Lipstick Under My Burkha: Alankrita Shrivastava’s Celebration of Female Desire Survives a Ban, Opens in India

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For the past decade, the independent film scene in India has been thriving—in particular, movies that pick at the ancient thorns of Indian patriarchy.

Festivals now regularly invite Indian feminist moviemakers such as Leena Yadav (Parched) to showcase their trailblazing works. What’s striking about these movies, and what takes them a step further than an older, better known generation of international South Asian female narratives—think Mira Nair with Monsoon Wedding or Deepa Mehta with Fire—is their explicit foregrounding of female characters grappling with the terms of their lives.

The 1970s and 1980s saw the first “art-house” turn in Indian cinema, termed as the “parallel cinema” movement; one of the most distinctively feminist films of that period was Ketan Mehta’s Mirch Masala (1987). In the 2000s and 2010s, as the sociopolitical landscape in India underwent radical shifts, films with overtly subversive storylines have emerged, even as heinous crimes against Indian women continue to make international headlines.

Add to this list Alankrita Shrivastava’s film Lipstick Under My Burkha, which came under fire in February this year. India’s Censor Board of Film Certification banned the film, writing, on its certificate, that “the story is lady-oriended, their fantasy above life” [sic]. This judgment was laid upon a film in which two Hindu women and two Muslim women in a mid-tier central Indian state capital traverse diverse journeys on the continuum away from patriarchy, toward self-actualization. One, Rehana, played by newcomer Plabita Borthakur, gets past the curtains of her parents’ burkha stitching shop. The second, Shirin, played by Konkona Sen Sharma, gets a career separate from her husband’s. The third, Leela, played by Aahana Kumra, gets the hell out of dodge with her Muslim lover. The fourth, Usha, played delightfully by veteran actress Ratna Pathak Shah (who, three decades ago, played a submissive village woman in Mirch Masala), gets off to her fantasy about her much younger swimming coach. The CBFC banned these vibrant characters from bursting on national screen, from busting multiple seams of Indian oppression, for daring to let their desires shape their lives. All the more credit to Shrivastava and her team for persisting in their appeal and securing the film—already critically acclaimed on the international festival circuit—an Indian release date on July 21, 2017.

In our interview, Shrivastava focused on aspects of her crazy ride that have received less attention: the moviemaking process itself. She does eventually get to the normalization work the film performs as a feminist text; however, moviemakers everywhere, especially young women, should have the chance to hear out Shrivastava not as a special case of a persistent female director but rather as an emerging auteur, who, like all of India’s famous male directors, has patiently climbed the ranks, sought similarly minded collaborators and is gradually mastering her craft.

Ritesh Mehta, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): In the U.S., the boundary between a studio and an indie feature has been blurring over the past two decades. As an Indian, do you see yourself in terms of these definitions?

Alankrita Shrivastava (AS): I definitely see myself as an independent filmmaker. In India, there is no public funding for films or separate exhibition spaces vis-à-vis mainstream films. What one finds is that independent films are constantly competing with the bigger films for the same resources. That really hurts independent films. Studios tend to play it safe. They would much rather fund films that are headlined by stars or have content that is safer or less risky, toeing the line, continuing the status quo. Independent films have to compete for the same theaters. We don’t have the same marketing budgets. You’re expected to make your presence felt. You’re constantly burdened by the feeling that, somehow, you have to give back the money, though the system is not equipping you to do that.

Konkona Sen Sharma as Shireen in Lipstick Under My Burkha

India is very star-driven. I feel if Deepika Padukone is in a film, it’s not an independent film. I’ve always considered myself to be on the periphery of mainstream cinema for the kind of stories I want to tell, the kind of actors I like to work with, the way I like to work. Independent cinema in India is defined by content more than anything else, and the way you want to treat that content. From that perspective, I will always be on the fringes.

Having said that, things have been changing in the last two years. Things have become better now that there is Netflix and Amazon. There are some ways of recovering money. Last year there was a lovely film called Kapoor & Sons [directed by Shakun Batra]. It had an ensemble feel. There have been other recent indie hits, like Neerja [Ram Madhvani] and Dangal [Nitesh Tiwari]. There is the whole wave of the female hero. I feel that’s a new trope that’s working really well right now. I feel if those kinds of films can be made and watched, then something will really change in terms of the landscape of cinema in India.

MM: Can you talk about how your film was financed and its budget?

AS: Both my features [Lipstick Under My Burkha and 2011’s Turning 30] have only been possible because of the largesse of one producer, Prakash Jha. I have been working with his production company from the time I finished college. So that’s the only reason I’ve got funding. I would not have gotten funding from any studio. The budget was within US$750,000. That is considered to be a very low-budget film in India.

MM: How did Lipstick originate from your previous work? Can you talk about the writing process and about collaborating with the other writers?

AS: I am very preoccupied with this whole theme of women finding themselves: these complex female characters coming into their own and finding strength and happiness from within. Lipstick is just continuing on in that theme. It came from my own yearning for this feeling of freedom, as a woman. There’s no reason for me to not feel completely free because I don’t have any external constraints. I was brought up in a very liberal, upper middle class background. No one told me, “You can’t do this.” Still, I feel like there are these internal chains. Rather than explore it from the point of view of characters from my own milieu, I thought, “Why not explore it from the point of view of characters who have actual external constraints?” I wanted to shift gears from an urban big city space.

I’ve been writing this film for a very long time. I was among six people to go to the NFDC Film Bazaar Screenwriters Lab in 2012. The lab was very helpful and I had this fantastic mentor in Urmi Juvekar [screenwriter of 2008’s Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!]. She really helped sift through the material. At the end of 2013, I had done another draft and the film got greenlit. That’s when I got my friend Suhani Kanwar to do some additional screenplay work and fix the structure. And I collaborated with Gazal Dhaliwal to do dialog. That was a nice process: for a couple of months we were all engaging with the story.

MM: Do you write your scripts in Hindi or English?

AS: English. But I’ll write my Hindi dialog in the English alphabet. The characters who organically speak in Hindi, I always write their dialog in Hindi right from the beginning.

MM: One of your characters, Usha, narrates her desires by reading from a novel about a character named Rosy. I thought Usha’s voiceover reading about Rosy was a lovely conceit. How did you come up with that?

AS: Usha’s character was always going to be reading these novels. Urmi continued to be my mentor even after the lab was over; she read the new script and just asked me asked me a couple of pertinent questions. She told me to be clear whether or not there was a meta story in the novel. It was kind of there, but then I said, “I have to do it properly.” Even then, a lot of the stuff with the novel was rewritten after I cut the film. The tension of the lines [of the novel reading] emerged after the edit was done.

MM: Could you talk about the casting process and how you worked with these particular actors?

AS: I give full credit to my casting directors, Shruti Mahajan and Parag Mehta, and my assistant directors. Actually, they all did all the casting, except for the roles of Ratna and Konkona. Obviously I selected everyone [in the end], but for the whole process of finding people, I would give credit to them. With Aahana and Plabita, I instinctively knew from the first test that they would eventually play the parts.

In terms of working with the actors, I believe in doing a lot of prep. I don’t like going on set without knowing how a scene is going to be performed. Especially on this film, I feel I worked very hard on performances. We did a lot of readings. We also did these workshops with Atul Mongia, who used to be a casting director. More than the actors, I think it really helped me in figuring out the pitch of the performances. We worked a lot in enabling the actors to access something of themselves that they could use. For instance, with Plabita, a complete newcomer, we went through the process of finding the times in her life when she felt awkward, like an outsider wanting to fit in, accessing that emotion and bringing it to the scene. We also did spontaneous work on scenes that are not in the film: “You’ve gone to the college canteen [cafeteria] and now this has happened. How will you respond?” So, a lot of improvisation based on being in your character.

MM: Whether you are working with actors who are newcomers or experienced veterans like Ratna Pathak Shah, should directors impose their vision first? What should the back and forth be like, ideally?

AS: I think there should be no confusion. It is your vision of the film. Overall, if you know the intent and pulse of your film, then you know what you want your actors to bring to the table. Then you can judge: “This is going to work for the character. This is not. Don’t be restrained here. Be restrained there.” They are my actors, working to tell the story that I want to tell.

Ratna Pathak Shah as Usha in Lipstick Under My Burkha

That doesn’t mean that I don’t give them space. Doing all this preparatory work helps you know them. By the time you’re shooting you’re already very comfortable. There’s no feeling of, “She’s making me do this, but I want to do this,” because we’ve worked all this out before. And then there’s already that great comfort level where, if an actor comes up with something new, I might make her do one take which is different. It’s very important as directors to create a safe space for actors. If they feel emotionally secure, the actors can give you a lot. If they feel they are going to be judged, they hold back.

For instance, all of Ratna’s scenes talking on the phone were difficult. I would spend time with her before I’d start shooting. Just get her thoughts and ask how she was feeling. I knew she needed a little bit of warm-up time. I feel I give my actors a lot of unconditional love. I feel like they sense that. Even though we have big crews, I’m very careful about keeping a set small or closed [with Ratna’s phone sex scenes, and Aahana and Vikrant’s sex scenes], not using the microphone but going and talking to them. These small things go a long way. Even though I make them do a hundred takes if I am not happy, I will not criticize them, but keep encouraging them to do better. I get the best from my actors because of that.

MM: I thought Lipstick’s production design was great. We’re talking about Bhopal, a big “small town,” but you gave us an intimate sense of so many aspects. Did you know the city very well beforehand? 

AS: The reason the film is set in Bhopal is because the old city has a lot of Hindus and Muslims living harmoniously in close proximity. Because my story had two Hindu and two Muslim characters with overlapping lives and living in such close quarters, I chose Bhopal. I’m also very familiar with Bhopal and have done a lot of work in there.

[In addition to the old city] there are also the malls. I wanted the subtext about the changing urban landscape affecting people. I wanted to get a sense of how the new consumerism has crept into the traditional modes of existence and how that is also stimulating this need to be clearer about what we want. It’s not like those desires have suddenly emerged from nowhere. I feel these juxtapositions are really happening in small town India. And yet it’s not “such a new city” or “such an old city.”

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