The American filmmaker, Steven Soderbergh, famously said, "You're supposed to expand your mind to fit the art, not chop the art down to fit your mind."
Not in India.
Despite fighting a long and arduous battle with our country's regressive Censor Board, filmmaker Alankrita Shrivastava's award-winning Lipstick Under My Burkha faced another tough yet deeply ironical battle -- the moral high-handedness of those sitting at the helm of a prestigious museum.
In October 2017, the Prince of Wales Museum or Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (Fort, Mumbai) as it is now called, decided to get screenwriter Anuraadha Tewari to help them curate a 3-day film festival, with the theme being an extension of their ongoing exhibition, 'India and the World: In 9 Stories.'
Tewari, an industry veteran, chose 7 films to be screened at the festival over a period of 3 days -- Newton, A Death in the Gunj, Mukti Bhavan, Lagaan, Ajji, Bareily ki Barfi, and Lipstick Under My Burkha, films she felt represented the changing times in India. This line-up was conveyed to the festival in the last week of October, with the final list sent to them on December 12.
Tewari sought official permissions from the respective production houses and arranged for the technical conversion required to screen the film at the museum's indoor auditorium.
However, less than a fortnight before the festival was to kickstart, Tewari was told by the museum team, particularly festival consultant Pallavi Sharma that they cannot allow Lipstick Under My Burkha to be screened, without giving a clear indication as to what the issue was.
In messages seen by this writer, Tewari was pressurized into dropping the film as the museum felt 'uncomfortable' with the choice as it featured some 'sexually explicit scenes.'
The message read, "Everyone in the museum feels strongly against it."
When HuffPost got in touch with Mr. Sabyascahi Mukherjee, the museum director, he said all of this happened due to 'miscommunication.' He also said that the main reason for not allowing the film to be screened was its 'Adult' certification.
"What if children entered the screening room? After all, ours is an open venue. There was an anxiety from the education department of the museum about the film and hence we made a request to get it removed."
Mukherjee's explanation isn't consistent with the rest of the films exhibited at the festival. Devashish Makhija's Ajji, is also an 'Adult' film and features multiple scenes of graphic violence, but was part of the festival's line-up and was screened without any kids getting in the way.
A source, who didn't wish to go on-record, also mentioned that the museum feared a backlash from right-wing outfits such as the Shiv Sena and the exclusion of Lipstick Under My Burkha was a preemptive measure to avoid such a situation.
Mukherjee denied the claim, calling it 'rubbish' and saying if a different, 'Adults only' venue was free, they'd have screened the film there.
In a conversation with HuffPost, Tewari said the issue of children flocking the screening room was never brought up with her. She called it a 'lame' excuse. She also mentioned that given the small size of the venue (it could take about 50 people), it would hardly be a challenge to ensure no underage patron slipped in.
Tewari stated that the arbitrary nature of censorship, especially from a museum, which is supposed to embrace all forms of art, came from an 'imagined fragility of the audience and a culture of fear.'
She said, "To say that the museum was incapable of managing a festival of this scale and pulling it off would be an understatement. But that's the least of the problems. To have them generally hostile and uncooperative in many ways would still be dealt with. But to force me to delete a film from my list as a curator after having invited the makers and gotten permission, with lame excuses, and to then mess it up with the wrong listing (after the film's exclusion, the museum sent a press release mentioning the film in its line-up) and not even apologizing, is shameful, discourteous and a demeanor completely unsuitable to a curator of the arts. I am saddened, appalled and cannot fathom this lack of decency."
"Not to mention an imposition of personal choice despite being a curator of the arts," she said.
Museums banning pieces of art is practically unheard of. On the contrary, museums have defended their right to display provocative works of art.
In December last year, a bunch of New Yorkers launched a petition to get a painting, Thérèse Dreaming, by the French artist Balthus, removed from the prestigious MET museum as it depicted a sexualized version of a young girl. The petitioners protested that the painting romanticized voyeurism and given the current climate around sexual assault, it wasn't an appropriate fit in the museum.
However, the museum fiercely defended its decision to exhibit the painting. A rep of the museum said, "Our mission is to collect, study, conserve, and present significant works of art across all times and cultures in order to connect people to creativity, knowledge, and ideas."
"Moments such as this provide an opportunity for conversation, and visual art is one of the most significant means we have for reflecting on both the past and the present," spokesman Kenneth Weine was quoted as saying in the New York Post.
Some food for thought for the museum curators at Prince of Wales.
As for the film festival there, it was inaugurated by director Anurag Kashyap.
Filmmakers Konkona Sen Sharma and Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari interacted with the audience post the screenings of their respective films while actor Pankaj Tripathi and Raghubir Yadav spoke passionately about the journey of Newton.
Lipstick Under My Burkha is available for viewing on Amazon Prime Video.