Mixed Signals: Lipstick Under my Burkha

There’s that right amount time after watching a movie, when the adrenaline rush has subsided and the plot sinks in, when you finally realize that, you know, Superman killing General Zod wasn’t that great of an idea.

I watched “Lipstick Under my Burkha” yesterday and that exact amount of time has passed to where I can now write about what I really thought of the movie.

First of, I fail to understand why the Censor Board banned this movie or asked for a restricted release because, honestly, nothing I saw in the unedited version seemed more adult than porn that freely circulates into your mobiles and iPads every day, so uhh, what now?

At the film’s screening in Dallas, the MC introduced the movie as a “bold, controversial” movie. I’m not sure I see it that way, but more on that in a bit.

Let me get to the premise of the story. Four women, living in the same dilapidated building in Bhopal, struggling to make their dreams come true. One, an art freshman, has to wear a burkha to college but listens to Led Zeppelin in her spare time and shoplifts to foster her taste in western attire. She is aspiring musician. The second is a young mother of three, married to a serial marital rapist who lives in Saudi but returns for two weeks each year. Every time he’s been back, she’s gotten pregnant, has had three abortions and can’t convince her husband to use protection. Now she is a successful salesgirl, on the rise at her job, and he doesn’t know that she works. The third is a girl in her twenties, engaged to a “nice man” through an arranged setup, and sleeping with an impoverished photographer. She wants the two of them to elope to Delhi and start a business. The fourth is a 55-year-old widow, with unfulfilled sexual desires. She fantasizes over a swimming coach half her age and eventually has phone sex with him, only to be rejected by him and humiliated by her family when he finally realizes how old she is. All of this fits into a narrative of erotica, which the widow likes to read secretly.

The two-hour-movie ends with all the men in these women’s lives disappointing them and crushing their dreams. The last scene shows all four sitting around an talking to each other about how romantic novels mislead women, or teach them to dream.

As far as storytelling goes, the style was good. The story itself? Not so much.

The messaging of the story is very unclear to me. Let’s start with the womens’ dreams for instance. What exactly is their dream? Except for the one subplot, where the girl aspires to grow at her job, the “dream” seems either not elaborate enough, or messaged as trivial. So Rehana likes to listen to western music, and wants to perform music in public. What has that got to do with dancing, or wearing jeans, attending parties, drinking alcohol, smoking, or having to wear designer clothes? I know of plenty moms and grandmoms who have sang in sarees and rocked the music scene before, they still do. It seemed almost as if not drinking, smoking or wearing revealing clothes makes you uncool and is the root cause of not having your dreams fulfilled. Usha, at 55, has unfulfilled desires, but that is all she seeks from a man half her age. Not companionship, but sex. Leela, at one point, frustrated with her boyfriend’s meek acceptance of her engagement with another man, breaks up with him, then sells her scootie, symbolic of her independence, to buy tickets to Delhi so she can elope. When her boyfriend refuses to elope, she says, “let’s at least have sex first.” To which he says, get out. Later, Leela attempts at making him feel jealous by kissing her fiance in front of him.

I don’t get it. Since when did women’s liberation become all about sex and only sex? I’m no prude, and I acknowledge sex as an important part of everyone’s life, but I’m not going to as far as to say that, or the lack of it, is the only identity we have left in this society. It’s about time we normalized sex in our lives. The presence or absence of it in our personal lives is personal and hardly an object of life goals.

The storyline had a lot of potential. Each woman had circumstances defining them, and who they were. Leela’s mom had worked as a nude model since her alcoholic dad passed away leaving massive amounts of debt behind. Her mom wanted the arranged marriage to go through because the groom had promised to buy her a house. Leela could have gone out on her own and dissed both men. But she didn’t. She ended up betrayed by her boyfriend and scorned by her fiance who felt cheated. Rehana could have become a trendsetter: a singer in a hijab! Instead, she was portrayed as someone ashamed of her Islamic identity, scrambling to run away from it by trying to lose her virginity to a cocky classmate. Usha met a widower older than her, and instead of a character who wanted to allow a true relationship foster, pursued a shallow swimming coach who was into younger, sleek girls.

Then scorned by all the men in their lives, they sat together lamenting crushed dreams, when to me it seemed less evident what those dreams were to start with.

The fact that this movie is being touted as bold, controversial and feminist is yet another cause for concern. There is nothing feminist about the movie. If having four female protagonists, three of whom are obsessing over sex, is feminist, then I have to wonder, is this really what our mothers and grandmothers fought for? Is it what I am fighting for? The movie could have been feminist. It could have shown strength in character in all of these women. If not that, it could have portrayed a sense of purpose in their lives, but other than Shirin the salesgirl, none of the other protagonists seemed to have any true dream in life.

My hunch is, the movie is “bold” because it deals with female sexuality. But guess what? That isn’t abnormal. The moment we tout the issue as bold, we are denormalizing sex for women. Which is the opposite of what we want to do. Women enjoying sex is a non-issue, and it should be kept that way. It’s time we stopped making female sexuality a focal point of movies and fiction. Yes, women are sexual, they have desires and if their partners can’t satisfy them, dump the partners, or go for counseling. Move on. The audience that this film was made for isn’t the group of people that needs counseling on sexual health, or female sexuality. So why is this movie bold? The average Indian woman has many more insurmountable burdens crushing her dreams than the lack of good sex. Alcoholism, drug addiction, domestic abuse, marital rape, isolation and mistreatment of widows, dehumanizing of women, lack of childcare and maternal health facilities are some of them. unfortunately, the only storyline that came close was Shirin’s.

Yes, the sisterhood needs to grow strong. Yes, we have to stick together to make our dreams come true one day at a time. But we also can’t do it alone. We need societal buy in to make equal rights for women become a reality, and movies like these aren’t doing anything to change minds. At the end of the day, “Lipstick Under my Burkha” remains an incomplete conversation on feminism, and a misguided one at that, with a sleazy undertone to be devoured by objectifying anti-feminists.

Posted in Uncategorized

Author: Dr. Anwesha Bhattacharjee

Data Scientist turned Product Manager, Writer, Choreographer, Vocalist

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