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Review: ‘Lipstick Under My Burkha’ Celebrates The Women Society Refuses To Acknowledge

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[Spoiler Alert]

Let me begin this with a story!

I used to read adult fiction books when I was an adolescent, hiding from everyone in one corner of my terrace. 

Just like any other curious young kid, I used to get excited reading the books. I don’t remember much about the literature, but the kind of vivid images it created in my mind, stayed long in my subconscious. Back then, I had no idea what sex education was, or whether I should be reading the stuff I was reading. But I was told by my friends and society that it was wrong. So, I believed it. Let’s admit, we all did. 

Today, I laugh it off as a childish experiment.

However, think about a scenario where a 50-year-old widow tries it out for the first time. Isn’t it a role reversal!? Especially when she is a woman. Women are generally viewed as the ‘lesser sexually active gender’ in popular discourses.

It is always men who initiate and not the women, when it comes to fantasies on the bed or out of wedlock, right?

Wrong! 

Alankrita Shrivastava, an exceptionally brave director, has stepped out and sent all the lofty full tosses straight out of the pavilion in her film, “Lipstick Under My Burkha”. 

Patriarchy will actually stop and take note where it went wrong, after watching the film.

“Lipstick Under My Burkha”, in its runtime of over two hours, is the story of its four titular characters Shirin (Konkona Sen Sharma), Leela (Aahana Kumra), Rehana (Plabita Borthakur) and Buaji (Ratna Pathak), a.k.a. Rosy. Careful understanding of the characters will divulge the fact that Shrivastava has included every possible phase of a woman’s life and the struggles associated with it.

Be it the college going rebellious Rehana, or the free-spirited and to be tamed by an arrange marriage Leela, or the frustrated by marriage and too many kids Shirin, or the stern and powerful from the outside but tender inside Buaji, Lipstick offers you the perfect blend of female characters.

Individual stories of these four characters provide you with a mirror to see what you have possibly ignored for long. Be it in your life or the lives of others you experience on a daily basis. 

Tell me when was the last time you saw a gynaecologist suggesting to a Muslim woman to convince her husband to use condoms? Or a 50 plus woman having phone sex?

No, don’t expect something cheeky here.

Just because it is not generally heard off, doesn’t mean it’s unnatural. A mid-aged lady, sitting in the row behind me, said during the scene, “Kuch jyada hi dikha diya hai”. (They have gone too far with this).

I am sorry, but, no, they haven’t.

You don’t own other people’s sexual fantasies. Just like the stories I read during my adolescence and formed sexual fantasies, Buaji did the same. And those fantasies stayed with her at a later age. She has her unfulfilled desires. At least, she takes that step to fulfill her desires, unlike many others who fear society and people at large.

 

A still from the film "Lipstick Under My Burkha"
A still from the film ‘Lipstick Under My Burkha’

We have seen comedy films with older men hitting on young women and are perfectly fine with it. When we laughed that off, why is it a big deal to see a woman doing the same?

Because this is how we have perceived sexual roles and discriminated gender for ages.

 

Shirin, a conservative married Muslim woman with three kids, doesn’t want her Saudi return husband (Sushant Singh) to gift her another child and thus she pops pills every time they have forceful sex (often to the extent of qualifying as marital rape).

Rehana idolises pop star Miley Cyrus and wants to become a musician and loves dancing. While managing her burkha for the outside world and her parents, she nourishes her aspirations and rebels alongside her college mates for the right to wear jeans.

Leela tries hard to run away from an arranged marriage as she loves her small town studio photographer boyfriend (Vikrant Massey). She manages a ladies parlour and rides her own bike. Two things really close to her heart that complete her and in which she takes immense pride.

But, she wants to support her mother, who had taken up nude art modelling as her profession for years to support the family. For many, it would be a revelation to know that a profession like this even exists in our country and this is probably the first time someone has talked about it in mainstream cinema.

A screengrab of Konkona Sen Sharma in Lipstick Under My Burkha
A screengrab of Konkona Sen Sharma in ‘Lipstick Under My Burkha’

The entire ensemble cast of the film packs a punch, credit for which must go to the casting directors Shruti Mahajan and Parag Mehta. But performances of Konkona and Ratna Pathak are the ones that really stand out. The effortless palette of emotions evoked on screen by the immensely talented Pathak is something to look out for in the film. Konkona, with every film of hers, proves how better she gets at the craft she knows best. She effortlessly fits into the skin of Shirin, giving you a feel of a real-life character from your next door.

Be it the bustling metros or a small town like Bhopal, where the film is set, the venom of patriarchy is spewed in every rung of our society. Shrivastava, through her powerful portrayal of the characters, has dealt with the dirt of patriarchy proficiently. She vehemently opposes the idea of having set roles for a housewife. She took charge to challenge the radical and unprogressive Islamic practices and carefully tore down the shackles associated with premarital sex in a country that is laden with too much ‘Sanskar’.

With exceptional control over her characters, Shrivastava hits hard with her dark humour in some of the remarkably well-shot scenes throughout the film. In its entirety, “Lipstick Under My Burkha” is one of the most progressive films of our times. Not because it deals with sensitive subjects, but the manner in which it does so.

However, the second half of the film looks patchy at times and in an attempt to reach a common point of conflict for all the characters, there are bits that feel stretched. Despite the crisp editing of the first half, it somewhat loses its sharpness in the second.

But, a masterstroke awaits at the end of the film suggesting the battle that started with “Lipstick Under My Burkha” is on, and women will not stop until they get what they deserve.

‘Lipsticks’, hiding behind many ‘Burkhas’ wanting to come out in the open, will certainly be delighted.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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