The film that was initially banned in India for being ‘lady-oriented’ Lipstick Under My Burkha, centres around the lives of four women and their secret lives.
by Aisiri Amin
Empowerment is different for everyone. Some voices become echoes while some silences become stronger than words. Lipstick Under My Burkha is one such silent rebellion. It shakes you up, makes you uncomfortable and most importantly brings you as close to reality as you can get while sitting comfortably in a movie theatre.
The Indian film, Lipstick Under My Burkha which was the opening film at New York Film Festival earlier this year faced a ban in its home country. Why? Because the film is scandalous (read: a realistic portrayal of sexually liberated women).
Amid controversy, the film did release and created ripples across the nation. For the feminist movement in India, Lipstick Under My Burkha was hailed as an important film. It is a film that tells us why those hesitant steps towards liberating yourself from the binding perspectives of the patriarchal society need to acknowledged just as much as the strong voices demanding equality during a protest.
The film directed by Alankrita Shrivastava is set in a humdrum of the Indian city of Bhopal. The entire film is paralleled to the narration of an erotic novel which tells the story of Rosy which comes to culminate all the characters of the film.
The characters played by the stellar cast: Ratna Patak Shah as the middle-aged Usha, a widow who is discovering her sexual desires in a society which sees her asexual because of her age, the ambitious Shireen (Konkana Sen Sharma) whose wings desperately flutter in the invisible cage of chauvinistic husband, the bold go-getter, Leela (Aahana Kumra) who lives in a store room but isn’t scared of dreaming big and Rihana (Plabita Borthakur) who wears ripped jeans and Miley Cyrus inspired tops under her burkha.
Four women fighting the dictated societal restrictions in their own way. Usha’s sexual awakening makes you look at elder women through a different lens. Shirin’s day job that she hides from her husband becomes her source of liberation, while Leela fights against all odds to be not bogged down by her financial problems and Rihana lives a dual life, one for her parents and one for herself.
There are poignant scenes that you will carry in your heart long after the credits roll. In one of the most powerful scenes, Usha is seen passionately involved in having phone sex with her swimming instructor. It’s liberating to watch sexuality of an elder woman acknowledged in a serious manner and not overshadowed by silly humour.
In multiple scenes, Shirin is raped by her husband who mechanically humps her every night, which looks like a show of power more than anything else.
In another scene, while waxing, Leela who runs a beauty parlour asks Shirin if her vagina has ever been touched with love. To which she replies, “If you know everything, why do you ask?”. That moment, as Leela consoles Shirin, it highlights the normalcy in the acceptance of the abusive conditions, which is worrying.
The film aims to engage us in a conversation that we often walk away from, conversations that we feel are a lost cause. “Yes, there are men who treat women atrociously but that’s how the society is. We can’t do anything about it”. How often have you heard that?
What sets the film apart is that none of the main characters are shown as damsels in distress who need rescuing. They are liberated women. Be it the elder woman who loses herself in an erotic novel or the college girl who wears Miley Cyrus-inspired dress under the burkha.
Towards the end, as the four women sit together, reading the last pages of the novel, we realise empowerment doesn’t always have to make noise.
Aisiri Amin (she/her) is an independent journalist specializing in gender, culture, and social justice. She is a struggling optimist, trying to understand the world through cinema, books, and travel.