular culture in India is predominantly coloured by the heteronormative male gaze. Women are frequently objectified. Many films have 'item songs' where the camera mindlessly moves up and down the woman's body. And the song's lyrics have strange double meanings. Women are also often portrayed as pure, virginal Goddesses of virtue or on the other side of the spectrum – as vamps. Stalking is portrayed as love, harassment as courtship.

In this kind of a scenario, a film that tells the story of four women with a distinct female gaze, threatens to challenge the status quo. The patriarchal mindset is threatened by women who strive for agency over their own lives. And somehow the Censor Board finds Lipstick Under My Burkha to be a film that threatens the stronghold of patriarchy.

The Board wants to function like the moral guardian of Indian citizens. Their goal, it seems, is to perpetuate the status quo in Indian society. The Indian audience at large, though, I believe is not represented by the Censor Board. They actually want to watch the film. And they don't support censorship of films.

Where did the inspiration for the four characters come from? And what do they each represent to you?

As a woman in India, I often feel not free from within. And I feel that sense of inner constraint, even though I grew up in a liberal, educated atmosphere with no one trying to stop me from doing anything. That inner yearning for freedom is what I wanted to explore. But I wanted to do that in a milieu different from mine, one where women have external restrictions to their freedom too.

Lipstick Under My Burkha is a very intimate and personal film. All the four characters are really extensions of me. And the four of them are actually one in a sense, in that they represent the female soul.

The response that Lipstick Under My Burkha has received from film festivals around the world has been excellent, with the film even winning a few awards along the way. How does it feel to have this kind of response in different parts of the world?

It is so fulfilling and so humbling. I never thought that this small film about the lives of these four ordinary women set in small-town India would resonate so deeply with people of so many different cultures and nationalities.

I think the characters are perhaps very specific, and also very universal at the same time. I am overcome by the affinity that audiences feel with these four women. It is so gratifying to see people laugh and smile and cry with the characters in the film.

The appreciation and love for the film from international audiences is also very reassuring. It makes me feel that that I am on the right path. These screenings and awards give me hope and encouragement to keep fighting it out. I think without the validation from international audiences, it would be much harder for me to fight for the release in India.

Do you think film has the power to change the way that women are seen in a particular society? If so, was that one of your aims with Lipstick Under My Burkha?

I believe film has the power to start conversations, raise debate, and challenge the status quo. I don't know how much power film has to actually change society. But it definitely has the power to get people thinking. And so I feel that films can definitely start conversations about the status of women in a society. Particularly in India, which is such a patriarchal society, with a thriving popular culture that perpetuates patriarchy, it is crucial to have space for women's voices in popular culture.

Women's stories need to be told, women's voices need to be heard, and the female point of view is crucial to a healthy popular culture. I had no larger ulterior motives while making Lipstick Under My Burkha. I was just making a film about the secret lives of four ordinary women.

My only aim was for audiences to spend two hours with these four characters, experiencing a little piece of their lives – their dreams, their heartbreak, their joys and sorrows, their laughter and tears.

What do you think could be done to encourage a change in terms of the way that women are represented in Indian popular culture?

This will require a huge shift in mindset. I think in India we blindly consume and create popular culture that is sexist and misogynist. And somehow the 'commercial success' of that content justifies everything.

I think producers, writers, directors, musicians, cinematographers, editors, distributors, TV executives, exhibitors and audiences are all equally responsible for the representation of women in popular culture. And that includes men and women. I have no idea how a shift can come about. One small way of doing it is to take responsibility for the content we create. But it is very hard to fight the system. And commerce dictates everything.

Personally, for me, I am conscious of the gaze and the stories I want to tell. I am drawn to representing women with layers and complexity and attempting to look at their lives with sensitivity, through their own point of view. But it is very difficult for me to make films and to get them out. But I will continue to do my bit.

Audiences need to support films that represent women differently. And these films need support from studios and distributors. It is a long and difficult road. But we can begin by at least stopping with the banning of films which represent women more sensitively. If nothing else, let films with alternative representations at least have a level playing field.

Let the audience at least have the option of watching films that have a different gaze.

What do you hope that new audiences will take away from the film?

I want audiences to know the lives of these four women. I want them to see these four ordinary women are full of life, they're full of dreams and hopes and desires and passion. I want the audience to feel their grief and heartbreak, and to laugh with them, to celebrate their highs with them too. For two hours I want the audience to live the lives of these four women.

Edinburgh Asian Film Festival, Filmhouse, Fri 24 to Sun 26 Mar. Lipstick Under My Burkha will be screened as the closing gala on Sun 26 Mar, 5.30pm.

LIPSTICK UNDER MY BURKHA - Directed by Alankrita Shrivastava (Official Teaser)

Lipstick Under My Burkha

  • 2016
  • India
  • 2h 12min
  • Directed by: Alankrita Shrivastava
  • Written by: Suhani Kanwar, Gazal Dhaliwal
  • Cast: Shashank Arora, Plabita Borthakur, Sonal Jha

Four women live secret lives as they search for their freedom in a patriarchal society. The film tells the story of their rebellion through small acts of courage and defiance.