Scene from "Lipstick Under My Burkha"

Konkona Sen Sharma in Lipstick Under My Burkha (2016)

Lipstick Under My Burkha is an Indian black comedy film that tells the story of four small town Indian women, ages 18 to 55, who are asserting their personal and sexual rights. Written and directed by Alankrita Shrivastava and produced by Prakash Jha, the controversial film almost did not make it on the big screen in India when it was initially denied a release in January 2017 after the country’s Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) refused a certificate stating that “There are contagious (sic) sexual scenes, abusive words, audio pornography and a big sensitive touch about one particular section of society.”

After the filmmakers appealed this decision to the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (FCAT), the FCAT viewed the film and communicated its concerns to the film producers and the film producers came back with a list of 16 voluntary cuts that addressed the concerns. After re-editing the film to be cleared for theatrical release in India, the movie finally made it on the big screen.

The outspoken indie filmmaker, who made her directorial debut with Turning 30!!!, said in an interview that although she would have loved to show the film with no cuts, she felt that the FCAT has been “very fair and clear.” The Mumbai-based director-writer said, “In India, we have a long way to go before there is gender equality and freedom of expression.”

The film pushes the envelope on social issues and physical intimacy. She added, “There's a character in the film who is in her 50s and has a sexual awakening, feelings and desires. The board felt uncomfortable about this. The truth is, in Indian films, we don't talk about these things. Everything is so unsaid.” She raised some issues. “Why should a film that tells a story of female desire be stifled? Don’t women have dreams? Why is it okay for women to be shown as mere objects of male fantasy, but not women with agency over themselves? It is about the continued stifling of women’s voices in our country.”

The critically-acclaimed progressive film, which won a gender equality award at the Mumbai Film Festival last year, stars Ratna Pathak (as Usha “Rosy” Buaji), Plabita Borthakur (as Rehana Abidi), Konkona Sen Sharma (as Shireen Aslam) and Aahana Kumra (as Leela). Set in a small neighborhood in Bhopal, the story begins as Rosy is introduced as the heroine of an erotic pulp fiction novel, Lipstick Dreams, which is narrated in secrecy by Usha Parmar, a 55-year-old widow who is known as “Buaji” (Aunty) in the village.

Leela, a young beautician who runs her own parlor, wishes to travel around the world with her secret lover Arshad (Vikrant Massey), who runs a small photo studio. Rehana Abidi, a freshman college who sews burkhas for her family’s store, steals make-up to wear at school and takes off her burkha and transforms into a jeans-wearing singer like her favorite Miley Cyrus.

On the other hand, Shireen Aslam, a burkha-wearing housewife and a mother to three boys, secretly works as a door-to-door salesgirl. She has a sexually dominating husband Rahim (Sushant Singh) who forbids her to use contraceptives so Shireen resorts to secret abortions and takes emergency contraceptives to prevent more pregnancies. The four women, who all live in the same neighborhood, find their lives intertwine and become friends. In the end, they reflect on their repressions and revel in their desire for freedom.