The women in the movie may be strong and funny when they are in their secret lives but they make almost no push for empowerment in their oppressive lives.
That Lipstick Under My Burkha is a “bold” film in the Indian context is incontestable. It shows women looking for sex, enjoying it, looking for freedom from oppression, looking to be able to smoke and drink freely, looking for the chance to earn a living and be good at it. What’s to carp about?
Barring the film certification board’s bizarre comments on the film, which have been repeated endlessly but need to be repeated again and again to see how monumentally foolish they are, the film has got accolades and awards. The film certification board, led by the fearlessly patriarchal Pahlaj Nihalani, denied the film release in January this year because: “The story is lady-oriented, their fantasy above life. There are contagious sexual scenes, abusive words, audio pornography and a bit sensitive touch about one particular section of society.”
The reviewers have called it a “must watch”, “holding a mirror to society”, “women’s empowerment”, “fearlessly feminist”. Certainly, there is much to agree. The acting is good, sometimes excellent. The direction by Alankrita Shrivastava (who has also written the film) has both humour and pathos, without overwhelming the viewer.
But what does the story itself tell us that is fearlessly feminist or all about women’s empowerment?
As a feminist statement, it is something of a tragedy. All the four women pursue their dreams – whatever they may be – in secret. Whether it is Usha Buaji (Ratna Pathak-Shah, who is the shining light of the film with her deft touch), and her sexual awakening at 55 or young Rehana (Plabita Borthakur) trying to get out of the burkha insisted on by her parents and into the “in” scene at college or Shireen (Konkona Sen Sharma) who hides her job as a saleswoman from her overbearing, abusive, cheating husband, and finally Leela (Aahana Kumra), who has a boyfriend and dreams that do not include the planned arranged marriage, all these efforts to find themselves happen under the metaphorical burkha.
The women may be strong and funny when they are in their secret lives but they make almost no push for empowerment in their oppressive lives. Controlled and bound as they are by society and men, they appear to have no courage: they do not speak one word to challenge the shackles of patriarchy. In that, the film is in fact a beacon of hopelessness to women in India. If in the second decade of the 21st century, not one of these four women who live in the same building in Bhopal, cannot ever voice their anger or rage or frustration to their own families and friends openly, then one feels only despair for women in this country.
Worse, the only way they can do what they want is by lying. Together with the tired old cliches of smoking, drinking and sex being markers of freedom, the film perpetuates the patriarchal stereotype that women are lying and conniving. One cannot and must not argue with the filmmaker’s creative vision – that is her or his inalienable right. But it is possible to question the conclusions that this film is any sort of feminist masterpiece.
That patriarchy still exists in India is undeniable. That small town India can be a few decades behind big city India is also perhaps understandable. But the efforts made by the four women to escape their almost pre-ordained captivity and boredom, are only a series of familiar stereotypes. It is true that younger women are smoking more nowadays. But have we really come “a long way baby” as the ad for Virginia Slims once said? And where have we come? For intelligent women to go back to that is really sad and even worse, for them to be so unaware of the consequences. The burkha – and perhaps this is inadvertent – which is used as a symbol of oppression and secrecy also becomes a means to lie and steal. When Shireen, a successful saleswoman on the verge of a promotion, realises her abusive husband is cheating on her, she tracks down the “other woman” but says nothing to her husband. In her feminism, she gives in to patriarchy. The saving grace as far as feminism is Usha Buaji who owns the building and runs a successful business but even she is publicly humiliated by the young man she has a crush on.
Even worse from a human point of view is that the other men and women around them are all bound by the shackles of prejudice. These four women cannot find even one ally. And yet, there are glimpses of freer people around them; just glimpses. Perhaps those are the feminist icons, although some also fall victim to the smoking-drinking-sex-pregnancy-abortion route to women’s empowerment.
Even in oppressive societies, strong women and men do emerge. If they had not, women would not have reached where they have today. Lipstick under my Burkha, sadly for me as an ageing feminist, took me back a few decades because it did not even hint that such women exist. Instead, the women behaved the way men for millennia have been telling us women behave, without courage and honour. To me that is patronising patriarchy at its worst.
Ranjona Bannerji is a freelance journalist.