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Feminist film unbanned in India, showing in Paris

By Rosslyn Hyams

In this week’s look at Asia, we hear about a film which had its release delayed in India for six months by the censorship board. It’s called Lipstick Under My Burkha and it screened in Paris this month at the South Asian Film Festival. Rosslyn Hyams has been talking to the film's director.

Lipstick Under My Burkha is a feminist film of the most watchable kind.
Director Alankrita Shrivastava says "the title is a metaphor for women's hidden desires, hidden dreams".

Her Hindi-language film shot in Bhopal opened the fifth South Asian Film Festival in Paris in October.

It had previously been shown in France at the Créteil Womens' Film Festival.
She struggled for more than six months before getting approval for release in India after a screening at the Bombay Festival in November 2016.

"They said it was too much from the female perspective," she explains. "It may have threatened the patriarchal norm. But India is still a functioning democracy. So we were able to have the ban lifted."

Related issues were raised by one or two people in a question and answer session after the film, with one person asking why there were no positive male roles in the film, for example.

In fact, none of the characters are black-and-white in Lipstick Under My Burkha, and that's just what sets it apart.

It stars four women.

Rathna Pathak as the yearning widow, Usha, stands up for all the residents of the  community where she lives but incurs their wrath when she hurts the pride of a local stud.

Konkona Sen Sharma, a mother of three subjected to marital rape by her cheating husband, cheats on him by hiding her fabulous career as a sales rep.

Ahana Kumra plays Leela, a female college student whose traditional Muslim father has nonetheless saved to enable her to go to a college where she mixes freely with young men.

Plabita Borthakur is a sex-hungry beautician infatuated with a wedding photographer with an appetite to match hers but whose mother has her own reasons for wanting to arrange a marriage with a romantic man who naively believes his wife would be happier at home.

Set in Bhopal

The film is set in Bhopal. The character Usha was made a widow by the Union Carbide chemical plant disaster of 1984.

However, Shrivastava set the film in Bhopal because of its social make-up, "I wanted many elements of Bhopal, like the old city being a separate geographical area and a new city coming up. I wanted an old city where Hindus and Muslims still live in close proximity."

The South Asian Film Festival in Paris or FFAST as it's known for short, has been going for five years. The independent films it shows from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka tend, in general, to push the boundaries of accepted norms one way or another.

Floriane Zaslavsky, one of the three FFAST programmers notes that four out of the six films in competition, including Hindi film Hotel Salvation which was first seen in France at the Festival of Asian Cinema (Fica) in Vesoul in February 2017 and Sri Lankan Tamil film Demons in Paradise, which screened out of competition at Cannes in May, are films that had trouble  obtaining authorisation for public viewing.

As the FFAST festival's focus on Tamil films from south-east India and Sri Lanka show, independent cinema from the region is inescapably political.

FFAST is on until Tuesday 10 October at the Cinéma Etoile, Porte des Lilas, Paris.

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