| A scene from Lipstick Under My Burkha, which opened this weekend. Photograph: Jignesh Panchal
Film banned from cinemas for its ‘contagious sex scenes’, makes its debut after lengthy battle with censors
An award-winning Hindi film initially banned from cinemas for being too “lady-oriented” has made its debut across India in what its director hailed as a major victory for women.
Lipstick Under My Burkha, which depicts the secret world, including the sex lives, of four small-town Indian women, was released at the weekend after months of wrangling with the country’s notoriously prudish censors.
I’m fighting the ban on Lipstick Under My Burkha. Indian women need a voice Alankrita Shrivastava
Its director, Alankrita Shrivastava, said she felt “numb” that her film was finally screening, five months after she received a letter from the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) advising it would be refused classification.
The letter, riddled with spelling and grammatical errors, said the movie featured “abusive words, audio pornography, and a bit sensitive touch about one particular section of society”, implying it might offend Indian Muslims.
“The story is lady-oriented, their fantasy above life,” the board said.
The decision, which sparked opprobrium inside India and abroad, was overturned by an appeals board in April, clearing the film for its summer release.
At a cinema in Saket, an affluent south Delhi neighbourhood, the controversy over the film was a source of anger and bemusement to the crowd lined up to watch its first screening.
“We cut class to be here,” said Sargon, a psychology student, in the lobby with three others. “We heard so much about the movie, the controversies attached to it, we thought we had to see it,” her friend Nitleen said.
“There’s so much dialogue around this whole idea of feminism, and this is a problem in India because of the different religious identities,” Sargon added. “This movie puts the issue in your face – you can’t hide from it.”
A young man, Nibras, was attending with his friend Kainaat. He offered his view first: “Basically the main controversy is that it has sex scenes.”
“It’s the patriarchy,” interrupted Kainaat, a history student. “We live under patriarchal rule, so when women-oriented films come out, there’s always controversy. “When women start talking about their desires, their likes, their freedoms, it’s unexpected,” she said. “Women can’t have desires of their own.”
“Especially about sex,” Nibras said.
A security guard at the entrance to a cinema in Mumbai next to a poster for Lipstick Under My Burkha. Photograph: Divyakant Solanki/EPA
A number of older viewers and middle-aged couples were among those waiting to see the movie, which censors had warned featured “contagious sex scenes”. Most senior citizens refused to comment, but Anupam, in a tucked-in IBM shirt, did not hesitate.
“They banned it because the CBFC felt that this was encouraging women to become more independent,” he said. “Well, so? To me it doesn’t make any sense. It’s about freedom of speech,” he said. “If a director wants to make a film and show it, there’s nothing wrong with that. If you want to go see it, see it. Otherwise, don’t.”
“It’s high time men are aware what women feel,” his partner, Manjoo, said. “The censors might not hear about it, but women are also discussing these topics amongst themselves,” another filmgoer, Priti, said. “It’s just that men are usually disconnected from it.” She was going to bring her husband to see it, she added.
Shrivastava, the director, said the controversy surrounding the film had been a mixed blessing. “People who enter the theatre are already entering with lots of preconceived notions of what’s in the film,” she said. “On the other hand, because the censor refused classification, a very important dialogue was started in mainstream and social media ... about the female and male gaze and gender politics in the popular paradigm of cinema in India.”
She said she her next films would focus on similar themes “of women finding themselves”. “That’s what I’m preoccupied by,” she said. That could mean further clashes with the film censorship board, whose decisions have increasingly been the source of scrutiny and public backlash.
Last week, a documentary about the Nobel laureate, Amartya Sen, was ordered to be edited to remove the words “cow” and “Gujarat”, the home state of the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi. In 2016, censors wanted a film about the drug epidemic in Punjab edited to remove any references to the state.
“The board is governed by deep conservatism,” said Shubra Gupta, who worked for the CBFC until 2015. “It has always been at odds with both the filmmaking community as well as viewers.”
The disparity between censors’ tastes and public appetites had grown since the 1990s, when India’s television market was deregulated, and US sitcoms such as Friends became smash hits. “A lot of their [the censors] values, about relationships for example, have filtered into TV and the film industry,” she said.
“But filmmakers have always pushed boundaries,” she added. “The difference is that now everyone has become more vocal. Filmmakers are much more likely to speak out and there is a media which is happy to report on what is happening – and of course there is now social media.”