Alankrita Shrivastava has seen enough virgin brides and sacrificing mothers
Emerging as the poster child of indie feminist filmmaking, the former “tyrant” is reshaping the way Indian cinema portrays its women
“Just because I slept with you doesn’t mean you I will marry you.” This throwaway statement in a TV promo for her directorial debut, Turning 30, put Alankrita Shrivastava on a collision course with the defenders of Indian sanskaar, the Censor Board.
The board was aghast; Shrivastava, silenced. “Censors have this fixed image of women: virgin brides, loyal wives and sacrificing mothers,” she says. “I am anti-puritan and don’t think women can be put into these boxes. So I’ll keep fighting to tell my stories.”
Unfortunately for her, the fight came sooner than expected. Her second encounter with the censors resulted in the ban of her critically acclaimed film, Lipstick Under My Burkha, cementing her place in their Hall Of Shame. In the film, four repressed women in the interiors of India explore their sexuality.
The censors didn’t think that the Indian audience was prepared to see a vivid lesbian sex scene in mainstream cinema. After 16 ‘voluntary’ cuts and 6 months of courtroom drama, it finally opened to theatres. The film’s 20 crore profit proved the lawmakers grossly wrong.
Shrivastava expected the notoriously prudish Censor Board to swoon at the idea of women having casual, consensual intercourse. It was the reactions of some of her male friends that shocked her. One of them said, “Indians will not want to have sex anymore after the kind you’ve shown.”
Society has always been uncomfortable with women telling stories about exploring their sexual desires. Except on porn sites, of course. Writer Ismat Chugtai’s short story Lihaaf explored a lesbian affair outside of traditional marriage; it led to an obscenity trial in 1942. Decades later, in 1996, when Deepa Mehta adapted the story for screen with Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das, Mehta was at the receiving end of violent protests.
Alankrita Shrivastava, reality bites
Twenty years later, little seems to have changed. But Alankrita Shrivastava is happy to carry the mantle of India’s poster child for feminist filmmaking. “Nobody wants to see realism. It’s all systemic—the sexism and inequality,” she says. “Although I am doing what I love, I was in a state of shock when I first joined the industry.”
Early brushes with workplace sexism left her voiceless, literally. She remembers working on a set of 250 men and only three women. The numbers were dismal. When she started filming her debut, the production would deliberately send her the wrong equipment. She took to screaming early in her career to get her point across. But it was while working as an executive producer on Prakash Jha’s Rajneeti that her temper broke records. “All of Bhopal hated me. I was a tyrant,” she says. “I worked hard, but also lost my voice yelling all the time, trying to assert myself. It’s a power thing.”
Thanks to women who aren’t afraid to scream to have their voices heard, the long journey towards the equilibrium has begun. For starters, no film set has just three women anymore. Streaming platforms have opened up new avenues for female writers and storytellers to showcase their work. Studios are more encouraging, and distributors, more welcoming. Most importantly, stories with female protagonists like Delhi Crime, Tumhari Sulu and Badhaai Ho are part of the mainstream.
Shrivastava herself co-wrote the acclaimed show Made in Heaven, produced by Zoya Akhtar, and is currently working on her upcoming Netflix Original series, Bombay Begums.
For every critically acclaimed film or TV show, Shrivastava would like you to shut up and swallow a chick-drama like Veere Di Wedding and Four More Shots Please. “Men have been making trash forever. Nobody is bashing them. First, level the playing field, then the quality of content will be up for discussion.”