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Why Indian Censorship Is Hurting the Country’s Cinema

Indian censors continue to hold back the country's movies, and silencing a new film about women's rights is the latest example that the situation shows no sign of improvement.

Lipstick Under My Burkha

“Lipstick Under My Burkha”

JIGNESH PANCHAL

It’s always something with the Indian censors.

This time, it’s the refusal of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) to grant filmmaker Alankrta Shrivastava’s “Lipstick Under My Burkha” certification for a theatrical release in India. The film, a drama following four women in small-town India exploring sexual empowerment, freedom from patriarchy, and personal fulfillment won the Oxfam Award for Best Film on Gender Equality at the Mumbai Film Festival last October and the Spirit of Asia Award at the 2016 Tokyo International Film Festival, with upcoming screenings at festivals everywhere from Miami to Glasgow. The board’s rejection of the film reignites familiar outrage, as the filmmakers and audiences alike have taken to social media to slam the decision as an “assault on women’s rights.”

Infuriating as it is, this is hardly the board’s first frustrating clampdown. The CBFC has long been the bane of films that push the envelope as far as social issues or physical intimacy are concerned. Some may recall the outright bans in the past of movies deemed too vulgar, like Shekhar Kapur’s “Bandit Queen” in 1994, or Mira Nair’s “Kama Sutra – A Tale of Love” in 1996. More recently, in 2015, it raised objections to sex scenes in films like Anupam Sharma’s “UnIndian” and Shonali Bose’s “Margarita With a Straw,” calling for re-edits that shortened the allegedly offensive depictions before clearing them for release.

And in its most high-profile and heavily disputed controversy to date, the CBFC called for a record 94 cuts pertaining to strong language, drug use and the mention of state names in last June’s star-studded “Udta Punjab,” arguing that the content jeopardized the country’s integrity and could compromise tourism in the region.

With a group as notoriously orthodox as the CBFC so often standing between films and theaters, then, some may say that the content of “Lipstick Under My Burkha”— bold in the context of Indian cinema — was bound to raise a few flags. But the refusal to certify this film, while unsurprising, has hit a particularly raw nerve for the wording used to explain its decision. The board’s letter to the film’s producer, Prakash Jha, stated that “the story is lady-oriented, their fantasy above life. There are contanious [sic] sexual scenes, abusive words, audio pornography, and a bit [sic] sensitive touch about one particular section of society, hence film refused under guidelines.”

It’s already flawed logic to deem a film inappropriate merely because it provides a perspective that could be displeasing to a certain segment of the audience. But to specify that the content is unsuitable precisely because it prioritizes the physical and emotional expression of female characters takes the decision to new levels of hypocrisy. Despite the widespread outrage over social media by industry members and audiences alike, the CBFC has only doubled down on its rejection. Board member Mamta Kale defended the decision, claiming that “being a woman, you can talk about your sexual rights but you have to keep one thing in mind as to how you are showing that issue. Can families go together to watch such a movie? No, they cannot.”

The argument is weak, given that watching movies — especially non-mainstream ones like “Lipstick Under My Burkha” — is less of a family affair in India today than it once was. More importantly, it’s a tone-deaf assessment from a group that evidently believes that routinely objectifying women for the sake of the male gaze qualifies as family-friendly entertainment.

In fact, if placing fantasy above life weren’t acceptable, an overwhelming proportion of mainstream, escapist Bollywood should have been banned as unsuitable for Indian audiences by now. For decades, we’ve watched item numbers cater predominantly to male sexual imaginations, whether in their early iterations in 1930s, when actresses playing cabaret dancers would shimmy for a roomful of men to lyrics dripping with innuendo, to present-day Bollywood, where lithe actresses do essentially the same thing, only in even skimpier costumes, much to the delight of men ogling and hooting from the lower stalls of cinema halls.

There’s been little pushback by anyone of influence to the notion of stalking as an appropriate form of “wooing” a woman, a strategy that began in the ’60s, when heartthrob Shammi Kapoor made it look like innocent persistence rather than harassment, and has continued to this day with 2014’s “Raanjhanaa,” 2016’s “Sultan,” and possibly even in the upcoming “Badrinath Ki Dulhania” next month. Actors over the age of 50 still woo heroines less than half their age, and actresses’ half-naked bodies are still plastered on posters and highlighted in film trailers to shamelessly lure in the male contingent.

The CBFC has protested to little, if any, of this. Yet the moment an outspoken film like “Lipstick Under My Burkha” gives female perspectives a realistic voice, or attempts to shed light on how women discover and experience their own fantasies, the censor board decides that a “lady-oriented film” is inappropriate. The message is clear: A male fantasy is a natural expression of masculinity; its female equivalent is somehow a threat to the sanctity of Indian society.

It’s a double standard so blatant, it delegitimizes any lingering credibility the CBFC enjoyed, and throws into question the sincerity of any government calls to support creative liberty over excessive moral policing. The eventual court ruling last June to release “Udta Punjab” with an “A” (“restricted to adults”) certificate and a single cut, seemed to be an encouraging move pushing the board to stick to its role of certification rather than censorship. For many, it was an indication that audiences could henceforth make their own judgements about what they should or shouldn’t watch. The ability of a movie like last year’s “Parched” — a daring and sometimes explicit critique of misogyny in rural India — to escape relatively unscathed from the board’s easily offended sensibilities further re-stoked the sputtering confidence of the public.

But those hopes were extinguished just as fast when the CBFC kicked off a year-long battle with the makers of “Haraamkhor,” the BAFTA-nominated film about a relationship between a teenage student and her teacher, after deeming the subject matter “not suitable for India.” (The film was finally released in January after several enforced cuts made it suitable for a U/A certificate.) Later last year, outrage was sparked once again after the trailer of Hansal Mehta’s “Aligarh” was restricted to adult-only audiences simply due to its mention of the word “homosexuality.”

By outright refusing to give “Lipstick Under My Burkha” a certification at all, effectively blocking a theatrical release, the CDFC confirmed that for all the alleged intent to certify rather than cut, it essentially remains a censorship body. Exercising creative liberties in India remains an exhausting, “one step forward, three steps back” process, at the mercy of an overly conservative board’s arbitrary guidelines of what constitutes appropriate entertainment or art.

As far as “Lipstick Under My Burkha” goes, director Shrivastava has vowed to fight for the film’s big-screen release in India — though it remains to be seen whether it can happen with or without edits that inevitably dilute the film’s message. As the country misses out on the bold storytelling talent of its own natives, we’ll appreciate that the rest of the world can still acknowledge what India has to offer — and hope that Netflix is watching.

Watch the trailer of “Lipstick Under My Burkha” below:

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