Only temptation is divine.
~ André Breton, Mad Love
The name Rosie in Lipstick Under My Burkha is not simply a fictional embodiment of pornographic literature. Rosie is a metaphor, the name of disembodied desire looking for a body – or the name of a body looking for desire. Rosie is everywoman, who’s both lack and excess at the same time. In her, what is sacred and what is profane are at war with each other. But Rosie is unconcerned by what she is. She is desire on the loose, speaking herself unabashedly. This is what religion does to desire, promises the pornography of after-life, by policing desire. Rosie is looking for desire in this life, in this body. She is hidden inside the pages of pornography, but within those pages she is free to tell her desire. It is interesting that the promise of paradise is laid out against the language of sacrifice. If you ask for paradise now, you violate the norms of the world. Paradise is for later, to be regained after you lost the charms of your body. Paradise is meant for the soul, that invisible, immaterial hollowness, which is supposed to secure your immortality against the fleeting, diminishing time of the body. But as W.B. Yeats insisted, in his poem The Phases of the Moon:
All dreams of the soul
End in a beautiful man’s or woman’s body.
So we are back to the body, its dreams, to the problem of desire, easily wished away by the clouds of metaphysics, but forever reappearing on the horizon, waxing and waning like the moon. Rosie exists because there is an enforced denial of desire in the world. Rosie exists because there is an excess of desire in this world. Burkha is religion. Lipstick is promiscuity. Between the two, Rosie has made her choice; she is not giving up on her body.
Usha is a widow who pines for the touch of a young swimming trainer. Rosie, like a devil, has turned on Usha’s senses. She lives a double life, of the respectable widow and the consumer of pornographic fiction. Shirin lives a double life too, of a housewife and a saleswoman. Shirin’s husband is a serial abuser, who reminds you of Hermann, a manager of a paper mill in Elfriede Jelinek’s novel Lust, who sexually abuses his wife, Gerti. Shirin’s husband, refusing the condom her wife gets with difficulty, fits the description of Jelinek writing about Hermann: “The Man’s rage is huge. Moil and toil and turmoil, he’s coming to the boil, time to cool the heat with a jet of foam.” Never mind if Shirin’s belly is torn apart with multiple abortions. As long as Rahim Aslam can oil her machine with his semen, Shirin can go through all the pain and the grief. And the price Shirin pays for helping out with household economy is sexual humiliation.
Leela is much freer in comparison, juggling between a naïve fiancée and a hot photographer as lover. Her double life isn’t a hindrance to her amorous proclivities. Leela treats her enforced engagement with scant respect. Her libido won’t hesitate to steal the fruit of sexual promiscuity even at the embarrassing risk of being caught by her mother in the act. As a woman who works in a beauty parlour, Leela wanted to run away from a life of debts that made her mother a nude model for artists. Her dream of a photography agency for young couples is her way out of the city. She wants to travel but also have enough space for sexual abandonment. When her fiancée introduces Leela to his joint family household, the row of apathetic old bodies waiting to be served until death is an alarming sight, enough for her to seek escape. Rehana’s double life is trapped in a sombre, middle-class Muslim household. After college, she spends time at the sewing machine, helping out her parents run a boutique. Rehana’s day life is more exciting, where she uses her burkha to shoplift lipstick, boots, perfume and clothes. Fashioning herself on Miley Cyrus, being a Led Zeppelin fan, Rehana sings and dances her way to everyone’s attention in college and catches the eye of the flirtatious Dhruv Bose. She risks her naiveté to find her stage. Rehana’s relation with the burkha is purely utilitarian, beneath which her lipstick sticks out like a symbol of her desires.
All four women struggle to free their bodies from the stranglehold of cultural and religious norms. The burkha is a mark, a sign of patriarchal ownership, where even religion is merely an empty signifier. There is a remarkable lack of guilt in Rehana, as she has figured out for herself the vicious logic behind the double life she is being forced to live. The recognition of desire refuses to suffer from morally-inflicted guilt, once it is capable enough to realise its own innocence. There is nothing innocent in this world except desire, for only desire is capable of being vulnerable. Innocence is another name for pure vulnerability.
Usha has no guilt either, reading Rosie’s sexual fantasies hidden inside religious pamphlets. Religion is after all a fantasy of the soul, less attractive and less real than the fantasy that makes your heart throb faster. Such a throbbing makes Usha risk the comic flight of her erotic obsession for the handsome swimming trainer. It is comic as she tried hard to swim backwards to a time of youthfulness. But age is a cruel and awkward wall between desire and dexterity. The telephonic subterfuge erected by Usha to verbally fulfil her fantasies with the trainer could not overcome that wall in reality. But more importantly, it helps Usha explore the shrinking limits of her physical desire with an exceptional touch of frankness.
As a saleswoman, Shirin’s skills are exceptionally agile and inventive, impressing her buyers like a marketing wizard. But she fails to impress her husband to be more humane and loving. The beast of marriage is born when a man is allowed to treat a woman’s body the way a policeman would treat a convict’s, reducing his victim to the violence of a fruitless pleading or silence. Leela confronts the problem of desire when she oversteps the confused lines between matrimony and free love. Her life suddenly gets as difficult as her scooter she finds difficult to kick-start in her panic-stricken state. Rehana wakes up to the limits of the free world when she is accused and abandoned by friends and lover alike, for choosing to be amorally adventurous instead of being a stereotypical Muslim girl. It is an ironic moment where Rehana realises she happily broke norms for a world that lived under the shadow of clichés.
There are moments of camaraderie when the women cross each other’s paths. When Leela drops Rehana on her scooter to the discotheque, she understands the younger woman’s necessities. When Shirin finds out Usha is looking for a swimsuit, she helps her out without question. When Leela asks Shirin while waxing her legs if her husband ever touches her down there, Shirin’s confession is mixed with gentle rebuke, “If you know it, why ask?” Leela, guilty of her abrasive curiosity, meets her moment of poignantly silent empathy.
The film may resonate in other cities. But it is still a film about Bhopal, its streets, traffic and bazaars. The azan from the nearby mosque, Rehana, the Cinderella running home at dawn under the mist, the women being waxed at a makeshift parlour, all mirror the architecture of a certain city. The background score by Mangesh Dhakde and the Pashtuni strains of Pakistani singer Zebunnisa Bangash add musical flavour to the Indo-Islamic heritage of Bhopal.
There is a sensibility of the cinema made in the Middle East. The Lebanese filmmaker Nadine Labaki’s Caramel is an obvious reference point. But Alankrita Shrivastava’s sensibility, style and touches are her own. It is a remarkably original film by a young director, who thankfully doesn’t seem to have taken too many lessons from her mentor, Prakash Jha. Among the new names making offbeat cinema within the mainstream genre, Shrivastava is perhaps the best. She must be credited for not only seasoned actresses like Ratna Pathak and Konkona Sen Sharma playing their roles with poise, but relative newcomers like Aahana Kumra and Plabita Borthakur carrying their roles with effortless confidence. Every woman character grows through her disappointments. Shrivastava weaves this tale inventively, where four closely-lived narratives run parallel to each other and come together in the end to mark a liberating ending. Shirin, Leela and Rehana, Usha’s three tenants, find themselves in solidarity after the neighbours find out the other life Usha has been leading. They violently tear apart Rosie’s world and shame the landlady. Usha committed a moral crime in their eyes, for choosing to live in her body’s paradise rather than seek spiritual deliverance. You can’t pity the neighbours for their pitiable stink of sexuality morality. As they smoke, laugh and read the torn pages of Rosie’s ‘lipstick desires’, the women blend into a world where they exist as women alone, not marked by their allegiance to the patriarchies that divide them.
Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee teaches poetry at Ambedkar University, New Delhi. He is a frequent contributor to The Wire and has written for The Hindu, The New York Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, Guernica, Outlook and other publications.