It was twelve years ago when the theaters in India sold tickets for a film that promisingly broke all stereotypes of what a film should look like. A film which told the story of a young homosexual man, who was HIV + and how his life unfolded in a system which could ‘legally’ keep such cases isolated from the outside world, was embraced by the people of the nation, loved by many and went on to become one of the most critically acclaimed pieces of cinema. ‘My Brother Nikhil’ saw the light of the day more than a decade ago, an uncensored version with the power to touch the hearts of even those who could not imagine seeing beyond the conventional, a film which ‘had’ to be released owing to the sheer genius it was, with a message that needed to be heard.
Cut to 2017 and I wake up to my TV seeming rather more idiotic than usual while it blares out the headline, which shamefully was the headline for the day: Censor stops the release of ‘Lipstick under my Burkha’, a film on sexual fantasies of four women, because it -wait for it – finds it lady oriented. Of course, it took me good five minutes to register, with a million questions racing in my mind, and a sudden sense of disappointment of whether the film I have been waiting for will ever find my attention.
Bollywood is the largest film industry in the world and along with producing drama, musicals and releasing films in every regional language, it has a wide space for sleaze, vulgarity and plain low-class humor too. There have been a dozen of films in the last couple of years which are solely based on men and their sexual fantasies, as they waste two hours of their screen time objectifying women, cracking crass jokes as the women dance in a shady bar in their dreams. There is a large audience for such films and no matter how badly they get criticized, no one has ever demanded a ‘ban’ on them because freedom of expression! I might not like what they say, but I shall defend their right to say it.
But, if tables had to be turned, would it still be the same picture? If women were the characters in the film, as they fantasize about sex, objectify men and ‘lure’ them, would it still be treated as ‘just another movie’? As it seems, that is NOT the case. Lipstick under my Burkha has been stopped ONLY because it is about four women who want to explore more about sex and their sexuality. Suddenly, it becomes an uncomfortable subject, suddenly it not ‘just another film’, and regardless of the fact that the film pushed the envelope and is ‘really’ about gender equality, the window to change is shut as conservatives sit on the desk of ideologies, forcing their morality on the country.
Apart from calling it lady oriented, the censor board also ended up saying that it ‘did not wish to hurt the sentiments of a certain community’. What is that if not a desperate attempt at solidifying ‘self-made-stereotypes’ and labelling an entire community ‘sentimental’, when the fact of the matter is that it is just sex – and it has no religion/community/society, whatever it is that people like to call it these days?
Films in India which glorify women are usually exceptional stories of women in say, sports. How a young girl from a backward place in India made it big and went on to become the wrestling world champion. As fantastic as the story is; it makes for a great film too. Everybody loves it, and it becomes the richest film. Not that this should not have happened, in fact it is time we acknowledge women in sports, but somewhere Indian cinema has mistaken that, and only that ,as empowerment as it fails to understand that choice of having sex or having sexual fantasies can be just as empowering!
One is compelled to ask if we are living in times where it is too much to see a woman crave for sex in a film or it is just plain disturbing for us to imagine she might have put lipstick under her burkha? Are we living in times where outrage has shifted from women not having equal rights to how ‘hurt’ a community can get if it gets to know its women also have fantasies?
But, the main question is: Doesn’t banning a film where women want it, need it, and crave it for it just as much as men do in other films solidify that women are second-class citizens and that we have no right to even have dreams OR can this fuel another revolution which demands an end to Patriarchy? Fact is only the Indian audiences can decide that.