Alankrita Shrivastava (Turning 30, Lipstick Under My Burkha) on shaking up the patriarchal film industry and the Indian censorship board. Shrivastava’s latest feature, Dolly Kitty, is now on Netflix.
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In February 2017, Alankrita Shrivastava’s Lipstick Under My Burkha was banned by the Indian Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) for containing “contagious sexual scenes,” “abusive words,” and “audio pornography. In the letter addressed to the film’s producer Prakash Jha, the CBFC called the story “lady oriented,” a term that was laughable but accurate.
Lipstick Under My Burkha is about four women at different stages in their lives, each shackled by orthodoxy. Through their dreams, secrets, and fantasies, these women reclaim their freedom. Rehana Abidi (Plabita Borthakur) is a college fresher who is forced to wear a burkha by her family; at college, she takes it off and transforms into a jeans-wearing singer. Leela (Aahana Kumra), is a young beautician in her twenties who runs her own parlor in the neighborhood, and wants to travel the world with her clandestine lover; meanwhile, her mother is trying to arrange a marriage for her with a decent boy from a respectable family in their community. Shireen Aslam (Konkona Sen Sharma), is a burkha-wearing house-wife and a mother of three who secretly works as a door-to-door sales-girl in order to run her household. Her husband, Rahim (Sushant Singh), is sexually abusive and mostly away on work. In the same neighbourhood of the non-metropolitan city of Bhopal, lives the old matriarch, 55-year-old Usha Parmar (Ratna Pathak), who is addressed as Bua-ji (aunt). She reads an erotic pulp fiction novel titled Lipstick Dreams in secrecy, and desires to replicate its protagonist, Rosy’s, passionate escapade.
The film’s fearless exploration of these stories of women’s liberation and sexuality threatened the CFBC — and every other institution implicated in patriarchy. Contesting the CBFC’s decision in order to achieve a mass theatrical release for the film was an uphill battle, but filmmaker Alankrita Shrivastava was determined to triumph. She took to social media and called the CBFC’s decision an assault on women’s rights and freedom of expression. Support for the film started pouring in. Artists from the Hindi film industry came out in solidarity with Shrivastava, promotional campaigns for the film challenged the dogma behind the decision, and women across all quarters joined in. The struggle paid off, and the film became a critical and commercial success. It also established Shrivastava as a strong contemporary feminist voice in Hindi cinema.
Since, Shrivastava has created or collaborated on projects that place women at the centre. In 2019, she co-wrote and co-directed a web series for Amazon Prime, Made In Heaven, which examines marriage in all its spectacle and dishabille. Her third feature film, Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitaare, about two cousins seeking mobility in the big bad world of men, arrived on Netflix on September 18th. Her upcoming web series, Bombay Begums, co-directed with Bornila Chatterjee, is about five urban women and their pursuit of ambition at any cost.
There is a journalistic quality to Shrivastava’s work which is reflected in the subject matter of her films. From marital rape, to jeans ban, to burqa ban, the subjects in her films are all matters of contemporary civic, legal, and political debate in India. She studied journalism before filmmaking and worked in several prestigious news organisations before moving to Bombay to assist Prakash Jha, a producer and director known for his political and socio-political dramas which examine caste, class, and feudal power.
After her significant groundwork training in provincial politics that Jha’s films are famous for, one would imagine Lipstick Under My Burkha to be Shrivastava’s debut film. Her third film, Dolly Kitty, can also be seen as a close cousin of the women in Lipstick. However, curiously, Shrivastava’s first feature film, Turning 30 (2011), was a romantic comedy about Naina (Gul Panag), a girl on the cusp of 30, working in a top advertising firm in an affluent part of the cosmopolitan city of Bombay, who finds that her life is nothing like the picture-perfect future she had dreamed of.
A closer look at Shrivastava’s oeuvre reveals her interest in the dreamy, secret, and fantasy lives of women. Naina in Turning 30 is more caught up in the ‘idea’ of her life than her life itself. The women in Lipstick Under My Burkha and Dolly Kitty, lie and cheat their way into happiness. It is the only way they know how to claim any autonomy. Women in all her films have their own secrets to bear.
In this interview, Shrivastava discusses her political influences, her use of commercial tropes to tell women’s stories, what her “lady-oriented” films offer the male viewer, and what it takes to be a filmmaker in the industry.
Background and education
7R: You’ve studied at Delhi University and Jamia Millia Islamia University, both of which have a solid tradition of political discourse and civic participation. Did that environment influence your politics and ultimately inform your art?
Alankrita Shrivastava: I think that consciousness developed in my school. I went to Welham Girls School in Dehradun. A lot of who I am got shaped over there. The ethos was much more challenging of the status quo. For instance, we had legal education programmes where we were taught that, in the case of a crime against a woman, the woman is always blamed, but [we were also told that] you shouldn’t buy into that stuff. We were told that even the laws can be questioned because they’re not equal. There was definitely a feminist consciousness in the environment.
My family also inculcated a political consciousness in me. I was encouraged to read. Discussing and debating issues of society was part of our conversations. Studying journalism at a college like the Lady Sri Ram College (LSR), I continued to develop that side of [my political consciousness]. Though at LSR, the atmosphere was way more elite; it was a bit of a bubble. Jamia was much more representative of a diverse India. Then, I started working with Mr. Jha, who was also a very politically conscious person.
7R: Would you like to talk about your experience of working with Mr. Prakash Jha [producer and director known for his political and socio-political dramas which examine the themes of caste, class, and feudal power]? How has his work impacted your own directorial work?
Alankrita Shrivastava: I knew Mr. Prakash Jha personally. He was a friend of my mother’s. He was in Delhi, one day, and they were having lunch. I just went in to say, “Hi.” He asked me what I wanted to do, and I told him that I was trying to go to Bombay as soon as I was done [with my exams], so he said, “Why don’t you come and assist me? I’m starting a film.” That’s how it happened. I went in the middle of my exams to work on Gangajal (2003), and I had to come back during the shoot to finish my vivas [oral examinations]. I asked him if I could work as an intern after [Gangajal], as well, because I felt that I should stay here and pursue this. That’s how I moved to Bombay.
Working with him was nothing short of a film school experience. Everything I know of how to be on a set, how to make important decisions, how to take complete responsibility, I learned from him. I was the executive producer on two films that he was producing, Dil Dosti Etc (2007) and Khoya Khoya Chand (2007), so whether it was VFX, or dealing with the Censor Board, I was in-charge of getting the films finished on time within a limited budget, while at the same time, trying my best to give my director what he wanted.
The most precious lesson that I learned from him was that there’s a lot of dignity in working hard. It’s not as though, because you’re the director, that you can’t do mundane things. I was the associate director for Rajneeti (2010), and for one whole year, I just worked to train the crowd actors in Madhya Pradesh. We trained around 10,000-12,000 people. That kind of ground experience has stood me in great stead. But most importantly, he really encouraged me to find my own voice and keep honing it.
7R: What drew you to the romantic comedy genre for your debut film, Turning 30?
Alankrita Shrivastava: I don’t think of Turning 30 so much as a romantic comedy, rather as a coming-of-age film. It was not autobiographical, but it was very close to my life, and the world I lived in. I wrote it when I was 27 years old, so I was preempting how it would feel when I turned 30. It was in English because it felt more authentic to my world, and the world the film was based in.
7R: Could you discuss the writing process for Turning 30? At what point did you draw a line between fictionalizing something and penning down your own world?
Alankrita Shrivastava: In Turning 30, none of the events are events that really happened, to be honest (laughs). No man has made a comeback in my life and all that. It’s the feeling of struggling to find myself that is autobiographical in the film. Turning 30 started with me penning down feelings. I had a vision of this girl whose car has broken down in the rain, nothing is working out for her in her life, and she’s soon turning 30. That’s really where the film began in my head.
You are schooled with all these ideas of settling down, meeting Mr. Right, having kids, and a successful career, which means everything will be fine. But life doesn’t always pan out that way. That story was a way for me to grapple with that fact. It really did give me a lot of closure. Now that I’m thinking about it, I think it freed me.
Lipstick Under My Burkha
7R: Compared to your first film, Turning 30, the characters in your second film, Lipstick Under My Burkha, are removed from your own socio-economic and regional position. Were you consciously thinking of that perspective shift as you developed your second feature?
Alankrita Shrivastava: I was grappling with the idea of how free I am, given that I have all this external freedom. Í’ve had a very liberal upbringing, yet I don’t feel fully free. I wanted to examine this feeling. I thought, instead of examining it through my own world, why not examine it through a world where there are material structures holding someone back, whether it is customs or family or economics? How do I relate my sense of restriction with someone who deals with the physical manifestations of restrictions? There’s no one telling me what to do, yet I don’t feel like I own the world. So, what does it mean to be truly free? Who is truly free?
I had submitted my draft to a screenwriter’s lab. My mentor was Urmi Juvekar [renowned screenwriter and documentary filmmaker, best known for writing Oye Lucky Lucky Oye! (2008) and Shanghai (2012)]. She helped me understand what it was that I wanted to say and how to say it. That’s how the deepening [of my ideas] happened.
A change in milieu also brings with it its own set of questions, so the characters wrote their own stories. I also feel that every character in Lipstick Under My Burkha is me. They might be of a different age or at a different stage in their life, but I never felt a separation between me and the character.
7R: The other significant change was that the focus of the film was not a woman, but all four women. What excites you about telling stories about groups of women, how they interact with each other, and the different ways they interact with the world?
Alankrita Shrivastava: During the writing of Lipstick Under My Burkha, all four women emerged together. I find it interesting to create multiple narratives of women because I think that the story of one woman is always the story of more women.
Bombay Begums is the story of many women; Dolly Kitty involves two women. I like working on ensemble films. I enjoyed working on Made In Heaven (2019) so much because there were so many characters. I like creating something through the juxtaposition, the divergences, as well as the convergences. It’s like a kaleidoscope effect. The light of one character reflects on another character.
7R: I want to move to a discussion around ‘erotica for women’, which actually constitutes the spine of Lipstick Under My Burkha. Throughout the film, the story of Rosy, the heroine of an erotic pulp fiction novel titled Lipstick Dreams, is narrated by a 55-year-old widow, Usha Parmar (Ratna Pathak). What drew you to this approach?
Alankrita Shrivastava: Mills & Boon [a large romance novel publisher] was my influence (grins). When I was a teenager, I spent one entire summer reading Mills & Boon. I must have read 50 of those in a row. That’s all I did in my two-and-a-half month of vacation. But I found that people would still keep returning to these M&Bs even much later in life. So, I was curious that people still found something of interest in those entities.
M&Bs are looked down upon. The book focuses on male agency. But as a teenager, my knowledge of sex came from books, even if it was through a romanticized, patriarchal lens. Much of my life has been lived in books, through books. I could define my life on the basis of what I was reading at that point.
7R: But you gave it to Bua-ji, the elderly widow, not to the more likely suspect, the college-going Rehana (Plabita Borthakur)?
Alankrita Shrivastava: I wanted to explore desire through someone who had experienced it before, but the memories of it had faded, and was now vicariously fulfilling her desires through the character of a book which overtakes her life.
Making commercial films in India
7R: Why do you feel making commercial films is the best vessel for communicating your complicated political ideas?
Alankrita Shrivastava: Though the ideas may be complex or academic, the [key] cultural influence [on me] has been mainstream Hindi cinema from the time I was a child. I’m the kind of person who has seen Maine Pyar Kiya (1989) millions of times; I was obsessed with these love stories. We didn’t have that much access in boarding school to watch many films. We were allowed to watch a film only on the weekends, so one kept watching Top Gun (1986) or Dirty Dancing (1987) repeatedly because that’s what everyone would agree on.
It was only later that I started becoming interested in slightly more alternative things. When I was in college, I took a film appreciation course and saw films like Meghe Dhaka Tara (1960) and slowly started watching some foreign cinema. But at the same time, I was still watching Kaho Naa… Pyaar Hai (2000) multiple times in the theatre.
I don’t think there’s a dichotomy or a contradiction. Actually, I’m not that much of a film watcher; I read more. I do enjoy the colour and the madness of a mainstream popular film, though I don’t like the politics of it. Dil Chahta Hai (2001) was the last film I watched multiple times in the theatre. It was iconic, and it was a change of direction for Hindi cinema. The films that influenced me into becoming a filmmaker were films like Monsoon Wedding (2001). When I read about Nagesh Kukunoor making Hyderabad Blues, that was a defining moment for me when I felt that something new was possible. [Hyderabad Blues is low-budget independent film, which explores culture clash from an Indian American’s perspective. The film was made in three languages (Hindi, English and Telugu) with no songs, to mark a departure from mainstream, commercial tropes. It is remembered for attempting to jump-start the independent film moment at the turn of the new millennium. Though critically acclaimed, the film was not a commercial success.]
The other reason for using these commercial tropes is because it’s very hard to navigate the independent cinema space in India. You’re ultimately fighting for resources in the same pool with everyone else. With Lipstick Under My Burkha, I did consider making it a foreign co-production, but it would have been difficult to set that up. Fortunately, I already had an Indian producer. And I decided to go fully domestic.
You’re always trying to figure out, how do I mount the film in a way that it has a chance to be watched? I don’t need to have zillions of people watch my film. But I do want enough people to watch it. I’m happy to compete in the theatrical space with a mainstream market. If I keep my budget under control, I know that a certain amount of revenue can make your film profitable. All these things play constantly at the back of one’s mind.
7R: Was it a struggle to gain the funds and support to start working on your own projects?
Alankrita Shrivastava: To be honest, I have not had to cry for funds to make films because I had the support from Prakash Jha Productions for Turning 30; same for Lipstick Under My Burkha. So I didn’t have to struggle to get the money, but the release and how to recover that money was a stress. Turning 30 couldn’t recover the money. We also couldn’t do proper sales. It was sad that we never managed to sell the film to a satellite television channel because the Censor Board refused to give it a U/A certificate. There were lots of complications. Turning 30 was such a vanilla film, yet they gave it an adult certificate.
7R: Could it be due to a homosexual character?
Alankrita Shrivastava: I don’t know what it was. I didn’t question it back then, but it affected the film badly. With Lipstick Under My Burkha, also, I struggled a lot with the release. I didn’t have distribution and didn’t know how to make the film financially feasible. With Dolly Kitty, luckily, since Balaji is the producer, it was fine.
The one thing that I decided after Lipstick was that I was only going to make a film where I knew how to release it; not just in terms of censorship issues but also getting the distribution. The process really took its toll on me, it was very harrowing. I was struggling for a long time, even before the Censor Board banned the film, to just get the film distribution. And that kind of emotional and physical and financial pressure I really didn’t want in the next film.
You can’t be a filmmaker and not think about how the money’s going to come and how to get it back. You’re lucky if you have a producing partner, or somebody who’s there. But otherwise, you can’t divorce yourself from this big matter.
Being a filmmaker has very little to do with your talent. It mostly has to do with your resilience and your ability to make it happen. Are you able to gather the resources and put it all together?
So many people whose films have not been made, it’s not because they lack talent or don’t have the stories. It’s just that they don’t have the emotional resilience to hustle and stay the course. And it never ends (laughs). I feel like I’m always doing jugaad (makeshift) only.
7R: Even though Turning 30 sought to make a point about gendered prejudice, the film wasn’t particularly well received. Do you attribute the reactions to bias? Is there something you would have liked to do differently?
Alankrita Shrivastava: I would not make the same film today, and there’s no end to thinking about the things I could have done differently. There were, of course, some technical issues. I was very young, and I was not assertive enough.
I faced a lot of discrimination and bias during Turning 30 which I wasn’t aware of at the time, but I can see that in retrospect. The camera that I had asked for didn’t come on the first day of shooting. So, I refused to shoot. The lights I ordered didn’t come, until I created a big hue and cry. There were a lot of obstacles in production.
The film was part of a post-production package deal with Rajneeti, and the studios weren’t taking Turning 30 seriously at all. We got terrible slots; we didn’t have the best technicians.
We actually had to release the film ourselves, and I had to do all the marketing and distribution co-ordination. We had no money for ads. It wasn’t a blockbuster success, but it did well in the metro cities. It could have done better had we had more shows, more screens.
My friends took me to a Friday screening. It was the first day, and the theatre was packed. We sat in the first row, and I started howling. It was a big moment for me. I received a lot of love from so many women who could relate to the film. I’m happy that I went through that journey because that’s how you learn. So later on, for Lipstick Under My Burkha, I made an effort to find the right crew and work with people who were committed to the film regardless of its size.
When I was making the film, I thought the critics would love it. But the critics didn’t take to the film the way I had imagined. I got some lovely reviews, some average ones, and some harsh reviews.
I was very angry at some of the reviews. I even called a few of them and fought with them, “How dare you?” Some reviews were perhaps biased. I don’t know if it had to do with being a woman filmmaker or the genre. But I got a call from someone, a few years ago, who told me that she was listing Turning 30 as a case study on a project on the gendered nature of Hindi film reviews.
There were sexist reviews, “How can a woman screw a man?” Making value judgments on the lead protagonist’s right to live a certain way. Some critics felt she was crying too much, why couldn’t she be “stronger”? Digital happened much later, so maybe the film was ahead of its time in a way. People discovered the film after some years, and I still receive love for it.
7R: Before Lipstick Under My Burkha was released, the film got embroiled in an issue with the Indian Censor Board for Film Certification (CBFC) which held back the film’s release on grounds of it being “lady oriented.” What do you think Lipstick Under My Burkha offers a male viewer?
Alankrita Shrivastava: It offers a male viewer a perspective into women’s lives: their hearts, minds, and souls, and what it really means to be a woman. It’s strange that you’re asking this question as so many men told me how the film had enabled them to see things from a female point of view which they’re not used to seeing.
7R: Did it cross your mind that there was a risk you were making a film that men may not even come to watch?
Alankrita Shrivastava: We are just servicing patriarchy all the time! And the only way to stop it is by putting your own point of view out there. Don’t try to mollycoddle the audience. There’s no end to that mollycoddling. I think films such as these should be made compulsory viewing for men because men are so used to seeing their own gaze being perpetuated. That’s what culture is meant to do: show a new perspective.
7R: In an interview, responding to the ban, you said, “Censorship of film makes no sense in a democracy.” It is quite rare that filmmakers from the Hindi film industry make such challenging statements. Could you expand on that?
Alankrita Shrivastava: I stand by that statement. If you’re a free country where one can vote at the age of 18, the state doesn’t have any business prescribing what you can or cannot watch. I don’t have a problem with certification. You can categorize violence and graphic content in a reasonable manner; young kids shouldn’t be exposed to so much violence, that’s fine.
It’s the idea of banning, of cutting things out, of prescribing, of treating your citizens like dumb infants who cannot think for themselves, that I have a problem with. It is antithetical to a democracy, antithetical to peoples’ freedom of expression, and antithetical to treating citizens as empowered beings.
After India became an independent country, there was no need to continue with the colonial laws on censorship.
7R: Is that statement coming from artistic indignation or civic rage?
Alankrita Shrivastava: I don’t think one can compartmentalize. I feel who you are comes through in your work. The personal is political, and the political is personal. I became very aware of this during the Censor Board controversy, because I felt it was not just about the film; it was about being an Indian woman.
Why is my opinion, my voice, my speech, and my expression less valid than a man’s? I had to challenge that. I am a political person — I come from a family of bureaucrats — so social and political discourse was something we were always engaging with. With Lipstick Under My Burkha, it wasn’t like they [CBFC] asked me to make cuts. They simply banned the film! So, I had to fight that.
7R: You were the director of some of the more explicitly ‘political’ episodes in the series Made In Heaven (2019), which was released on Amazon Prime. Since there is little government censorship in the digital space, do you see it as a platform to push political questioning to another level?
Alankrita Shrivastava: Of course, the fact that you don’t have to wait outside the CBFC office… I’m grateful in the case of Dolly Kitty and Bombay Begums [which will be released digitally]. I find the process of waiting for the CBFC to “pass your film” insulting.
But in India, I think filmmakers also undergo self-censorship to a large extent. There are subjects they don’t even conceive of. However, the very idea that you want to challenge the status quo comes from the thoughts of the filmmaker. Raazi (2018) was a very mainstream film but it does question the status quo. If you are committed, if you are interested in challenging the status quo, you will. Someone like Anurag [Kashyap], for instance, I feel that somehow whatever he does, there is a sense of challenging the systems.
7R: I find your film language quite textual. Does your film sensibility involve putting the word before an image?
Alankrita Shrivastava: I definitely think the word comes before image for me, because I’m not an avid watcher. When I read, I keep creating mental images in my head. I have felt the film but not seen it. I don’t have an exact image. The film gets made as I’m making it. When you read the script, the picture I want to create becomes obvious. I mention the colour, the setting, the props, how the shot transitions, and other details.
For Turning 30, I made a huge storyboard or mood board. A spot boy used to carry a bag full of 10-12 sketchbooks for me to refer to if I was confused before a shot. I didn’t do that for Lipstick.
We switched from film to digital. With the film camera, your stock is limited. With the digital camera, I could take many more shots and keep deciding the angle. I had a lot of footage, so could I create the film in the edit.
7R: What is your process of collaborating with a cinematographer to develop the visual aesthetic of your films?
Alankrita Shrivastava: Akshay Singh was the cinematographer for Turning 30 and Lipstick Under My Burkha. He is a very calm person which made a difference to the actors. Lipstick was an intimate film, so we needed someone whom the actors could feel at ease with.
The gaze was never exploitative, on or off camera. The whole crew in fact, worked in an atmosphere of comfort and respect for each other. It is very important to not have this male gaze on you on set… people cracking weird jokes and making others uncomfortable or making actors [self-]conscious. I really try to weed those kinds of people out.
With Bhopal, there was also more material to explore visually. I have to give my DoP credit for that. We decided upon some creative calls, which we stuck to, which gave the film its language, like not moving the camera a lot. We used a wide lens for the most part. Even for a closeup, we shot it from a wide lens, so it never beautifies a character.
7R: How do you see the contemporary landscape of film changing when it comes to representing women on screen?
Alankrita Shrivastava: There’s much more space for female characters now than there ever was. But there’s a long way to go, until 50% of all films are led by women.
There is such a small percentage of female filmmakers at present. While it’s important to have many, many more women behind the camera, I do feel that just because we’re so few, women filmmakers shouldn’t be constantly compared to other female directors [only]. That attitude needs to change. We need to encourage more filmmakers to freely tell the stories they want. It’s very important that women filmmakers stop limiting themselves to a small space and demand more space.
Dolly Kitty is now available on Netflix.