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This 'lady-oriented' film has opened in India after a long battle with censors

NEW DELHI — A film that was almost banned for being "lady-oriented" and depicting excessive sexuality was released in theaters across India on Friday, following a protracted battle with the country's film certification board.

"Lipstick Under My Burkha" is about four small-town women – two Hindus and two Muslims – and their acts of rebellion against the restrictions placed on females in a regressive, male-dominated society.

Salt-and-pepper-haired Usha seeks relief from the monotony of her life through naughty phone conversations with a brawny young swimming coach.

Beautician Leela wants to do big business and pulls the strings in steamy scenes with her Muslim photographer boyfriend.

College student Rehana Abdi is an aspiring singer whose frustrations with her orthodox lower-middle-class family, along with teenage hormones, rage under her burqa.

She sees the garment, used as a metaphor for the boundaries within which many Indian women live, as useful for shoplifting cosmetics — but removes it in a college washroom.

Meanwhile, Shireen Aslam, the stoic wife of a man who believes women are meant solely to bear and rear children, leads a hidden life as a door-to-door salesperson.

"What makes 'Lipstick Under My Burkha' the film it is, is the upfront, frank manner in which female desire and fantasy are treated, running like a strong, vital thread through the film," wrote film critic Shubhra Gupta in the Indian Express newspaper. "Dreams can keep you alive, and age is just a number,"

Director Alankrita Shrivastava said she is a primarily a storyteller and does not make films with the explicit intent of challenging current gender discourses, but that this is an inherent aspect of her worldview.

In India's Hindi film industry, which churns out over 100 movies a day, women are most often cast in secondary roles.

Girlfriends are wooed, while wives are protected, rescued and loved. Narratives from a woman's perspective are rare, and even rarer is a film that dwells on their sexual desires.

According to a 2016 report by Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media, only 25 percent of speaking roles in Indian films go to women.

This is a disturbing trend, said Oxfam India chief Nisha Agrawal at a discussion on the eve of Lipstick's release.

"Our society is deeply influenced by what Bollywood portrays," said Agrawal. "Films that depict female characters as second-class citizens and amplify masculinity in stereotypically macho ways, make girls more accepting of violence in their lives and boys more likely to inflict it."

Shrivastava offers an example: it is common in Bollywood films for a man in love to stalk a woman. In the end, instead of reporting him to the police, the woman will say she loves him in return.

There is little space or funding for alternative narratives, and few returns, said Shrivastava. Avinash Das, director of Anarkali of Araah, another women-centred film released earlier this year, agrees.

"All sorts of narratives are important for a balanced society," Das said.

"We must change how women are looked at in cinema," adds Shrivastava. "And for that we definitely need more women and more sensitized men behind the camera." Only 9 percent of Indian film directors are women, according to the Geena Davis Institute report.

"Our society is very resistant to ideas of a woman's sexuality, their desires and other issues which challenge gender norms," Das said.

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