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Why I Was Disappointed With ‘Lipstick Under My Burkha’

I am not a film student and this is not a review. This piece is dedicated to the views of a confused film lover or ‘cinephile’ if you please. The most awaited film after “A Death In The Gunj” for me this year was “Lipstick Under My Burkha”. I had been waiting for the film since the day I first saw the teaser trailer.

While I am no fan in the prescribed sense of it, I am still that quintessential ’90s kid who has grown up on a staple diet of Bollywood films. Growing up and evolving, and also the higher number of commercial films and ease of access to quality films from around the world has reduced the number of random flicks that I watch now, unless I have time to kill. Hence, when as a believer of gender equality aka feminism, I heard that the release of the film that has won accolades internationally, has been banned for reasons best left undescribed, I was party to the many people disappointed and angry at the decision.

When the release date was finally out, I found my news feed on all social media platforms exploding with (virtual) cries of joy about the release of the film with a lot of cuss words for the censor board as well. I watched it sometime towards the end of July with two friends, expecting joyous fireworks in my mind after we were through. However, all I was left with was impatience, confusion and silence.

It took me a while to process what is it about the film that didn’t hit the spot for me; was I weird or unobservant for maybe missing out on something significant and hence, unable to join the fervour felt by many Facebook friends? The friends I watched it with were equally silent, if not more. We seemed to have gone into a deep sense of confusion. What was the point of what we watched, raced in my mind time and again.

A few friends loved it for breaking stereotypes, which in some ways, I agree it did. For the first time, female bodies and sexuality were portrayed through the female gaze and not the male i.e. from the viewpoint of a woman and not how a man would look at a female body or her desires. From the character Usha to Leela, each one’s desires for love and sex and subsequent actions were expressed honestly and unabashedly in the film.

The last film that challenged the male gaze and spoke from the woman’s point of view very beautifully was “Parched”. That film had hit closer home for me since the geography and the politics of patriarchy were far too familiar in that film. The sad reality of “Parched” had hit perhaps a lot many, when the protagonists, the three women, found their right to be only in running away.

In “Lipstick”, however, the women in question find no escape outside but within their minds. The film is a long unfolding of day to day injustices meted out to four women and who, to fulfill their desires, are left with nothing but escapes within their minds and maintenance of secrecy; a dual life where their true identity marked by their likes and dislikes, goals and needs, desires and bodies, all of it is veiled in secrecy. Perhaps, that is why the term burkha is used, as a symbol of secrecy as well as oppression, maybe.

Why I continued to squirm, however, despite some visible pluses was something that eluded my mind for long. Well, until the time I wrote this piece, it was difficult for me to point out what was it that did not seem right.

The other day while discussing with a friend who didn’t like the film on the grounds of token feminism/liberation symbolised by smoking and continuity errors, I found myself speaking for the film yet being uncomfortable about it. I did have issues with respect to the missing oppressors in the last scene where the women are seen sitting in a circle picking up pieces of their desires in the shape of Rosy and her story while puffing away on cigarettes. The symbolism in a relatively realistic narration seemed very abrupt to my eyes.

A still from the film.

It hit me then – while the film has done great internationally at film festivals and screenings, in India, films are viewed by largely masala loving masses, shadows of whom are portrayed in the film. These women are shown to be from a relatively smaller town/city, in a conservative neighbourhood. I am uncertain as to what was the audience the film was aimed at but quite a few people in India are conservative. On the other hand, Indian audiences have been slowly coming of age which is why a lot of films with important issues, not necessarily mainstream, are being made.

However, one thing that continues to be a fact is that while the average Indian tries to escape reality through entertainment in films, they also seek inspiration from film. If those with the former intention did not go watch the film, then those in the second category surely received the message of desires lived in secret. I believe this because coming from a smaller city, having grown up around many women from conservative families, I have seen the very duality of a woman’s existence. I still remember how difficult for my relatively more privileged 16-year-old self was to understand how my batchmates could wear skirts and shorts either on vacation outside the country or secretly carry a change when intending to wear one. This is still the case in a large part of society and when those women and girls, who had perhaps been awaiting the release of the film, would watch it; they would maybe believe that secrecy and duality were the way out.

Maybe I was wrongly looking for inspiration in the film, some stray display of unapologetic courage out in the open because mental revolution has always been seen. Maybe the film was intended to be an eye-opener for those who didn’t see the dual reality of a woman’s desires. One can only hope that this rebellion in the mind, in secrecy, becomes a large scale reality in the country but till then, the inconclusive ending hinting at maybe a return to the patriarchal reality for the four women in the film is everything short of inspirational.

Image source: Youtube