What is about a woman exploring her sexuality that scares men so damn much? Is it that, once she starts embodying her womanhood, she cannot be controlled as easily? Or that a woman who learns to demand an orgasm will then start to demand for other things, like being treated with respect? For one, the idea of a woman in charge of her body is so vulgar to the Indian government that its Central Board of Film Certification has barred the theatrical release of Lipstick Under My Burkha.
Lipstick Under My Burkha, an independent film that won a gender equality award at the Mumbai Film Festival in 2016 and an Audience Award at the Glasgow Film Festival 2017, follows the stories of four repressed women aged 18 to 55 as they begin to express their sexuality and take agency over their lives. The CBFC banned it from theaters, calling it “lady oriented,” rife with “sexual scenes,” “abusive words,” and “audio pornography.” Personally, I don’t understand how that’s a criticism! I would gladly listen to something billed as “lady-oriented audio pornography.”
If you grew up on Bollywood films, however, you know that a relationship does not begin with mutual attraction and respect. It forms when a man stalks an uninterested woman into submissiveness and then fondles her in the rain. “A lot of the big films are about treating women like objects,” director Alankrita Shrivastava told the Hollywood Reporter, who explained:
In most films that come out of India, a woman will never articulate her own desire, she will always be acted upon rather than proactively act. There’s a character in the film who is in her 50s and has a sexual awakening, feelings and desires. The board felt uncomfortable about this. The truth is, in Indian films, we don’t talk about these things, everything is so unsaid. We have double meanings in song lyrics which are very derogatory to women, and for no particular reason a camera will pan up and down a woman’s body. But we need to have other narratives.
She concluded: “In India we have a long way to go before there is gender equality and freedom of expression.”
CBFC head Pahlaj Nihalani prides himself on keeping the Indian tradition alive in movie cinema—and “lady-oriented” stories about desire fly in the face of patriarchy, the oldest tradition of them all. Nihalani wants to encourage films that are “keeping the Indian traditions ahead,” he said to Asian News International. He explained that he is “in favor” of women’s empowerment, “but the projection” in the film is “not right”—whatever that means.
Nihalani’s arbitrary, hardline stance on “traditional values: underscores another point Shrivastava makes: “Anyone can vote in India, so if they have the power to choose their leader, why don’t they have the power to choose the type of films they want to watch?” Good question!