Feminist Films Push Boundaries In India

Jun 3, 2017
Originally published on June 5, 2017 5:27 am

Typically, India's Bollywood film industry depicts older women as maternal and virtuous. Younger ones often are eye candy, propping up male leads. But a recent crop of films is showing more complex female characters, training a spotlight exclusively on the lives of women — and, even more unusually, on their sexuality.

The lighthearted Lipstick Under My Burkha, two years in the making, is one new film taking female roles in a new direction. It follows the "secret lives" of four women living in the Old City of Bhopal. Director Alankrita Shrivastava says she wanted to explore how women in small, traditional urban centers are identifying with the new, aspirational India.

"It's really bubbling in small towns," Shrivastava says.

"They can see this new India, and it's within reach — that mall is a bus ride away. They are on the verge of wanting much more than what their lives are supposed to be" as wives and mothers, she says. "I wanted to explore the fact that more is possible."

In the movie, Aahana Kumra, 32, portrays Leela, a feisty beautician with irrepressible lust. Her character, a Hindu, has a sizzling affair with a young Muslim photographer whom she cannot marry — because he's poor with few prospects for the future. Leela's overt sexual desires are splashed up on the screen with unusual raw humor, like when she videotapes herself having sex.

"Everybody is squirming in their places and asking, 'Oh my God, what are we watching?' And I think that's interesting to watch. Because art should make you uncomfortable, or should make you think," says Kumra.

Kumra says she understands the impulse to recoil, because she herself is socially conservative and had to "dig deep" to play a woman who was so open to sex.

Another character, the 60-something Usha, known as "Auntie" in the film, devours pulp fiction loaded with soft porn. She's disgraced when her family discovers that she's been reading steamy passages over the phone to seduce a swimming instructor half her age.

Actress Ratna Pathak plays Usha, and says portraying a widow with a libido is a radical idea in Indian cinema.

"People get shocked by the idea of the post-60 generation having a sexual drive at all," Pathak says. "Which is ridiculous."

Still, her eyes pop as she imagines how her "own relatives would react watching" her onscreen.

They can't watch for now, because the film has yet to reach Indian audiences.

Lipstick Under My Burkha premiered in February in Tokyo, and has been screened at film festivals in Stockholm, Miami, Athens and Cairo. India's Central Board of Film Certification, commonly known as the censor board, refused to certify the film for release in India on the grounds it was "lady oriented," with "sexual scenes, abusive words, audio pornography."

"Patriarchy is alive and kicking," says director Shrivastava, curled up on a couch in her office in Mumbai.

Shrivastava, 37, says the censor board's refusal to release the film in India means it has "no idea about the fact that women and men have equal rights in this country. It makes me feel like they don't want women to tell their stories, they want women to keep quiet and shut up."

Shrivastava contested the censor board's actions before an appellate tribunal, and in April, the tribunal reversed the decision and unblocked the film. But the censor board has yet to sign the documents certifying the movie.

The director says multi-dimensional roles that project women as complex characters are mostly absent from mainstream Bollywood, which she says persists in portraying women as objects.

One Bollywood staple, she says, is the so-called "item number," featuring singing, dancing, scantily clad women. Shrivastava says "the camera randomly" pans "up and down a woman's body" during item numbers, which has nothing to do with the narrative of the film itself. She calls "chikni chameli" or "beautiful girl," with Bollywood leading lady Katrina Kaif a classic example. It's lyrics are risqué as Kaif's moves: "My eyes are like scorpions, they give a poisonous wink ... This damned slender waist kills thousands with a jerk."

"It's producers; it's actors; it's directors," says Shrivastava. "Everybody's complicit ... in the creation of this kind of culture and the excuse is always, it works, it sells."

Director Aparna Sen predicts that her film Sonata, released in April, won't make money, but will break even — which she says counts as success for small, artistic films like this. She says such movies typically only run a couple of weeks in India's theaters, where big mainstream films get the best show times. She was encouraged that hers was extended for a third week in Delhi.

The small-budget, English-language production challenges norms about Indian family and friendship. The all-female ensemble is unusual enough. But the three characters are single, childless women in middle age, which pushes even more boundaries. And there's not a small bit of self-deprecation.

There's not a small bit of self-deprecation.

"What awful creatures we are," one character says as another chimes in. "Self-centered, do nothing for society, no commitment, no aim, no ideology, we're not even feminists!"

Urban, educated audiences might identify with the film, Sen says — but perhaps not mainstream moviegoers.

Director Sen also stars in the film, and her husband, author and professor Kalyan Ray, makes an appearance as her long-lost lover.

She says Indians are biased against women being single.

"If you are single by choice, they think that something is wrong with you; you're flawed in some way," Sen says. "Just the depiction of single women having a blast, having wine, you know, expressing their anxieties and loneliness — female bonding on cinema is very rare."

The producers of her film were four men. "Isn't that wonderful?" Sen exclaims. "Four men supported women, middle-aged women. Four young men, by the way."

Sheela Sehgal, a Delhi University literature professor, was among a handful of people watching Sonata in a Delhi cinema one recent Friday morning. She said it spoke to her.

"It's the stark reality of Indian women," she said. "They are not the younger generation, nor do they feel completely grown old. It's that dilemma. We all will go through that phase."

Sehgal, 43, wishes more films like this were being made.

"We're a big country with a lot of women at that age," she says. "I would love to blow all my money to go and watch this kind of movie."

Perhaps the film that pushes the theme of women's sexual choice farthest is Anaarkali of Aarah, released in March. It's a portrait of a singer who earns a living performing suggestive songs before an all-male audience in small-town India. She is molested by a prominent local figure — but exacts revenge, shaming him in public during a performance.

Swara Bhaskar, who stars as Anaarkali, says mainstream Bollywood wouldn't risk offending middle-class Indian morality with such a character.

"Anaarkali is promiscuous, she's unapologetic about it, she's a threatening person and she's a bit mad," Bhaskar says. She also triumphs in the end "by her own means. No man comes and helps her."

Anaarkali of Aarah is meant to send a powerful message that no matter how seductive a woman may be or what profession she's in, she still has the right to say no to sexual advances. "It doesn't matter if she was dancing naked on the table," Bhaskar says, "you still cannot touch her without her consent."

It's a message that resonates in the wake of horrific, high-profile incidents of sexual violence against women, like the fatal gang rape of a young woman in New Delhi in 2012.

Anaarkali was not a studio-backed film, but a small, independent one, screened in 300 theaters the first week and taken down in most theaters the second week.

The 29-year-old actress believes part of the movie's appeal is that it depicts something that rarely happens in caste- and class-bound India: a marginalized member of society prevailing over a powerful one.

In five cities, though, it ran for five weeks, which Bhaskar says is "quite a feat."

Critics enthused over Annarkali, including Shubhra Gupta of the Indian Express. "Indian cinema is in flux," she says, and "feistier, stronger" women with "an individual streak" are going to have a "crossover effect" on mainstream movie-making.

It may be a while, though, before India's mass culture — addicted to happy-ending love stories and fantasy adventures — is ready to embrace this path-breaking entertainment.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to spend the next few minutes talking movies. If the new "Wonder Woman" film was part of your plan for the weekend and you are wondering just where she came from, we will tell you in a few minutes. But first to India, where one of the great classics of the film industry there, "Mother India," turns 60 this year.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MOTHER INDIA")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character, singing in foreign language).

MARTIN: The heroine is a paragon of traditional virtues and maternal strength. Now, critics say Bollywood hasn't changed very much when it comes to depicting older women, and younger women are still too often props in the shadow of a male lead. But NPR's Julie McCarthy tells us about a recent crop of film that focuses exclusively on women and their desires.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: The light-hearted "Lipstick Under My Burkha" follows the secret lives of four women.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LIPSTICK UNDER MY BURKHA")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As character, singing in foreign language).

MCCARTHY: Aahana Kumra portrays a feisty beautician with irrepressible lust. Her character, a Hindu, has a sizzling affair with a young Muslim photographer whom she cannot marry. And her overt sexual desires are splashed up on the screen with unusual raw humor.

AAHANA KUMRA: Everybody's squirming in their places and going like, oh, my God, like, what are we watching, you know? And I think that’s interesting to watch because art should make you uncomfortable. Or it should make you think.

MCCARTHY: The 60-something character Auntie devours pulp fiction loaded with soft porn. She's disgraced when her family discovers that she's been reading steamy passages over the phone to seduce a swimming instructor half her age. Actress Ratna Pathak plays Auntie and says a widow with a libido is a radical idea in Indian cinema.

RATNA PATHAK: People get a bit shocked by the idea of post-60 generation having a sexual drive at all, which is ridiculous.

MCCARTHY: Debate has swirled around "Lipstick" for this very reason. It reveals unexplored aspects of women's lives. The film premiered in Tokyo and not India. Director Alankrita Shrivastava says India's censorship board refused to certify the film on the grounds it was, quote, "lady-oriented."

ALANKRITA SHRIVASTAVA: That means that you have no idea about the fact that women and men have equal rights in this country. It makes me feel like they don't want women to tell their stories. They want women to keep quiet and shut up. I think patriarchy's alive and kicking, and its roots are really deep.

MCCARTHY: Shrivastava successfully contested the ban, but the board has yet to certify the movie. She says multidimensional roles that project women as complex characters are virtually absent from mainstream Bollywood, which she says persists in portraying women as objects.

SHRIVASTAVA: These item songs with these double meaning lyrics and the camera is randomly going up and down a woman's body. It's producers. It's actors. It's directors. Everybody's complicit, actually, in the creation of this kind of culture. And the excuse is always it sells.

MCCARTHY: Director Aparna Sen predicts that her film "Sonata" won't make money but break even.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SONATA")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #3: (As character) What kind of people are we?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #4: (As character) Totally decadent, but happy.

MCCARTHY: Her small-budget English-language production challenges conventional norms of family and friendship. The ensemble of three single childless women in middle age appeals to a small urban elite, but perhaps not mainstream audiences. Director Sen says India has a bias against being single.

APARNA SEN: If you're single by choice, they think that something's wrong with you. You're flawed in some way. Just the depiction of single women having a blast, having wine, you know, expressing their anxieties and their loneliness - female bonding on cinema is very rare. Very, very rare.

MCCARTHY: Four men were the producers of "Sonata."

SEN: Is that wonderful? Four men who supported women, supported middle-aged women (laughter) - four young men, by the way.

MCCARTHY: Sheela Sehgal, a Delhi University literature professor, was among a handful in the theater one recent Friday morning who came to watch "Sonata."

Did it appeal to you?

SHEELA SEHGAL: Absolutely. It's the stark reality of Indian women. They're not the younger generation, nor do they feel completely grown old. It's that dilemma. We all will go through that phase. I don't know why they don't make such movies more.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ANAARKALI OF AARAH")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Hello, check. Hello, hello, hello. One, two, four. One, two, four.

MCCARTHY: Perhaps the film that pushes the theme of sexual choice farthest is "Anaarkali Of Aarah." It's a portrait of a singer who earns a living performing suggestive songs before an all-male audience in small town India. She's molested by a prominent figure in town but exacts revenge, shaming him in public during a performance. Swara Bhaskar stars as Anaarkali and says mainstream Bollywood wouldn't risk offending middle-class morality with such a character.

SWARA BHASKAR: Anaarkali is promiscuous. She's unapologetic about it. She's a threatening person. She's a little - you know, she's a bit mad. And she wins in the end. And she wins by her own means. No man comes and helps her.

MCCARTHY: Sexual violence against women burst out into the open in India after horrific high-profile incidents like the fatal gang rape of a young woman in New Delhi in 2012. But the film "Anaarkali" is meant to send a powerful message that no matter how seductive a woman may be or what profession she's in, she still has the right to say no to sexual advances. Bhaskar says without her consent...

BHASKAR: It doesn't matter if she was dancing naked on the stage. You still cannot touch her without her consent.

MCCARTHY: Small films are carving out new rules for women in the cinema. It may be a while, though, before India's mass culture, addicted to happy ending love stories and fantasy adventures, is ready to accept this path-breaking entertainment. Julie McCarthy, NPR News, New Delhi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.