“Lipstick Under My Burkha”, a film that had its fair share of controversies with the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), is surely going to remain with Bollywood as one of its prized possessions for decades to come.
The plot revolves around four powerful women. Usha is the oldest of them all, a caring mother figure (buaji) for the residents of Hawaii Manzil. She owns a halwai shop, maybe the best in Bhopal with its name in the Limca Book of Records. Shirin is a simple homemaker, secretly working as a salesgirl during her free time. Leela, a bubbly adventurous woman, works in a beauty parlour to support her widowed mother while struggling under the debt left by her drunkard father. Rehana is a college girl who is in love with western pop music while she serves her strict father at his tailoring shop.
These women are different from one another to the core – they have varied choices, varied tastes in sexuality, varied interests in men, and varied ways of expressing themselves.
Director Alankrita Shrivastava unites her four dreamers – Usha, Shirin, Leela and Rehana – through conflicting ideas at various levels. They are all women – scrupulously independent yet dependent; loved yet oppressed – they live in the same spatiotemporal zone called Hawaii Manzil. Apart from these similarities, they are united by the single identity of ‘Rosy’, the female gaze.
Mainstream Bollywood films show romance and sex from the point of view of men – the various song sequences in exotic foreign locations show the heroine as an object of desire for the hero, and sometimes the villain too. “Lipstick Under My Burkha” refrains from exercising the male gaze on the ‘sexy woman’ and instead turns the female gaze towards the ‘macho man’.
Usha is lustfully attracted towards her swimming instructor and observes his semi nude, muscular body with awe and raw desire. Although society holds Usha’s sex chats and her reading of sex stories as taboo, it is sheer brilliance on part of the director to give more importance to it. Usha is scared of water, but she is all the more scared of a society which condemns her for learning to swim at her age and also for ‘jawaani ki bhoot’ not leaving her not so jawaan body.
Shirin manages to work as a salesgirl without letting her unemployed husband know about it. She is afraid that she might lose her job if her husband came to know. She is nothing more than a body to her husband for venting out his frustrations. He remains oblivious to her health and well-being, shamelessly entangling himself into an extra-marital affair.
Leela is found having sex with the photographer on the day of her engagement by her mother. She is torn between two men – her lover and her fiancé. She is neither able to marry one nor leave both for good.
Rehana is sent to college wearing a burqa, which she dislikes. Using the burqa designed to oppress her to her advantage, She begins lifting fashionable products from the mall. Although she is reprimanded later for her misdoings, it was a bold approach to subvert the idea of the burqa as a symbol of oppression.
The film has ample instances of a misogynist society silencing the feminine narrative – subjugating women who dream into solitary confinement. ‘Rosy’ dreams and so do Usha, Shirin, Leela, and Rehana. They dream of emancipation.
The question put forward by Rehana, “Why does our freedom scare you so?” is vindicated as the plot unfolds with the silencing apparatus seen to be at work. There is a striking parallel between the endings in “A Real Durwan“ by Jhumpa Lahiri and this film – boori ma in the former and buaji in the latter are thrown out of their residence onto the streets with their belongings as a part of their punishment.
The film ends with the four chastised women reading an adult novel of which Rosy is the protagonist. The novel declares Rosy’s mistake in recognising her true lover, having to choose between two men. Each of the women find an aspect of their own life in Rosy’s story. The film ends with a spirit of continuity, as the four women decide to continue dreaming – because only dreams can offer them a free world.
The room in which they confine themselves is their world of limited emancipation where these women could avoid the angst of society, maybe bum a smoke or read sex stories.