It is impossible to not be struck by the jolting freshness of Lipstick Under My Burkha’s trailer, 1 million hits since it released early October. Intrigued, I tried to read up all about the film and the accolades it has been receiving during its screening at MAMI and the Tokyo Film Festival. It has been extremely well received in the festival circuit, hoping it would get an all India release very soon. The unassuming writer, director and creator of ‘Turning 30!!!’ and Lipstick, Alankrita Shrivastava, shares her experience about the film world, feminism, politics and many other things. I felt quite liberated reading her unflinching responses to all my questions – I am hoping that this film would bring out the much-needed dialogue about the secret lives of women in search of their rightful freedom. Here’s wishing Alankrita an extraordinary success with her film, and a global distribution that would bring attention to the lives and voice of women in small towns.
Q. A little bit about your journey from where you started, to where you are right now. How was your dose of patriarchy, growing up?
I actually grew up without too much patriarchy in my face. I had a wonderful father who encouraged me to read a lot and think a lot. (He passed away March this year.) My mother is a very strong person, and the woman I admire most in the world. She has really shown through example what it means to be brave in the face of the greatest adversity. My maternal grandmother is also a feminist personality.
Plus I went to an all-girls’ boarding school, (Welham Girls’ School, Dehradun) that really educated us about feminism at a very early age. We had workshops on women’s legal rights from the time we were in our teens. And workshops on how to not view women as inviting crimes against themselves. It was a very liberal and progressive school. After that, I went to Lady Shri Ram College in Delhi. Again, a very feminist institution. As a college student, I was quite involved in the discourse on women’s rights. So I think I grew up with a very clear awareness of the strength of women. But also a very clear awareness of how patriarchy is entrenched in the system. I actually studied themes like the female gaze. At LSR and then at the Mass Communication Research Centre at Jamia Islamia.
Then I came to Bombay and worked on a film set where there were just 3 women on a set of 250, excluding the few female actors. And I found that as I tried to make my way up in the world of feature films, I had to shout and scream a lot – trying to make myself heard in an all male environment. It is only when I started directing that I became a regular, warm person on set, divested of the need to show my power. And I guard that warmth and kindness and dignity very carefully now. I really believe that we, at least I, get the best out of our cast and crew when we treat everyone with warmth and kindness and respect and dignity. It creates a safe environment for people top do their best. I never scream or shout on my set when I am directing. And I like working with a younger crew, more new age. I am always the oldest person on my set. I feel I have so much to learn from the young talent I work with.
As women on a film set, it is complicated. And we each have to find what works best for us.
Q. Importance of having more women in the cast and crew – your editor and the powerful cast – please share your thoughts on their contribution.
I feel having more women on a crew is wonderful. And having more women work as technicians – cinematographers, directors, sound recordists, editors etc… is fantastic. I have personally benefited a lot by collaborating with many talented women for both my films.
However I do feel that the feminist perspective, or a more sensitive female gaze does not come from merely being a woman by biological birth. The female gaze, is an inner eye, that comes from looking at stories, characters, people, life in a way that is more empathetic towards women. And specifically not looking at them through the social conditioned eye – that is very clearly male. So the female gaze for me is the game changer. Be they men or women, if they can have a female sensitive eye, I want to work with those people.
No. As an artiste it is my responsibility to be true to the stories I want to tell, to the songs I want to compose, to the paintings I want to paint, to the books I want to write, to the films I want to make. In being true to ourselves, in finding the honesty in our voice we will tell stories that resonate, that touch people’s hearts and move them. If any theme interests me, I should deal with it. I cannot be forced to talk about things for a certain cause. Honesty and integrity to the inner self is the most important attribute of an artiste I feel. Everything else follows.
Q. What do you think about representation / equal opportunities? Do you think there is a huge inconsistency in the industry – how do we see Farah Khan on one end of the spectrum, successful but making films that is reeking of internalised misogyny – to the other end, your film, or Margarita with a straw, say?
I cannot comment upon other people. I can only say, that just because you are a woman filmmaker it is not your job to tell women’s stories from a female perspective. It is your job to be true to who you are. Therefore I feel that having more women in the film industry is connected to, but not equal to a radical new representation of women’s portrayal in cinema.
Women’s portrayal in cinema will change when there are more people with a female gaze telling those stories, be they men or women. And of course it is much more natural for women, because of our own experiences as women, to be more empathetic. And hence more women working behind the camera should result in more interesting representations of women on screen.
Q. In your experience of traveling abroad for films, writing etc – what is the one striking difference that comes to mind about the position of women pursuing arts?
In some first world countries, women are really encouraged and nurtured to think and tell their own stories, and express themselves. Their voices are valued. Unlike in India, where we spend all our energy fighting the system. But I would say that is true even of male filmmakers with an independent voice. The fight in cinema is also largely about having an off-centre voice compared to the mainstream.
Thus, you are always fighting the mainstream popular paradigm of cinema that is completely misogynistic and steeped in patriarchy. It is the norm for the camera to just randomly go up and down women’s bodies in the “great item song.” And then stalking is passed off as a love. Eve teasing is considered a mode of courtship.
I am happy that some of these things are changing now. The struggle for a female sensitive cinema, I feel cannot be disconnected from the struggles of independent cinema. Also I feel the culture of assisting filmmakers for so many years, is not very conducive to developing your own voice and style as a filmmaker. In the west they go to film school and start making films straightaway. That I think is better. Otherwise you have to spend too much energy unlearning.
However, as we know, in Hollywood women behind the camera and in front of the camera are really fighting to be recognized, encouraged and treated on par. So it is perhaps true across the world, that women filmmakers and technicians have a long way to go. And that there need to be many more of us.
Q. Could you take us through the casting process, how did you arrive at the fantastic four protagonists?
Konkona and Ratna were my first choices for their respective parts, so that was relatively simple. For Aahana and Plabita, plus ALL the other characters all credit goes to my super talented casting directors Shruti Mahajan and Parag Mehta. They worked really hard and found everybody.
Q. From Turning 30!!! to Lipstick under my Burka – how much has changed? Your outlook towards cinema, direction style, is there a radical transformation?
I think Turning 30 was a very progressive and feminist film as well. So perhaps on that account, it has been a natural strengthening of conviction. But as an artiste I have grown tremendously. As a storyteller and as a filmmaker. And I have grown a lot as a woman and as a human being. I think more deeply about stories and characters now. As I think more deeply about life. All that gets reflected I guess.
Yes, but not in the conventional understanding of politics. But I do feel the personal is political. And the political is personal. I think all our personal lives reflect the politics of who we are and what we believe. No art is divested of politics in the sense of the perspective of how it is created and how it is engaged with.
I feel my stories and the gaze through which I choose to tell those stories reveals my politics. I want the audience to just join the four characters in their very personal journeys, from the inside, looking at them from within rather than from the outside.
Q. It is 2016 and there still is a very obvious class divide in our country – added to homophobia, misogyny and rampant saffronisation – with this in the periphery, how can arts thrive?
The honesty and integrity of the artiste is the only hope. And courage. We all need to be brave.
Q. Why has the censor board become the self proclaimed moral police – do you think your film will pass the stifling test, without you having to put up a strenuous fight?
No comments. We will cross that bridge when we come to it. Parched and Margarita with a straw were both passed. So I think it will be fine.
Yes. Feminism needs to be taught properly as a subject, discussions on gender are crucial. Our country perpetuates misogyny and patriarchy. And crimes against women are thriving. We need to start talking, from the ground up.
Q. What do you think is the problem with Indian cinema distribution system, that is shutting its doors to most of the female filmmakers or scripts that are centred around a female protagonist?
The real issue is audiences. If enough people patronize women’s films, things will change. I don’t have any answers. It is a huge struggle. We have to just keep trying. But films like Kahaani, Neerja, Queen are markers of hope.
Q. Could you name some of your favourite writers, directors and films? Of the films you’ve watched, what according to you is the most memorable film with a female protagonist?
I am very influenced by female writers and feminist writings. Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf, Dorris Lessing, Alice Munro, Toni Morrison, Sylvia Plath, Naomi Wolf, Simone De Beauvoir, Adiche. More recently – Elena Ferrante, Penelope Fitzgerald, Barbara Pym. The one book that has really influenced me is Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook.
In terms of film I love the works of Nicole Hollofcener. And in terms of Indian films, Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi and Monsoon Wedding are my favourites.