By Devapriya Sanyal.

Alankrita Srivastava’s Lipstick Under My Burkha looks at the lives of four women who live in Hawai manzil: Bua ji, who has forgotten her own name as no one calls her by that name anymore; Leela, who works in a neighbourhood beauty parlour and soon to be married; and two Muslim women – the young Rehana who works in her father’s tailoring shop by night, attends college, and aspires to fit in with her peers and sing in the college band, and the hard working salesgirl Shireen, who has a control-freak Saudi based husband. In a prelude of sorts we are introduced to all four protagonists in the first ten minutes. And as the narrative unfolds their stories too take off.

Shireen wants to assert her identity as a woman in a relationship where she is mostly dominated by unwanted pregnancies and pills brought upon by her husband. A talented salesgirl who is awarded by her employers, she is unable to tell her husband that she works and contributes to the family income. Very soon she finds out that her husband is unemployed and has a mistress. In the end as she confronts her husband with the truth that she has found out about his unemployed status and his cheating, to boot, and that she wishes to work full time, he rapes her brutally and dimisses off her claims by saying, “Just because you have earned a few rupees, don’t try to play the role of the husband in the relationship. You’re a wife; remain that way.”

02The second story that touches your heart is that of the young wannabe Rehana, the college student who steals clothes from malls from the trial room smuggling them under her burkha in order to find acceptance in her peer group. She adores Miley Cyrus and in the secret confines of her room, hides the stolen stuff and posters of her idol and dances to the western songs otherwise forbidden in her conservative and claustrophobic house. Eventually – Spoiler alert! – the police trace and arrested her for theft.

The third story is that of Bua ji, who expresses her suppressed sexuality by reading racy novels and engaging in a sex chat every night with the swimming coach Jaspal, whom she fancies as her prince charming. As a counterpoint Shrivastav brings in the story of a fifty-five-year-old man who has recently been widowed and whose sister is looking for a bride for him of thirty five to forty years of age. The director tries to question the hypocrisy prevalent in Indian society and the difference in treatment for a man and a woman whose sexuality is determined by his/her gender. While a man’s sexuality is permissible at fifty years of age and even beyond, a woman of the same age must focus on her family and religion. So in the end Bua ji is discovered, punished, and thrown out of the house by her family. While the house and sweet shop are hers, and the family earns its living from both, the family finds it easy to throw her stuff out of the second floor and humiliate her publicly because she is a woman.

03The fourth story is that of Leela, who is in love with a photographer and aspires to be an entrepreneur in partnership with her lover. She visits travel agencies and offers an innovative package for newlyweds on their honeymoon. She imagines her lover capturing their special moments as they pose for photographs, while she does the makeup for the woman. She is also not happy that her mother is planning to get her married off much against her desire. In the end she too is caught by her fiance and disowned by him.

All four women are punished for their forbidden desires. Shrivastava shows their unity in despair as they gather around in Rehana’s father’s shop and wordlessly share stories of their plight. There, Rehana reads the end of the racy novel which speaks of a happy end for the novel’s heroine, Rosie. While the director explores the secret lives of all four, nonetheless she withholds in granting them a definitive ending.

With much focus on sex and explicit scenes, the film needs more for it to be appreciated. One cannot talk about emancipation and only focus on sexuality. While it may be a key point in gender studies, I am not sure that this was the director’s goal. If it was, the film seem to yearn for more.

Shrivastava’s women are predictable as are their problems or predicaments, and you know where exactly they are going to end up. So the end does not really come as a surprise. It’s open-ended possibly because the director couldn’t find an ending or she was trying to make it as hopeful as possible.

Ratna Pathak Shah’s voice-over, as she reads a cheesy novella called Lipstick Dreams, dominates the film and the director tries to visualize the scenes accordingly. And it is a good effort if not a novel one. The use in the title of the burkha may have symbolic relevance, but it’s sure to offend.

I am not dismissive of the effort but a certain subtlety was definitely called for. And I find no reason for the brouhaha it has caused among the critics. It has offered me nothing new in terms of cinematic experience, and I am not sure that it has done the same for its audience. For all its explicit sexual imagery in the name of women empowerment and an attempt to intellectualise female sexuality, it has left me cold. But such an effort must be celebrated and the film does grow on you after a second and third viewing. The only saving grace for the film is performance, by all four of the protagonists, and the fact that it was a woman’s film out and out.

Devapriya Sanyal has a Ph.D. in English Literature from JNU, India. She is the author of From Text to Screen: Issues and Images in Schindler’s List and Through the Eyes of a Cinematographer: A Biography of Soumendu Roy (Harper Collins, 2017).

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