The film is imperfect but has the power to engage the audience in its characters’ struggles.
Lipstick Under My Burkha is an imperfect film. The film’s poster may give the finger/lipstick to patriarchy, but that does not mean it avoids complicity with oppressive ideas. How many more films must we sit through in which Muslim men are portrayed as incorrigibly rapacious? Must the journey from town/village to city always be a simplistic narrative of liberation? Why is the struggle of Hindu women seen as an effect of orthodox community beliefs but Muslim women’s oppression an unavoidable part of their religious faith?
I found myself thinking also about the portraits of masculinity that many films focused on women’s thwarted desires seem to produce. The only redeemable male character in Alankrita Shrivastava’s film is one who speaks a single line and whose face we never see. The shopkeeper, who shows Usha “Rosy” Buaji (Ratna Pathak Shah) swimsuits, tells her as a matter-of-fact that instead of beating around the bush in shame, she should have simply told him that she is buying one for herself.
Indeed, the film seems to have considerable emotional investment in demonising the men who appear in it. The film did not need the marital rape scene to underline the violence of Shireen Aslam’s (Konkona Sen Sharma) husband. The damage the swimming instructor unleashes on Usha “Rosy” Buaji could well have avoided him telling her, in a moment of utter cruelty, that she needs to see herself in the mirror and adjust her sexual desires accordingly. Rehana Abidi’s (Plabita Borthakur) father never has a single word of affection or encouragement for her; only instructions and onerous rules of conduct to follow. Thus, while the women in the film, even the minor characters (like Namrata), are allowed emotional depth, the men appear solely as particularly violent agents of domination. These male portraits are a product of female anger at living in a patriarchal society; they lack the rounded contradictions that make the women characters in this film so relatable and convincing. It seems to me that pro-feminist men must be willing to absorb some of this anger without blaming feminism. This is surely no easy task because no matter how privileged we are, we all feel underappreciated. Alliance building is so challenging because everyone feels they are victims in one way or another. For me, the film’s portrayal of masculinity is a reminder that such difficult emotional labour is an inalienable part of being male feminists.
The unease about such angry portrayals of men is not that #notallmen are violent. One is not asking, ‘What about the good men?’. Rather, this kind of characterisation misses a crucial way in which oppression works in our everyday lives. If it operated only through coercion and hurt, it would perhaps have been easier to reject domination. Patriarchy succeeds because it offers love and affection as rewards for subservience. This is one of the reasons why it is so difficult to opt out of patriarchal scripts.
Lipstick Under My Burkha is an imperfect film. But it lingers in one’s mind stubbornly, refusing easy refutation. The title of the film seems to equate the burkha with oppression and the lipstick with freedom. But I saw in the film at least two kinds of reactions to the burkha. For the younger woman (Rehana) it inhibits self-expression. But to the older woman (Shireen), it is just another item of clothing, one which allows her to do a set of things that would otherwise be more difficult. Indeed, the lipstick fails Rehana quite literally. She may have worn it along with her jeans to feel free, be seen as more attractive, be accepted by a yuppie college crowd, but these friends betray her.
The persuasive power of the film’s narrative resides in showing four different women striving to escape the conditions of their lives and almost succeeding. As its audience we are drawn into their struggles, regardless of whether we despise them for their yearnings or identify with them. Their failure is an important comment on everyday struggles against oppression. Had these women succeeded, it would seem as though escaping patriarchy is simply a matter of bold decisions and smart choices, which it is not. Their disappointment invites the audience to think/feel and take sides: Will we triumphantly exclaim, ‘Serves her right!’? Or, will we reassess our own lives to consider what freedom really means? Will we ask how our actions impact the disadvantages women live with in patriarchal societies?
Some liberal reactions to the film have expressed anguish at these women’s failure, their inability to speak back to power despite the many social boundaries they are shown to transgress. Usha Buaji may bravely stand up to real estate mercenaries but she remains ashamed of her sexual longings. Leela (Aahana Kumra) may be unapologetic about her sexuality but she is unable to reject her lover’s slut shaming. Shireen becomes an accomplished working woman but she is powerless to resist her husband’s assaults. Social scientists are often eager to read narrative art solely in terms of sociological categories. We seem to expect artists to produce the sort of perfect politics that our own analyses routinely lack. Sometimes it helps to also to be mindful of genre conventions. Lipstick Under My Burkha is a film about women’s fantasies and desires, but it is made in the realist mode. It is not a fantasy film. Thus, there are aesthetic limits to what the film can show. In keeping with its realist aesthetics, the film prefers to show its women characters not fantastically free, but steeped in contradictions, progressive on some registers and conservative on others. Like the woman who may lead the Bell Bajao Andolan against domestic violence but refuse to pronounce her husband’s name as a mark of respect, the women in this film question many social conventions even as they submit to others. Don’t we all know such people? Aren’t we such people?
And so it is with most of our struggles. In our hard-fought victories we discover new failures; in our most cherished accomplishments we find traces of old losses; in every political gain that we make, we recognise the contours of fresh compromises. Lipstick Under My Burkha is an imperfect film. But this is not because the director could have produced a more progressive narrative. It is imperfect because in spite our best intentions, life, in general, and political life in particularly, are both thoroughly, thoroughly flawed.
Romit Chowdhury is a PhD student in Sociology at the National University of Singapore.