It’s absurd to fear for a piece of art. After all, isn’t "art the most sought-after refuge of those combating fear"?
Art is the most sought-after refuge of those combating fear?
But when I watched Alankrita Shrivastava’s Lipstick Under My Burkha at the Mumbai Film Festival last October, I was struck by an immediate sense of unease. I remember wondering, as the end credits rolled, and the hall erupted with applause, whether this film would ever see a theatrical release.
Sure enough, yesterday news broke that the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC; also known as the Censor Board), has denied the film a certification. In a bizarre letter sent to the producers, the Board wrote:
“The story is lady oriented, their fantasy above life. There are contanious sexual scenes, abusive words, audio pornography and a bit sensitive touch about one particular section of society, hence film refused under guidelines (sic).”
This isn’t surprising. I can see exactly where the film has gone wrong.
It celebrates women’s internal lives, and unabashedly promotes their individual independence and sexual agency. It portrays women as they are in real life, and that’s clearly blasphemous.
I can see where the film has gone wrong.
On every anti-sanskari level – beginners (JNU students, seculars, liberals), intermediates (Anti-Hindutva protestors), and experts (sex, alcohol, and Valentine’s Day celebrators), this movie is un-mappable.
And it’s making the Censor Board's Chairman Pahlaj Nihalani’s worst nightmare come true. It’s not enough that the man has had to block atrociously juvenile sex-themed comedies (Mastizaade and Kya Kool Hain Hum 3, for example), as well as deal with complex portrayals of relationships in Haraamkhor.
It portrays women as they are in real life, and that’s clearly blasphemous.
Now, here comes this shackle-breaking film. The strain must be tremendous.
So, to help make Mr Nihalani’s job easier, I’d like to call out the film for its excesses. And since there are so many, I’ll settle for the first five I can recall, with as few spoilers as possible.
Let’s begin with the most innocuous example and work our way up the anti-sanskaari ladder.
First of all, there’s the confusing, unfamiliar idea of a woman earning a livelihood for herself or her family – unthinkable and devious in any "right"-minded society of course, especially without her husband’s permission.
Secondly, the movie clearly didn’t get the memo that marital rape isn’t really rape, but just an expression of marital love. All that portrayal of suffering isn’t necessary, neither is it real. It gives women strange ideas about having control over their lives and bodies, when actually, all they need is to feel grateful towards men who “let them do their thing”, once in a while.
I can just imagine how frustrated Mr Nihalani must be with ignorant feminists who haven’t read Aristotle's remark: “Silence is a woman’s glory”.
The movie didn’t get the memo that marital rape isn’t really rape.
As for the third gaffe: the movie's complex portrayal of a young girl discovering her sexuality in a conservative Muslim family, or, as the censor board put is, “a bit sensitive touch about one particular section of society”.
Oh, did you think that sensitive touches are what make art special?
The Censor Board doesn’t agree. It is in fact undeniably offensive to show a young Muslim woman taking an interest outside her night-time duty of stitching burqas. Especially because we know by now that boys, alcohol, parties, dancing and kissing cannot exist in a perfect sanskari universe.
Fourthly – since when did women start taking the lead in sex? Isn’t unabashed pleasure in sex reserved for men?
Pornhub might give you numbers to prove that every third person watching porn in India is a woman, but that’s hardly the point. It’s bizarre for women to claim any form of sexual agency.
And just like Anne Frank’s Diary had the bits about her sexual awakening edited out by her father, India has Papa Nihalani tending to the country’s moral fibre.
When did women start taking the lead in sex?
Finally, aren’t matriarchs supposed to devote their time to the service of their households, sons, and Gods? Do they really have any time or inclination to read lurid novels? E.L. James will tell you she made her millions off older woman, but don’t listen to her.
Older women, especially, are not supposed to be sexual beings. The men, while they impregnate much younger women at the age of ninety-six, will have none of it anyway.
Older women are not supposed to be sexual beings.
But the film errs by showing a matriarch finding pleasure in her own body, and in her fantasies of a younger man.
Both are impossible, inadmissible events, and can’t you just imagine Anupam Kher rushing to tweet about the inappropriateness of it all?
But dear Alankrita, do not lose heart. You could win the next round by saying that you were simply making an example of such women. You could tell the Board that those fantastical examples are countered by the more real, comfortingly relatable facets of the film – the marital rape and the cheating husband who berates the wife for his own infidelities, the shaming of women for taking control of their bodies and lives, locking up those who protest the ban against wearing jeans in college.
Familiar, everyday examples.
We don’t need to know anything more about the real lives of real women, and if we pretend hard enough, maybe they won’t even exist.
We don’t need to know anything about the real lives of real women.
A couple of days ago, in a welcome (though strangely schizophrenic) move, the health ministry announced a peer-learning programme that aims to educate adolescents, among other things, that homosexuality is normal (remember: IPC Section 377 outlaws same-sex intercourse), masculine and feminine behaviours aren’t clearly defined, and that teenage pregnancies are not uncommon.
The CBFC’s ruling will, therefore, allay the worst fears of the keepers of our country’s conservative mores.
Balance has been restored in the sanskari, Manu-wadi universe.
After all, you know how the saying goes: “If a woman claims that her body is her own in a hall full of men who refuse to hear her, did it actually happen?”