'Lipstick Under My Burkha' Is the Much-Needed Conversation India Refused to Have

'Lipstick Under My Burkha' follows the lives of four women with sartorial, professional, spousal and sexual desires in small-town Bhopal.

Thanks to the Central Board of Film Certification, Indians will not get to see the film Lipstick Under My Burkha. Sadly, the only ones who can enjoy this film are those that live in countries that do not have to deal with, in the same degree, the problems the film addresses so well. I was privileged to see it at the first ever Leicester Asian Film Festival.

Upon viewing this comical yet candid take on the much objectified and policed Indian woman, could one really be surprised by the CBFC’s puritanical decision to clip the Lipstick team’s wings?

Daneesh Majid with LAFF organiser Monica Acciari. Courtesy: Daneesh Majid

Daneesh Majid with LeAFF associate director Monia Acciari. Courtesy: Daneesh Majid

Commercial cinema in India has, at times, allowed the expression of female desire, but in severely controlled terms. In 1995 there was Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge’s upright, chaste Simran. Nevertheless she was allowed to exhibit something of her own desires as a British NRI. Two decades later, Dear Zindagi featured Alia Bhatt doing what many males have the carte blanche for – living alone and having multiple sexual partners over the course of the film – but which has rarely been allowed to female characters. In Cocktail, the character played by Deepika Padukone, in a “no strings attached relationship”, is abandoned for the shy, traditional alternative.

Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding, as part of independent cinema, was more daring and depicted a millennial that lived a double-life to reconcile her agency with societal standards in the capital of a more global, post-liberalisation India.

Apparently this liberalism does not extend to “lady-oriented stories” that contain “a bit sensitive touch about one section of society” (to quote the CBFC). But there is more than just one section of society being touched upon in this film about women with sartorial, professional, spousal and sexual desires in small-town Bhopal.

Clearly, writer-director Alankrita Shrivastava didn’t consider the CBFC’s male gaze or ‘sensitivity’ when conceiving of four heroines who dared to exert some autonomy over their lives. For two of these women, the burkha is like a Batman suit, allowing them some measure of freedom.

Earnestly played by Plabita Borthakur, Rehana is the Miley Cyrus-loving daughter of a strict purdah-shop-owning Muslim couple. Her character reveals how American pop musicians, dating and parties aren’t only for cosmopolitan Mumbai-Delhi brats. Small-town youngsters from various social strata have taken to such trends with equal gusto. Whether it’s stealing ‘forbidden’ cosmetics from plush mall shops, heading to a club to party with a cute guy or simply wearing jeans, the veil lets her do so with utmost secrecy. But the veil doesn’t help her navigate the peer-pressure and excess ingrained in youth culture.

For the endearing Shirin, the burkha isn’t for veiling bohemian tendencies. Instead, it lets her moonlight as a shrewd saleswoman outside her full-time position as a housewife. As the spouse of a domineering husband, Shirin waved her right to sexual consent upon uttering the words “qubool hain”. Likewise, seeing as how children are the bounty of the good lord, condoms and a career are simply out of the question. Konkona Sen Sharma wastes little time on subtlety with issues like marital rape through her heartfelt performance.

The feistiest of the foursome is Leela, an equally enterprising beautician unwillingly engaged to an upright Hindu boy chosen by mother dearest. The impending nuptials, though, don’t deter her from steamy physical encounters with her Muslim boyfriend.

As always, Ratna Pathak Shah delivers as the ideal middle-aged Bharatiya naari Usha. When not being the chaste, virtuous Bharat Mata of Bhopal, she lives vicariously through an erotic novel character, Rosy; that is until a phone and steamy conversations with a tantalising swimming instructor take over.

I couldn’t help but root for these characters as they circumvented the web between a chauvinistic milieu and the ensuing consequences of asserting their individualities. However, Shrivastava doesn’t mete out a fairy-tale Bollywood ending because in reality, such assertions come at a hefty cost. This is what makes her, as the writer and director, the hidden fifth hero in the tale. The fact that she is able to flesh out the challenges these characters face, but also the price they pay.

While these women have each other after their social excommunication, sisterhood alone is not enough to smash patriarchy. Even the big metros lack robust support infrastructure like women’s shelters or job-training programmes for those who forgo, or are deprived of, family support. This is an extremely important conversation, but one which a red light by the gatekeepers of India’s prime cultural medium has stifled.

Daneesh Majid is a freelance writer currently pursuing a masters in South Asian Area Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.