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Lipstick Under My Burkha: No one can stop this film from reaching people, says Prakash Jha

Even as Lipstick Under My Burkha has been critically acclaimed in several international festivals, it is not getting a certificate from the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), in India. ‘

The film has been deemed too ‘ and according to CBFC, it is laced with sexual scenes and abusive words. Revolving around four women — a burkha-clad college girl, a young beautician, a mother of three and a 55-year-old widow who rediscovers her sexuality, the film features actors like Ratna Pathak Shah and Konkana Sen Sharma.

As the team awaits the decision of Film Appellate Tribunal (which is due today, on 27 March), producer Prakash Jha and director Alankrita Shrivastava put across their point of view in a chat with Firstpost. Excerpts:

Poster of Lipstick Under My Burkha

Isn’t it ironical that despite hitting roadblock ahead of its release in India, the film has earned accolades in the International film festival circuit?

Alankrita Shrivastava: It is very ironic. It’s huge disrespect to the Indian audience by not certifying the film because then you are saying that world over somehow people are more educated and are more evolved except in India. It is a very colonial mindset to say that there is something wrong with the Indian audience. Why should we deny the rights of Indians to watch a film that has been made in their own country?

The kind of response we have been getting at festivals across the world is really phenomenal. I wasn’t expecting that. It is getting lot of applause and standing ovation in every country we have shown. We have got several jury and audience awards. The question and answer session post screening has been long and non-stop because people want to talk and discuss. There is lot of emotional connect which people are feeling across the world among different audiences.

It is unfair that our own audience is not getting to watch it. Hope the decision is reversed and people finally get to watch the film.

The film talks about women’s sexuality and their desires.  From what we have seen recently, the industry is not ready to accept women who speak up their mind? Why do you think it is happening? How do you react?

Alankrita: The CBFC is clearly functioning from a very patriarchal mindset, they have no idea about the context of how they should watch a film. They have no idea about the gender dynamics, the politics of representation, the politics of female gaze versus male gaze. I feel they are just functioning from a space where the only kind of cinema they seem to be propagating is a very male gaze controlled popular mainstream cinema. There is no level playing field for alternative voices.

CBFC is not uncomfortable with sex per se but they are uncomfortable with the fact that a woman is striving for agency over her own body and she is trying to claim her own desires. There is no nudity, there is not even a cleavage shot in the film. The film talks about the lives of women from their own point of view but we are so used to watching item songs where the camera mindlessly travels up and down a woman’s body with zero connection with the narrative, or where women are portrayed as sati savitri, virtuous women, or vamps.

There is very little space for ordinary women who have had their ups and downs. They want to keep us engaged only with popular representation of women and nothing more. No one has the right to shut down 50 per cent of the population voice. The decision of CBFC is absolutely not in keeping with the spirit of the Constitution of India which promises freedom of expression and gender equality.

Prakash Jha: CBFC clearly has no sense of the audience, they are completely blank. They seem to be telling women: ‘How dare you change the balance of the society? You have been raised, indoctrinated, we have told you how to speak, how to stand, how to behave, how to express, how to serve men all your life.’  The audience all over the world is extremely intelligent, they are expressive because they are what they are.

Can anyone stop me from exercising my rights? No one can stop this film eventually from coming to people. I am not afraid. I don’t get discouraged by such things.

Why didn’t you move the High Court like the Udta Punjab producers?

Jha: They probably didn’t have much time on their hand as the release date was very close and court saw the logic in Udta Punjab team approaching them. In our case we didn’t have the release date announced, so the court would have asked us whether we have exhausted all our options. We are going to the Tribunal and waiting for the verdict which takes time.

Recently the Padmavati set was vandalised and the film’s director was assaulted, you think intolerance on freedom of speech is on a rise?

Jha: It has always been like that. Indian society, mythologically, historically, socially has always been very strong. They have never tolerated, never accepted and allowed anything which doesn’t fit into their mind-frame. Lot of objections have been raised on my films and I have ended up going to the tribunal, court; this is not new for me. I always tell filmmakers that film-making is not just a creative process, it is an art of putting your view to the society in the forefront.

Perhaps, I have given the same mantra to my assistant Alankrita, too, and she is going to face controversies. But we don’t want controversies. We have shown the film in several festivals, it has reached different kinds of audience. Alankrita is just back with seven global awards. Audience from Cairo, Sweden, England, Miami, France, Tokyo and even our own, MAMI, have applauded and appreciated the film.

lipstick-under-my-burkha-380 (1)

When people have the freedom to select their government and their own future, then don’t they have the freedom to watch a film?

While slamming the supporters of Lipstick Under My Burkha,  CBFC chief Pahlaj Nihalani defended himself by saying that they have been liberal in the censor certification of films like Befikre, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil and Rangoon and yet the industry folks were complaining. Comment.

Prakash JhaLipstick Under My Burkha questions the very soul of the society which perhaps is not understood by CBFC.

Alankrita: Women in our popular, mainstream cinema are always acted upon. Stalking is portrayed as love. But a situation where a woman is striving for agency over her own life, her own body, her own desires and dreams, that is something making them uncomfortable.

For a very long time now, we have been striving to move to a place where films are certified and not censored, but it doesn’t seem to be happening.

Prakash Jha: I appreciate that the government had appointed a body under Shyam Benegal and they have submitted the report. I encourage the government to adopt that report and make it into a law and thus remove the process of censoring. A film like Lipstick Under My Burkha will only enhance the thinking of the society, the richness of the society. It is not going to damage the society.

Alankrita: I am not discouraged, I have faith in the Tribunal. I hope they are able to see the film in the context it has to be seen. I am sure that they will be able to reverse the CBFC decision. It is important to continue my journey, I will continue to make such films. One has to be prepared to fight it out.

 

It’s not just Akshay Kumar, but the female characters in the satirical dark comedy drama, Jolly LLB 2, were also applauded.

It’s not just Akshay Kumar, but the female characters in the satirical dark comedy drama, Jolly LLB 2, were also applauded.

One such character was the wonderfully-nuanced cameo by SayaniGupta, who played Hina Siddiqui, a young Muslim woman driven to despair.  It’s a small but pivotal and deeply impactful role, so much so that Sayani was lauded for her performance by some of the veterans from the industry. Twitterati in large numbers also poured their love for her.

Gupta has so far been doing a balancing act between commercial and art cinema. She has received critical acclaim for her offbeat and distinctive roles in films like her debut Margarita With A Straw (played the role of Kalki’s love interest)and most recently Fan (as Shah Rukh Khan’s secretary), however, Sayani doesn’t take compliments or criticism seriously.

“I have never sat down to ponder over what others have to say because ultimately you know what you have done. Piyush Mishra (theatre and film actor, NSD alumni) called me few days back when I was shooting for Jagga Jasoos, and said while referring to Jolly LLB 2, ‘I didn’t know you acted so well.’  Lot of people are complimenting me on social media as well. Somebody told me that they went to watch the film thrice because of me. There are lot of people who said I made them feel for the part and I made them cry,” says Sayani.

sayani

She continues, “My performance really moved my mother, and she is far too detached about the industry and not at all excited about the film world or what I am doing. She is not in favour of me acting and it was quite a struggle to convince her when I went to FTII (Film and Television Institute of India). Little by little, she is coming to terms with it but she would have rather seen me as an IAS officer or in a regular job.”

“We are from middle class family and they didn’t want their only daughter to get into films. Obviously there are certain perceptions about the film industry. My close friends never say nice things, they are always critiquing my work, but finally they felt that I was brilliant in Jolly LLB 2.”

Strangely enough, Sayani has been getting offers for horror movies for last few years and she, too, fails to understand the reason for it. “Maybe they think I am a Bengali, I have big eyes…” she laughs.

While Sayani so far has rejected two offers post Jolly LLB 2 (as  she is “choosy”, “instinctive”, “and not ready for it”), she is certainly excited about her first international project, The Hungry, which is an Indo-British production starring Naseeruddin Shah and Tisca Chopra. The film, for which the actors were very selectively chosen, is directed by debutante filmmaker Bornila Chatterjee, who is an alumnus from New York’s Tisch School of the Arts. The Hungry is an adaptation of William Shakespeare tragedy Titus Androcinus, which is believed to have been written between 1588 and 1593.

“This year marks the 400th death anniversary of Shakespeare. His stories could seem a tad hyper-real for this era, but this film is a realistic take. The script won at a collaborative cine-lab,” says Sayani, further adding, “The film has a bunch of deadly actors. We shot for it in Delhi and Agra. The ambience on set was stimulating and since we all got along so well, it turned out to be a great shoot.”

Recently, Sayani earned an honourable mention for the Best Actress award for her short film, Leeches, at the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles  (IFFLA). In just two years of her career, she’s also bagged one of the lead roles opposite Naseeruddin Shah with The Hungry. The actress considers it her privilege to act alongside ‘Naseer’, who was her teacher at the FTII.

“Naseer was very excited about his role after decades. He plays my father. He has been my teacher and lot of my understanding about acting and the craft is because of him. It was almost like reassurance of sorts when he would come to take our class. I adore him as a human being. He is fun to be around. He has always taught us how acting is all about reacting. He is a keen listener, which adds to the performance,” she says, adding:

“There are two of the coolest men I have worked with – Shah Rukh Khan and Naseeruddin Shah. They are sensitive, they are aware, they don’t take themselves too seriously. They are normal dudes.”

So did Sayani take any advice from the two “coolest” men?

“Some of the things Naseer told me is: ‘Learn your lines till you bump into a furniture. Know your lines backwards. Study the script well. Be relaxed and don’t take things too seriously. Make it fun and light.’ On the other hand, there’s much to learn just by the way Shah Rukh carries himself. He is the most technically sound actor, I feel. His understanding, the cleanliness with which he does everything, his craft is solid. He doesn’t show it. He is persistently hardworking and also the humility. He doesn’t take his stardom seriously,” she reveals.

Two of Sayani’s “friends” from the industry are the erstwhile directors – Rajkumar Hirani and Vishal Bhardwaj. She may not have offers from them yet but she certainly takes their advice. “I don’t talk work with them. Hirani often tells me that I should give people time after they have seen my film. I did audition for a part in Rangoon but Vishal told me that it won’t be good enough for me. I would never ask them to cast me because that could hamper our relationship. Whenever they want to cast me, they will.”

Sayani is currently shooting for Ranbir Kapoor-Katrina Kaif- starrer Jagga Jasoos which has been in the making for a long time. “When I signed the film I was playing the only narrator in the film. I had a separate track of my own. But since there is no script — Dada (Director Anurag Basu) doesn’t work with scripts, he writes as he goes along — my role has changed. I will know what my part is only after I see the film. Also, it is a very difficult film when it comes to format. It is musical, it’s a children’s film, and it is not a normal narrative. I play a 14-year-old girl and that is all I know (laughs),” she says.