“Lady-oriented” is a term that had the capacity to be India’s “nasty woman”. As a queer feminist, I delighted in the various implications the phrase has to offer, and it is a phrase with the catchy appeal that legendary taglines are made of. The irony, however, is that it was a term used to suppress, not endorse something – being one of the many objections the Central…err, rather the ” Censor Board of Film Certification ” had to lay on Prakash Jha’s “Lipstick Under My Burkha.” Other objections include “contanious sexual scenes, abusive words and a bit sensitive touch about one particular section of society(sic)”.
Shortly after, Jayan Cherian’s “Ka Bodyscapes” met a similar fate-the irony being, here, in a film about a homosexual men battling censorship being met by censorship. The objections here were that it “glorified” same-sex relationship, derogated Hinduism by portraying Hanuman as gay and thus “in poor light” and that it showed a Muslim woman masturbating.
These acts of censorship, even though infuriating, were not surprising. This is a country uncomfortable about many things – and sex would be very high up in that list. This is not to say that sexuality has not made its way into popular media – it obviously has, in sometimes subtler, sometimes explicit ways.
The truth is that, however uncomfortable India might be with sex, it cannot erase the reality of it. So sex find its way into films, in keeping with heteronormative, patriarchal gender politics – in men who are aggressive, relentless pursuers of women, in heterosexual relationships where men are the agents and women passive receptacles of desire.
Feminism finds its way too, it is true, but the liberation of women has to be one acceptable to conservative societies. Emancipation of the mind is okay – that is, getting an education and a job that pays – but emancipation of the body is not. In a man’s pursuit of sex, and a woman’s reception of it, sexuality has to be brought within the confines of the family, but even abstention is preferable to an outright subversion of the supposed moral order.
The moral order according to the Censor Board of Film Certification is not threatened by lewd, lecherous men because they are seen as inevitability – and their sexuality is weaponised to keep the female in check.
The moral order is threatened when female sexual desire is abundant, and seeking to be free from all the regulatory checks imposed on it. It is threatened when men seek out men, or women, women. Our moral order is threatened by questions to the gender binary, and a normalization of identities beyond the binary. These are narratives challenging notions on gender, challenging the view of individuals as role-fulfillers for reproduction, challenging a view of sexuality being primarily for anything but pleasure.
When a woman in a burkha sneaks into a store to buy lipstick, or a fifty-year old woman scours lingerie in “Lipstick Under My Burkha”, when two men watch the sun set over the ocean as lovers in “Ka Bodyscapes”, the Indian audience is confronted with a reality it does not wish to acknowledge. They are, however, faced with more than the reality of these issues – they are faced by the humanization of people they wish to other.
Another aspect is the confluence of religion with sexuality. The “burkha” in the title of Jha’s film brings it to play. The depiction of a Hanuman earth-bound with, not a mountain but rather a collection of books on “gay love” in his grip adds to the debate. To demand the separation of the sexual from the spiritual is more than an implant of Victorian morality. It is a pointer to a mindset that paints human sexuality as impure and thus to be distinct from the realm of divine purity.
The engagement with the subject of sexuality and religion is different in both cases – as Jha tells the Times Of India, the burkha in his film signifies constraint. As a representative of religion, the call is to break free from constraints imposed by religious orthodoxy. In the case of Hanuman as the champion of gay rights, the call is to reclaim narratives around religion and extend these spaces to accommodate progressive politics.
What they boil down to, in the mind of the religious orthodox however, is an affront to religion. This speaks volumes on how religion is institutionalised as an agent of control, a bastion of conservatism.
The collective weight of these affronts – to public perceptions of morality, to religion that informs these notions, is one whose brunt is borne by the artist. Art essentially creates empathy. As conserver of the status quo, it can be instrumental, as agents of subversion, it is threatening. When the ” Censor Board of Film Certification ” responds to critiques of society by art with censorship, it is clear that it picks a side.
As a representative of the general consensus among the Indian public, the ” Censor Board of Film Certification ” is unfortunately in line with India’s deeply homophobic policies, as well as an intensely patriarchal one. When the Board cannot safeguard the artist, and the narrative of marginalized demographics, it effectively succumbs to the bigotry the nation has long been in the grips of.
It is disheartening to see the way these narratives are silenced, and the apathy of the general public to both their reality and their representation. The suppression works at multiple levels. The tabooing of certain identities at the administrative level reinforces the discrimination at a social, cultural level.
The end goal is not merely to secure freedom of expression – it is to guarantee a society where women are not stigmatized for beings sexual beings, nor any non-heterosexual identity denied validity. The censor board of film certification is a symptom – but the fight is not one that is to be fought merely between the artist and the censorship. Rather, it is an issue that concerns the people at large. It is an issue that we have been apathetic towards for far too long.