Warning: This review contains spoilers for the Hindi film Lipstick Under My Burkha
When India’s Central Board of Film Certification denied certification to Alankrita Shrivastava’s ‘Lipstick under My Burkha’ under claims that it is “lady oriented” and concerns “their fantasy above life”, it was clear to most modern Indian women that I know that this was unfair censorship of a film they wanted to watch. Most people celebrated its eventual release after the FCAT intervened, and hailed the daring choice of poster that was released, which seemed to be aimed directly at the CBFC.
Something that is often done by similar stories, which describe the oppression of women in a patriarchal world, is to have a generic protagonist who all viewers can relate to. This film has four, representing women of all ages facing all sorts of repressive societal pressures. They depict some of the problems of orthodox religion through college student Rehana (Plabita Borthakur), whose strict parents forbid her to wear the clothes she yearns to and listen to the music that symbolises her freedom, and through Leela (Aahana Kumra) who is pressured into an engagement with a man who she feels nothing for, because her boyfriend would not be deemed socially suitable or provide the family with money. They depict common problems of sexuality faced by women, as depicted by Shireen (Konkona Sen Sharma), who is stuck in an abusive marriage with an unfaithful husband who rapes her in the confines of their bedroom every night, and by the ageing widow Usha (Ratna Pathak) – known to all as Buaji – who wishes to rediscover her sexuality but is unable to express it in any way. The four different ages, four different stages of life, two different religions and numerous experiences provide ample opportunities for the audience to relate to these characters.
All four women face trials in the film, but it also shows us how each of them stands up to these. Buaji reads a novel, which serves as the backdrop to the four women and their situation, although what is uncommon about this is that the novel she is reading is certainly not considered appropriate – it’s an erotic novel about a woman named Rosy and her “Lipstick Vaale Sapne”. As she rediscovers her youth, her sexual desires, and the ‘Usha’ behind the ‘Buaji’, she experiences a whole new type of freedom that had been closed off to her completely. The other women have their freedom too – Shireen with her secret day-job that she excels at, Leela with her boyfriend, and their elaborate plans, and young Rehana, who dances to the pop music in her head within the confines of her room, speaks up for the freedom of girls and their clothing choices, and defies her parents by wearing revealing clothes and bright red lipstick – providing us with the very literal lipstick under her burkha.
One clear negative that struck me as I watched the film, however, was the use of smoking as a symbol of the women’s freedom. While the taboo against women smoking is greater than it is against men, and two of the characters smoking as a further way to defy the roles imposed on them by their families, the concluding image of the film seemed contradictory and regressive to me. All four women sitting together and passing around a cigarette merely seemed to reinforce the idea that they were aspiring to do things just because they couldn’t – not because they particularly wanted to, but because they were making a statement. By making it a direct image to represent their ability to break free of these societal pressures that bind them, the filmmakers are also putting that much more power into the hands of a cigarette, something that we should not be encouraging any audience to do, by putting it in a positive light.
The ending of the film disappointed some, but I felt like it conveyed a hard truth. All four women faced some form of repression, and all four of them opposed it in their individual ways. And almost immediately after, their parents and friends and other family members swooped in on them, and immediately released them from this freedom – shaming Usha for owning a swimming costume, Rehana for the double life she had been forced to live, Shireen for daring to succeed at her job and Leela for wanting to fall in love rather than marry for money. This harsh reality gave the audience a chance to dwell on the true situation in the society, and what could realistically be done to free these 4 women and the several thousands more that they represent. It refers to the lipstick underneath a metaphorical burkha, one belonging to large audiences regardless of race, religion, class or status.