“Lipstick Under My Burkha”… Some nice moments in a film that makes it too easy to root for its women

Posted on July 27, 2017

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Spoilers ahead…

Of the four women in Lipstick Under My Burkha who irked the censors, Leela (Aahana Kumra, who’s fantastically alive) was probably the most irksome. At first, we see her with her boyfriend Arshad(Vikrant Massey), posing in front of a Taj Mahal backdrop – but she isn’t after eternal love. She’d rather have sex.

More precisely, she’d rather get banged. What she does, it isn’t “making love.” She’s working out some issues through her frenzied exertions with Arshad – which she films on her phone – even as she’s getting engaged to Manoj (Vaibbhav Tatwawdi). And when Arshad looks like he’s slipping away, she throws herself on Manoj, who says they should probably wait for their wedding night. I laughed. In Hindi cinema, that’s supposed to be the woman’s line.

The director, Alankrita Shrivastava, doesn’t explain Leela’s desire. Maybe it just is. Maybe it has to do with her mother, whose profession isn’t something we see in the movies. A lot of this film isn’t what we see in the movies. Waxing, for instance. And not on the upper lip. Masturbation. And not by a young woman. Buaji (a sad, sweet Ratna Pathak) is a widow in her fifties. She falls for a hunky swimming coach who could be her son.

And did I tell you she likes reading Mills and Boon-type soft-core stories? The purple prose from these books punctuates the narrative (it’s read out in voiceover), and it acts as a fairy-tale counterpoint to these oppressed women, their oppressed lives. At least in these books, the lady gets laid. The nice way, the proper way, after a ton of foreplay. In other words, a universe removed from how Rahim (Sushant Singh) sleeps with his wife, Shireen (Konkona Sen Sharma). It isn’t sex. It’s rape.

The only story where sex doesn’t play a part is  Rehana’s (Plabita Borthakur). She’s a fresher in college and she wants to sing like Miley. Her orthodox parents box her in a burkha, which becomes a sort of invisibility cloak. Rehana makes use of the garment’s shapelessness to shoplift from expensive stores in a mall. She’s saying, “If you won’t buy me what I want, I’ll steal them. And my accomplice is this thing you’re forcing me to wear.” It’s religion as rebellion.

The four narratives unfold in Bhopal, much like the live-in relationship of Shuddh Desi Romance unspooled in Jaipur. The smaller the city, the greater the taboo-breaking frisson of a life secretly lived. For my money, this film’s key image is the tilt-down of the camera as it gazes on a woman in a burkha. We land on the feet, and sticking out are bright red sneakers. The outside tells one story, the inside quite another. It may be no accident that the heroine of Buaji’s steamy paperbacks is named Rosie. Rhymes with rosy, the tint of naive optimism. Leela, Buaji, Rehana and Shireen think they can get away with it.

Lipstick Under My Burkha has images that stick. Buaji in a swimsuit. Buaji’s face when she utters her name after a long time, the act of which makes her shed her burkha of generic auntie-hood and become a specific woman again. Or Buaji being helped on an escalator by a little Muslim girl who holds out her hand. Sisterhood knows no age.

Another instance of unexpected bonding occurs when Shireen (who, unknown to Rahim, is a salesgirl) demonstrates a pest-control gun, and a potential customer aims the device at a portrait of her husband. A cheap shot? Yes. But also a funny one. In a later scene, Shireen feeds her children bread and jam. She’s angry. She hasn’t bothered to cook. She’s a woman first. She can’t always be a mother.

But what does all this add up to? I thought of Satyajit Ray’s Mahanagar, whose heroine was also a salesgirl. (There’s a lipstick moment too.) As affiliations go, Ray was probably more of a “Tagorean” than a “feminist,” but his heroines demonstrated that they were the equals of men without the films feeling the need to reduce these men to monsters. (Another Ray touch: the binoculars through which Rosie spies on men are reminiscent of Charulata’s lorgnette.)

Cut to the eighties, and Mahesh Bhatt’s Arth. A wronged woman, certainly. But the man was not pure evil, merely a prick led by his dick. There’s a sweet man too, waiting in the wings. It’s another matter that Shabana Azmi decides she can do without him. Even Parched took risks, suggesting that women, after years of conditioning, could be every bit as patriarchal as men – there, too, we had a sympathetic man.

In Lipstick Under My Burkha, the men are cads. Even Manoj. He isn’t as obviously an oppressor like Rahim, but when he takes Leela to his house, she sees a roomful of men glued to their TV, which is presumably the fate that awaits Leela. It’s not enough that Rahim rapes Shireen, he even has an affair. (Gavel bangs. Milord, that’s two strikes against him.)

Many scenes are tactlessly on-the-nose, like the protest against the ban on girls wearing jeans in college. Rehana yells, “Hamari azaadi se aap itne darte kyon hai?” (Why do you fear our freedom?) It’s a thesis statement, not a line. Or take Rahim’s warning to Shireen: “Biwi ho, shauhar banne ki koshish mat karo.” (You’re the wife, don’t try to be the husband.)

It’s not that these men don’t exist. It’s that we’ve seen them far too often in far lesser films, and it looks like a cop-out when a brave new film of today opts for the same black-and-white imagery. Dhruv (Shashank Arora) must be the worst. He gives up on Rehana in an instant, without even asking her for an explanation. Under its surface subversions, Lipstick is like Hindi Medium or Nil Battey Sannata, a “soft” take on a “hard” issue. It makes feminism sound so easy, simply a function of rooting for women to escape some very bad men.

Copyright ©2017 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

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Posted in: Cinema: Hindi