Lipstick Under My Burkha: Pretty Overhyped Film

At last, Lipstick Under My Burkha has been watched. And what a disappointment it has been!
The film’s director and producer(s) must thank Censor Board chief, Pahlaj Nihalani for providing the oxygen of publicity to a mediocre and regressive film which came to be hailed by feminists et al as a pro-women progressive film being stifled by archaic value systems held dear by Nihalani and his employers. In fact, that’s one reason I decided to watch it…as a form of protest against this stifling. People’s right to freely express themselves is paramount regardless of the quality of the thoughts & feelings expressed.  

The film undoubtedly touches upon a topic that has been a taboo in Indian society – female sexuality. It uses 4 protagonists to drive home the point that like men, women too have sexual desires and feelings which need to be satisfied. Fair enough! It also tells you that these desires and feelings of theirs are suppressed by our patriarchal and feudal value systems. Fair enough once again. But that’s it!

If one hoped to take home any inspirational message or feelings about gender equality and ways to achieve it, this is certainly not the film to watch. To explain this point, let me summarize the stories of these four women and how plus where it ends in the film :-

A} BUA-Ji : She’s approx. 56 year old woman owning an old but prime property in the old city of Bhopal, something which builders are after. She doesn’t have a husband and lives within a joint family. Her sexual desires find expression in fantasizing while reading a novel with Rosie as its central character. She later runs into a swimming coach at one of city’s pools where she had taken her grand kids for swimming lessons. Sexually attracted to him, she joins swimming classes secretly while pretending to be going for satsangs, that is religious discourses typically attended by Hindus in India. Gradually she gets infatuated with her coach and starts making phone calls to him at late night sharing her fantasies. In the end, she gets caught out and her family members throw her out of the house of which she incidentally is the owner! She’s helpless and surrenders to her family’s diktat and is given shelter in Protagonist B’s home. 

B} College Student : Hailing from a conservative Muslim family owning a Burqa boutique, this girl quickly abandons the burqa everyday she goes to college or beyond the boundaries of her Mohalla and we see her fetish for wearing jeans, t-shirts, boots etc. for which she steals stuff from high end showrooms in malls. She also sings English songs and has posters of her favorite western music artists in her room which are concealed behind posters and wall hangings of religious Islamic stuff. Post college hours, she helps her family by stitching burqas etc. Much against her parent’s expectations, she starts going out to parties, drinking alcohol and befriends a college guy. Police arrests her basis CCTV footage of her stealing things from a mall. In the end, her dad bars her from going to college and orders her to sit & stitch burqas at home till they arrange for her groom. She meekly accepts the diktat and is seen working on the sewing machine.

C} Saleswoman : Mother of three sons, this woman works as a door to door salesperson and is quite successful at her work, a fact that is hidden from her husband. Whenever she tries to disclose, he is not paying attention to what she wants to say. Her hubby has sex with her mechanically and without contraception forcing her to have multiple abortions. He even indulges in marital rape and dismisses her complains of discomfort etc. during sex. In the end, while she’s being promoted to the post of a Sales Trainer, her husband gets to know the truth (of her being an employed) and bars her from continuing with her employment.  Like the other two protagonists, she simply listens to her hubby’s orders looking helpless.

D} Beautician : This girl dreams of starting her own business in partnership with her boyfriend who owns a small photo studio. She dreams of traveling, having a great honeymoon after marrying her BF and escaping the drudgery of her small town universe in Bhopal. She is sexually active and has sex with her photographer boyfriend right on the day she’s is getting engaged to another guy (arranged marriage). She’s also besotted with Bollywood style romance and poses freely in front of the camera…hugging and kissing the man with him, much to their surprise. She doesn’t want to marry the man her mom has chosen for her and keeps pushing her boyfriend to escape to Delhi and begin a new and romantic chapter there. However, they have a tiff and break off. Still, one night, she lands up at his place and wants to have sex with him which he refuses and tells her to get lost. Finally,  her dreams don’t materialize and her fiancé gets hold of her mobile phone and her MMSes stored therein capturing her sexual escapades. Her boyfriend in the meanwhile approaches her and offers to join her in her escape to Delhi the next morning. She remains non-committal.  

The film ends with all these four characters sitting together in B’s house smoking cigarette as one of them completes reading the last two pages of the novel Bua ji was reading but couldn’t finish. In the end they unanimously agree that these novels give them a chance and space to dream at least.  

So, the message that I got was (I’m sure most women viewers would agree with me here) that while women do have their own sexual and emotional needs and desires, they finally fall in line with the diktats and expectations of the patriarchal and male chauvinist values floating around them. That they have no option but to oppress and suppress these feelings and desires as helpless creatures just so that they can survive. Being financially independent as gainfully employed citizens or as a property-owning landlady doesn’t matter at all. I agree this is a reality that pervades our society, even in ultra-glamorous and swanky strata of the society. But by simply showing this reality without presenting an alternate narrative, an ideal or an inspiration to break away from this ugly existence, how is this film doing any great service to women and the cause of their liberation or gender parity?

Don’t we see all powerful biwis and bahus who control and manipulate their husbands and in-laws 24 x 7 in our saas-bahu TV serials? If Lipstick under my Bukrha is a progressive and revolutionary film, then why don’t we call these Saas-Bahu shows progressive championing woman power?

I can understand that Alankrita Srivastva could not have shown all her four protagonists rebelling against the systemic sexual oppression built into our social mores. That would have made it a utopian film with zero credibility. But she could have surely shown one of them rebelling and doing what her heart desired or fulfilling her cherished dreams. We do have women around us who have rebelled and charted their own course. Should their stories not have been used to inspire and instill confidence in 48% of India’s population by telling them that not only do their bodies belong to them but also their dreams and both need to be celebrated in every possible way. How is it that controlling of women’s bodies by men is deplorable but suffocating their dreams is not?

How about ending the film with Bua ji kicking her regressive family members out of her house or the beautician girl actually boarding Bhopal-Delhi train with her boyfriend the next morning? After all, we do keep reading about young lovers eloping and marrying against their family and community’s wishes, even at the risk of being killed in the name of family, caste and religious honor; of women walking out of oppressive-abusive marriages and of couples knocking doors of courts across the country seeking police protection from `sanskaari’ goons of the society. These brave and courageous souls do need to be acknowledged and celebrated, not the ones who acquiesce before Palaeolithic societal norms.  

Lipstick Under My Burkha is a pretty status-quoist film that serves and reinforces the very same patriarchal values (cherished by Nihalani types) which it is being hailed as opposing and challenging. No ladies and gentlemen. It doesn’t! I look at this film as part of a conspiracy to keep women where they are, just like the regressive TV serials do. Is it a mere coincidence that the film is produced/distributed by India’s numero uno producer of such TV shows?

Also, if the purpose of the film was to sensitize menfolk about women’s sexuality, there too the film has failed. Many women journalists and bloggers have reported that men in the hall invariably cheered every time one of these four women was shown her place in the man-woman relationship, specially scenes involving marital rape of Konkona Sen or when she asks her husband to stop saying `Jalan Ho Rahi Hai’ (I am having a burning sensation there) which he dismisses and carries on. Same in scenes where Ratna Pathak Shah is having an orgasm while speaking on the phone with her young swimming coach. So there you are!

Last but not the least. Smoking cigarettes by women was symbol of women’s liberation in 70s and 80s Alankrita. Even the feminist movement has dumped that imagery long back. Who gave you this idea BTW? Please take a walk across our villages in any state and you’ll come across women who smoke. Are they liberated?



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